Hero of Birdland

According to the US Forest Service, 70 million Americans call themselves bird-watchers, making bird-watching one of the most popular leisure activities of our time. It hasn’t always been so. A century ago, bird-watching as it is practiced today didn’t exist. There were no field guides to help identify birds and binoculars were clumsy, expensive, and optically primitive by today’s standards. The records people kept of the birds they sighted had no credibility. To prove you’d seen a bird you had to shoot it and prepare it as a specimen. Amateur enthusiasts gathered information about birds but largely through the now outlawed hobby of oology—egg collecting. For the oologist, the rarer the bird, the more desirable was its clutch of eggs. Oologists contributed to sharp declines in several species, including the peregrine falcon.

More benign ways of enjoying birds began to spread into popular culture in the early twentieth century. Previous centuries had seen grotesque abuses of nature in the US, such as the “side hunts” organized during the Christmas season as aimless competitions, the winner being the person who killed the most birds without regard to size, appearance, or potential edibility. Frank Chapman, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History, responded to this outrage by proposing that people celebrate the holidays by counting birds instead of killing them. Thus originated the Christmas Bird Count in 1900 when twenty-seven observers took to the field to count birds in twenty-five locations across the country. A century later, the Christmas Count at the end of 2000 drew 52,471 observers to count birds in 1,823 localities in seventeen countries.

Without a doubt, the person who contributed most to this change was Roger Tory Peterson. For half a century, he was probably the best-known and most revered naturalist in the US. A modest man who carried himself with a quiet, informal dignity, Peterson brought multiple talents to a lifelong obsession with birds. He was first and foremost an artist, but in his later years turned to writing, lecturing, and photography. He became known to the American public upon the publication of A Guide to the Birds in 1934. The first printing of two thousand copies sold out in one week, an indication of the public’s interest in birds. Peterson’s guide was not the first illustrated bird book. Frank Chapman had written one more than a decade earlier. What was so appealing about the Peterson guide was the impeccably accurate artistic quality of his colored illustrations and what later became known as the Peterson Identification System, the practice of adding small arrows to the drawings to flag key features that distinguished one species from another. The system immediately caught on and launched Peterson into a career of writing and overseeing the production of field guides. More than seventy guides in the series that bears his name are now in print, covering not only birds but vertebrates, invertebrates, and plants—even the stars and minerals. Among the many offerings of the series, there is something for nearly everyone; the titles include, for example, A Field Guide to Advanced Birding and A Field Guide to Feeder Birds.

The field guides were the public work of an essentially private man. I met him as a teenage bird-watcher near Washington, D.C., and was thrilled to accompany him a few times when he led small groups along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, a favorite birding venue of local residents. His tall frame and wavy shock of snow-white hair made him the natural center of the assembled acolytes. Attentive both to the birds singing around us and to the members of our group, he responded to each question with a patience and kindness that relieved the anxiety of those in awe of him. Here was the man who had done more than any other to redirect America’s encounter with nature from nineteenth-century killing fields to today’s more appreciative and tolerant attitudes toward wildlife.

Peterson complained of the tedium of long hours spent behind the drawing board producing plates for the many guides he illustrated, but when he wasn’t in his studio he led an enviable life of travel and bird-finding with some of the world’s most distinguished ornithologists and nature photographers. With his British coauthor James Fisher, he drove across North America from coast to coast and back again, compiling observations for their book Wild America. In Europe he was able to savor the continent’s best birding spots with his fellow artist Peter Scott and his coauthor Guy Mountfort. Research for his Field Guide to Mexican Birds brought him intimate acquaintance with the rich and varied avifauna of Mexico. East Africa was on the itinerary, as were summer sojourns at the Audubon Camp in Maine.

Late in life, from 1984 until his death in 1996 at eighty-seven, he contributed a regular column, “All Things Reconsidered,” to Bird Watcher’s Digest. During these years he was still traveling actively, in part to indulge his passion for photographing birds. These travels carried him back to many of the places he had visited forty or fifty years earlier. The essays recount stories of his travels and traveling companions and his perceptions of changes in the environment of our continent and its bird populations over nearly half a century.

The essays, which have been collected in the anthology under review, each tell a story, and Peterson was a master of the art. His prose mirrors my recollection of his voice: clear, calm, and understated. In sentences of simplicity and directness, he brings serious points about nature and conservation into accounts of his adventures and misadventures. He evokes the sound of the forest at dawn:

Awakening from a doze, we heard a cardinal sing. In a few minutes the air was ringing with the chants of cardinals, Carolina wrens, and titmice. The lesser voices were drowned out, but when the first burst of song had subsided, we could hear the weak, sibilant jargon of gnatcatchers, the sweet song of yellow-throated warblers, and the ascending buzz of the parulas. The striking blue-gray and gold prothonotary warbler was there, singing its emphatic tweet-tweet-tweet-tweet-tweet in the cypress sloughs.

Always self-effacing, he scrupulously avoids controversy and negative comments. When he is witness to nature in decline, the mood is sadness rather than outrage. The essays go by swiftly and painlessly, holding the reader’s rapt attention.

The text is printed on glossy paper and pleasingly embellished with photographs and line drawings, about one to a chapter. But the publisher has overlooked a disconcerting number of typos, roughly one every ten pages. And the errors are all of a kind: inappropriate words correctly spelled, suggesting that the text was “proofread” by a “spell-check function” and not by a human being.

The period of Peterson’s retrospectives was a time of countercurrents for American wildlife, a time of simultaneous recovery and decline. Wildlife populations had hit bottom in the US at the beginning of the twentieth century after three centuries of unrestrained exploitation of anything edible, aggravated by widespread deforestation and horizon-to-horizon plowing of the prairies. Bison, elk, wolves, and mountain lions had been all but extirpated east of the Mississippi. The clouds of waterfowl that darkened the sky in the time of Captain John Smith had been greatly diminished. The passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet, heath hen, and ivory-billed woodpecker (rumors of its continued persistence notwithstanding) all vanished in the first half of the century. Even the now ubiquitous white-tailed deer had been brought to the edge of oblivion over much of the East, so that the US Park Service was obliged to import a breeding herd from Wisconsin to stock the Shenandoah National Park when it was established in 1935.

Until wildlife conservation laws began to take hold in the early twentieth century, birds of any sort were fair game, if not for their flesh, then for their feathers or eggs or just because they made inviting targets. Egging was prevalent along the entire east coast. (Egging refers to the collecting of eggs for consumption, whereas oologists collected full clutches, often with the nest included, as quasi-scientific specimens.) The great auk, a flightless, penguinlike diving bird of the North Atlantic, was exploited to extinction by eggers in 1844. Other species declined into rarity and survived to breed only on remote and rocky islets far from the coast. The now superabundant herring and black-backed gulls that roost on parking lots and swarm at landfills and sewer outflows had been reduced to rarities. In 1900 there remained only one colony of herring gulls on the Maine coast. Puffins, eiders (large sea ducks), double-crested cormorants, and black-backed gulls had been all but eliminated as breeding birds along the entire northeastern coast, surviving in inaccessible refuges in eastern Canada. As a young instructor at the Audubon Camp in Maine in the 1930s, Peterson was elated to discover the vanguards of one species after another as they reclaimed former breeding territory along the coast.

Still, as some birds recovered, others continued to decline. In one of the most poignant essays, Peterson recounts his most exciting birding experience, seeing an ivory-billed woodpecker. By 1940 there was plausible evidence of ivory-bills in only three states: Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana. Cornell graduate student James Tanner spent three years in the early 1940s slogging southern swamps and bayous to assess where and how the species could be saved. By his reckoning, no more than twenty-four ivory-bills remained in the entire Southeast. Despite a prodigious effort, he was able to locate only five, all of them in northeastern Louisiana in the Singer Tract, at 80,000 acres the largest stand of virgin timber then remaining in the Southeast. Armed with permits to enter the closed area, Peterson, with a companion and a guide, trudged a day and a half across the swamp, criss-crossing the moist bottomland and wading murky sloughs until they were brought up short by an unfamiliar call that has been likened to the sound produced by a clarinet mouthpiece (without the clarinet):

With our hearts pounding, we tried to keep cool, hardly believing that this was it—the bird we had come fifteen hundred miles to see. We were dead certain this was no squirrel or lesser woodpecker, for an occasional blow would land—whop!—like the sound of an ax. Straining our eyes, we discovered the first bird, half hidden by leafage, and in a moment it leaped into the full sunlight. This was no puny pileated; this was a whacking big bird, with great white patches on its wings and a gleaming white bill.

The date was May 1942. The last ivory-bill was seen in the Singer Tract in December 1946. A few months later, the great forest that harbored the nation’s last ivory-bills was razed to make way for agriculture.

While in the swamp, Peterson glimpsed a long-tailed creature he took to be a Louisiana panther and noted footprints left by a family of red wolves. He didn’t realize then that he was looking at living ghosts, for neither of these carnivores survives in Louisiana today.

It is worth pausing here to reflect on what it might take to reestablish the population of ivory-billed woodpeckers in the United States, assuming that the tantalizing reports of recent sightings in Arkansas and Louisiana are not just a bird-watcher’s delirium. The research of James Tanner gives us the only data to the point: “He found that each pair required a territory of no less than six square miles of primeval wilderness….” Ivory-bills required so much habitat because they primarily foraged on trees that had been dead for two or three years, flaking off the now loose bark to harvest the fat grubs of beetles that lived underneath. Later, as decay penetrated into the heartwood, trees were abandoned by ivory-bills and left to pileated woodpeckers that drill more deeply into the wood.

Under today’s forest management practices, few trees die natural deaths and fewer still attain the girth of the old-growth trees that supported the ivory-bill. The sad fact is that there is really no place in the United States today where a viable population of ivory-bills could persist, even if captive reared birds were on hand to stock a release program. The largest remaining tract of old-growth bottomland forest in the Southeast, roughly seventeen square miles, is in the Congaree National Park in South Carolina. Using Tanner’s figures, the Congaree could support at most three pairs of ivory-bills, nowhere close to the several hundred birds needed to comprise a genetically self-sustaining population. It can be conclusively stated that the Congaree shelters no ivory-bills, for it has been searched from end to end by thousands of bird-watchers inspired by lingering hopes of glimpsing the fabled bird. Talk of surviving ivory-bills is an alluring myth, but sadly I’m afraid it is only a myth.

In Peterson’s navigation through this world of countercurrents, not all stories ended so bleakly. Almost as charismatic as the ivory-bill, the California condor passed through a near-death experience and is today regaining a tentative foothold in parts of its erstwhile range. Persecuted by ranchers in the mistaken belief that it preyed on calves and lambs, squeezed by habitat loss, electrocuted in collisions with power lines, and poisoned by predator control baits, lead shot, and DDT, the slowly reproducing condor, which produces one offspring every two years, didn’t have a chance. Historically widespread in the Southwest and Baja California, the population declined throughout the twentieth century until the six remaining wild birds were captured, the last in 1987. Peterson writes, in a typically lyrical passage:

In the slow flow of time, many more species have lost their grip on existence than grace the globe today. The California condor has seen a lot of history; it was here long before man became man. Today the last six wild birds still patrol the sky, while above, at a height of thirty-thousand feet, jet planes from California’s mushrooming airfields trace their ribbons of frozen vapor through the blue.

The decision to bring the entire population into captivity was made only after a furious public controversy between purists, led by University of California researcher and condor expert Karl Koford, and pragmatists of the US Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species Program. The purists maintained that it was unethical and unnatural, an insult to the dignity of the majestic condor, to remove the last birds from the wild and confine them in cages.

Now, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, we can be grateful that common sense prevailed. Confounding widely expressed skepticism, a program to breed the condor in captivity was a resounding success and today there are 283 of them, the legacy of a founding cohort of twenty-seven birds. As of January 2006, 127 condors had been released in California, Arizona, Utah, and Baja California. In 2002, released birds accomplished the ultimate goal of the project: successful reproduction in the wild. The condor now seems to be on the road to recovery, thanks to the presence within its natural range of large areas of protected habitat in the US and Mexico, something utterly lacking in the range of the ill-fated ivory-bill.

Increasingly, conservationists are being faced with an intractable problem, that of sustaining species that have lost all possibility of surviving in the wild. For a case in point, take the Hawaiian crow, properly known as the alala. Formerly widespread on the major islands of the archipelago, along with two other now extinct crow species, by 1992 the last eleven or twelve wild birds were confined to the Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge on the island of Hawaii. Captive breeding began in the 1970s and has been successful. Attempts to augment the surviving wild population with released captive-reared birds were conducted during the 1980s, but by 1988, eighteen of twenty-four released birds had died and the rest were returned to captivity to supplement the genetic diversity of the captive population. None have been seen in the wild since June 2002.

Even when the wild population occupied a federal wildlife refuge, the alala continued to decline and released birds died at high rates. Why? Formal protection of the land did not prevent degradation of the habitat by exotic ungulates (feral hogs, deer, and others). Other introduced species, notably rats and the Indian mongoose, contributed to elevated mortality rates, as did mosquitoes that carried avian malaria and pox. Ironically, birds reared in captivity and later released proved vulnerable to attack by the native Hawaiian hawk, itself classified as near-threatened.

So what can be done for the alala and others of its kind? The environment of the Hawaiian islands has been so thoroughly corrupted by the advent of countless alien species that it no longer offers a haven for the alala and other native species. Global warming is also having adverse consequences for Hawaiian birds. Until recently, the Alakai Swamp, perched at more than four thousand feet atop the island of Kauai, served as a refuge for many severely endangered birds, because disease-carrying mosquitoes did not ascend so high in the mountains. But as the climate has warmed, mosquitoes have climbed higher and higher, spreading disease and death among immunologically naive native birds. A recent survey of the swamp failed to detect five species that were recorded twenty-five years ago. In all likelihood they are now extinct. Would it matter if small numbers of them had been retained in captivity? The question is one that conservationists will increasingly debate as the progressive degradation of the environment makes more and more of the planet unsuitable for its original inhabitants.

The bright side (if one can regard it as such) of this truly gloomy picture is that as native species go extinct, they are being replaced by aliens. Since European colonization, the continental US has lost nine bird species to extinction (several others have been rescued from the brink). During the same period, a similar number of alien species have become established, including the starling, English sparrow, rock dove (pigeon), ring-necked pheasant, and chukar partridge. Hawaii, where extinctions have been rampant, has gained an eclectic collection of nearly four dozen aliens. In both cases, the net change in diversity has been close to zero.

So should we take comfort in that fact and conclude (as some have) that the expense of saving endangered species is unwarranted? The fallacy in this argument lies in the unstated assumption that all species are equivalent. The value at issue here is an aesthetic one. What we care about is not just an enumeration of species, but their individual character. How many Americans would assert that we are equally well off having the starling and English sparrow to make up for the ivory-billed woodpecker and Carolina parakeet? What is inexorably happening is that the world’s biota—its combined plant and animal life—is being homogenized, as unique and often charismatic native species disappear and are replaced by the avian equivalent of weeds. Yet Peterson regards even these species with fascination, and writes movingly about them. He describes the “swirling storm of wings” of a flock of starlings living on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum:

It was like watching a three-ring circus; yet there was an orderliness. Each flock handled itself with military precision, like a squadron of fast aircraft. When one bird turned, they all turned. When a flock passed in front of another flying in a different direction, they sky was cross-hatched with a moving pattern of birds.

The long memory of an elder person, much esteemed by pre-modern cultures as a source of enlightenment, tends to be undervalued by our society. To children growing up today, tales of great herds of bison and a sky darkened by passenger pigeons have little more reality than coloring-book pictures of mammoths and dinosaurs. The world of our youth serves as reference for all future comparisons. History is thus not anchored in time but glides subtly ahead to capture the memories and impressions of each new generation in what the Canadian biologist Daniel Pauly has called the shifting baseline. With his fifty-year perspective on American wildlife, Peterson helps us adjust our own baselines.

As he recounts in essay after captivating essay, the ornithological scene in North America was in a state of flux throughout the twentieth century. The East was largely deforested when the century opened, the tallgrass prairie had been reduced to scattered, tiny remnants, and the Southwest and Great Basin had been subjected to a century or more of overgrazing. Later, in the 1930s, the Great Plains became a dust bowl and subsidies provided by the US Department of Agriculture promoted the draining of more than 80 percent of the prairie potholes in the northern Great Plains. During the twentieth century, nearly every river in the forty-eight states was dammed, dredged, or straightened and polluted with human waste, agricultural runoff, and/or toxic chemicals. Currently, natural forests in the Northeast, Southeast, and Northwest are being replaced by tree plantations (arboreal cornfields, I call them). Does all this foretell the extinction of still more birds?

We can hope not, because there have been mitigating developments. The “taming” of an open frontier has come to an end. The most vulnerable species are already extinct. Crucially, nearly 40 percent of the national territory remains in public lands, a fact of central importance to conservation. Rampant urban sprawl continues, but rural land use is stabilizing. Meanwhile, a vast army of nonprofit organizations has arisen to fight for environmentally friendly legislation governing the nation’s forests, grasslands, and waterways. And, critically, we have a sensitive, multitiered early-warning system composed of state and federal wildlife agencies, professional organizations, and well-organized collaborative efforts that engage tens of thousands of amateur bird-watchers and naturalists in the process of monitoring the nation’s flora and fauna.

Biodiversity is everywhere, a fact that presents huge challenges to anyone wishing to monitor it. The Fish and Wildlife Service is expert at monitoring ducks and geese, because waterfowl habitually concentrate in well-known areas and can easily be counted from the air. But songbirds, butterflies, amphibians, and nearly all other components of our natural heritage distribute themselves diffusely over the landscape, defying easy enumeration. Here is where amateurs come in, because they, too, are diffusely distributed across the country. Monitoring of nongame species is largely based on amateurs who eagerly volunteer their time and skills to efforts organized by professionals. The famous Christmas Bird Count, now organized by the National Audubon Society, is one such effort; the Breeding Bird Survey, organized by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (now US Geological Survey) is another. Other programs operate at state and local levels, wherever there are concerned and engaged citizens. Thanks to the availability of excellent field guides to almost any group of organisms, citizens can acquire a level of competence sufficient to participate.

Current monitoring efforts suggest the mixed countercurrents that underpin many of Peterson’s essays. Let us set 1900 as the baseline. Since then, waterfowl have declined dramatically due to the draining of wetlands in both breeding and wintering areas. Sandpipers and other waders have partially recovered since protection took effect early in the century but numbers of some species remain low, reflecting severe habitat loss. Gulls have thrived as scavengers of human refuse, whereas terns have suffered from the human usurpation of the islands and barrier beaches where they nest. Raptors and crows have mostly rebounded in an increasingly urbanized world in which teenage boys are no longer allowed to take potshots at every passing “varmint.” Forest birds, with some exceptions, have gained with the recovery of forests throughout the East. Many of the exceptions are ground-nesting species that have been locally extirpated by subsidized nest predators, such as raccoons and feral housecats.

Lately, grassland birds have become the category of greatest concern. The reasons are many. The native prairies of the Great Plains have either been converted to cropland or replanted in nonnative grasses. The advent of synthetic fertilizers in the mid-twentieth century permitted the intensification of farming and ended the traditional system of crop rotation with fallows. Even hay production has been intensified, so that grassland birds can no longer fledge their young in the spring before the hayfields are mowed. Sighting any of a long list of once common birds, among them, meadowlarks, grasshopper sparrows, and bobolinks, has thus become an exceptional event in a day’s birding.

Is the state of our nation now approaching a comfortable equilibrium, or will the twenty-first century bring new and unforeseen upheavals to the patterns of land use? I cannot predict the future, but here are some questions that underlie the larger issue: Will urban sprawl be checked by the rising cost of long-distance commuting or will it be encouraged to accelerate by a growing acceptance of telecommuting? Will a century-long trend of forest recovery be reversed as rising prices of agricultural commodities stimulate rehabilitation of abandoned farmland? Or will the loss of forests be impelled by an insatiable market for alcohol produced from biomass? Or will the lowering of agricultural tariffs under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade reorder our planet’s agricultural geography so that the burden of feeding the world’s billions of people passes to the developing countries? And what surprises does climate change hold for agriculture and forestry in the US? I won’t attempt to answer these questions, but they highlight some of the possibilities that lie ahead. In a century we’ve gone from a time in which the challenges of conservation were strictly local or national and embarked on a time in which global forces will determine the future state not only of our own country, but that of every country on the globe.

Will there be a twenty-first-century Roger Tory Peterson? Let us hope there will be. But one thing is certain. A twenty-first-century incarnation of Peterson will come to us in an unfamiliar guise, quite distinct from that of artist and author of field guides. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he or she were a politician?