Part of me cringed at the thought of reading yet more tales of humanity’s inclination to extinguish and diminish other life forms. It’s a reaction, I discovered after a quick survey of colleagues, I am not alone in experiencing when confronted with titles such as Silence of the Songbirds and Where the Wild Things Were. However, I found myself thoroughly engrossed in both books.
Part of me cringed at the thought of reading yet more tales of humanity’s inclination to extinguish and diminish other life forms. It’s a reaction, I discovered after a quick survey of colleagues, I am not alone in experiencing when confronted with titles such as Silence of the Songbirds and Where the Wild Things Were. However, I found myself thoroughly engrossed in both books. There were times when I put them down because I wasn’t in the mood for extirpation and extinction, but these two books are about much more than vanishing wildlife. While they are written in different styles, each explores the fascinating ecology of their respective subjects and describes the people who study them.
In Silence of the Songbirds, Bridget Stutchbury, a biology professor at York University, writes clearly and expressively about the dramatic declines of many songbirds. In her words, “By some estimates, we may have already lost almost half of the songbirds that filled the skies only forty years ago.”
Stutchbury lays out the causes of these dwindling numbers: loss and fragmentation of forests and grasslands, pesticides, collisions with buildings (large and small), and a host of predators from cats to red squirrels. There is no chapter devoted exclusively to the role climate change plays in the decline, but she touches on it throughout the book.
Fortunately, there is much that citizens can do. Stutchbury suggests actions that range from buying shade-grown coffee and certified toilet paper to keeping cats indoors. It is encouraging to know that these efforts benefit the birds. For example, research shows that shade-grown coffee plantations have significantly higher levels of bird diversity than ones that produce sun-grown java. There is little in the book, however, on the political or regulatory changes required to protect songbirds.
Stutchbury peppers her book with fascinating facts about birds, particularly with respect to their migration. She includes, for example, a radar image of a massive cloud of migrants that stretches for hundreds of kilometres over Lake Ontario. The sheer size of the flock is stunning, and the image is a powerful reminder that songbirds are worthy of our care.
In Where the Wild Things Were, William Stolzenburg’s new book, we find out what happens when humans kill the top predators in a system, be it sea otters in the Aleutian Islands or wolves in the Rocky Mountains. While I was familiar with the concept of trophic cascades and knew that the effect of lopping off the highest members reverberates throughout the food chain, I had not realized that the consequences could be so devastating. Moreover, I was unaware that a heated debate surrounds this topic.
Stolzenburg, an accomplished science writer, proves that he’s an expert storyteller too. His illuminating examples illustrate what happens when mid-level predator populations explode. When raccoons and foxes flourish, for example, songbirds take a hit. And when deer and elk overgraze, common plants become rare.
The author chronicles “rewilding” proposals such as repopulating elephants, lions and other descendants of large predators such as mastodons and saber-toothed tigers that are believed to have disappeared during the first human-induced extinction. Stolzenburg also explores the evolution of humans as predators, and the future of predators on a crowded and warmer planet.
Conservationists, backyard birders and manic “twitchers” alike will find these books both informative and entertaining.
Silence of the Songbirds: How We Are Losing the World’s Songbirds and What We Can Do to Save Them, Bridget Stutchbury, Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007, 272 pages.
Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators, William Stolzenburg, New York: Bloomsbury, 2008, 304 pages
Mark Butler, a modestly manic twitcher (birder), is apprehensive and intrigued by the thought of meeting a tiger while out birding. When not twitching, he is policy director at the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia.