Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert, Henry Holt and Company, hardcover, 319 pages with index, with charts and illustrations, $28.
Extinction occurs so slowly we rarely know it’s happening. A pigeon here, a woodpecker (maybe) there, a near-miss with a condor. We are, however, 200,000 years into an extinction event that likely will change everything we know about life on earth. Recognized or not, it is a mass extinction, the sixth extinction, and it belongs to us.
“The Sixth Extinction,” a book by Elizabeth Kolbert, briefly explains the five previous mass extinctions on earth and their causes. The sixth extinction, examined in detail, not so coincidentally began at the time humans began to migrate out of Africa, Kolbert says. This extinction is moving at a pace far exceeding geologic time scale. She calls it the Anthropocene extinction. Anthro comes from the Greek word for humans.
Kolbert is an excellent writer, clear with facts, and with a sense of humor, not that this is a humorous topic. The stories she offers as examples of what is happening to us are well chosen and crisply written. The topic is important to us even though the ending will not be known for hundreds of thousands of years. It looks to be tough going between now and then.
The five pervious mass extinctions each ended a geological era, from the Ordovician, 444 million years ago to the Cretaceous, “only” 60 million years behind us. The latter is attributed to a huge astroid that slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula, ending dinosaurs and about 75 percent of all life on the planet.
The collision produced what Kolbert calls “a vast cloud of searing vapor and debris that raced over the continent, expanding as it moved, and incinerating everything in its path.” How hot? How fast? Kolbert quotes a geologist’s explanation: “Basically, if you were a triceratops in Alberta you had about two minutes before you were vaporized.”
Not all extinction events have such profound and immediate affect. They usually are measured in geologic time. The one we’re living through will be so, but has a local pace that can be breathtaking.
Kolbert tells her story by visiting 13 of those local places. She tells the story of how a particular creature disappeared forever.
For example, amphibians. They are the world’s most endangered class of animals, Kolbert says. The background rate of extinction, that which happens in the course of time, is probably about one amphibian species in a thousand years, according to educated estimates. A more exact number is not available because frogs and their relatives are not built to leave fossil remains.
No one is going to actually witness that once-in-a-thousand-years extinction. Today, however, “Pretty much every herpetologist working out in the field has observed several extinctions,” she writes.
Kolbert says that in the course of writing this book, she encountered one frog species that has since gone extinct, and three or four others now extinct in the wild. It is not just herps. Every living thing is under this pressure to some degree. Things that we have yet to name are going extinct.
You know what’s happening. It’s land use and chemicals and weather change. It’s us. It can be as simple as cutting a road through a forest.
Kolbert writes of an on-going habitat experiment named the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragmentation Project. Among its findings are the behaviors of two South American bird species. White-crowned Manakins cross roads at will. The Scale-backed Antbird, however, is very reluctant to do so. A new road, then, can reduce the readily used territory for that bird. With enough roads that bird eventually can be reduced to nowhere to live and nothing to eat.
We’re cutting the world into ever-smaller pieces, among the long list of other things we’re doing. You might wonder if any bird species nesting in Minnesota reacts to highways, roads, and driveways in this fashion. If so, we most likely will know when it’s too late to do much about it.
Can we stop what we are doing to our planet? Can we even slow the Anthropocene extinction? It doesn’t seem so today, does it? We will, however, get to watch it happen. We have front-row seats at the disaster movie in which we star.
The harassment a handful of photographers visited upon Snowy Owls here this winter has made it into a bill being considered by the legislature. A few photographers working in the the city of Ramsey and in Dakota County lured owls close for photographs by using live or fake mice. This caught the attention of officials at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. An amendment to the omnibus DNR bill before the legislature would make it a petty misdemeanor punishable by a $300 fine to visually lure an owl in the wild.
The Minnesota Snowy Owl that has been tracked by GPS signals since Jan. 26 has moved to a location west of Cosmos, Minnesota. That is a shift 15 miles west-northwest from its previous site south of Hutchinson. It moved to Hutch from its long-time location in Ramsey, Minnesota, west of Anoka, where it was netted and given its transmitter. This bird is named Ramsey. It is one of 21 Snowy Owls equipped with transmitters by ProjectSNOWstorm, based in Pennsylvania. The project was initiated when the owls began being seen in the eastern U.S. by the hundreds earlier this winter. The owls and the technology came together as a unique opportunity to follow movement of these birds. You can track Ramsey and the other owls at www.projectSNOWstorm.org.
Below is an image (©ProjectSNOWstorm and Google) from the project website showing the movements of an owl located in urban Baltimore. The transmitter on this bird was set to record location every 30 seconds instead of 30 minutes. The illustration shows movements over a two-hour period.
ProjectSNOWstorm will follow the birds as they move back north to breeding grounds. Information is sent to project headquarters via cell-phone technology. The data is downloaded whenever the birds are within range of a cell-phone tower. Yes, there are few if any cell towers in Arctic Canda, but the transmitters can collect and store thousands of pieces of location data for transmission when possible.
You also can use the website to make a contribution to help with financing of the project.
A couple of weeks I wrote about a Red-throated Loon that was being treated at the Minnesota Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (MWRC) in Roseville. The bird was found grounded in Isanti County. Basically, it was hungry. This species and many other waterbirds normally winter on open water in one of the Great Lakes. Given our winter, open water is scarce. So, the loon went searching. The bird, fit again, was flown to New Jersey for release on the Atlantic Ocean. KARE-TV has a nice video that tells the story. Go to www.kare11.com. Use the search function to find "loon" within the 30-day time slot offered.
Another rehab story concerns a juvenile Trumpeter Swan that lost parts of its toes to frostbite. It was brought to the MWRC with a head injury and frostbitten feet. The swan had the same problem as the loon -- no open water. Trumpeter Swans in this area for years have congregated by the hundreds downstream from the Xcel Energy Plant at Monticello. The plant is temporarily shutdown. The warm discharge water from the plant's cooling system was what kept water open. Without that, these birds were forced to look far and wide for open water. Stand around on ice or frozen ground and your toes are in danger. The swan at MWRC was fed, and veterinarians amputated the frozen ends of its toes and some of the webbing between toes. The vets who treated the bird are not certain how it will fare when back in the wild, but will release the bird and give it a chance.
“Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record,” Errol Fuller, Princeton University Press, 2013, hardcover, 255 pages, illustrated, $29.95.
The animals going extinct today are so much more fortunate than the animals that went extinct, say, 100 years ago.
They are apt to be better remembered.
Today we can capture in photographs memories of what we are losing. We can easily keep the lost ones on record, in mind. We are so able to document our folly.
That was not the case until fairly recently. Equipment was a factor, probably the factor. No one was able to photograph the sky-darkening flocks of Passenger Pigeons, the flocks that, we are told, took days and nights to pass a single place.
We can’t form a true mental image from the words, “We are told.” We need the experience or the photo of the blackened sky to help us comprehend the loss.
There are photos of Passenger Pigeons. You’ve perhaps seen the sad, poignant photos of Martha, the last of her species as she waited in the Cincinnati zoo to put a period on her story.
Author Errol Fuller gives us a book filled with poignant images in “Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record.” He has collected photo images of 28 animals gone extinct. There are many more extinctions, of course, but few photo records of what is gone.
Some of the photos are quite good, others dark and blurry. Particularly good are the black-and-white photos taken by James T. Tanner of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers encountered in the 1930s as he studied these birds in Louisiana. There are several images of a young bird, looking almost playful, obviously unaware of its future.
Most of the animals discussed in the book are birds. For all of the animals Fuller provides interesting, brief accounts of how and why these animals went extinct, who had photos, and how he found them. He offers important footnotes to extinction history. The answer to the question why, incidentally, turns out to be habitat loss more often than not. Apparently, we haven’t learned much from our history.
I found the emotional content of these photos surprising. There is a difference between reading of an extinct animal and seeing them here. Fuller shows us what we’ve lost.
Because some of the photos are of marginal quality, Fuller has included in an appendix artists’ illustrations of these 28 animals. They are lovely, colored paintings and drawings. They are not nearly as powerful as the sometimes crude photos he offers us.
(Note on Ivory-billed Woodpecker: Some people say there are more recent photos of that bird, albeit blurred, distant images best viewed with imagination. Fuller believes this species to be dead and gone, any photos in absolute need of imagination. He mocks people who say they have seen the bird as recently as 2002. Some of us believe — hope — he sooner or later will be proven wrong. The hunt does continue.)
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