Polarized views of nature mirror our politics

We recently posted an article about our on-going debate with the Audubon Society regarding its misguided support for the projects that are destroying the urban forest in the San Francisco Bay Area.  That article provided a few examples of our widely divergent views of nature:

  • We don’t see how birds will benefit from the destruction of tens of thousands of trees and countless plants that provide food and cover for birds and animals.
  • We don’t enjoy walking in nature with a judgmental eye, which points fingers at plants and animals that others claim “don’t belong there.” We are unwilling to divide nature into “good” and “bad” categories.
  • We don’t think humans have the right to pass a death sentence on wild animals because they prefer another animal, which they claim will benefit from the death of a potential competitor.
  • We don’t consider a “managed” forest a “more natural forest.” We don’t think humans are capable of improving what nature can accomplish without our interference.  We don’t think a public park that is routinely sprayed with herbicides can be accurately described as a “natural area.”
English sparrow.  US Fish & Wildlife photo
English sparrow. US Fish & Wildlife photo

However, these widely divergent viewpoints about nature are not inconsistent with the extremes of our polarized politics in America.  Just as we don’t expect to change the minds of those at the opposite end of the political spectrum, we don’t expect to change the minds of those who view nature through the darkly colored lens of nativism.  Just as elections for public office are decided by the independents in the middle of the political spectrum, the debate about the future of our public lands will be decided by those who have not yet formed an opinion about what is best for nature.  Today’s post is addressed to them.  We will tell the “independents” about two recent op-eds published by The New York Times which represent the two extreme viewpoints about nature.  Both op-eds use sparrows as representatives of the natural world, which we hope will make the differences in these viewpoints starker and therefore clearer.

First a word about how important the “independents” are to the debate about the ecological “restorations” which are dictated by invasion biology.  Political independents are usually not more than a third of the electorate.  But, a survey conducted by University of Florida suggests the majority of the public are still open to learning more about “invasive species.”  They report that 62% of Floridians they surveyed said they are not knowledgeable or only slightly knowledgeable about invasive species.  Ironically, the same survey claimed that “a majority voiced support for raising sales tax to combat invasive species.”  One wonders why voters who acknowledge that they know nothing or next to nothing about invasive species would be willing to tax themselves to combat something they don’t understand.  In any case, if Floridians are typical, the majority of the public needs to know more about invasion biology.  We hope they have access to balanced information that is not written by those who make their living killing animals and poisoning our public lands.  Million Trees was created over four years ago for that purpose.

“The Truth About Sparrows”

Some time ago, we told the story of how sparrows were brought to America in the 1850s by people who believed they would eat the insects that were killing trees.  We concluded that article by saying that 150 years later house sparrows are no longer despised as alien intruders.  We were wrong.

In May 2014, the New York Times published an op-ed entitled “The Truth About Sparrows.”  The op-ed was written by Peyton Marshall, whose mother was an exterminator of house sparrows.  This was no idle pastime for Ms. Marshall’s mother.  It was her mission.

Eastern bluebird, public domain
Eastern bluebird, public domain

Mom’s crusade against house sparrows began when Ms. Marshall was a child.  Mom loved bluebirds at a time when their population was dwindling in the east where they lived.  Mom decided that house sparrows were to blame and so she took it upon herself to kill every house sparrow that had the misfortune of entering her yard or within reach of it.

Mom began by trapping the house sparrows.  “Good” birds caught in the traps were freed, but the house sparrows were put into plastic garbage bags and asphyxiated.  Mom started the family car in the garage and wrapped the open end of the garbage bag around the tailpipe.  When the birds did not die, she consulted her husband who informed her that the car was a diesel and would not produce enough carbon monoxide to kill the birds.

So, mom took her operation on the road.  She helped elderly ladies with their groceries in the parking lot in exchange for a shot at their tailpipe.  When dropping off her children for play dates and birthday parties, she asked their parents if she could make brief use of their cars to kill birds.  Polite parents watched in horror as they became accessories to this execution.

Ms. Marshall concludes her story by noting that the population of bluebirds has rebounded since she was a child.  But mom continues to trap house sparrows in her yard and now uses a less public means of killing them:  “Now, she uses a carving knife and cutting board, at her leisure, in the privacy of her own kitchen.”

Although Ms. Marshall doesn’t say so, we doubt that the recovery of the bluebird population has much to do with the extermination of house sparrows in her mother’s backyard.  The recovery of the bluebird population is attributed to building nest boxes that substitute for the dead trees which are their preferred nest sites.  There are few dead trees in urban and suburban areas because people consider them hazardous and unsightly.  Once again, animals pay the price for the choices of humans.

“What the Sparrows Told Me”

The New York Times published “What the Sparrows Told Me” in August 2014.  It is a fitting antidote to the grisly tale of the sparrow exterminator.

Trish O’Kane, the author, was a human rights investigative journalist in Central America for 10 years before moving to New Orleans to teach journalism.  Less than a month after arriving in New Orleans, she and her family were displaced by hurricane Katrina in 2005.  Four months after the hurricane, she rented a room in a dry part of town so that she could return to her teaching job.  It was a hard time for everyone in New Orleans, but her gloom was deepened by learning of her father’s terminal cancer which would kill him in a matter of months.

Ms. O’Kane had never had an interest in birds before, but she knew she needed “to focus on something beautiful, something positive, something alive,” and so she did:

“I bought two bird feeders.  Each morning I sat on that back stoop and watched those sparrows.  Instead of wondering what was going to happen to the city, to the Gulf Coast, to the planet, I started wondering why one sparrow was hogging all the seed.  I started thinking about their resilience, their pluck, their focus on immediate needs.  If they couldn’t find food, they went somewhere else.  If they lost a nest, they built another.  They had no time or energy for grief.  They clung to the fence in raggedy lines heckling one another like drunken revelers on Bourbon Street.  Their sparring made me laugh.“

Audubon Park, New Orleans.  Public domain
Audubon Park, New Orleans. Public domain

Ms. O’Kane started holding her classes in Audubon Park, named for John James Audubon.  Her students began to find the same solace in watching the birds going about their business, finding a way to survive, carrying on.  And that gave her and her students the strength and the will to do the same at a time when life was hard in New Orleans.

Ms. O’Kane is now a doctoral student in environmental studies at University of Wisconsin, Madison.  She has found a way to connect her interest in human rights with her new found interest in birds.  She teaches an undergraduate course in environmental justice in which she pairs undergraduate students with middle school students in a mentoring program called Nature Explorers.  Many of the middle school children are immigrants from Central America.  She finds that they enjoy learning about the birds that migrate between Central America and Wisconsin, just as their families did.  The birds, like the people of America, are citizens of the world.

Ms. O’Kane tells us that many of her undergraduate students are frightened of the future of our planet.  She likes to start each new class with the story of the sparrows in New Orleans:  “I tell them that the birds are a gift to help them get through each day, a way to enjoy the world while we change it so that young people, everywhere, have a chance.”

Whose eyes do you choose to look through?

It’s no secret that our viewpoint regarding nature is more closely aligned with Ms. O’Kane’s.  If you haven’t yet taken a stand on the issue of what plants and animals are welcome in your ideal nature, think for a moment.  Which of these starkly different viewpoints do you prefer?

The Sparrow Wars: America’s first “invasive species”

The public’s mania about “invasive species” often seems new to us.  It’s not.  In Peter Coates’ provocative book, American Perceptions of Immigrant and Invasive Species, we learn about one of the first episodes of public concern about an introduced species in American history, known as the “sparrow wars.”

English sparrow. US Fish & Wildlife photo

Like many introductions of non-native species of plants and animals, the English sparrow (AKA house sparrow) was introduced to perform a practical function.  Elm trees on the East Coast were being defoliated by a voracious native caterpillar.  In 1852, The English sparrow was brought to America to rescue the trees from the caterpillars.  The sparrows thrived and were soon reviled by ornithologists who considered them alien invaders.

The debate between ornithologists and those with a more cosmopolitan view of nature is reported at length by Coates.  Long story short, the debate is reminiscent of what we hear today from nativists:

  • They feared that the English sparrow would compete with native species for food and habitat and that native species would lose this competition.
  • They considered native birds superior to the English sparrow which was considered dirty and a promiscuous breeder.
  • The English sparrows were city dwellers and were considered the bird equivalent of ghettoized immigrants.
  • The English sparrows were criticized for not eating enough of the caterpillars they were imported to eat.  They weren’t doing the job they were hired to do!

This debate raged on amongst birders for decades according to the historical record reported by Coates.  However, we no longer hear birders complain about the English sparrow, although we hear them complain about many other birds.

Update:  This post requires an update.  The New York Times published an op-ed in which a woman describes in horrific detail the monomaniacal attempts of her mother to exterminate all house sparrows in their neighborhood based on her belief that their eradication would benefit blue birds.  It is a blood-curdling story that contradicts my naïve belief that after nearly 200 years, the house sparrow has been accepted in America. 

Modern equivalents of the “sparrow wars”

Cherry-headed conure. Attribution: Share Alike

Birders in San Francisco are currently complaining about the cherry-headed conures, more commonly known as the parrots of Telegraph Hill.  They believe the parrots are depriving native birds of food and nesting places.  They object to their presence in a place where they “don’t belong.”

We were introduced to this mindset by an ominous encounter with a birder in Florida who is typical of the nativist viewpoint of the avian world.  The sound of gunfire drew us 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.

Why was the English sparrow redeemed?

Returning to the English sparrow, why are they no longer the target of hostility from  birders?  We speculate that one reason may be that they have been here for a long time, nearly 200 years.  Just as human immigrants are often the target of prejudice and discrimination when they first arrive, they eventually become a routine part of our world.  We rarely think of the Irish or other Europeans as immigrants in America.

Another reason is that the population of English sparrows is actually declining:  “Since 1966 its North American population has declined by 2.5 percent annually.” (1) However, there is still an estimated population of 150 million in North America.

Ironically, the population of English sparrows is declining significantly in Britain, its ancestral home, where only 13 million are estimated to remain.  In 2000 the British press was full of stories about the sudden decline of their iconic bird, “Responding to the strong sense that an essential part of the nation’s natural heritage…was disappearing…”

The lessons of the sparrow wars

These are familiar themes to the readers of the Million Trees blog:

  • Some people fear newcomers to their world, whether those newcomers are people, animals or plants and that fear can result in destructive hatred.
  • Newcomers usually fit in eventually.  What is initially perceived as a threatening “invasion” rarely turns out to be a problem in the long run.
  • Because nature is dynamic, the new home of an introduced species sometimes becomes the only home of that species.  The movement of species is another way to ensure their survival.  In fact, there is a new movement amongst citizen “scientists” to move rare species which are threatened by changed climate conditions into new locations.  This is called “assisted migration.” (2)

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(1) Peter Coates, American Perceptions of Immigrants and Invasive Species, UC Press, 2007.  All quotes are from this book.

(2) Emma Marris, Rambunctious Garden, Bloomsbury, 2011.