A birdless world
A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Glen Chilton’s new book about his quest to see every known specimen of the extinct Labrador Duck, The Curse of the Labrador Duck, for The Sydney Morning Herald. It’s an pleasingly oddball little book, and while I don’t think Chilton is interested enough in exploring the larger issues his story raises, there’s something incredibly sad about the spectacle of Chilton making his way from museum to museum to inspect the often misidentified skins and eggs that are all that remain of the species.
But the detail from the book that’s stayed with me is an aside in the middle about the fact that even when kept in perfect conditions in museums stuffed birds last about 500 years. Put them out on display, expose them to daylight and changes in temperature and they perish even more quickly. All of which means that once a species is gone, it’s not just the living bird that’s gone, but, in reasonably short order, all physical trace of them.
Obviously there’s an anthropocentrism at work here, an assumption that somehow our knowledge of a species has larger meaning, but in this context I don’t think it’s wholly misplaced. After all, most of the species that have vanished in the last few centuries, and certainly almost all of the thousands more that are likely to vanish in the near future have been wiped out by humans. But speaking as someone who’s been woken at 4:30am every morning for the last week by the primal whoops and screams of Koels, Black Cockatoos and Channel-Billed Cuckoos, it also seems difficult to reconcile the silence of vanished birds with their raucous, vital presence, or to avoid the feeling a world without them would be a much smaller, and less joyous place.
James, you’re so right. I always thought that the truly awful thing about Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ was the absence of birds.
The truly awful thing about Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ was Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’.
(Not that the writing wasn’t great, just that I wanted to kill myself pretty much all the way through, and certainly at the end).
James, this is a lovely little piece. I remember a similar kind of echoing sadness on looking at images of ‘Darwin’s finches’, as they’re called, all laid out with the tags still on them, in an image in a book. The image of a dead bird that only faintly – oh, so faintly – recalls the finches that once flew and twittered in Darwin’s world.
One day, we will only have the memory of having seen an image of a bird that someone else once saw. Once heard.
And that will mean nothing, I guess, and everything.
Thank you. And I hope we don’t reach that point but the way things are going it’s looking increasingly likely.