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LOSS, BIRDS, AND HOPE

November 6, 2019

On the second floor of the Metropolitan Club in New York, overlooking Fifth Avenue, is an ornate, high-ceilinged room with gray marble fireplaces, burgundy drapes, Renaissance-flavored murals, and many yards of decorative woodwork painted gold. It’s not the sort of place to which I would ordinarily take an old friend to lunch, but there we were, and with good reason. The reason was that Audubon New York, the state office of the National Audubon Society, had convened several hundred loyal supporters for its annual awards luncheon, at which I was one of two people being honored. The friend was E. Jean Carroll, a fellow writer who’s been my good pal for forty years. Jean is the longtime advice columnist of Elle Magazine, dispensing wisdom and dauntless good humor under the banner of that column, “Ask E. Jean.” If her name rings another bell, it’s because she is most recently famed for her book What Do We Need Men For?, a funnily serious memoir in which she describes, among other gruesome misadventures, her rape in a dressing room of the Bergdorf Goodman department story (an elegant emporium on Fifth, just a block south of where we sat lunching) several decades ago by a boorish real estate developer named Donald J. Trump. The Audubon people were gracious and generous, kindred souls in the struggle to save biological diversity on this fraught planet, and the milieu was so august I had worn a necktie. Seated between E. Jean and me was the actress Jane Alexander, a committed conservationist, a smart and genial woman, and the three of us had great fun talking of family dogs and wild birds. Ms. Alexander’s forthcoming play on Broadway is “Grand Horizons,” with James Cromwell, and you should see it.

Okay, that’s the mis-en-scène, right? Pretty incongruous for a simple country lad like me. Why have I brought all this up? Because I want to share with you what I said after they put the Steuben glass in my hands and let me at the microphone. First they presented their Keesee Conservation Award to Gregory Long, a distinguished man who led the New York Botanical Garden through thirty years of progressive change. Then it was my turn. I had been asked in advance to deliver some substantive remarks. So after expressing my deep gratitude to these good folk in particular, and to the Audubon Society in general, I said this:

ivoryBilled370Ivory billed woodpecker by John James Audobon.

Today I’m going to talk to you for a few minutes about birds and loss and uncertainty and hope. I know that it’s probably reckless of me to talk to you at all about birds—like carrying coals to Newcastle. I suspect everyone in this room knows their birds better than I do. (I’m a little stronger on field identifications, by the way, with insects and reptiles. I can tell a fritillary from a painted lady, and a skin from a gecko, much better than I can tell a tanager from a bunting.) But there are a few birds about which I do know a thing or two, and some of those birds represent stories of wonder and loss that resonate broadly through the whole network of dire problems and discouragements we’re currently facing—as conservationists, and as citizens of planet Earth.

One of the birds that I know about is the dodo, Raphus cucullatus. It was a gigantized and flightless member of the pigeon family, endemic to the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Extinct in the late 17th century from a combination of causes. Those causes included sailors killing it for food, plus rats, pigs, and monkeys eating its eggs. In other words, humanity arriving on Mauritius, for the first time, had doomed it. A giant flightless pigeon that had lived fine for maybe a million years, eating fruit, laying its eggs on the ground, bothering nobody—not stupid in any sense, so far as we know, despite that “dodo” reputation—was exterminated quickly by the arrival of people and our pestiferous camp-following invasive species and livestock.

Twenty-three years ago I published a book on the subject of evolution and extinction, under the title The Song of the Dodo. It focused especially on islands and island-like fragments of protected landscape—such as small national parks. As the title suggests, I used the dodo as an icon for the big themes I was exploring. Those themes included biological diversity, losses of biological diversity, and hope in the face of loss. The dodo itself wasn’t my main subject, just a representation, but at one point I did describe the history and natural history of this creature, Raphus cucullatus—its life, its song, and its death.

Nobody knows exactly when the last dodo died in the wild. The proximate cause, and the exact place and time of the final death, are uncertain. We only have record of the last known killing of dodos by people. That’s the way it is with most extinctions. We don’t know the fate of the very last Tasmanian “tiger”—a carnivorous marsupial, more accurately known as the thylacine. Its end, like the dodo’s, is veiled in uncertainty. We just know that the last captive thylacine died on September 7, 1936, in the Hobart Zoo. We don’t know when the last passenger pigeon died—we just know that the last captive individual, known as Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, the same summer as Archduke Franz Ferdinand died at Sarajevo. We don’t know the end of the story of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

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