Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Ulysses S. Grant: failed sportsman

Ulysses S. Grant

My favorite president, for all kinds of obscure reasons, is Ulysses S. Grant. His distinctions with regard to birding are fairly limited, but he was the president who sponsored two federally funded scientific discovery projects—the Polaris Expedition, America's first large scale attempt to reach the North Pole, and the Hayden Geological Survey into the Yellowstone, that led to the establishment of Yellowstone National Park. Indeed, on March 1, 1872, he was the president who signed the law establishing the Yellowstone region as a public park and setting a major conservation precedent. He deserves credit for being the president who thus established the National Park system, though few people know it.

I recently read Grant's Memoirs and, as I usually do, searched throughout them for any references to birds. But in the entire two-volume work, there was only one reference to birds (other than three references to Bird's Point, one idiom "nineteen miles as the bird would fly," and a single use of the phrase "killing two birds with one stone"). His only mention of wild birds was his account of his one and only lifetime hunting experience:

I had never been a sportsman in my life; had scarcely ever gone in search of game, and rarely seen any when looking for it. On this trip there was no minute of time while travelling between San Patricio and the settlements on the San Antonio River, from San Antonio to Austin, and again from the Colorado River back to San Patricio, when deer or antelope could not be seen in great numbers. Each officer carried a shot-gun, and every evening, after going into camp, some would go out and soon return with venison and wild turkeys enough for the entire camp. I, however, never went out, and had no occasion to fire my gun; except, being detained over a day at Goliad, Benjamin and I concluded to go down to the creek—which was fringed with timber, much of it the pecan—and bring back a few turkeys. We had scarcely reached the edge of the timber when I heard the flutter of wings overhead, and in an instant I saw two or three turkeys flying away. These were soon followed by more, then more, and more, until a flock of twenty or thirty had left from just over my head. All this time I stood watching the turkeys to see where they flew—with my gun on my shoulder, and never once thought of levelling it at the birds. When I had time to reflect upon the matter, I came to the conclusion that as a sportsman I was a failure, and went back to the house. Benjamin remained out, and got as many turkeys as he wanted to carry back.

Fun with binoculars

Ulysses S. Grant with binoculars. Taken in Galena, IL, in 2012.

Ulysses S. Grant

A "Living Statue" at Disney World, posing with my binoculars. Photo taken in 2003
Walt Disney World Living Statue

They shoot hawks, don't they?

Ring-necked Pheasant

I was out of town for the past couple of weeks, and came home to a Google alert and half a dozen emails calling my attention to a Duluth News-Tribune op-ed from Sunday, in what the paper titled “Birder’s View: Hawks are eating all the songbirds.” Someone named Lars Fladmark, credited as an avid birder, wrote a passionate but disturbingly ignorant diatribe about hawks. He started by referring to Koni Sundquist’s recent point-of-view about the tragic decline in many of our most beloved songbirds, and wrote, “I started noticing a fall-off in numbers several years ago and even called local birding expert Laura Erickson to see if there were any known reasons. As Sundquist’s column suggested, people much more knowledgeable than me don’t know the reason.”

I don’t recall talking to Mr. Fladmark. He’s apparently one of the many people who call me at home expecting instant bird information. Something as complex as why birds are declining can’t quickly be summarized for an unexpected phone call. I wrote an entire book, 101 Ways to Help Birds, which touched on a great many things that are hurting birds, individually and as populations. The over 700 species of birds in North America each faces unique issues. Mr. Fladmark is right—I don’t know “the reason,” because there isn’t a single reason. But he thinks he’s figured it all out. He writes, “The birds have gone to lunch. It’s really that simple.” He describes gruesome kills of pheasants he stocked on his North Dakota property and claims that hawks are killing them all. He explains: “I used to believe hawks ate gophers, mice and other creatures. That’s propaganda. A hawk is designed to kill what flies. Clumsy on the ground, agile and fast in the air, hawks are equipped with talons and a beak that rival any butcher-shop tools. And they hunt and kill repetitively all day long.”

Ring-necked Pheasant

I do understand how difficult it is for many of us to observe predation first hand. I’ve averted my eyes more than once when a hawk has snatched up one of my backyard birds, and had a hard time looking at the dead pheasants and ducks my brother brought home. But although he is a hunter himself, Mr. Fladmark was so traumatized by witnessing hawk kills that he doesn’t consider that pheasants might be disappearing due to his land management, which he describes as simple shelterbelts of juniper between cornfields. According to the pheasant entry in The Birds of North America, published by the American Ornithologists’ Union and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, pheasants succeed in hay and grain agricultural areas, “especially areas with grassy field borders, wetlands, and numerous small patches of idle land with tall grass, forbs, and lesser amounts of brush and trees.” According to his own description, he’s providing far more limited habitat.

He said, “On my land, 13 miles from town, there’s not a bird to be seen, not even the ubiquitous meadowlark. ... Lots of trees on my land but, sadly, no birds.” He blames this on the presence of hawks, but what does he think they’re eating, if there are no birds except the pheasants he brings in? I’m one of the people most vociferously talking about the declines of many birds, but I’ve yet to find a spot where I can’t find any birds at all. Continent-wide, those “ubiquitous meadowlark[s]” are indeed declining, but that is due to a whole panoply of causes, including pesticides, changes in large-scale farming practices, feral and farm cats, and mowing fields during nesting season. Where Western Meadowlark numbers in North Dakota are fairly stable, it’s attributed at least in part to the amount of native habitat remaining and to the amount of cultivated land that is seeded to perennial cover—not to the corn and junipers that Mr. Fladmark believes are all any birds need for healthy lives. If his 320-acre farm is indeed as devoid of birds as he claims, he’d be wise to look objectively at what’s wrong with his farm rather than blaming his problems on hawks.

Eastern Meadowlark

I can’t possibly name all the reasons that birds are declining in a brief commentary, but they include cats and windows, which each kill half a billion to a billion birds each year in the U.S. They also include lead shot and bullets poisoning ground feeding birds as well as scavengers, communications towers, pesticides, habitat destruction, automobile collisions, mercury and other toxins, diseases such as West Nile Virus, and our skewing the natural balance in a great many ways. In some cases, this may include skewing the numbers of some hawks as well as geese, crows, and other birds that capitalize on a human-altered environment. Many of these changes were mushrooming at the same time that we started protecting raptors. For every species that is thriving near humans, from Bald Eagles, Cooper’s Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, and Peregrine Falcons to crows, robins, starlings, Canada Geese, and Wild Turkeys, there are many more that haven’t been able to adapt to the changes we’ve made to the landscape and to our climate.

Mr. Fladmark concludes his essay with the profoundly ignorant yet provocative question, “Now, should we not convert Hawk Ridge to the Hawk Ridge Raptor Shooting Center?” As long as he brought my name into his essay as an “expert,” I’ll answer his question with my expert answer. Absolutely not. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The case of the missing podcast

My podcast has disappeared into the electricity, because Apple discontinued MobileMe, which is where all the posts were. As soon as I figure out how to create one without using iWeb, I'll post the new iTunes address.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Andy Griffith

I was in elementary school when The Andy Griffith Show came to TV. I don’t think I’ve ever watched reruns on cable, and I’m not sure how accurately I remember the program, but learning of Andy Griffith’s death, a flood of memories came back to me about one particular program. Opie got a new slingshot and killed a bird—I think a robin—and it turned out that it was a female with hungry nestlings. Andy gave Opie a talking to, and Opie felt sad and guilty and tried to do something to save the baby birds. Beyond that, my memories are murky, but I do remember that it reinforced my belief that Andy Taylor was a perfect role model, and I remember sensing a great truth about how even small things we do can have horrible repercussions we hadn’t anticipated. And even the most well meaning, adorable little boy bears an obligation as a human being to repair damage caused by his actions.
One of the amusing constants of the show was that Deputy Barney Fife wasn’t allowed to have any bullets in the gun he carried everywhere. There was never any discussion of Barney’s constitutional right to bear arms—the point had nothing to do with rights and everything to do with responsibilities. Andy didn’t trust Barney’s wisdom and restraint when it came to carrying a loaded weapon, and as far as I know, the NRA never made an issue of it.

 Now we’ve evolved into a society in which people—not small boys like Opie but adults and older teenagers—shoot endangered birds and get off with mere hand slaps. In the past 2 years, 12 critically endangered Whooping Cranes have been killed in different places by different people, some of them licensed hunters. One was shot in a South Dakota cornfield in April on its migration to Canada—that bird’s mate is unable to reproduce this year at all, so we’ve lost more than just the one bird. This past January, two men killed a whooping crane in Indiana using a high-powered rifle guided by a spotlight. Last October, two of the ten Whooping Cranes from a brand new reintroduction project in Louisiana were shot in separate instances. Whooping Crane

 Bad as all these were, the saddest case to me was when the first female crane in a hundred years to successfully rear a chick in Wisconsin was killed on migration in Indiana in 2009. The two shooters, one a 17-year old, the other 18, were fined, and I am not making this up, $1, and they were not charged with violating the Endangered Species Act. A spokesman in the US Attorney’s Office for southern Indiana said it is not standard practice for federal prosecutors to decline to charge juveniles in wildlife crimes, but for some reason they chose not to in this case.

 Andy Taylor was always gentle and never overreacted about anything, but I suspect he’d have expected more of Opie or any lawbreaker in town than a single dollar fine. Would he have taken away their bullets for a good long time? Would he have made them feel guilty about the surviving Whooping Crane who lost his life-long mate? Not much could be done there, but maybe Andy would have expected them to help the people who’ve put their hearts and souls and time into restoring this critically endangered species. Andy Taylor’s sweetness and wisdom are fictional, but one function of fiction is to show us possibilities for how we can approach real life. It’s telling that there are no Andy Taylors in popular media today, and apparently there aren’t any people on the judicial bench guided by internal scripts anything like the ones Andy Griffith got to read [which the actor actually oversaw]. I know I’m nostalgic for a time and place that never really were, but I sure wish that the real world of 2012 had a few better writers.

 (Thanks to google and youtube, I got to temporarily see much of an episode I really hadn't seen since I was a kid! These birds weren't robins--they started out as House Sparrows in another kind of nest, but miraculously and magically evolved into canaries in a later scene, and then turned into what I think were canaries with House Sparrow voice overs. It would have been perfectly legal for Opie to raise baby House Sparrows then and now, but most birds are protected by law and now those laws are enforced more than they were in the Sixties.)