On December 18, 2010, I once again lead the Christmas Bird Count for the Mount Diablo Audubon Society. My count circle encompasses Black Diamond Mines Regional Park and for the last 10 years the park has remained relatively unchanged. There’s a saying that in foul weather there will be two types of people braving the storm: birders and golfers. I started birding after taking a class in The Biology of Raptors in college and got hooked on bird-watching. I guess the best analogy is alcoholism: I may not be drinking (have binoculars in hand), but the desire is always there.
Something strange happened during the count this year, I found myself going through the motions without much enthusiasm. It wasn’t the weather and it certainly wasn’t my fellow birders, who are all fabulous people. It wasn’t the birds we saw or missed, since we managed to see most of the highlights. It wasn’t until later that I realized the problem started several weeks ago in Kauai.
I had the unexpected opportunity to hop on a plane and go to the Garden Island at the end of November. I had not been there since my honeymoon over 24 years ago. To my delight, for the most part, this little piece of paradise has survived the last quarter of a century unchanged. Except for one thing, despite a wealth of habitat in Waimea Canyon Park, the birds have disappeared. The only ‘apapane I saw was a beleaguered, fading specimen in the Kauai museum. The display described the bird as the most common bird on the island. I didn’t see a single one during the six days I was there.
Over the ten year plus years I have participated on the Christmas Bird Count, I have witnessed first- hand the decline of bird species. Each year it seems there are fewer and fewer numbers. It occurred to me that if I visited the same cage every year and each time there were more dead birds cluttering the bottom, it would become less desirable to take a look in the enclosure. It would be even more frustrating if I had no idea how to fix the problem. Is that why I was so unenthusiastic yesterday? Was it the depressing story one birder told me about how she’d witnessed two birds attached at the neck by fishing line? One of the species was a diving bird and every time it went underwater it pulled the other species down with it. Try as I might, I couldn’t get that horrible image out of my mind.
This fellow Christmas counter also told me a story about a conversation she’d had with another birder. He’d said that if you count birds in the spring and go back in the fall and do the same tally and the numbers were lower, it was because the missing birds were all dead. I started thinking about the “canary in the mine.” Miners used to take caged birds down the shaft with them. If the bird died, they knew there were poisonous gasses and that the needed to leave. What if the birds are disappearing from our planet and we need to leave? We have nowhere to run.
I feel as powerless as that poor bird attached to the diving bird. Of course, both birds are suffering. The diving bird has to work very hard to catch its food. Neither knows how to fix the problem. When one dies, the other one is surely doomed. I wish the issue was simple. Rachel Carson watched the birds die after crop dusters spread pesticides over their produce. Her book Silent Spring was instrumental in launching global change in part because the cause and effect was clear. Rachel Carson showed us that writing can be a powerful tool. Writing can change the world.
The problem is we don’t even know why the bird populations are declining. We don’t know why “they are all dead.” Is it global warming or something else? Even if scientists were to find a way to prove that climate change is the issue, the solutions would most likely require cooperation and sacrifice. The head of the Rainforest Action Network once told me that if all that people needed to do was to give up eating a hamburger to save the Amazon, a lot of people would not follow through. I fear he was right.
I feel like the bird attached to the fishing line and that powers much larger than me are pulling this planet underwater. Yet, if only I could understand that if by cutting a string, I could produce a solution where everyone would be better off, then I could write a book that could instigate a call to action. But there reality is that the cause of the bird declines is unclear and most likely there are multiple aspects.
Maybe my heart wasn’t in birding yesterday because I understood that I can continue to count the birds every Christmas at Black Diamond Mines. I can record the declines year after year. I can continue to do this until they are all dead. But if I can’t write a book like Silent Spring that triggers a solution, what have I really accomplished?