Support Local Journalism


As I ramble about the countryside, birding, getting fresh air, and giving my dog a serious outing, I realize that few wild things on this planet would miss us humans if we went extinct tomorrow. We are nothing but a problem for most other species on the planet. We shoot them for no reason, eliminate and degrade their habitats, poison them with pesticides, and produce endless things in the environment for them to crash in to. We put the No. 1 direct killer of birds out there — cats.

I’m always amazed when I think about how minimalist birds are. They have nothing and they own nothing. Each individual has itself — no clothes, no furniture, no SUV, no boat, no mortgage, no 401K, and no life insurance. They have a home for part of the year that they built with their mouths, carrying sticks or grass or mud, one bit at a time for days until there is a little place for their young. Or they find a hole in a tree or a cliff or the ground, and then fend off competitors for that treasured space. Maybe they even drill a home in a tree. But when the young have left, even that bit of possession is of no further value. They just fly away.

And they don’t have forever. Every year, birds have only so much time to get set up for the hopeful eggs. And if a starling or badger or backhoe or chainsaw challenges them, they may lose that spot and that year. A year with no young. When you only live for three — seven years, that’s a catastrophe for your lineage.

When birds fly south for the winter, they are taking everything they own with them — their own bodies. Imagine going to Argentina and back every year and raising a family, in the nude. Feel that? Does it suddenly seem like you have way more stuff than you need?

Some landowners and land management agencies are fond of saying how good their land management is for wildlife. But the simple fact is that almost all wildlife would be better off if they and their management simply vanished from the face of the earth. This world, whether created by God or evolution or evolution as the mechanism of God, cannot be improved upon. You may or may not believe in God, but that fact is that humans cannot improve on planet earth. Quite the opposite — we only damage it for most species.

Despite all that, birds are eternal optimists. Like dogs, they don’t hold a grudge. They make it through the winter in some distant place, possibly strange or possibly familiar. That depends on which bird family members or bird friends showed them the way. Or didn’t. They avoid countless hazards to fly from here to there, and then from there to here.

And when they arrive back in the Treasure Valley, they sing! They sing their hearts out! Because it’s about now and here. Eternal optimists. Zen masters. Their view of the future is blazing! Can we do that? If I go to India or Mongolia or Bhutan, can I learn to do that? Can I learn to have that view of the future, no matter what has happened and despite owning exactly nothing?

Poets and song writers have used the images and ideas of birds since the beginning. But they have usually been thinking about humans. How birds and bird songs inspire us is fine. But what about them? Have we written poems and ballads, movies and operas about them? What about their heroism? What about their selflessness? What about their unconditional singing about being alive?

So, yes, humans are mostly a huge problem for every other living thing. But not all of them. Some species would miss us. Cockroaches, house mice, various intestinal parasites, bread mold, and a host of infectious diseases. Athlete’s foot, pink eye, COVID-19 … OK, you get the idea.

But to be honest, there are some birds that would miss us. These are species that have taken advantage of what damage we do to other species and what changes we have made to the planet. Let’s look at a few of the obvious ones around here. I should add that my assessments are not based on long-term trend data or deep forensic analysis of the past. Consider each of these to be a hypothesis that can be tested.

Canada goose — I probably don’t need to say too much about this bird. They love our lawns, golf courses, and subdivision ponds. They are very chill around all sorts of human activity, and thereby exhibit almost perfect pre-adaptation to the human world. I’ve always found it ironic that Aldo Leopold used the Canada goose on many occasions as the symbol of wildness. Of course, in many ways the Canada goose of 1940 is not the Canada goose of 2021. Or maybe it is. Maybe they planned it all along.

Mallard — All this duck seems to need is water … any kind of water. Never mind how schmucky the quality is, they always find something to eat. On the canal I walk by nearly daily with my dog, they increase in numbers when the canal water is turned off and the quality goes down. Like Canada geese, they are nearly oblivious to what the people around them are doing. My dog, Sienna, is so used to mallards that she doesn’t even look at a dozen on the side of the road.

Wild turkey — Like deer and elk, turkeys are prized by hunters and so enjoy a host of human actions that help bolster their populations. Chief among these actions are countless transplants of birds into areas where they occurred in the past but were hunted into oblivion. Turkeys do well in a huge variety of habitats across North America. While they’re not nearly as tame as Canada geese and mallards, they’re not nearly as jumpy as most species of birds.

Cooper’s hawk — This predator of birds is also pre-adapted to human environments, especially urban neighborhoods with bird feeders (see my column of Feb. 17, 2021). It’s so interesting that this accipiter has succeeded widely across the U.S. while its close cousin — the sharp-shinned hawk — has not. One wonders if there is an ecological explanation or if it’s just a matter of a few gene differences.

Eurasian collared-dove — By far the most invasive bird species in North America in recent history is this dove. Their population explosion and expansion has been well documented by a variety of bird population monitoring programs. It’s fascinating to speculate on why they have done so well in particular types of areas around here — small towns, ranches, horse holding facilities — while mourning doves have seemed indifferent. Because collared-doves are not found away from human habitations in my experience, I see them as very closely tied to our impacts.

American crow — Simply put, I see crows around towns and exurban developments, but I don’t usually see them “out in the country.” I see many in my neighborhood in northwest Boise every day, but almost never see them on the road to Bogus Basin, along Mud Flat Road, or on the drive to Silver City, for example. Like collared-doves, they seem to need human constructions to be happy.

Common raven — Ravens are a complement to crows. That is, they are found mostly “out in the country.” They have taken advantage of humans by using our countless utility poles for nest sites, scrounging road kills, and not passing up any human dump or similar food source in more remote areas. Like crows and magpies, they are jumpy and won’t put up with much attention from humans. The corvid brain seems to understand the danger that human beings bring. They also understand French fries.

American robin — Like Canada geese, robins obviously thrive on our lawns. But they can make a good living on a couple of urban lots and don’t need a soccer field. They chow down all winter on a variety of fruits that grow on our landscaping plants. For robins, humans are a year-round source of food. They’re also not too jumpy, and this tolerance of the proximity of humans seems a huge factor for several species in this group.

There are a number of other species who would miss us. European starlings, house finches, and house sparrows would miss us. I promise, ring-billed gulls would really, really miss our dumps.

According to BirdWatching magazine (November/December 2021), over 100 non-native species now have self-sustaining populations in the U.S. A lot of these species are in Florida, California, and Hawaii. Those warmer climates seem more conducive to invaders than the arid boondocks of the Intermountain West. Good for us. But the fact is that most of the 1161 species of birds in the U.S. would not miss us. So, if the next pandemic gets us all, there is an upside.

Recommended for you

Load comments