Monthly Archives: August 2013

July 19: Quitting beef for bird conservation

Cattle in Costa Rica

This year I’ve been crisscrossing the nation looking for birds of conservation concern and trying to be mindful of all the issues affecting them. Some of these issues are huger than others, making me increasingly uncomfortable with things I do in my own life that contribute to their problems.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

All year I’ve been seeing badly overgrazed countryside. In Colorado, the remaining populations of Lesser Prairie-Chickens and both species of sage grouse are dwindling because of habitat loss, much due to cattle production. In Kansas, I witnessed a heartbreaking sight—the last surviving Greater Prairie-Chicken on one lek putting his heart and soul into breeding displays with no other prairie chickens watching or responding to him. Lekking grounds are often on disturbed habitat—the birds display in the open where their antics can be seen to greatest advantage—but the habitat surrounding that lek on private land was also overgrazed. Fortunately, prairie chicken numbers are improving within the protected Cheyenne Bottoms, which includes public land managed by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks and private land managed by The Nature Conservancy. But prairie chickens, like Florida Scrub-Jays, are homebodies, virtually never wandering more than a few miles from where they were hatched. Continued fragmentation of habitat means that small remnant groups are stuck where they are, and end up dying out. I saw my first Greater Prairie-Chickens in Michigan in 1976—that was the very last group in the state, and within a few years the entire species was gone forever from Michigan. I saw my first Lesser Prairie-Chickens near Campo, Colorado, in 1996—that local population is also lost now. One by one these small remnant populations die out. Our heavy consumption of beef is one of the main causes.

Greater Prairie-Chicken

Driving through New Mexico was the last straw. Everywhere in the open landscape was badly overgrazed habitat, along with voracious cattle who don’t even get to enjoy the fruits of the landscape for long before they’re slaughtered, to be replaced by a never-ending supply of new cattle. Suddenly, out of the blue on July 19, I reached a breaking point. I’d needed a quick meal and quick use of the Internet while on the road a few days earlier and picked up a cheeseburger at McDonald’s. I didn’t want that to be the last beef I ever ate, so as I was leaving the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, I stopped at a lovely little restaurant in San Antonio, New Mexico, called the Owl Bar and Café. Tom Kuenzli, a friend of mine who works at Eagle Optics, had introduced me to the café a couple of years ago when our paths intersected at the refuge’s annual Sandhill Crane festival, and he highly recommended their “green chili hamburger,” which has even achieved national acclaim. Now, because the café was right there, I decided I’d make their specialty the very last beef meal I’d eat. And now I’m done with it.

Owl Bar and Cafe

Owl Bar and Cafe, San Antonio, New Mexico

My decision didn’t even take into account other unsettling truths about beef production. A great deal of it takes place on huge feed lots, where the cattle are fed corn. Corn production involves more pesticides than other food crops, and much of it now is genetically modified to produce Bacillus thuringiensis, implicated in declining populations of Monarchs and other butterflies. Growing so much corn for cattle and for ethanol is taking up huge swaths of valuable grassland habitat. And waste and runoff from feed lots cause serious contamination of freshwater. (These issues were discussed extensively in my 101 Ways to Help Birds because #2 was “Eat lower on the food chain, and especially eat less beef.”)

Monarch caterpillar

One March sometime in the 1990s, on my way to the Rowe Sanctuary in Nebraska to see the huge Sandhill Crane migration, I found myself behind a cattle truck for well over a hundred miles, with one cow staring right at me the whole way. This was disconcerting enough to put me off beef for a couple of years. I’ll think of her, and of other cows that have stared me in the face, if my resolve ever grows weak.

Beef cattle in the Sax-Zim Bog

When I mentioned I was quitting beef, my husband pointed out that this would mean giving up one of my favorite foods on the planet, Rocky Rococo’s sausage pizza. Virtually every time I drive through Madison, Wisconsin, I stop at a Rocky’s to get a slice. This was sobering, but I was steady in my resolve. Fortunately, a little research on the Internet revealed that Rocky’s Italian sausage is made with pork. At some point I’ll probably find myself giving that up, too, but for now, I’m simply telling myself, “Don’t have a cow, man.”

Rocky Rococo: The Robin's Choice!!

(Do notice the active nest in the last “c” in the sign. Apparently even robins approve of Rocky Rococo!)

July 25: Searching for the Eurasian Tree Sparrow in St. Louis

Me in Susan Eaton's yard.

For my Conservation Big Year, I’m focusing primarily on birds of conservation interest—those that are declining or, in some cases, increasing beyond ecologically healthy and sustainable limits. In the process of seeking out these birds, I’m also trying to see as many other species as I can, and my dream is to reach 600 species for the year. One bird that I really wanted to see not just to bulk up my list but also because I’m genuinely fond of it, despite it not being of conservation concern, is the Eurasian Tree-Sparrow.

Eurasian Tree Sparrows

As its name indicates, this is not a native American species. A few were shipped to St. Louis with some other European songbirds from Germany to be released in April 1870. That was when “naturalization” projects were in vogue. People with an interest in natural history were trying all over the world to bring plants and animals from various places to others around the globe. In the long run, some of these projects were disastrous for people or other species, and at the very least, all of them ended up exposing native species to new competitors and novel diseases. The introduction of Eurasian Tree Sparrows has been one of the least problematic of all the introductions of non-native wildlife in America. No real problems to native species or to human interests have ever been tied to them. Unlike most introductions in which a population becomes established, Eurasian Tree Sparrows never spread beyond extreme eastern Missouri, west-central Illinois, and southeastern Iowa. Everywhere they do exist, they’re closely associated with humans, but in the most urban centers both here and in Europe, they are usually displaced by the larger, more aggressive, and more urbane House Sparrow. Here and in Europe, the Eurasian Tree Sparrow is mostly found in wooded urban parkland, farms, and rural wood lots.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

On first glance, Eurasian Tree Sparrows are fairly similar to House Sparrows, though they’re smaller and their facial markings noticeably different. I saw my first on October 28, 2004. The national Bird Chat listserv helped me make a connection with someone who got tree sparrows in his yard, and I’d worked out a trip, visiting a college friend in southern Illinois the night before. Unfortunately, I arrived in St. Louis the morning after the Boston Red Sox beat the St. Louis Cardinals in that historical final game of the World Series right there in St. Louis. Sadness seemed to infuse the very air I was breathing. I’d personally been delighted that the Sox finally won, hoping that would mean that the next baseball curse to be broken would be the one on the Chicago Cubs, but I could hardly feel elated on that particular morning in that particular place. Fortunately, seeing the sparrow tossed thoughts of baseball right out of my mind. (By some accounts, thinking about the Cubs wasn’t really thinking about baseball anyway, since it’s debatable whether the Cubs actually play baseball.)

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Since then, I’ve seen Eurasian Tree Sparrows a few other times, in the yard of my good friend Susan Eaton. So this year, I stopped at her place in St. Louis on my way home from New Mexico and Texas so I could add the bird for my Conservation Big Year. I got there around lunchtime on July 25. Susan’s husband David had to head to work, but not before putting out a big plywood sign, “ETS for Laura.” I hadn’t realized that Eurasian Tree Sparrows are literate, but turns out they even recognize the local jargon for them, because the very first bird I saw in Susan’s lovely and very birdy yard was a Eurasian Tree Sparrow—my number 481 bird for the year. I took a bunch of photos, Susan and I had a lovely lunch, and she came with to keep me company when I got my oil changed. Then it was time for me to get back on the road. The fun of my Conservation Big Year is seeing so many birds in so many places with so many friends. The hard part is saying goodbye to all those birds and places and people so I can get to the next ones. And this is hardest when the birds and people are among my most treasured friends.

Susan and Laura