Despite New York City’s image as the metropolis par excellence, at its heart is Central Park—the crucial hub of bird migration. I first became passionate about birds on New Years Day 1997 when starting off on my jog I saw a red-tailed hawk in the upper limbs of a tree. In all my years living in the Catskill Mountains, I never saw such a creature. Ever since then I have been particularly tuned in to the sights and sounds of Central Park’s birds. I have seen snowy egrets taking off from the Central Park reservoir looking like they had leapt off a Japanese watercolor.
But nothing can compare to the warblers that gravitate to the park on their path northward returning from as far away as South America in early spring. About the size of a mouse and in bright shades of red and yellow, they have the most remarkable singing voice.
One of the things you learn in the disturbing new documentary “The Messenger” that opened today at the Cinema Village is that nearly half of all songbirds have disappeared since the 1960s. Like the honeybees, the bird is essential to the survival of homo sapiens. Although they have great esthetic value, the songbirds have an even more important role in food production. Gorging on insects during the beginning of a migration cycle in order to store the necessary fat that can help them fly thousands of miles obviously benefits farmers.
But if you are shortsighted and do not understand how the ecosphere is constructed, you can make tragic mistakes as the film points out. As part of Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward”, people were mobilized to attack the Four Pests: rats, flies, mosquitos and tree sparrows. Since sparrows were feeding on peasant grain, the answer was to surround the trees in which they nested and bang drums, set off firecracker and generally frighten the birds to such a degree that they remained in the air flying around until they died of exhaustion.
The campaign was a big success since the tree sparrow nearly became extinct. However, the birds also fed on the insects that also attacked grains and much more voraciously than the sparrow. Wikipedia notes:
With no sparrows to eat them, locust populations ballooned, swarming the country and compounding the ecological problems already caused by the Great Leap Forward, including widespread deforestation and misuse of poisons and pesticides. Ecological imbalance is credited with exacerbating the Great Chinese Famine, in which at least 20 million people died of starvation.
The unintended consequences of unwise environmental practices were uppermost in the minds of Marx and Engels. In “The Dialectics of Nature”, Engels wrote as if he was anticipating the disaster in China:
Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries.
Director Su Rynard was motivated to make the film after realizing that “the birds I used to see and hear were no longer around.” Reading Bridget Stutchbury’s book “Silence of the Songbirds” convinced her that a film had to be made. In Rachel Carson’s “The Silent Spring”, it was DDT that was the cause of the silence. In Su Rynard’s film, we learn of a host of other threats to an essential part of biological recreation (the words “birds and bees” is an implicit acknowledgment of their role.)
Global warming is an obvious problem since birds are accustomed to begin their migration when the seasons change but if November begins to feel more like August, the instinctual wiring is short-circuited. Building lights are another big problem. Birds have evolved over millions of years (remember they started off as dinosaurs) to use starlight as a guide to flights north and south. But artificial light makes that more difficult. Furthermore, birds have a tendency to fly into the windows of skyscrapers that keep their lights on through the night to show off their plutocratic testicles so to speak. The film shows the ghastly remains of birds on the sidewalks beneath some of Manhattan’s most prestigious office buildings.
Our beloved housecats kill of billions of birds each year. As one scientist points out, they are about as alien and destructive to the wild bird population as any invasive species. They might bring a chuckle when they carry a dead bird into the house but it is best to think of them in terms of the snakefish wreaking havoc in American rivers and lakes.
One of the other more repulsive threats is poaching. It seems that migrating songbirds have been a staple of high cuisine in Europe for many years, especially the Ortolan bunting which French master chefs have been preparing for centuries to the bourgeoisie. When the bird is snared during its migratory takeoff, it is laden with fat. The recipe involves drowning the bird in Armagnac, chopping off its head and then serving it to whichever cretin can afford $300 for the experience.
It is this disgusting culinary ritual that came to the attention of Douglas and Roger Kass whose “Emptying the Skies” becomes available as a DVD or VOD on December 8th.
The documentary includes interviews with Jonathan Franzen who has written about poaching in the New Yorker magazine. Although I am no fan of his novels, his article, which provided the title for the film, is essential reading for understanding the crisis:
In places like Cyprus, Malta, and Italy, violent clashes between poachers and activists have grown increasingly common.
The southeastern corner of the Republic of Cyprus has been heavily developed for foreign tourism in recent years. Large medium-rise hotels, specializing in vacation packages for Germans and Russians, overlook beaches occupied by sunbeds and umbrellas in orderly ranks, and the Mediterranean is nothing if not extremely blue. You can spend a very pleasant week here, driving the modern roads and drinking the good local beer, without suspecting that the area harbors the most intensive songbird-killing operations in the European Union.
On the last day of April, I went to the prospering tourist town of Protaras to meet four members of a German bird-protection organization, the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS), that runs seasonal volunteer “camps” in Mediterranean countries. Because the peak season for songbird trapping in Cyprus is autumn, when southbound migrants are loaded up with fat from a northern summer’s feasting, I was worried that we might not see any action, but the first orchard we walked into, by the side of a busy road, was full of lime sticks: straight switches, about thirty inches long, that are coated with the gluey gum of the Syrian plum and deployed artfully, to provide inviting perches, in the branches of low trees. The CABS team, which was led by a skinny, full-bearded young Italian named Andrea Rutigliano, fanned into the orchard, taking down the sticks, rubbing them in dirt to neutralize the glue, and breaking them in half. All the sticks had feathers on them. In a lemon tree, we found a male collared flycatcher hanging upside down like a piece of animal fruit, its tail and its legs and its black-and-white wings stuck in glue. While it twitched and futilely turned its head, Rutigliano videoed it from multiple angles, and an older Italian volunteer, Dino Mensi, took still photographs. “The photos are important,” said Alex Heyd, a sober-faced German who is the organization’s general secretary, “because you win the war in the newspapers, not in the field.”
Suffice it to say that the Kass Brothers have made a film that not only shows what the CABS activists were doing but in highly dramatic terms. The first documentary is one that is analysis driven and the second is character driven. They work together to give you a full picture of what might be one of the greatest environmental challenges humanity has had to face. If the extinction of dinosaurs amounts to one of the world’s greatest geological events, the extinction of their feathered descendants might coincide with our own, amounting to the extinction of higher life on earth.