I learned rather late that it’s NaBloPoMo, and that I should be posting daily. Problem is there’s just too much to blog about: my trip to Cape May (spending time with friends, meeting fellow bloggers, drinking $9 ice cream cocktails, singing birding filk songs), an update on the Extreme Hummingbird Makeover (we caught the Rufous again on Halloween and saw him briefly yesterday), recent visitors to our yard (Violet-crowned Hummingbird and Green-tailed Towhee!), our environmental barbarian neighbors (who appear to be moving a %*&#$@ trailer onto their oversized city lot under cover of darkness even as I write this), broader political and environmental issues (SoCal fires, the San Francisco Bay oil spill, landslides in storm-soaked Chiapas, the damned border fence).
What finally broke me out of blogger’s paralysis is something I should have blogged on before now: The Green-breasted Mango (GBMA) in Beloit Wisconsin. Well, it was in Beloit. Now it’s at the Wisconsin Humane Society’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Milwaukee. Yes, it’s been “rescued” from an almost certain death by hypothermia while still hale and hearty, unlike Wisconsin’s first Green Violet-ear. Unfortunately, WHS has decided against sending the bird to the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas for release into the wild. Instead, against the virtually unanimous advice of hummingbird experts, it plans to send it to the Brookfield Zoo on the flawed assumption that its “navigational capabilities are obviously quite deficient.”
Oddly enough, the bird’s capture while still healthy ignited more violent emotions in certain corners of the hummingbird community than the decision to incarcerate it permanently. In the pre-capture debates over intervention in the bird’s fate, those who maintained that it should be allowed to live or die on its own warned against interfering with natural events about which we are fundamentally ignorant, squandering an opportunity for scientific study, muddying the gene pool by promoting the survival of an unfit individual, pandering to the “Bambi syndrome,” and setting a dangerous precedent for vagrant birds in general. In the wake of the capture there was much passionate rhetoric about prosecuting its rescuers for violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, despite the species being in regulatory limbo, proposed but not yet approved for protection.
As a conservation professional, I’m well aware of the risks of meddling in processes we don’t completely understand, but if substantial knowledge and understanding were prerequisites for action most of us would be crawling around on our bellies because we haven’t a clue how gravity works. We’re not alone in our ignorance, and sometimes what you don’t know can kill you. The brutality of a Wisconsin winter is a concept beyond anything encoded in the mango’s DNA or stored away in its brain from prior experience. Unlike a true long-distance migrant, he didn’t “know” that the weather was going to get lethally cold, and that the time for hummingbirds to leave Wisconsin was about the time that he arrived.
Ignorance, legalities, and scientific objectivity notwithstanding, we interfere in the lives of wild birds in countless ways every single day. We feed them. We band and color-mark them. We flock by the dozens, hundreds, and even thousands to see ones we deem special. We hurt and kill them with cars, windows, power lines, transmission towers, and free-roaming cats. We breed them in captivity and release their progeny into the wild. We shoot, trap, and poison them. We introduce exotic species into their ecosystems. We flood their environment with pesticides, sewage, endocrine-disrupting chemical waste, heavy metals, and other contaminants. We destroy and degrade their habitats. And sometimes, for a vanishingly small minority of those that are hurt, sick, or in harm’s way, we try to help them survive and carry on. Of all the interfering we do, I’m not sure why that last one should incite such passionate denunciation, especially when its impact is infinitesimal compared to any of the others.
I generally come down on the side of letting nature take its course, but this isn’t a Fork-tailed Flycatcher in New England or a Crescent-chested Warbler in Arizona. The mango has been depending on the kindness of humans who have obviously grown fond of him. That personal connection with individual birds is one reason hummingbirds make such a great “gateway drug” to get people hooked on nature. He’s also captured the imagination of millions of people via the media, thrusting birds and birding into the international spotlight. Saving the life of one non-endangered bird will make very little difference to the future of his species, but it will make a very big difference to that bird and the people who care about him.
This is the former wildlife rehabilitator in me talking, but how can we expect to convince the general public of the importance of protecting birds as species if we appear indifferent to the suffering and death of birds as individuals? If such an avian ambassador was in harm’s way, and you could prevent its death and give it a second chance at life with relatively minor risks to its safety, wouldn’t you have to do that? Or could you just stand by and let nature take its course, knowing that your scientific detachment may be interpreted by a lay person as callous disregard for an animal in danger or distress?
I just sent the letter below via e-mail to WHS Director Victoria Wellens. The Brookfield Zoo withholds most e-mail contacts from its Web site, preventing me from cc’ing this message to its President and CEO Dr. Stuart Strahl, and a call to the zoo’s toll-free number (800-201-0784) was directed to the library’s voice mail by an operator who refused to connect me with anyone in a position of authority. If I don’t receive a favorable response from WHS tomorrow, I’ll follow up with another call to the zoo, this time asking for Dr. Strahl by name.
Dear Director Wellens:
As a hummingbird researcher, environmental educator, and former zookeeper, I am writing to ask that you give serious reconsideration to whether permanent captivity is the most humane and ethical alternative for the Green-breasted Mango compared to sending it to Texas for release in an area its species is known to inhabit. This decision was based on misperceptions about the species’ behavior and can only damage our hard-won gains in promoting respect for nature and the autonomy of wild animals.
Confusion over its status under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act notwithstanding, the Green-breasted Mango has occurred naturally in the United States since at least 1988 and has established a tentative foothold in the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Careful examination of the specifics of this species’ occurrences in the U.S. clearly indicate that the likelihood of the Wisconsin bird repeating this movement and finding itself in trouble again is far less than the staff of WHS believes.
The demography of Green-breasted Mangoes in the U.S. is significantly age- and gender-skewed. Most of the well-documented Texas visitors as well as the Wisconsin, Georgia, and North Carolina birds have been young males. At least one male was seen in the same Texas neighborhood over a period of several years. This pattern is inconsistent with disoriented migrants but an excellent fit for dispersal (emigration). This one-way and often gender-biased movement of young birds helps their species maintain genetic diversity within widely separated populations and expand their ranges with changes in habitat and climate (a particularly important adaptation in these days of global warming). The birding and conservation communities would have been justifiably outraged had well-meaning people decided that the original pioneering mangoes in Texas should be relegated to permanent captivity on the basis that their navigational sense was “deficient.”
The Wisconsin’s mango’s “mistake” was not in traveling north from Mexico but in overshooting the hospitable gardens and feeders in subtropical Texas. Similar dispersal urges often lead young Brown Pelicans to ride the winds inland from the Pacific Coast to the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. Are these stranded pelicans permanently incarcerated to “save” them from repeating their youthful mistakes? No, the humane and wildlife rehabilitation organizations that rescue these birds transport them to sister institutions in California for release and a second chance at life in the wild. As far as I know, the recidivism rate is zero.
I have been following the mango’s saga since its presence was first announced. When the bird’s failure to depart in the face of increasingly cold weather sparked the usual debates on what, if anything, should be done for it, I reluctantly broke ranks with a majority of my colleagues by endorsing the bird’s capture before it became too debilitated, emphasizing that this was a humane and public relations decision with little or no conservation value beyond sending the message that people should care about wildlife, whether as species or as individuals. However, I never endorsed captivity as a post-rescue option.
Sending the mango to a zoo, while arguably less cruel than leaving it to die in the cold (as it almost certainly would have) will deny the bird any further opportunity to contribute to its species or to any ecosystem. The anachronistic paternalism inherent in the decision will undermine whatever positive lessons about our relationship with nature might have been gained from this incident. I understand that humane societies are accustomed to making such decisions for domestic animals and unreleasable wildlife, but the mango is a healthy wild bird. Is setting the precedent of permanent captivity for wayward wild birds really a desirable “legacy” for the mango and for the people and organizations involved in deciding its fate?
This is not a slam against zoos in general or the Brookfield Zoo in particular, which I’m sure has preserved and enhanced the sterling reputation it had 30 years ago when I was a bird keeper at the Fort Worth Zoo. My objections are based on the anachronism of taking a healthy wild bird into captivity for exhibit purposes. Zoos have spent decades trying to become conservers rather than consumers of wildlife. To that end, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association developed its Acquisition/Disposition Policy, which states that animal acquisitions “must be consistent with the mission of the institution, as reflected in its Institutional Collection Plan, by addressing its exhibition/education, conservation, and/or scientific goals.” Removal of animals from the wild is strongly discouraged. The acquisition of this bird by the Brookfield Zoo is obviously inconsistent with this policy.
The only alternative that makes sense from humane, ethical, and public relations standpoints is to send the bird to Texas for release in an area where members of its species have been observed before. A reversal of the decision to make this bird a permanent captive would do much to repair the reputation of WHS and the Brookfield Zoo in the eyes of bird lovers everywhere. I encourage you in the the strongest possible terms to embrace this option while it is still a viable one.
Sheri L. Williamson
Author, A Field Guide to Hummingbirds (Peterson Field Guide Series)