From Our Readers
STATE OF THE BIRDS
Wildlife habitats created by humans can also be readily removed by them, a fact we must accept if we are to understand why common birds are losing ground [“Common Birds in Decline,” July-August]. The principal cause is economically driven landscape change. Examining local photos of the northeastern U.S. countryside taken in the late 1800s and early 1900s can be a mind-altering experience, especially if one visits those sites. What were once cultivated fields and open pasturelands are now forestlands with few openings. While active farms do still exist, this change is dominant. Birds such as the meadowlark, bobolink, bluebird, loggerhead shrike, and various hawks and sparrows that we now perceive as “common” were erstwhile invaders of these post-logging, manmade landscapes. Their ecological heyday has passed, a fact now reflected in their decline. Now most forest dwellers—the turkey, wood duck, warblers, owls, and forest hawks—are returning to reoccupy their original niches. No matter how well intentioned we are as conservationists, we can’t have it all. Ground lost to bird invaders of human-created rural landscapes—our “common birds”—is now ground regained by natives of a recovering forest ecosystem, which does not constitute a conservation emergency.
Greg Butcher responds: Rainer Brocke is correct that the largest single group of declining common birds includes birds of open country. He is also right that they had their heyday during an era when the United States was dominated by small farms. However, these birds were found in the northeastern states long before European settlement, when open spaces were created and maintained by floods, fires, wind, and poor soil conditions. Many of us would like to see more done to maintain treeless tracts in the northeast. But these birds are also declining in the midwestern prairie states because of the intensification of agriculture there and the lack of prairie parks. We can help these birds by supporting conservation provisions of the Farm Bill, later mowing of hayfields, and gentler grazing by cattle.
The article on carbon-neutral travel [“Step Lightly, Please,” July-August] made some good points. It’s a great idea to help fund renewable energy projects, although they tend to include tax subsidies. I see tree planting as the most “beautiful” option, especially if the trees are planted in poor African countries, as practiced by Climate Stewards, the U.K. organization backed by the Christian conservation group A Rocha. We can compensate for our polluting ways while helping those people who will really benefit from having a few extra trees. I consult Climate Stewards when I have to take an airplane for business or vacation.
I have not seen a more slanted, biased, and unfair attack on the commercial air tour industry than Ted Williams’s article “Wish You Weren’t Here” [July-August]. Had he done any research other than that which fit his agenda, or spent any time with the people who run air tour companies (or the hundreds of thousands of park visitors who enthusiastically enjoy air tours every year), he would have seen a different kind of industry.
Williams did get one thing right: The air tour industry has met the NPS-mandated standard for achieving substantial restoration of natural quiet in the Grand Canyon. But he failed to mention that even though this goal has been met, air tour participants on the Grand Canyon Working Group continue looking for ways of reducing their sound footprint even more.
Williams ignorantly suggests that he can’t tell the difference between an airplane with quiet technology and one that has not been retrofitted with a quieter propeller, as if his statement “I’ve flown in lots of Twin Otters” makes him some kind of aeronautical expert.
Perhaps a little research besides just sitting in the woods for 90 minutes listening to bugs and stuff may have better served your readers.
United States Air Tour Association
Ted Williams responds: How could Mr. Bassett possibly have interpreted my piece as an “attack” on his industry? After carefully explaining that air touring in some parks—the Grand Canyon, for example—may be appropriate, I merely called for reasonable limits. Moreover, I repeatedly pointed out that the lack of reasonable limits is the fault not of the industry (which by nature seeks to do all the business it can) but of the dysfunctional dual-agency management team. Mr. Bassett, of all people, should understand that most airplane noise issues from engines, not propellers. Far from portraying myself as an “aeronautical expert,” I reported—honestly— that if the new props make a difference, I couldn’t detect it. In addition to “just sitting in the woods for 90 minutes listening to bugs and stuff,” my research included extensive interviews with air tour personnel and regulators, a helicopter tour in one park, and a fixed-wing tour in another.
SOUND OF SILENCE
Frank Graham’s essay “Deafening Silence” [July-August] confirmed my own observations. I have lived in Warren, New Jersey, for over 40 years, reveling in the fields and woods that afforded habitats for local and transient birds. From my front porch I observed myriad species of birds without having to venture into the field. This year the cacophony of bird songs has been dramatically reduced. Mornings are hardly filled with songs, and evenings are quiet. Most notably missing in the evenings are the thrushes.
Like many areas of the Northeast, our land is being used for shopping malls and McMansions that destroy wildlife habitat. Green space is being put aside, but it’s often used for soccer fields.
I’ve spent many a spring watching warblers at Point Pelee, Ontario, and I am greatly saddened by news of their declining numbers. But sadder still is Frank Graham’s talk about “the cancerlike and apparently irreversible population increase of human beings.”
Comparing humanity to a growing tumor reflects a worldview in which the animals are what really matter and people are villains. This view regards children’s stories like Bambi as sources of deep wisdom about the meaning of life. In modern parlance, “It’s all about the animals.”
Would it be safe to assume the National Audubon Society doesn’t view humanity as a tumor?
Michael W. Steinberg
Frank Graham responds: First of all, I did not compare us humans, wonderful or otherwise, to a tumor any more than I define a cell as a cancer. The comparison was to our runaway and disastrous population growth. I conclude that Mr. Steinberg doesn’t make the connection between the declining warblers of Point Pelee and forest decimation, suburban sprawl, and the creeping advance of “Costa del Concretos.” Humans, even when well intentioned, constantly need more space to feed, house, and entertain their superabundant offspring. Inevitably, our fellow travelers on this finite planet are pushed to the fringes—and into oblivion.
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