In the Forest with a Living Ghost

Our headlamps and flashlights cut through the deep midnight blackness and illuminate stretches of woods in front of us. There was no moon that night, and underneath the cathedral-high canopy of loblolly pines the multitude of starry pinpricks offer no background light for us to work by, so our artificial lights were all we had to illuminate our surroundings. Ahead of us stretched a line of ultra-fine nets designed to catch birds—mist-nets, named for the way the thin mesh seems to shimmer and disappear as you walk up to it at an angle. Hanging low in one of the nets ahead of us was an animated bundle of brown and white; the bundle jerked and twisted as our lights approached, and when I reached for the bundle, a pair of wide, breathtakingly yellow eyes turned and fixed me with an unblinking stare.

It was the season for catching Northern Saw-whet Owls (Aegolius acadius), and that’s precisely what hung in the net. At just after midnight, it was bitter cold—the following morning would be the first of the season with frost. I worked fast, finding the loops of netting caught on the owl’s wings and around its head mostly by touch, and working them off with precise tugs. The feet came last, and I was glad that my fingers were going numb from the cold when the bird flexed its feet rapidly, driving two wickedly thin and curved lead-gray talons into the pad on my middle finger. After the owl was free and my finger, now with small beads of blood welling up from the tiny holes in it, had been extricated from the owl’s grip, I quickly grabbed a soft mesh bag, and placed the bird in it—feet last.

A few hundred feet along the net, a second bird was hanging. Using the same movements as before, I extracted this owl as well, and by the time I had finished that Dan Small, my colleague on this cold night, had finished checking the rest of the nets and was holding a mesh bag of his own, complete with a wriggling, bill-snapping owl. We pile into the truck and take the long, bouncy, dirt trail back to the heated shack we use as our base of operations. From this shack Dan’s wife, Maren Gimpel oversees the Chester River Field Research Station’s Saw-whet Owl banding project. Tonight, she’s already headed out to sleep, but Dan and settle down and shed a few of our outermost layers, before quickly placing small metal bands on the legs of our owls. We take measurements, age the birds, determine their sex, and then send them back out into the night. Banding an owl can take as little as thirty or forty seconds, and yields important information about the health of the bird. After a month or so of banding, we may have data from as many as 200 owls, giving as an accurate picture of the demographic of birds involved in the season’s migration. Banding projects like this one have resulted in incredible information on the ecology of these birds, and the unlikely connections they have to other species across their range. Despite this, the banding of birds, particularly of owls, can be a highly controversial subject. The controversy is largely unnecessary and comes from basic misunderstandings about the treatment of the birds while they’re being handled, about the scientific process, and about conservation.

These misunderstandings don’t just apply to bird banding—they inform and explain many of the current ethical and moral trends in relationship with wild animals, and in our relationship with wilderness in general. In particular, there is a tendency to direct compassion and energy towards the protection and wellbeing of individual animals or individual charismatic locations; individuals that can be identified as vulnerable or mistreated, and which we can emotionally connect with due to their charisma or beauty. This identification comes at the expense of a bigger picture, one which is becoming more and more imperative to pay attention to.

The myriad of threats facing the wilderness we have come to revere and respect are probably known to most readers. Climate change is probably the greatest threat facing humanity today. Sea levels will rise, the most conservative estimates today suggest we have already committed to a five inch rise in most places, and some estimates suggest this could be as high as ten inches. The most recent IUCN checklist update suggests that the world’s most popular cage birds, including some that have been considered common up until recently, may be heading for extinction within the next fifty years. Deforestation and exploitation of the land for agriculture, mining, and oil drilling have been threats since the inception of the modern environmental movement, and they remain significant ones today. But while these pressures may be familiar, what may not be is that fact that our world has already started to crumble under them. A third of amphibians may be faced with imminent extinction, along with a fifth of mammals, as many as a third of known invertebrates, nearly three-quarters of studied plants. We are firmly in the grasp of what is being called the sixth mass extinction, or the modern extinction crisis.

To say that combatting this extinction will be difficult would be an understatement. Many conservation experts think that doing so is all but impossible. It may be that they are right, and that those still fighting do so in vain, without a realistic grasp of the situation. But if that is the case, then I fall among the latter. I think that a not-insignificant source of the problem lies in a very basic misconception about what the point of conservation and preservation is. Most professional conservationists agree that the point of conservation is to protect life on the species level. This may seem intuitive, but log on to the Facebook pages or websites of most zoos or bird banding station or news agencies reporting on stories about zoos and animal research and you are likely to see evidence to the contrary. A zoo will post a photo of their new, critically endangered, Spanish Lynx (Lynx pardinus) kittens and someone in the comments will sound off that it’s no big deal—it’s a tragedy in fact, for the babies have been born in captivity.

To borrow a phrase, today’s zoos are arks. They exist to weather the great flood of our time, which is the extinction crisis. It is true that this was not always the case. The first zoos were built purely for entertainment—usually the entertainment of the rich and powerful. But that hasn’t been true for much of the last half century, at least. Now, what species can be exhibited and bred is dictated by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the decisions are not made on a whim. Captivity is taken seriously, for obvious reasons. If the animals aren’t being cared for properly they won’t breed. If they’re not being cared for properly, patrons won’t visit the zoos. It’s in the best interest of zoos and aquariums to be the model of proper treatment for the animals they exhibit, and they are. But there are factors of this treatment that can confound those and give the perception of mistreatment. The fact that Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus) must be denned for the winter—effectively sealing them in a small, warm, dark room for three or four months straight—is easily taken for mistreatment. In reality though, this is necessary for breeding. A bear won’t allow its body to develop a pregnancy if it is not denned in such a way. What’s lost in translation is that the action, while it may confine the bear for a time, leading to mild discomfort (the bear will eventually simply hibernate), polar bears may not exist as a species without such measures. Threatened with climate change, their habitat in the wild will wholly cease to exist. Their only hope as a species is by the drastic measures being taken by zoos.

Perhaps zoos are an all-around dramatic example. I will say that I really do understand a lot of the concern they generate from animal-lovers, even if I do not agree with it. Let’s revisit our owls, for a moment. Northern Saw-whet Owls are poorly understood birds. Most expert suggest that they are relatively common, but admit that very little is known about their specific breeding requirements, particularly along the fragmented southern edge of their range. One of the things that we do know, is that in the heart of their breeding range in eastern and central Canada, they are closely tied to the population cycle of the Southern Red-backed Vole (Myodes gapperi). This vole has a population cycle believed to be tied to cone crops in conifer species—when the cone crops drop a bumper crop, the vole population soars, offering the owls an astounding amount of food. They take advantage of this overabundance by having as many as three times as many chicks as during other years. In the winter all of these young, inexperienced owls migrate south en masse, as they are unable to compete with more experienced adults on the breeding range.

It is suspected that these cycles are about to experience a major disruption though, potentially creating a cataclysmic situation for owls and voles alike. Currently this cycle runs very predictably. Every four years there is a vole boom and the owls boom the following year. This is followed by a slow decrease in the vole numbers, again accompanied by a slow decrease in owl breeding success. All of this is related to the cone crops, which are likely triggered by formerly regular fluctuations in moisture levels. All of that, however will be thrown to hell with climate change. The disruption of the cone cycles will disrupt the vole cycle, which will disrupt the owls. In order to monitor and look for the first signs of this cataclysm, owl banding is crucial. It’s incredibly easy to see breaks in the trends through such a direct monitoring strategy, as it’s easy to see sudden changes in the weights and overall fitness displayed by birds within a sampling population.

All this being said, there is a very vocal opposition to banding birds in general, and owls specifically. Owls are shy creatures and their disposition towards solitude and reclusivity leads them to be vulnerable to stress during the banding process. Furthermore, it is true that on very rare occasions, birds are eaten out of the nets by larger species of owls and that during the banding process they become slightly disoriented by the lights, sometimes becoming slightly dazed and requiring a short recuperation time prior to releasing them. Despite this, the rate of owls dying while in captivity or in a net is very low at any given banding station. And when these owls are passed on to rehabbers for examination, it is often found that these birds have underlying injuries.

From a certain perspective, the backlash towards banders working with owls is understandable. But the fact remains that banding is the only effective way to study owl populations. Traditional breeding bird surveys and vocal-based point counts simply don’t work—the birds are too unpredictable and patchily distributed. In order to understand, and thus save the species, birds have to be caught, banded, examined, and then released. There is simply no other way around it. The protection of the species has to take precedence over the concern for the discomfort of the individual bird.

I want to acknowledge that I am fully aware of how unpalatable this is. I want to acknowledge that those who work in the professions I have mentioned are fully aware of the risks involved. I have watched seasoned bird banders stand for hours, refusing to make their catch of shorebirds because they’re worried about rising tides. And I’ve watched the same bander, steaming in the heat, take water from her workers and distribute it in spray bottles to mist the birds still waiting to be banded. I’ve seen zoo vets agonize over decisions about the care of their animals. Whether to delivery lion (Panthera leo) cubs in an emergency procedure and risk the mother’s life, or wait and risk the cubs to save the beloved mother. None of these people go into their jobs expecting it to be easy, and all know their work will be scrutinized. But there is nothing else that can be done.

There is one major complication that deserves attention. It is this: de-extinction. De-extinction is all the rage in some circles. Many researchers think that the act of bringing a species back from extinction has great symbolic, as well as literal, power. We can return a species from the brink, as we have on occasion shown. To be able to bring them back from beyond the brink… Is the stuff of science fiction. Arguably, doing so would be the ultimate in mastering the mantra of doing everything for the species. There is no individual currently left, so the act of bringing back even one individual would be giving a species that had lost its chance a new one. However, this is arguable. The one and only time this has been successfully done, the species winked out of existence again mere minutes later. From the species perspective—and that of the individual animal—bringing about an event with such a likelihood is crueler than it is hopeful. Furthermore, introducing species to an environment from which they have been gone, potentially for thousands of years, could be more disruptive than it is helpful. The habitats have evolved in the absence of these species, and returning them could throw this new balance entirely out of proportion.

It would be nice to think that we could save all the species in the world without keeping a one in captivity. It would be nice to think that every species in the world could be saved. We are coming to the realization that this is not the case. Species cannot exist in the wild in perpetuity any more. Many of them may have no longer than a few decades left in their natural environs. By and large, this is the fault of humans. Our actions have pushed species to extinction already and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. By our actions alone can this mass extinction be mitigated. Among the measures that need to be taken, the moderation of climate change, protection of habitat, and yes, captive breeding and invasive research of imperiled species are all critical.

But just as critical is a reevaluation of our moral feelings towards wild animals. The prospects of their existence are rapidly changing. To ignore that and continue to tout our own equality with them is dangerous. We are not the same as animals. We should empathize with them and understand that they feel pain, but we should also acknowledge that we know things they never will. They don’t know they are not-so-slowly fading from existence, and we do. We need to trust that we are, in fact doing the right thing. That we are doing what’s best–what’s best for the species. For without the species, there will soon be no individuals for us to agonize over.

 

 

 

 

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