Animal Emotions

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Birds and Us: Should Cormorants Be Killed to Save Salmon?

Two recent essays and an excellent book highlight how we view these animals

Two recent essays in the New York Times made me think deeply about the importance of birds as individuals in their own right, in various and diverse ecosystems, as models in the growing field of extinction biology, in the broad field of conservation biology in general, and in the growing field of compassionate conservation (see also "Ignoring Nature No More: Compassionate Conservation at Work"). Another essay also published in the New York Times called "Conservation, or Curation?" by noted conservationists John Vucetich and Michael Nelson also made me think about various aspects of conservation biology for this very important brief piece calls attention to a "recently announced new interpretation of the Endangered Species Act [by United States Fish and Wildlife Service] that severely limits its reach and retreats from the conservation ethic that healthy landscapes depend on native plants and animals."

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Should cormorants be shot to save salmon?

Felicity Barringer's essay called "Taking Up Arms Where Birds Feast on Buffet of Salmon" deals with a current situation in Oregon's Columbia River. Salmon living in the river were killed off due to hydroelectric dams and are now increasing in number, and double-crested cormorants, who like to eat salmon, have become aware of this and are a threat to the fish. So, what needs to be done to control cormorant populations? Many people, including conservation biologists, say, "shoot the birds." Others, such as the National Audubon Society's Stan Senner argues that killing some of the birds who make up 25 percent of the birds’ western population “is an extreme measure, totally inappropriate.” Mr. Senner "said it was possible to shoo them away, noting: 'They came from somewhere else. They can go back to somewhere else.'” He also notes, “We’re not persuaded they have fully explored ways of improving habitats elsewhere or other means of dispersing” these birds.

I thoroughly agree with Mr. Stenner that the cormorants shouldn't be shot. The guiding principle of compassionate conservation is "first do no harm", which means the life of each and every individual animal is valued. So, trading off individuals of one species for the good of individuals of another species or of the same species isn't acceptable. I also agree with retired marine biologist Bob Hees, who is quoted as saying, “I’ve seen people try to mess with Mother Nature before, and it never works. It goes toward creating more problems.” The cormorant-salmon situation is a good catalyst for open discussions about creating a viable and practical conservation ethic based on compassion.

What the sparrows told me: Birds and students

Trish O'Kane's wonderful essay called "What the Sparrows Told Me" also made me think deeply not only about the importance of having birds in our life, but also how important the presence of other animals is for our own well-being. Recalling the horrific aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Ms. O'Kane shares what one of her students wrote about how birds had become their teachers, as true survivors of the hurricane.

She also writes: "Today, nearly a decade later, I teach basic ornithology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In my environmental justice course, Birding to Change the World, I use avians to show how we are all connected to one another, humans and nonhumans. As part of the course, I pair my undergraduates with local middle school students in a mentoring program called Nature Explorers. Our middle school kids are from one of Madison’s economically poorest and culturally richest neighborhoods. Many of their families are from Latin America. Together our mixed flock of 20 undergraduates and 45 kids has watched two red-tailed hawks mate for three seconds — on Valentine’s Day. We’ve marveled over a sandhill crane family — mom, dad and teenager — landing just 50 yards away to graze. We conduct this weekly nature study in Warner Park, a place that has a bird island, just like Audubon Park."

Ms. O'Kane also tells her students "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. I tell them that when the world is caving in on them, just walk outside, listen for a minute, find that cardinal, that woodpecker, that pesky crow, and see what they’re up to. That tiny act, that five-minute pause, won’t save the planet, I tell them, but it might save you, one bird at a time."

In "Conservation, or Curation" John Vucetich and Michael Nelson also note how important other animals are for children, not only now but also for the world they will inherit. They write, "This new approach [the recent interpretation of the Endangered Species Act] that severely limits its reach and retreats from the conservation ethic that healthy landscapes depend on native plants and animals ... will result in a world for our children even more diminished than the one we live in."

All birds are "canaries in the coal mine"

Lastly, Thom van Dooren's book called Flight ways: Life and loss at the edge of extinction blends philosophy with the natural sciences in his discussion of the cultural and ethical significance of modern-day extinctions. Birds are the focus of this lovely book and readers are treated to beautiful prose about what it means to the birds themselves and to us to lose these amazing beings. Once again, humans loom large in the loss of avian biodiversity. Let's not forget we are living in an era called the "anthropocene", the age of humanity or human dominion, and our omnipresence has devastating effects on innumerable species all over the world. 

We can and must do better in our interactions with other animals. We owe it to them and of course we owe it to ourselves and to future generations. 

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson; see also), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation (see also)and Why dogs hump and bees get depressed (see also). Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence will be published fall 2014. (marcbekoff.com@MarcBekoff)  

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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