Extinction and Our Sense of Place

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“Plate 26-Carolina Parrot” from John J. Audubon’s Birds of America (link)

Imagine a parrot, with its bright floral plumage, perched on a limb. Others are sure to be near, squawking and flying in colorful droves.

Where are you?

Some place tropical? Equatorial even?

Believe it or not, the Carolina Parakeet inhabited many parts of the Eastern United States–from the deep South into the North, as far as New York and Wisconsin.

They preferred woodlands and old growth forests that blanketed the edges of rivers. Being the only parrot native to the U.S. region, they were uniquely adapted to survive cold winters. They were gregarious and flocked together feeding off of cockleburs, thistles, and fruits. They were brightly colored with a green body and a head of yellow and red. They were . . .

They were . . .

I had no idea that these birds ever existed until I came across an unusual passage in a local history text. The chapter entitled “Early Settlement-1797-1820” briefly alludes to these eccentric birds:

“Traveling was not all bad; some who made the journey into Middle Tennessee were fascinated by the Cumberland parrots that inhabited the unbroken forest. They were green in color, had red bills, and were somewhat larger than pigeons.”

-excerpt from Thomas Gray Webb’s A Bicentennial History of Dekalb County, Tennessee

That is all that was said, but I was intrigued by the description. I could not place a bird in my mind that could possibly fit the description and I had never heard of a parrot native to Tennessee. After some digging, I found that the term Cumberland Parrot referred to the Carolina Parakeet, or Carolina Parrot as some call it. This led me to the famous illustration by John J. Audubon, as seen above.

By the early twentieth century the Carolina Parakeet’s population dwindled into extinction. The last wild bird was killed in 1904 in Okeechobee County, Florida. And the final two captive Carolina Parakeet’s died at the Cincinnati Zoo, within a year of each other in 1918.

The extinction of these birds has been attributed to many varying factors. Certainly, habitat loss played its part, as farms and human development took over the once wooded river banks that these birds depended on.

The active practice of poaching also took its toll on the numbers. These birds were prized for their feathers and as domesticated pets. Additionally, many farmers saw these birds as pests that decimated their crops and killed them indiscriminately. They were easy targets due to the fact that flocks would return to the dead and wounded.

Much of the Carolina Parakeet’s biology and extinction remains a mystery though. There was very little complete in terms of the study of these birds. In the end, it’s thought that the Carolina Parakeet succumbed to poultry disease, as the ever-growing demand for chickens grew in an ever-industrializing country.

Often I think of extinction as simply a misfortune of the past, something unlikely to really change the outcome of the present. But when I think about the Carolina Parakeet roosting among the trees that stand along the banks of the Little Tennessee River–near the place where I grew up– I wonder how different my sense of place would have been had I woken to the squawking of parrots, along with the calls of the Blue Jays and the woodpeckers.

Reasearch Links:

The Last Carolina Parakeet

Carolina Parakeet: Removal of a “Menace”

Birds of North America: Carolina Parakeet

 

 

 

In Search for Birds, You’ll Find . . .

In search for birds, you’ll find nature bit by bit. It can be disappointing at times for the forest to be quiet and the trees to be void of any fluttering. But if you are patient, nature will reveal herself to you. Be vigilant to observe. The array of creatures that will cross your path will only be there a moment before they again disappear into the brake.

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Racoon fishing for some food. Spotted this guy while looking for sparrows hidden in the fields of Pea Island, NC.
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Black Bear in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Spotted some Cedar Waxwings flying over a creek before seeing this bear.
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Black Snake in a tree. We could hear a Wood Thrush singing its summer song. Our search for the bird led us to this snake.
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Eastern Fence Lizard. Spotted this lizard while searching for Orioles and Yellow-Breasted Chats in an undeveloped suburb. Photo by Tripti Suwal.
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Northern Cricket Frog. Just barely saw this well-camouflaged amphibian as we were observing a Little Green Heron in some marsh land. Photo by Tripti Suwal.
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Ebony Jewelwing. This damselfly was on the trail on a quiet day in late spring. We didn’t see much that day but we did see a juvenile Indigo Bunting. Photo by Tripti Suwal.

 

The Newness in Nature

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Crow perched on a wire.

The Earth has been around for a long time and yet when we look into nature we refer to it as the unknown. We have this sense that some great mystery lurks just beyond the edges of the forests and the deserts and the oceans. Yet, for us humans, Earth is all we’ve ever known.

Why do we regard our home with such obscurity? It is a blessing I believe: to forever be on the cusp of discovery. Human history is one that has been shaped by the discoveries of man, but there are still new discoveries going on every day. Even on the smallest scales . . .

I recently started a nature club at my school. It is a school that is characterized by free-and-reduced lunch and one that has been dubbed “high-minority.” Many of my students have very few opportunities to experience the natural world outside of their neighborhoods.

At our last club meeting, we planted bulbs as part of a beautification project. One student was not happy about the project. She told me that she didn’t want to get her hands dirty and that she was upset for being placed in the club. I told her to have an open mind and to just try the club for at least one day.

While the other students were planting, I handed her my binoculars and challenged her to find a bird. This changed everything. Moments later she came back grinning and pointing toward some birds she’d found in the top of a tall tree.

They were crows.

Other students were immediately drawn to her enthusiasm and wanted to see the birds for themselves. Pretty soon a group of students were wandering the school grounds in search for something new.

Discovery is out there for everyone. And anyone who looks will be granted a new experience, one that sits deep in your bones. When you look back on the moment you will remember it all–what you saw, what you felt, and the possibilities that filled your mind.

 

Peace and the Birds You Will Find

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Hummingbird perched on a branch. Photo by Tripti Suwal.

When you find yourself in a wood, alone; and you spot a bird of interest within plain sight, your thoughts will cease and your focus will be attuned to the image of the bird. Not only the image, but the movements and the sounds and its surroundings will be regarded with great sensitivity. Your breathing will become slow and calming, disrupting little of the natural world that surrounds you. Your dependence on your senses heightens–seeing, hearing, and the feeling of air moving between the trees. It is a moment that belongs solely to you, the bird, and these woods. A shared moment unto yourself and the natural world, a bit of peace hidden in the stillness.  

Then the bird will fly off to some unknown spot, just beyond the reach of your eyes. Its song will be the only identifiable mark that lets you know it is still there with you. So you glance in that direction, careful to spot any movements amid the foliage. You listen, intently, considering a move forward toward the bird observed, or perhaps moving on. You will hear the bird make its calls and you will hear other things between the leaves of the trees. Again, a bit of peace hidden in the melody.

After a time, the bird’s song will cease and you will be left alone in a wood, feet firmly planted on soil trod from time to time by passersby in day and foxes at night. The air will move by you too as it slaloms between the trees. If it is dusk in the summertime you will surely hear the croaking frogs. If it is winter, the stillness will be louder than the falling snow. Take heed to find yourself in this moment and acknowledge the chance meeting you had with the bird observed.

 

Collective Awe, and the Eclipse

Solar Eclipse
Photo by Stormie Billings

There are moments of transcendent awe which inspire us and instruct us on the mysteries of being human. After such a moment we often hope to turn and share the experience with another. If, by chance, there is a welcomed friend nearby, our words tend to fail us. We are often unable to explain the moment in a way that recreates the feeling. Most of the time, these moments pass before we can even articulate to ourselves the significance of what just occurred. These moments must be experienced because, in most cases, it is too difficult for us to communicate.

This is why the Great American Eclipse of 2017 was so special. People from across the nation looked up into the heavens and witnessed the awe-inspiring event as one. The feelings that welled up in one person, welled up in another. There was a collective awe that spread across the continent as the moon blocked out the image of the sun and we looked skyward, eyes wide and mouths open. We were wonderstruck.

I missed the eclipse, but I could feel the wake of the sublime as those who witnessed the event struggled to find the words:

“I feel different. I can’t describe how. But I do feel different.” (The Washington Post)

“I’ve seen people get on their knees and pray . . . I’ve seen scientists cry. All of a sudden, you realize, ‘Man, I’m part of this and I have instincts that I never, ever feel. I’m part of nature.’” (The Guardian)

“Some people cry. Some people scream.” (The New York Times)

What these voices are trying to find words for is the transcendent. This feeling of peace and uncertainty, this feeling of smallness and greatness all at once. It is a feeling that brings life back into our lungs and perspective into our minds. All at once, the moment is clear and simple, then immediately complex and out of reach. In the case of a solar eclipse, science can explain the math and the astronomy that creates the event, but even then our minds struggle to fathom the idea that the sun, our sun, has been blocked from view–blocked by a moon that is just the right size and just the right distance to perfectly cover the bright, glowing star we call our own.

Perhaps, this eclipse created a few eclipse chasers out there, but the feeling the eclipse invokes is not something that cannot be found elsewhere. Nature provides.

Not only does nature provide for our physical bodies (food, water, shelter, companionship, etc.), Nature also provides enrichment for our souls. If only we take the time to look, we may find “eclipse” moments in other aspects of the natural world. The magnitude of these moments may not be as grand as a solar eclipse, or as easily shared, but they exist and persist nonetheless.

Look for them in the quiet mornings or in certain sunsets. These moments exist in the colors that spread across the sky and in the vista of a stormfront moving across the plains. They exist in those instances when you see lightning in the dead of night, or the beating wings of a hummingbird, or in the loneliness of a forest, or the expanses your eyes set sight on while on the edge of a mountain.

Nature is a provider of all our physical needs, but if we take the time to look and listen and observe, the natural world will provide nourishment for our souls too.

Connecting with Nature Through Bird Identification

“Two things were crucial in the evolution of the field guide. First was the recognition of the importance of naming things. The second was the fact that Peterson chose birds to start with.”

-Robert Bateman in the forward to the 5th edition of Roger Tory Peterson’s field guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America

The act of identification is key in regards to advancing science and analyzing the status of populations of various species. However, the act of identification goes beyond the quantitative in many respects. Just ask any birder.

Many see birders as obsessives who get wrapped up in the act of ticking the names of birds off a list. But truthfully, birders are interacting with the natural world in a unique way. Taking time to study both the sight and sound of each bird. Steadying their breath and their movement in order to take in the natural world as it is. Finding joy in a chance appearance, a hoped for coincidence of a human meeting another piece of creation. These qualities are rare in our modern society. We’ve lost our closeness to nature and forgotten the simple joys of taking the time to notice.

Following the quote above, Bateman goes on to describe how humans have drifted from our nearness to nature. Modern society allows us to spend nearly our entire lives separate from the natural world. We sleep in homes carefully sealed from drafts and insects. We walk from our front door to our temperature-controlled cars. We commute on concrete roads and work indoor jobs, illuminated by artificial light. Bateman claims that “The average person knows only 10 wild plants but can recognize 1,000 corporate logos.”

It’s no wonder we have an enormous disconnect in our world with regards to conservation. We live lives separate from our evolutionary counterparts (e.g. plants, animals, insects, fish, etc.). Likewise we have isolated ourselves from the environments that were once a source of prosperity for our ancestors.

It is easy to make points concerning the importance of identification in relation to advancing science and data-driven conservation. But the ability to identify goes beyond what we can count. The ability to identify can make things personal and make nature come alive.

When I was in the fourth grade, our teacher assigned a science project requiring students to draw different types of birds and compare their similarities and differences. I chose to draw 4 birds–a Cardinal, a Blue Jay, a Robin, and a Downy Woodpecker. At the time, I thought little of it. I wasn’t concerned with the birds or the science. I was interested in the task of drawing. I wanted to impress my teacher with my artistic abilities and to illustrate each bird with striking detail. I carefully chose the right colors and drew the beaks in proportion to each bird’s body. My favorite was the Downy Woodpecker. I loved the color of its plumage and its unique ability to peck straight into a tree.

I do not remember if I got an ‘A’ on the assignment or whether or not my artistic ability was acknowledged, but I do remember those birds. I kept those birds, the details of their feathers and their beaks, and I kept their names. Throughout my adolescence I would call out the names of those birds to my friends and family. I was a naturalist on the smallest scale and it was empowering. Simply knowing the names of those four birds was enough to make me feel a connection to a world beyond myself.

Years later I would be gifted a Peterson Field Guide to North American Birds. In fact, it is the same book that is quoted above. At age ten, I identified 4 common birds of Eastern North America and 12 years later I was provided a tool to identify many more. This is the point where my unfound passion in birding took root.

It is a simple thing–to identify. But when applied to nature, one easily becomes more cognizant of nature and his or her place within that world. For me, I knew only 4 birds at first, but that was all it took in order for me to make a connection.