Picking up where 'Silent Spring' left off

How to help a songbird: Try reading this book

By now, the litany of human-driven environmental problems is probably beginning to sound depressingly familiar. Coral reefs are bleaching, forests and the wildlife they host are disappearing, and humanity, which has doubled in numbers since the 1960s, is stressing Earth's resources. Scientists predict that global warming will only exacerbate these problems. Many worry about imminent ecosystem meltdowns. Civilization is inextricably linked to the natural world and as Jared Diamond and others have pointed out, in the past, ecological shifts have coincided with the collapse of entire civilizations.

To this rather grim picture, ornithologist Bridget Stutchbury brings a book about an often overlooked and important denizen of the natural world: the songbird. In Silence of the Songbirds, she explores the reasons behind songbirds' alarming decline in the past 40 years. She tells of how, flying thousands of miles at nighttime in vast flocks that show up on radar, the little birds connect Canada's boreal forests with Central and South America's jungles. She explains how forests rely on them for pollination, seed dispersal, and insect control. With the exhaustive and sometimes plodding style of a good trial lawyer, she documents how habitat loss, forest fragmentation, and pesticides have wreaked havoc on their populations. And she postulates new and fascinating reasons why fragmentation might cause songbird populations to decline: Songbirds avoid forests devoid of other birds. They need habitat large enough to sustain bird communities.

Thankfully, after outlining these problems, Stutchbury doesn't desert the reader. By connecting consumer choices with harmful land practices in the birds' wintering grounds, she gives readers an avenue of action. What coffee you choose – organic and shade-grown versus sun-grown and pesticide-treated – can lead to either more or less bird habitat. Even your choice of toilet paper can mean a tree cut down in Canada's boreal forests, where many songbirds birds summer. Choose the right products as a consumer, and you can help rather than hurt.

Unfortunately, Stutchbury doesn't explore possible solutions beyond consumer choice. As she's well aware, enlightened consumer choices can't fix everything. The poverty, weak regulation, and nearly nonexistent enforcement of existing laws that drive environmental degradation in Central and South America cannot be remedied only by drinking Fair Trade coffee in Boston. Effective solutions will require both top-down and bottom-up efforts by all those involved. And we are all involved.

So yes: "Silence of the Songbirds" is another book you probably won't feel like reading. Who needs to feel forlorn, dejected, and guilty and responsible? But before you move on to more pleasant and probably less relevant fare, let me explain why the book is, in fact, worth reading.

Extinction and ecosystem collapse are part of Earth's natural history. Species have eaten themselves and others out of existence before and they'll do so again. And yet, in the current human-driven disturbance, there is a new element to this oft-repeated drama. Probably never before has a species possessed both full knowledge of what was happening and the know-how to avoid it.

And this is why, as both observer and participant, it's worth being fully apprised of what's at stake. If we make the wrong decisions, it's simply nature's version of "business as usual." But in a "sustainable" resolution to our environmental dilemmas lies the beginning of something truly unique on earth. For the first time, an organism will have altered its behavior not when catastrophe hit but before. Homo sapiens – Latin for "wise human" – will have truly earned its moniker. This self-adjustment would herald the emergence of a new intelligence in both the human and natural realms.

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