By Tony Fitzpatrick
Captain James Cook was one of those English explorers who circumnavigated the globe a few times. His interests were largely scientific so he wasn’t all bad, as English explorers go. Most of the time they’d land on a new piece of land, declare it the property of the Queen, kill the original inhabitants in the name of Christ and crown and then plunder all of the shit owned by the recently deceased inhabitants.
Hawaiian birds had really not had anything in the way of natural enemies, other than weather and the tribal plume hunters who decorated their headdresses with bright colored feathers.
Some months ago I had some fun with bird watchers in my column. I really tweaked the fuckers, painting them as a snobby coven of geeks, a cult of fifty-year-old guys who lived with their moms. I was being a dick as a result of one encounter with a bunch of them in Cape May, New Jersey in which the birdy folk ostracized me for smoking a cigarette outside.
Jesus Christ, the mail I got.
I’ve been pounding on politicians, as well, hitting the fuckers with everything but the car, and I haven’t heard dick. But piss off the bird watchers and they want to throw down and kick my pasty Irish ass. In fact, some of them said as much. And they’re not all dainty old ladies. Some of them are big Grizzly Adams-looking motherfuckers who could stomp a mudhole in my ass.
Luckily, a great many of them had a good sense of humor. Two of their number, Joel Greenberg and Greg Neise, have become good friends. Every two weeks I importune these two guys who are naturalists, scientists and lifelong birders, and they teach me about birds. I’ve drawn them since I was a child. They’ve been a sense of wonder in my life for as long as I can remember. I told these guys about the first time I saw a goldfinch. It was on the ground and just kind of busted to life and flight and nearly touched me in its ascent. I remember running home to my mother and telling her that I’d seen a dandelion turn into a bird.
Both Greg and Joel are endlessly patient with me and the total tonnage of what I don’t know.
Joel devoted twenty-five years of his life to writing a natural history of Chicago and its environs. He sent the book to me some years ago and it is fascinating. Both he and Greg enlightened me to the frightening decline of jays, blackbirds and crows due to the West Nile virus that ravaged bird populations all over America almost a decade ago. Among birders and naturalists this was a horrifying bellwether moment, yet also an opportunity to learn something about the mechanics of extinction. Why and how it happens.
One of the best examples of this is Hawaii–a bunch of islands that act almost as kind of a biosphere–in fact, not even kind of. An actual biosphere.
A great many honey creeper family bird species have been wiped out by cats and mosquitoes, much like the Galapagos, another biosphere. Introduced species had the evolutionary advantage over native species in that they could adapt faster to their environment.
The American bluebirds’ numbers dropped precipitously when the European starling and the English sparrow were introduced. Both birds were notorious nest thieves. Basically these birds were Joe Pesci with wings. The American bluebird was pushed west of the Mississippi for the most part. Only now is it beginning to re-establish its range in Illinois, largely through the efforts of birders who carefully monitor the populations of all bird species. Science is aided greatly by the efforts of birders and organizations like the American Birding Association.
So much for my petty jokes about “birdy people.” They are part of the solution and I am some dork who draws pictures.
They have taught me much and I am grateful for their tolerance and largeness of heart toward dopes like me.
I plan on making a bunch of pictures of the extinct and nearly-extinct birds, because whether we know it or not, they are part of the magic of our lives, part of the wonder, and in no small way, we share a fate.