I was introduced to the nativist mindset about birds over 30 years ago by an ominous encounter with a birder in Florida. The sound of gunfire drew our attention to a man with a shot gun on the lawn of our motel. Starlings were falling around him, where he quickly finished them off with a vigorous stomp of his booted foot. We were unfamiliar with the hatred of non-native species at that time and asked him why he was killing the birds. He seemed stunned to be questioned. He explained, as though speaking to retarded children, that the starlings were “trash birds” that must be killed. Following a basic rule of survival, we walked away from a person wielding a gun.
I was reminded of that incident by a recent article in the magazine of the Cornell Ornithology Laboratory. The author of the article studied starlings for her Ph.D. dissertation. She was well aware of their reputation as competitors of native birds and consumers of agricultural crops, but belatedly she was having second thoughts about their reputation as invaders: “Our national conversations about racial equity and political dissent in the last year reminded me that I must change my behavior in response to crises. It has also encouraged me to consider my impact on others, human and starling alike.” She wondered if calling starlings “aliens” might contribute to the negative opinion of human immigrants: “But I can’t help thinking of the parallels with countless stories about human “aliens.” Whether we intend this comparison or not, labeling immigrants “invaders” and “aliens” isolates those who cross a border in search of a safer, stabler life.”
Comments on the article dispel doubts that such a connection between humans and birds perceived as “alien” exists in the minds of at least some nativists. This is the concluding response to my attempt to discuss the issue with a nativist: “I am glad I will not live to see your crap filled America of endless third world suburbs, starlings, and house sparrows. I wish I could live long enough to see it gasp its last breath.” Strangely, this person seems to be angry about something that he fears will happen in the future, but isn’t visible to him now.
The recent fatal shooting of 10 African-American citizens by an 18-year-old self-avowed white supremacist was also an opportunity to witness the fear, hatred, and violence generated by the use of the word “invasion” to describe immigration, as reported by National Public Radio’s News Hour shortly after the shooting: “The alleged Buffalo gunman isn’t the first mass shooter to talk about an “invasion” of non-whites. Last week’s mass shooting in Buffalo has turned attention once again to something known as the replacement theory. It’s a baseless and racist conspiracy theory that powerful elites are trying to replace white Americans with nonwhites and that these elites are allowing a so-called invasion of nonwhite immigrants. That word, invasion, has been used a lot lately by some Republicans and immigration hard-liners”
This racist conspiracy theory bears a remarkable resemblance to the theory of invasion biology, which claims that the mere existence of non-native plants and animals is a threat to native species. Although there is little empirical evidence of that threat, the myth persists and is used to justify the destructive attempts to eradicate harmless plants and animals.
The consequences of fear, anger, and dread
The misnamed USDA Wildlife Services killed over 1.7 million animals in 2021, including 1,028,648 starlings and “dispersed” 10,631,600 starlings. Only 400,000 of the animals they killed were native; 1.3 million were considered “invasive.” The mission of USDA Wildlife Services is “to provide Federal leadership and expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts to allow people and wildlife to coexist.” Since 1886, Wildlife Services has killed millions of animals every year that are considered pests by humans.
Is all that killing effective? Does it actually reduce populations of the species perceived as a threat? What does it accomplish?
Farmers have been at war with birds for as long as humans have engaged in agriculture, some 10,000 years. Crows, grackles, blackbirds, and starlings are often targets of efforts to eliminate them in agricultural areas. Between 1939 and 1945 about 3.8 million crows in Oklahoma were killed by dynamiting their roosts. A study of that effort found no evidence that either the population of crows or crop production was affected by that campaign because nature adjusts: “Destroy a chunk of a population, now there’s more food for the ones who remain. Through a variety of physiological responses—shorter gestation periods, larger broods, delayed implantation—a well-fed individual produces more offspring than one that’s struggling or just getting by.” (1) This balancing act is known to be true of many other animal species, such as coyotes and rodents.
The Four Pests campaign was one of the first actions taken in the Great Leap Forward in China from 1958 to 1962. The four pests to be eliminated were rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows. The campaign depleted the sparrow population nearly to extinction. The sparrows had eaten insects that killed the crops. In the absence of sparrows a plague of locusts contributed to the Great Chinese Famine, killing tens of millions of Chinese between 1958 and 1962. Ironically, the Chinese ended up importing 250,000 sparrows from the Soviet Union to replenish the population.
As is often the case with attempts to kill animals, the decision is usually made without understanding the role the animal is playing in the ecosystem. There are usually positive as well as negative impacts of every member of the food web. When we focus only on the negative impact, there are often unintended negative consequences of eliminating a member of an ecological community.
Starlings are considered an agricultural pest in the US, but they are not routinely killed in England or Europe where they are native, although they probably eat just as much agricultural crops there. The New York Times recently published an article about starling murmurations in Europe. The videos and photographs of these huge flocks of starlings moving in coordinated patterns are beautiful and remarkable. They draw crowds of people who are transfixed by the spectacle.
A study of the impact of starlings in Europe explains why starlings are usually not killed in Europe: “Starlings that cause damage on migration or in winter may have bred in countries, some of them outside the EEC, where the birds cause no damage and are held in esteem on account of their valued role as insect predators, their educational and their aesthetic values. Claims from countries where Starlings winter that breeding populations should, by some means, be limited are unlikely to be received sympathetically by those to the northeast who eagerly await the Starlings’ return in spring… On grounds of effectiveness, feasibility, cost, humaneness and environmental safety a population limitation strategy is unlikely to be an appropriate solution…The potential for Starlings to reestablish large flocks at good feeding sites after heavy mortality has been inflicted locally indicates that even local population reduction is only temporarily effective in reducing damage.”
The popular urban legend about starlings is that they were brought to the US in the 19th century by a dedicated fan of Shakespeare who wanted to introduce all the birds mentioned by Shakespeare to America. Over one hundred years later, scientists have used molecular analysis to disprove that myth. In fact, starlings were brought to America earlier by more than one person to more than one location, including to New York by a Shakespeare fan. This is a reminder that there is always more to know and that we must remain open minded to learn new information as science moves inexorably forward.
Words matter: Vagrants or Scouts?
Birders get excited about seeing birds where they don’t usually see them. When they do, they usually call them “vagrants,” a word that is a synonym for tramps, drifters, beggars, hobos, even homeless people. It’s not a surprising word choice in a crowd that is heavily biased in favor of natives.
An article in New York Times suggests that the word “vagrant” is no longer an accurate description of the birds being seen where they haven’t been seen in the past. The explanation for their surprise visit is often an indication that they are adapting to changes in the environment, including climate change and associated changes in vegetation and insect populations. They are in unfamiliar territory in search of what they need to survive. Perhaps their usual nesting site is now a parking lot. Or perhaps the vegetation they need did not survive a severe drought. Or pesticides have killed the insects they need to feed their chicks during nesting season. They are scouts, not vagrants. They aren’t lost. They are seeking a safe haven.
As the climate changes and human activities continue to encroach on the natural world, plants and animals must move, adapt, or die. The least we can do is stay out of their way. The fact that birds are the most mobile animal class is something to celebrate, not lament. Their mobility makes them more likely to survive changes in the environment. A recent study reported that 13% of bird species are threatened with extinction, compared to 25% of mammal species, 21% of reptiles and 40% of amphibians.
- Mary Roach, Fuzz, W.W. Norton & Company, 2021
16 thoughts on “Starlings, vagrants, and dead birds”
Bravo for this post. I hadn’t made the leap from replacement theory (in French politics, and now creeping into US politics) to invasive species, but the parallels are spooky.
Thanks again for your thoughtful writing. It is the essence of right thinking!
Thanks again for your thoughtful, accurate writing. You speak the truth with wisdom and compassion.
My conditioned response to starlings, even the name itself, has been heavy with negative connotations. Increasingly, as I delve into learning more about our environment; all it’s webs of flora and fauna, I’m aware of how easily my perception can be influenced. I love the iridescence of grackles, why wouldn’t I love the coloring of starlings? ..a beautiful name, by the way. I live in eastern PA and over my last 70 years have lamented and honestly been pained by the destruction of so much of Pennsylvania’s beautiful habitats, so that I truly applaud (and am happily a part of by way of my own backyard) the nativist movement to restore habitat.
Never, though, have I associated “invasive aliens” with people simply because the U.S. has a tradition of welcoming (sometimes grudgingly) immigrants. My family of immigrants stretches from several decades ago to back to the 1600’s; including the obligatory great uncle who “knows there’s Indians up that side of the family”. I firmly believe a country lives best with a diversity of peoples.
The native plant/pollinator facebook groups I follow are growing with people thirsty to learn more and more about nature. It’s wonderfully hopeful, but we need stronger connections with the scientific communities to help us better understand and manage the environmental changes we are experiencing. Thank you for your very thought provoking article.
Thank you so much for this. When I try to counter nativist’ hatred against “non-native plants” they flip out and demand an apology and retraction for using the word “nativist” because they know it’s associated with racist Euro-descent people. But it’s very accurate, so I continue, hoping I will get some people to think about what it all means and make the connections.
Meanwhile, as I keep learning more about birds from a dear friend, I realize I’ve also been biased against some of the introduced/exotic plants who I’m learning are so loved and needed by some of our most special birds. (Italian Thistle seeds and even their fluff are prized by Lazuli Buntings and so many other birds. ) Walking in nature is so much nicer when appreciating and loving the plants rather than resenting them!
I especially agree with your last sentence. One of the pleasures of traveling is that I don’t know which plants are native in distant places so I can enjoy the landscape, without noticing what has been introduced. The concept of “good” and “bad” plants is gone when walking in a foreign landscape.
I am convinced that biological nativism and political nativism are indeed strikingly homologous, and I used to worry that the former might lead to the latter; but since joining a botanical society (a den of biological nativists!) I worry less – the members are uniformly among the least politically nativist people I know.
I put the comparison between the two nativisms to some of the members, and one of them made the point that everybody (being essentially an ape not long removed from the wild) has as part of their makeup a propensity to violence and to bias against outgroups, and that killing invasive organisms to protect indigenous biodiversity is a productive and mostly harmless way to sublimate those darker impulses.
This makes sense to me. It is better to experience catharsis than to bottle up negative feelings and urges, only to have them pop up in another more harmful way.
One could still say that continual public talk about biological nativism might prime less thoughtful or self-aware members of society to think in a nativistic fashion, but do people need help to think in that way?
That’s an interesting theory. However, it is based on the assumption that “killing invasive organisms to protect indigenous biodiversity is a productive and mostly harmless way to sublimate those darker impulses.”
Firstly, nativism in the natural world is not harmless. It kills millions of harmless animals. It destroys millions of healthy trees. It destroys useful vegetation and it uses toxic pesticides to do so. The pesticides used to “protect biodiversity” damage the soil and expose wildlife and humans to chemicals that are known to be harmful to our health. The destruction of healthy trees contributes to greenhouse gases causing climate change.
Secondly, there is little evidence that nativism in the natural world is “productive” or “protects indigenous biodiversity.” Most projects destroy vegetation, but rarely plant anything in its place. The result is seldom a native landscape. The result is usually a weedy mess, resembling a vacant lot.
Thirdly, those who subscribe to the nativist agenda are not uniformly the “least politically nativist people.” The most prominent nativist in the San Francisco Bay Area for the past 30 years is rabidly and vocally opposed to all forms of immigration, including work visas and birthright citizenship. Here is the public record of the Bay Area’s guru of the native plant movement: https://milliontrees.me/2011/04/23/hybridization-genetic-pollution-or-a-natural-process/
Does nativism in the natural world lead to political nativism? I have no idea. But they are clearly connected for some people.
Broadly, I agree! But I’ll respond point by point.
1. Judged only by its impact on humans, I agree with my nativist friends that biological nativism (bionativism, if we may coin that word?) is close to harmless. Even if we acknowledge theoretical harm in pesticide use, the small amounts used in nativist interventions and the precaution with which they are used around the public makes their use in practise harmless (at least in my area).
Webmaster: Thanks for another interesting comment. The evidence is irrefutable that the harm of pesticides is not “theoretical.” The most commonly used herbicide, glyphosate, is classified by the World Health Organization as a probable carcinogen. There are over 25,000 pending product liability lawsuits brought by plaintiffs with cancer who were exposed to glyphosate. Several awards in those lawsuits have been over $25 million. That is one way to quantify the harm done by pesticides. 1080 is a heavily used pesticide in New Zealand, banned in the United States for decades and an indiscriminate killer of every animal that eats it, including rare New Zealand birds (particularly keas), domestic dogs, domestic animals, etc., etc.
I can’t speak to the amount of pesticides used in New Zealand, although I have seen photos and videos of aerial applications of 1080 from helicopters that are clearly not “small amounts.” But I have first-hand knowledge of the pesticides used in public parks here in the San Francisco Bay Area. San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department (SFRPD) reduced its herbicide use briefly in 2016, after glyphosate was classified as a probable carcinogen. However, herbicide use has since increased, particularly in the 32 designated “natural areas” where SFRPD is attempting to “restore” native plants by eradicating non-native plants. In 2019, SFRPD applied herbicides 243 times, the most since 2013. Of these, 144 applications were in the so-called “natural areas.” Though the “natural areas” are only a quarter of total city park acres in San Francisco, nearly half the herbicides measured by volume of active ingredient were used in those areas. San Francisco is only 47 square miles with a population of nearly 900,000 people, to put the volume of pesticide use and potential for exposure into perspective. These are not “small amounts.”
However, I couldn’t agree more about the harm caused to wild animals. Here in NZ, every wild mammal is persecuted by hunting and trapping and poisoning. Mammals are not considered harmless, since they do tremendous damage to native biodiversity: our ecosystems evolved without them, so our species are defenceless against them. If we could have a ‘Final Solution to the Mammalian Problem’ maybe it would be worth the killing; but I don’t think one is coming, so the killing will continue indefinitely. This seems like a moral monstrosity to me – particularly the poisoning.
2. Nativist interventions can range from conservation (protecting existing ecosystems – low cost, high benefit) to restoration (trying to recreate past ecosystems – high cost, low benefit). Early interventions surely can protect indigenous biodiversity with minimal harm: for example, a few young willows in a native wetland can be harmlessly and reliably cut and pasted; in contrast, a wetland that has become a willow forest needs harmful aerial spraying to be unreliably restored.
Webmaster: I don’t have firsthand knowledge of New Zealand’s restoration industry, although I am aware of its “predator free” agenda. (I visited New Zealand for 5 weeks, but it was long before its “predator free” crusade began.) Perhaps New Zealand is having more success than I observe here in California. However, I find great irony in the fact that both New Zealand and Australia are engaged in a battle with willow, which is highly prized here in California. Thousands of non-native trees have been destroyed in riparian areas here in order to promote the growth of willows that then choke the lakes and creeks with overgrown willows. An improvement? Strictly a matter of opinion. An improvement in the eyes of California nativists, but not in the eyes of Kiwis and Aussies. One of many contradictions of nativism. There is nothing inherently good or bad about willows. It is purely an aesthetic preference used to justify a moralistic crusade on the part of nativists.
One problem for cities is that intact native ecosystems are rare, so the balance is heavily towards restoration; but the changes in drainage, soils, atmosphere, climate, etc in cities make the retention of native ecosystems an uphill battle. This means that most of us are often subjected to ill-fated, ugly and poorly executed interventions like the sort you describe, instead of being able to enjoy healthy, beautiful and interesting novel ecosystems!
3. That was a discouraging read! But even though the nativisms are connected for some people, wouldn’t the prior probability of a bionativist being a political one be lower than that of the general population, since people involved in conservation and restoration would be more educated than average, and thus likely more liberal than average?
Webmaster: I don’t know the answer to your question, although I can confirm that San Franciscans are highly educated and very politically liberal by most definitions. Whether or not there is a connection between political and biological nativism is irrelevant, in my opinion. What matters is that much harm is being done that is not benefiting any living creature.
I have replied within your comment. Thanks for the dialogue. You are fortunate to live in a beautiful place that does not require improvement. If New Zealand would allow evolution to take its natural course, your “native “birds would likely evolve the ability to fly again. After all, they did at one time, so clearly they could again. Let evolution do its job! The illusion that humans are capable of stopping evolution is an arrogant fantasy.
Pesticides are an interesting rabbit hole that we could go down, but I suspect we’d end up having to agree to disagree. I will just bring up about glyphosate the comparison between it and a couple of ‘probable carcinogens’ that most anti-glyphosate people voluntarily enjoy consuming: acrylamide (formed on any dry-cooked starchy food) and red meat. Glyphosate (and the other two) has been well studied for cancer risk for a long time: no causation has been found. If there were strong causation, it surely would have been evident by now; so if there is causation, it must be either weak or the harm caused small enough to enable it to remain unproven. The level of harm is thus probably minor for applicators and negligible for the general public.
The public has such irrational fear of pesticides and chemicals in general that I see no evidence for their harm in the fact that juries drawn from that same public have awarded outsized damages in cases involving glyphosate. One sum I remember was laughable – two billion dollars! The judge had to reduce damages by 99% to a still huge $20 million because they were so excessive. You can see that juries don’t really understand the scale of very large or very small numbers, and can’t correctly judge risks. Most people aren’t scientists, let alone statisticians or toxicologists, and aren’t competent to make right judgements.
Also, people with cancer and without healthcare will try anything to get the money they need to survive, especially if it involves pinning the blame on corporations. When you get relatable people in horrible situations vs faceless chemical giants, juries will always side with the plaintiffs, even if they are wrong.
Regarding 1080: although great piles of baits might look a lot in one place, the area within which they are used is so large that quantity/area is tiny, and the off-target effects equivalently small and transient. The same is (in general) true for other pesticides. In so saying, I am still against 1080, because of the suffering it causes!
The willow situation here is complex, and a long story. Suffice it to say that conservationists want them gone, but river engineers, councils and farmers depend upon them for river bank stabilisation, flood control, slope stabilisation, shelter, and fodder. So half of the country loves willows, and half hate them!
We are having no more luck with restoration than it sounds like you are. In small areas there is success; in larger areas we are holding the line; but in most of the country the weeds and mammals continue to advance and multiply.
I made the same point as you to my nativist friends – that the changes in the ecosystem are fodder for evolution, and in a million years or so the system will have healed itself into a new configuration, with many of the introduced species likely having evolved into new and diverse indigenous ones. They were unpersuaded – they think that our unique bird dominated ecosystem with the weird birds and bizarre bird-adapted plants within it is too unique to accept losing. To have it replaced with yet another cosmopolitan mammal-dominated ecosystem they consider a tragedy.
My argument is that it is essentially already lost; this replacement has mostly happened. The country is mostly dominated by mammals. Most of our flightless terrestrial birds (66%) are already extinct (42% for all terrestrial birds), and most of the remaining ones would be extinct on the mainland within decades if the pest control were to stop. They are already extinct throughout most of the country, and only persist in the remaining fragments because of the intensity of the pest control. There will be no reevolving flight, unfortunately. The scale of the problem is enormous ecosystem wide – including flying birds, three quarters of the remaining birds are in danger of extinction, and birds are in a better position here than bats, frogs, or reptiles. Half of the plants are also at risk.
So we are faced with (more!) mass extinction, or continued pest control.
I always wonder if our descendants in a thousand years will still be fighting the same futile battles that we are now? I suspect not, and I think we need to accept we can’t stop nature. It is close to time to grieve for the past if need be, and move on into a future that is interesting in its own way.
Forgive me for the large screeds – I am enjoying this conversation too much!
Yes, we must agree to disagree about pesticides. Yes, there are many dangerous chemicals in our lives in addition to pesticides. In my view, that’s all the more reason to remove those that we can because the effect of those chemicals is cumulative. I don’t see the logic of continuing to use pesticides for over 30 years when nothing has been accomplished by those pesticides, which seems to be your experience in New Zealand as well.
In fact, the use of these pesticides for decades is one of the factors in the lack of progress in eradicating non-native plants. Evolution dictates that the plants you are trying to kill are capable of developing resistance to the chemicals being used on them. The “restoration” industry has been actively participating in developing stronger and stronger weeds by spraying them repeatedly with pesticides to which they are now resistant.
I would like to recommend a book to you about evolution to help you understand just how powerful evolution is. This is my review of The Beasts Before Us: https://milliontrees.me/2022/05/09/the-dawn-and-dusk-of-the-age-of-mammals/ That book might make you more hopeful that New Zealand’s unique birds are likely to evolve the ability to fly again if they must to survive. Humans may not survive to witness that evolutionary accomplishment because we are making the world inhospitable to survival, but birds are the most likely class of animals to survive the damage we have done. Mobility is their biggest advantage, so there is much evolutionary pressure to acquire that advantage. The genes for flight are likely still available, but no longer expressed, as Beasts Before Us explains.
Your allegiance to nativism in the natural world seems rather strange, given that you seem to understand that it is futile.
I have enjoyed the conversation as well. Your comments are not “screeds.” I always learn something from oppositional comments (even when they are screeds) and so I welcome them.
I wouldn’t say that nothing has been accomplished here with herbicides – native plants are better off than they would have been had the conservationists not had herbicides as a tool. Using them they are holding the line in places which otherwise would have been overrun.
I must correct myself – it is 60% of the terrestrial flightless birds extinct (not 66%). But at any rate, without pest control, the remaining species will surely go extinct without evolving flight, just as the previous ones did. Of the remaining 10, four are now only found on small predator-free islands. That leaves 6 on the mainland, of which 2 are already entirely conservation dependent in tiny enclaves, and the rest continue to decline a couple of percent a year. Losing abilities like flight is easy; but even that takes thousands of years. Gaining things is very hard and takes millions of years – millions of years which our birds don’t have.
That is a bit academic though, because in saying that I am still against killing ‘pest’ animals using poison, on moral grounds – the natural suffering of predation is nasty, but protracted and painful deaths caused by poison are worse. If we have to let the last few hundred members of a native species die, too bad. It is better than inflicting torturous deaths on millions of innocent animals into the conceivable future.
I have little allegiance to bionativism myself, but some of my friends do – they are ecologists and restorationists and run native plant nurseries, etc. I could easily do such work (and earn more doing it) but I choose not to, because I don’t find meaning or satisfaction in it. But my friends truly do – it is essentially their life purpose. I don’t want to argue them out of that! It is like a replacement for religion for them: they have their common beliefs, interests, rituals (killing weeds, planting natives!), roots to the land, and hope for the future; and they have the tight-knit community that results from all that common purpose. Many people don’t have those things, and are much the worse for it.
In fact I believe that lack of meaning in life is a big social issue the west faces today. It leaves many unmoored and blowing in the wind from one shallow physical pleasure to the next; and worse, it causes some to attach themselves to all sorts of divisive political or social ideologies in an attempt to find a bigger purpose for their lives – purpose that comes from opposing other people. People uniting to find their meaning from opposing nature does seem to me futile, but still a lesser evil.
In the big picture, the areas under intense nativist management are small, and they won’t be tipping the climate much one way or another. And as a bonus, bionativism means that many of the interesting native things will still be around for ingrates like us to enjoy longer than they otherwise might have been! And perhaps if enough people join the bionativist religion, they might actually succeed…?
I understand your point that the “bionativist religion” gives some people a purpose in life that is less self-destructive than other ideological commitments. And I agree that people struggle to find meaning in their lives, myself included. I have spent 25 years trying to prevent the destruction of our urban forests in the San Francisco Bay Area and associated death of wild animals. My motivation is not fundamentally different from the foot soldiers of nativism in the natural world.
However, the volunteers who are working in opposition to one another are not driving the nativist agenda. The highly educated and highly paid experts are identifying projects, planning them, writing the environmental impact reports, and supervising the implementation often performed by an army of volunteers. They are earning their living in the “restoration” industry and fight for their agenda because their livelihood is threatened by opposition to their projects. They are not selfless crusaders. They are paid professionals. Here in in the United States there are an estimated 250,000 people employed by the “restoration” industry and there are billions of dollars of public funding that is paying their salaries and their projects, money that could be spent to improve our lives.
That said, opposition to the destructive aspects of the “restoration” industry is not trying to prevent all projects. Speaking for myself, I am trying to redirect conservation to a less destructive approach and a more constructive approach. Permaculture and regenerative farming are both examples of a constructive approach. Planting rather than eradicating. Pruning and thinning rather than destroying healthy trees. Restoring water flow rather than damming. Fencing protective enclaves rather than indiscriminate killing. These are examples of conservation that don’t threaten the lucrative careers of conservationists, but reduce the damage they inflict on the environment. Tao Orion’s Beyond the War on Invasive Species is a constructive approach to conservation. (Here is an interview with Tao Orion that I published recently: https://milliontrees.me/2022/03/15/beyond-the-war-on-invasive-species-interview-with-tao-orion/ Look at the comments on that article to understand the nativist viewpoint.) James Rebank’s Pastoral Song is a constructive approach to farming.
Elizabeth Kolbert wrote a ground-breaking article, published by the New Yorker, about New Zealand’s “predator free” project that began with this observation, “In New Zealand, conservation is all about killing.” That description of conservation in New Zealand should be an embarrassment to all well-meaning Kiwis. Jamie Steer, an academic ecologist in New Zealand, is trying to lead the way to a constructive approach to conservation in New Zealand. (https://scholar.google.com/citations?view_op=view_citation&hl=en&user=2MLrVD8AAAAJ&citation_for_view=2MLrVD8AAAAJ:MGPUR4WVBMEC)
If I were in San Francisco, I would be backing you to the hilt trying to help you save the urban forests, and trying to get the restorationists to better spend the money on conserving larger areas that actually have existing higher-grade native ecosystems. I hope you succeed!
I know some of the sort of experts that you describe, and it is of course true that they make their livings from restoration. But I guarantee that for your experts, as for ours, the reason they chose that way of making a living was not the money. They aren’t mercenaries – they truly believe in the cause.
Kolbert’s article was well researched and written; but I feel like she isn’t bothered by or is even in favour of the killing – she neutrally describes the attitudes and practices, and then lightly praises them in the second to last paragraph of her piece. And the article by Steer argues Predator free 2050 is flawed not because the killing is wrong, but because PF2050 is not possible; the authors say that killing will remain necessary.
The comments under the Tao Orion interview are really interesting! I feel like both sides have bits of the truth. From the point of view of conservation, the nativist commenter is right. But from the point of view of adapting to the future, Tao is right. If the commenter thinks that killing things will eventually restore the system to its historical state, she is wrong. And if Tao thinks that we will be able to keep every species alive without using herbicides or without killing things, she also is wrong. Tao’s approach to nature is much saner in my opinion – it is just that she will have to accept that that approach will allow many things to go extinct.
I’m a big fan of permaculture, and my whole back yard is a food forest – no lawn, so I’m right on board! It is indeed a constructive thing that people can unite around, and a way of getting people to understand and care about nature. Using permaculture we can maintain the biodiversity that is useful to us. But permaculture is not going to save indigenous biodiversity.
We can’t have our cake and eat it too. That would be my TLDR – we can’t have no killing and no extinction at the same time. When it comes to indigenous biodiversity we have two choices:
1. Don’t kill, allow nature to take its course and let things go extinct, as they have throughout history.
2. Intervene to prevent species dying out, which necessitates killing other organisms, which means pesticides.
I choose the former and can watch the anthropocene roll on with interest, but I can’t judge people who grieve the loss and choose the latter.
So it seems to come down to extinction for your friends in the “restoration” industry. Do they understand that 99% of all species that once existed on Earth—more than five billion species—are now extinct? Because the Earth is constantly changing—with or without our help—life on Earth must constantly change with it. In our rapidly changing world, extinction is both predictable and inevitable.
Despite the inevitability of extinction in the long run, there is little evidence of extinction in the short run. Most animal extinctions occurred at the hands of the early arrival of humans. Moas and other flightless birds were eaten by Polynesians arriving in New Zealand some 700 years ago. Mastodons and other megafauna were killed by humans arriving in North America some 13,000 years ago. Megafauna in Australia were killed by humans arriving from Asia some 50,000 years ago. Humans are the predators that have caused most extinctions. Invasion biologists are pointing their fingers at the wrong predators.
Yet, here we are in the 21st Century and in North America there are no recorded plant extinctions in the continental US attributed to “invasive” plants. Our few extinct trees were taken down by introduced insects, making the claim that native insects eat only native plants the fiction that it is. In California there are some 65 known plant extinctions, none are attributed to “invasive” plants. Once again, invasion biologist are pointing their fingers at innocent plants.
If your friends want to prevent extinctions, they should focus on preventing habitat destruction and climate change, in that order. Destroying habitat that is useful to wildlife because it is “non-native” is counterproductive to their professed aim of preventing extinction. The short-term objective is in conflict with long-term objectives.
I agree that Elizabeth Kolbert’s article about predator free New Zealand was ambiguous because she was scrupulously neutral. There was a range of opinions about that article amongst my friends. Personally, I thought the facts spoke for themselves without Kolbert having to explicitly say that killing millions of harmless animals could not be legitimately called “conservation.” I suggest you read Kolbert’s most recent book, Under a White Sky. I believe she is very clear that the conceit that humans can control nature is more dangerous than the perceived threats they attempt to address. This is my review of Kolbert’s book: https://milliontrees.me/2021/05/15/the-grand-delusion-controlling-nature/
Jamie Steer’s opinion of PF2050 seems logical to me. There is no need for moralizing when the bottom line is that PF2050 is futile. In fact, a moralistic approach contributes to useless conflict. Whether or not it is “ethical” to kill animals is irrelevant because there is no point in killing them. I try to stay away from both moral and aesthetic judgments.