Middle-Aged and Dishevelled

Rebecca Solnit

  • In the Company of Crows and Ravens by John Marzluff and Tony Angell
    Yale, 384 pp, £18.95, October 2005, ISBN 0 300 10076 0

For a long time before the planes crashed into the upper levels of the World Trade Center in 2001, songbirds had been in the habit of doing so, migrating by night and mistaking the lights high above the city for stars. At least one ornithologist used to stroll along the base of the towers in the early morning, removing small corpses and rescuing the living. A lot of species have been too fragile, too particular in their requirements, to survive our wholesale transformation of their environment. The Brown Satyr butterfly, endemic to San Francisco, where I live, became extinct sometime in the 19th century, and the Xerxes Blue vanished during World War Two when its Golden Gate habitat was overtaken by military expansion. A number of other local species – the Bay Checkerspot, the San Francisco Garter Snake, the Mission Blue butterfly – are near extinction. Further afield, the few dozen remaining California Condors, with their ten-foot wingspan, continue to hover at the brink of disappearance; after an ingenious captive-breeding programme, a few have been reintroduced in the wild, where they show an unfortunate penchant for flying into powerlines and eating the lead shot in game killed by guns. On the other hand and the other side of the country, one of North America’s showiest and most famously extinct birds, the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, reappeared in 2004 and was publicly announced to still exist after all in the spring of 2005, amid a media circus, scientists’ tears, a lot of astonishment and rapture, and a little Arkansas forest protection. Whether there is a breeding pair, and not just a single individual, remains to be seen, as does the bird’s ability to make do with what habitat it has left.

There are more surprises. In mid-January, the National Park Service announced that 27 new species of spiders, scorpions, centipedes and other small creatures had been discovered in caves in two parks in California’s Sierra Nevada range. They include a relative of the pill bug so translucent that its internal organs are visible, particularly its long, bright yellow liver. There is also a daddy-long-legs with jaws bigger than its body, and a tiny fluorescent orange spider. The species are as yet unnamed.

Other species have rebounded, notably the elephant seals that were hunted nearly to extinction at the turn of the 20th century, when at most a few hundred survived in Mexican waters. They first returned to their California coastal breeding grounds in the 1950s and have since flourished north and south of San Francisco, where their spectacular sex and violence – the bellicose males weigh up to three tons – can be observed every winter. Dozens of species of birds once threatened by DDT have increased in number since the pesticide was banned, as have whales since the 1949 near-ban on hunting, though many, many species continue to lose ground. Yet others, notably a lot of omnivores and carnivores that once feared humans and were hunted by us, have begun to rebound and to expand their territory, their diet and their habits. They are joining us.

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