By guest blogger, Alan Watson Featherstone.
Whilst climate change is a serious and immediate challenge, it is not the most severe threat to the fabric of life on our planet. During the last million years or so, the Earth has gone through a number of alternating Ice Ages and warm interglacial periods – we are currently living through the latest interglacial. The vast majority of species and natural habitats in the world survived those climatic changes, which were more dramatic in their temperature swings than the one that humans are causing just now, and they would do so again, if it were not for the multiple other impacts we are having on them. It is us as humans who will be most dramatically affected by climate change, because, for example, many of our major cities are situated on coastlines and our intensive agricultural systems are highly sensitive to changes in rainfall patterns.
Climate change will undoubtedly adversely affect many species in addition to us, but much more serious impacts to the overall web of life are being caused by other human actions such as habitat loss, over-exploitation and pollution. Because they are relatively high up in the food web, birds are particularly susceptible to ecological disturbance and disruption. According to Birdlife International and the IUCN, 1,375 species of birds (about one eighth of the total) are threatened with extinction. That figure, and comparable data for other groups of organisms, has led scientists to conclude that the planet is now in the early stages of a sixth mass extinction event – a biological holocaust comparable in scale to the asteroid impact 65 million years ago that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs and about 75% of all species on Earth.
This is the most serious of all the problems we are causing in the world today. Whereas the climate will almost certainly change again in future, perhaps becoming cooler in say 10,000 years when a new Ice Age develops, it would take something on the order of 5 million years for the planet’s biodiversity to recover from a mass extinction. That is the time estimated by scientists that it took for a comparable number of species to evolve again after the dinosaur mass extinction event.
Left: Female jacu or dusky-legged guan in the Atlantic Forest, Brazil.
Upper right: Crimson rosella in a silky oak tree, Queensland, Australia.
Lower right: Southern crested caracara, Chile.
Birds have already suffered greatly from human-caused extinctions. Of the 312 terrestrial vertebrate extinctions that are known to have occurred since the year 1500, 156 of those (ie 50%) are of birds. Two of the most notorious extinctions at human hands are of birds – the dodo and the passenger pigeon. The former, a large flightless bird, has become emblematic as a symbol of extinction, having been wiped out from its only home on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean by 1693, a few decades after the settlement of the island by Europeans.
The passenger pigeon was formerly the most numerous bird in North America, with vast flocks that darkened the skies when they migrated being common at the time of European arrival there. Its total numbers were estimated at between 3 and 5 billion individuals. Uncontrolled hunting and habitat destruction due to deforestation led to the species’ depletion, and the last individual, a female known as Martha, died in a zoo in Cincinnati in the USA in 1914.
Amongst the most endangered birds today are the Philippine eagle, the California condor, the kakapo (a flightless parrot endemic to New Zealand) and the giant ibis. All of those have very small populations and are literally hovering on the brink of oblivion. They are the modern day equivalent of the canaries in the coal mine, as they have the sad distinction of being on the front line of species at risk of disappearing from the planet. They are the visible tip of the iceberg of the impending mass extinction event.
While extinction is the ultimate, irreversible catastrophe to befall a species, birds are seriously imperilled in other ways as well. Another bird I regularly see in my local area is the fulmar – a sea bird that nests on the coastal sandstone cliffs a few miles to the east of Findhorn. Whenever I come across fulmars, I marvel at their ability to glide effortlessly along, just a few feet out from the cliff edge, and sometimes very close to where I’m standing and at the same eye level as me. Their grace and aerial agility are like an avian ballet dance that touches my heart.
I was therefore truly shocked in 2004 to read reports of studies that had been done on fulmars in the North Sea, off the east coast of Britain. Scientists found that 95% of the fulmars they examined had pieces of plastic in their stomachs. The dead birds they checked had an average of 44 pieces of plastic in them, and one bird had a total of 1,603 pieces. Fulmars are surface feeders, skimming the sea and catching fish as they do so, and are therefore particularly susceptible to eating plastic that is floating on the water. Now, whenever I see a fulmar, I take a deep breath and remember that in addition to being a beautiful bird, it is also an aerial receptacle of our plastic rubbish – it’s a very disconcerting and depressing realisation. It’s also a very graphic symbol of the fact that we do not live our human lives in isolation, but affect the world around us with all our actions.
Left: Black-chested buzzard-eagle flying past the moon, in southern Chile.
Centre: Oriental pied hornbill, Borneo.
Right: Male Magellanic woodpecker in southern Chile.
It was in 1962 that Peter and Eileen Caddy and Dorothy Maclean established the Findhorn Community and its ongoing experiment in deep attunement and co-creation with Nature. The central themes of the messages that Dorothy received from the Devas in her meditations then – that all life on Earth is intimately connected and interdependent, and that human love has a profound, positive effect on whatever beings it is directed towards – are even more relevant today. They make a clear and strong statement about the importance of humanity re-awakening to our oneness with, and interdependence on, all other life on our planet.
1962 was also notable for the publication of Rachel Carson’s landmark book, ‘Silent Spring’, which drew the world’s attention to the effects of pesticides and herbicides on nature, and raised the spectre of a spring without the songs of birds. Like the early Findhorn experiences, the book drew attention to the interconnectedness of nature, and the fact that human actions affect the whole, often in unforeseen and unpredictable ways. It acted as a wake up call to the world and was one of the key catalysts for the birth of the modern day environmental movement.
Since then, positive action has been taken in some areas – for example, the use of DDT, which caused thinning of egg shells in brown pelicans and peregrine falcons in North America through bio-concentration in the food chain, was banned in many countries. However, despite that and other successes, the essential and necessary shift of human consciousness to one in which we base our culture on the reality of the oneness and interdependence of all life has still not taken place. The wake up call has not yet been heard by enough people, and as a result our mainstream culture is still sleepwalking towards the twin cliff edges of climate change, which will be a disaster for humanity, and the ecological meltdown of habitat loss and mass extinction that threatens all life on Earth.
In this respect then the imminent danger of climate change is itself functioning as a ‘canary in the coal mine’ that is alerting us all to the very real risks that our present day culture and lifestyles are posing to the future of life on our planet. It is the wake up call that can rouse us collectively into much needed action, based on the recognition that our lives are interwoven with, and dependent upon, all the other species we share the world with. This is the opportunity that the present crisis offers us. If we can rise to the challenge, we can create a new human culture that will allow our spirits, inspiration and actions to soar like an eagle and sing like a lark. Then we will truly be brothers and sisters with the birds, and can co-create together a positive future for all life on the planet.
Note: This same blog post can also be found on Alan’s own blog site with extra photographs and some links.