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The Value of a Sparrow

Bayou-Diversity (6 December 2020) On my early morning walk along the bayou this week I was treated with the sight of two bald eagles soaring just overhead before spiraling upward in the brisk air over Horseshoe Bend. The day’s freshest light reflected off their snow-white head and tail, a sign that they were mature birds at least five years old. It is hard not to be impressed by their majestic presence, a factor that led to their status as our national bird. Courageous, fierce, powerful, all of the noble yet anthropomorphic adjectives have been used to describe them. On this same walk I saw other birds. A small flock of green-winged teal, newly migrated from the prairie pothole country, buzzed the tops of the willow oaks. Several swamp sparrows flushed from a patch of high grass on the bayou bank. Small, brown and non-descript, they quickly dove head first back into the cover. A pair of diminutive ruby-crowned kinglets, four inches long at best with dull gray plumage, flitted about in a berry-laden deciduous holly. Like the swamp sparrows, the kinglets were probably born in Canadian boreal forests of the far north. Their kind was making this mysterious journey before people first walked along my ancestral bayou.

In terms of value, how do these other species with arguably less charisma compare with the eagles? The question is hypothetical in the moment but not unrealistic in the near future. At one time in recent history bald eagles were by legal definition an endangered species after we nearly exterminated them in the continental U.S. with DDT. It took a lot of money and clout to bring them back. With bird populations in general plummeting across North America for a number of reasons, funding and the apparent will to address the issues are in a similar, steep decline. Even the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the century-old foundation of bird protection laws in America, is under attack in a naïve move to enhance corporate interests. For many species, avian biologists are noting the death by a thousand cuts analogy. On our current path, some hapless person with limited fiscal and political resources will soon be forced to make trade-offs and decide how many swamp sparrows it takes to equal one bald eagle. The question could be rephrased as, “Which birds are worthy to exist in the midst of humans?”

(photo by Georgia Wilson)


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