Canaries Everywhere

by by Nupur Shridhar

In about two months, during the last full moon in May, red knots (Calidris canutus) migrating from the Pampas to the Arctic will land on the shores of the Delaware Bay, their sole rest stop on the 12,000-mile journey home. This will not be their first visit: the birds have arrived, year after year, as far back as anyone can remember, on the one night of the year when horseshoe crabs crawl out of the sea to lay their fatty, delicious eggs in the sand—sustaining food for the strained, starving knots. This year, though, there will be far too few eggs and even fewer crabs: humans have overfished them for their blood, which, since the 1970s, has been used by researchers everywhere to test drugs, vaccines, and medical devices for bacteria. No other test is as simple or reliable. The horseshoe crab's blood is irreplaceable, and this is why we've killed so many, and why, this spring, hundreds of beautiful birds will fall, hungry and exhausted, from the sky.
It's sad to think of so many red knots dying, but evolution teaches us not to care. These are the rules of the game: eat or be eaten, adapt or die. Mother Nature isn't nice, but at least she plays fair. If you're not fast enough, big enough, or smart enough, you forfeit your right to this planet and its precious resources. Humans aren't being selfish. We just know how to win, and we have, for centuries, been happy to ignore the losers. Consider the dodo, once native to Mauritius, which was eaten to extinction by invasive pets and livestock while their European owners looked the other way. As a species, the dodo failed to impress us: it wasn't tasty; it couldn't fly; it looked more than a little silly. Unsurprisingly, the last dodo was gobbled up slightly over a century after the species was first discovered. In the face of all that human indifference it didn't stand a chance.
What makes humans so remarkable, then, what makes us so different from the species we domesticate or destroy, is our ability to determine who lives and who dies by changing the kinds of things we think about and how we think about them. We're wiser than the red knot. We haven't arrived at these shores unaware. Thanks to countless scientists and educators everywhere, we know about the great circle of life; we know we have to care about the environment; we know what's going to happen if we don't. We recycle (or always mean to); we read the Science Times; we endorse only the most conscionable goods and services—but birds, though they remain the best indicators of environmental health, canaries both in and out of the coalmine, are as unseen as ever.
On the surface, the disservice done to birds presents itself as yet another problem for scientists to solve. As laypeople, most of us lack the resources, and oftentimes the willpower, to study animals and their habitats extensively, and we are right to blame the institutions we've inherited—our highly specialized society, our insufficient educational systems—for the damage already done. Yet we shouldn't forget to blame ourselves as well: this indifference operates most often at the level of the individual. We honor valuable ideas by giving them our attention and affection, by integrating what we know into what we do—but birds, though they have penetrated our menus and mythology, have failed to leave an impression on the modern mind. This is the responsibility we inherited with our astonishing success: if humans, the most influential animals on the planet, do not make room for other species in our heads, we will forget to make room for them in real life.
Fortunately for us, birds are everywhere, eager to be seen and admired by those who take the time to find them. Providence in the springtime is filled with hundreds of gorgeous winged creatures. House sparrows nest in nearly every nook, and starlings are currently looking their best: keep an eye out for sleek birds with shiny violet feathers and a generous sprinkling of white speckles. Raptors and gulls frequent Prospect Park, and anyone living on Hope or Cooke should look for cardinals, the downy woodpecker, and the tufted titmouse—and let's not forget about the peregrine falcon pair that's built its nest downtown on the Bank of America building.

Admittedly, simply observing another species doesn't constitute political or environmental activism. Birdwatching in Rhode Island isn't going to save any red knots this season, and continually ascribing this kind of importance to our thoughts and activities can seem like another brand of species-dependent selfishness—once again we've developed an inflated sense of self-importance. Yet birds, like all other life including our own, don't exist for any particular reason. They simply exist, and bearing witness to this existence, at sunrise, with a friend, a full thermos, and an unashamed curiosity is satisfying enough: I'm telling you to get out there now, while they're still around, and fall in love with a bird.

NUPUR SHRIDHAR B'11 wants to spot a don'tdon't.