Posted: May 10, 2005 2:56 pm EST

Earth's stewardship more important than ever (~23 col. in.)
by Leaman Harris/The Edmond (Okla.) Sun
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    "It's Just My Opinion"

    By Leaman Harris
    CNHI News Service

    The recent sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker, also known as the "Lord God" bird, in the Big Woods area of Arkansas is wonderful news to all of us interested in preserving our natural environment.
    Helping to ensure its recovery will provide some atonement for mistakes of the past. The story of Martha, the passenger pigeon, illustrates one of those mistakes.
    Martha died in a Cincinnati zoo on Sept. 1, 1914. She was the last living example of her kind. Her passing illustrates one of the most infamous examples of how human activity affects the biodiversity of this planet we all must share.
    An adult passenger pigeon was about 17 inches from beak to end of tail, and had a wingspan of 24 inches. It had beautiful blue iridescent feathers, steely red eyes and a rose-wine chest. The feathers were prized for ladies' hats and the meat was considered a delicacy.
    Stories about the bird's abundance from the mid-19th century are legendary. In midwestern and northeastern states flocks reportedly darkened the sky for hours. One observer in Saginaw, Mich., reported one day in 1873 a non-stop flyover from 7 in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon. When a flock roosted at night tree limbs broke from the weight, and dung heaps several inches thick were left on the ground along with the bodies of birds suffocated in the pressure of the pack.
    By 1900 the passenger pigeon could no longer be found in the wild. A few birds were trapped and placed in zoos. The last males died in 1910. Martha survived until 1914. The 30 years from 1870 to 1900 witnessed the elimination of an estimated 5 billion passenger pigeons.
    The primary cause of the bird's demise was destruction of its habitat, the oak, chestnut and beechnut forests of the northeastern states.
    The birds descended upon grain fields as a secondary source of food but were driven off by farmers trying to save their crops. Millions of birds were captured in nets for shipment to eastern food markets, or for their feathers.
    Van Buren County, Michigan, alone sent 7.5 million birds to market in 1869. Hundreds of thousands were shot for sport. It was said that 40 to 50 birds could be felled with one shot as the multilayered flocks flew overhead.
    Passenger pigeons in their original numbers were incompatible with modern human activity. The eastern forests were cut down to make way for cities, factories and intensive agriculture.
    The bird was considered a pest to farmers' crops and there were readily available substitutes for its meat and feathers. Thus, an unconscious national consensus allowed the passenger pigeon to pass into oblivion.
    Such unconscious decisions have allowed other recent extinctions such as that of the dodo bird, the Tasmanian tiger and the Madagascar giant lemur.
    Some heroic efforts have, at least temporarily, prevented the extinction of some species such as the whooping crane and the California condor. Still, biologists estimate that one quarter of all mammal species are threatened with extinction within the next 50 years, and the only primate that will remain outside the cages of zoos is us.
    The geologic record illustrates five great extinctions of the existing biosphere. The last one that eliminated the dinosaurs and about 80 percent of other living things occurred 65 million years ago. We are now experiencing the sixth great extinction and the finger of blame is pointed directly at us.
    The whole world has become a zoo, and for better or worse we humans have become the zookeepers. We are also residents in that zoo so it is in our interest to maintain a healthy menagerie of plants and animals that in some way benefit us in the form of food, medicines, shelter, clothing, environmental maintenance, beasts of burden, companionship or natural beauty.
    This awesome task cannot be accomplished by unconscious consensus. We must take an active role. Since many living organisms in the zoo are not yet catalogued or their properties known, the best approach is a stockbroker's advice: diversity.
    We must strive to ensure that the zoo contains the widest possible mix of living things. If we get it wrong the great owner of the zoo may look for a new zookeeper and let this one pass into oblivion.
    I take this task seriously enough that I have established a scholarship fund for graduate student research into biological diversity at the University of Kansas. I also serve on an advisory board to the Natural History Museum at that institution where biodiversity is a major theme of research.
    Pope John Paul II said in his encyclical "Redemptor Hominis" in 1979: "Man often seems to see no other meaning in his natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption. Yet it was the creator's will that man should communicate with nature as an intelligent and noble master and guardian, and not as a heedless exploiter and destroyer."
    Perhaps the ivory-billed woodpecker will remind us of our moral, as well as self serving, obligation to respect, preserve and protect God's creation.

    Leaman Harris writes for The Edmond (Okla.) Sun.

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