There was a strange stillness.The birds, for example—where had they gone?Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed.The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted.The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly.It was a spring without voices (Carson, 14).
Their eyes are the first things to rot.Crows laid about—jet-black feathers, yet darker was where the eyes once were.It started in 1999, Syracuse, New York, where there were regular findings of dead birds.These crows, sparrows, and jays were not peacefully at rest, yet the way they laid upon the land appeared otherwise.They were dying from the West Nile Virus or just as likely, they were dying from the insecticides sprayed to kill mosquitoes—the carrier of the virus from bird to human.
“After receiving more than 80,000 birds, Dr. Ward Stone discovered that while the virus was a factor in some of the deaths, the leading cause was pesticide poisoning” (Mercola).These birds were not alone in contracting illness from the continuous spraying.Thirty-seven years earlier Rachel Carson’s bestselling novel, Silent Spring, made it explicitly clear that man-made pollution is endangering all life on Earth.The profound influence of Carson’s work continues to provide a foundation of reference and reflection in my current studies: preservation, extinction, and speciation.
Animal preservation, and specifically the use of preservation for natural history museums, has a complex and intricate history that has made significant impacts on the way the world is viewed.There are many different ways that taxidermists preserve animals.Some are “wet” methods and some are dry—i.e. study-skins.The ornithology collection at the Auckland Museum contains mounts, study-skins, outstretched wings, feather sheets, articulated skeletons, bones, whole specimens in ethanol, and eggs and nests.This particular collection is strong and inclusive, but “nearly one-third of all species of birds are still represented in collections only by study skins, with no skeletal or fluid-preserved material available” (Zusi et al. 1982).
What is the purpose and benefit of maintaining these dead birds?“One of the values of taxidermy, at least originally, was its power to slow down, to actually freeze, the creature long enough for our perceptual equipment to register the details” (Asma, p. 46).Not only do study-skins preserve the specimen itself, but they also enable the preservation of the specimen’s image.Taxidermy can be used as a method of recording in and of itself, or in the aiding of other methods of recording.This benefit of taxidermy was used no better then by John James Audubon.He skillfully sought out, observed, identified, killed, stuffed and beautifully depicted many of North America’s native birds.Audubon drew from these study-skins to complete the lithographs in the famous four-volume The Birds of America.Audubon was inspired by the work of Alexander Wilson, “and while Wilson's contributions clearly have much more scientific value, it is Audubon's lifelike (if occasionally inaccurate) images that inspired bird lovers and eventually led to the end of wholesale slaughter of American wildlife” (Burchard).
Audubon found and rendered so many birds that were novel to science that he was accused of inventing some of them.It was not until he produced the stuffed specimens that he was believed.This example highlights an interesting contradiction.The birds did not “exist” until it was proven otherwise through death and preservation.Often living things are destroyed in order to know, catalogue, and “preserve” them.The contradiction of taxidermy as preservation evokes many questions.Extinct birds were once killed in order to maintain them through taxidermic procedures.What does it mean to have something that is extinct yet preserved?What is it that has been preserved?Does it continue to serve valid scientific study, or was it just death for remembrance?
“’I have never drawn from a stuffed specimen,’ Audubon claimed in 1828. ‘Nature must be seen first alive.’ Like nearly everything else he said about himself, this statement was, at best, a half-truth. Audubon killed thousands of birds” (Thompson).But again, it must be emphasised that it was Audubon’s images that inspired the end to the slaughter of American wildlife.Similarly, Hornaday, chief taxidermist of the U.S. National Museum, was an outspoken champion of natural resource conservation.He was influenced by the work of Audubon and also directly helped curb the killing of birds—as well as stop the outright extinction of the American bison.“The moral power of good taxidermy is suggested by the fact that Hornaday actually influenced the passing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918” (Asma).He achieved the means of swaying politicians by sending out copies of his powerful research Our Vanishing Wildlife:Its Extermination and Preservation.In the preface, Hornaday explains, “We are witnessing the greed, selfishness and cruelty of ‘civilized’ man toward the wild creatures of the earth.”He proclaims, “people are sick of tales of slaughter and pictures of carnage,” and it is “time for a sweeping Reformation.”
Context is paramount.Kiwi birds were not believed to be real by those who had read their descriptions.And once study-skins proved their existence, they were classified as penguins (Olliver).Study-skins of Birds of Paradise were brought to Europe, and it was believed that they flew from birth till death.They were preserved without the legs—so many people assumed that this species had none (Ramel).Study-skins had the power to prove the existence of a species, yet exactly what manner of existence, they did not.Had the birds of paradise been seen in context of their native location or simply in the context of “life”, there would have been no doubt about the existence of legs.
Kiwi, kakapo, kokako, saddleback, and a myriad of other endemic birds make up a large portion of New Zealand’s identity.Coins and notes, as well as other cultural emblems, give New Zealand birds ample room to be seen and to assimilate into the cultural and national identity—as well, New Zealanders colloquially refer to themselves as "Kiwis.”These birds (considering the land’s zoological history) define a major aspect of New Zealand character.Yet unfortunately, most endemic birds no longer live on the main islands, but on periphery islets re-forested to serve as nature reserves.In many ways, New Zealand can only exist if we are to re-plant and re-bird these islets.What was once known to define New Zealand, ecologically, now exists only in periphery locations.
When asked about the struggling kakapo population, a New Zealand politician suggested hybridizing it with the toucan of South America.It is an interesting idea, but it would not preserve the species—and the kakapo would still be under threat of extinction.What would become of this hybrid?“When two populations of distinct but closely related birds come into contact, members of those populations may mate with each other and successfully reproduce. That process of ‘hybridization’ creates problems for taxonomists, but is one sign of the continuous nature of the process of speciation—the evolutionary formation of new kinds of organisms” (Ehrlich).Speciation is the opposite of extinction: where a new species comes into existence.There are a variety of models hypothesising about the rate of speciation vs. extinction, as well as speciation in general— i.e. sympatric and allopatric.Taxonomy is a blurry field, especially when hybrids and sub-species are concerned.Carolus Linnaeus, credited as the Father of Taxonomy, “observed how different species of plant might hybridize, to create forms which looked like new species. He abandoned the concept that species were fixed and invariable, and suggested that some—perhaps most—species in a genus might have arisen after the creation of the world, through hybridization” (Waggoner).
Creationism, or intelligent design, comes up quite often and complicates the ongoing debate of where species originate.But where exactly does hybridisation fall?Should natural hybridisation be viewed differently than a man-induced hybrid?What are the main differences between conventional hybridisation and contemporary molecular genetic engineering?Conventional hybridisation (selective cross-breeding) employs natural processes such as sexual and asexual reproduction.The result of this traditional breeding emphasizes certain characteristics.“However these characteristics are not new for the species. The characteristics have been present for millennia within the genetic potential of the species” (Hansen).Genetic engineering, by contrast, works primarily through insertion of genetic material.This insertion process does not occur in nature. “A gene ‘gun’, a bacterial ‘truck,’ or a chemical or electrical treatment inserts the genetic material into the host cell and then, with the help of genetic elements in the construct, this genetic material inserts itself into the chromosomes of the host” (Hansen). There are also additional elements needed, such as “promoter” genes which help the inserted genes express.The process of using a gene gun and a promoter is, in fact, different from conventional breeding and hybrid processes—even if it only involves genes from the same species.
“The redesign of existing organisms and the engineering of wholly new ones marks a qualitative break with humanity's entire past relationship to the living world. . . . Engineering new forms of life requires a wholesale transformation of our thought patterns" (Davis).What can the arrival of new species tell us about the past, present, or future?What impact will new species have on the natural environment and human culture?What ethical dilemmas are bound to these new possibilities?The red canary is an example of human-induced hybridisation that has had far greater cultural and historical implications then was first anticipated.As is described in A Brand New Bird, by Tim Birkhead, the red canary was the product of the first de facto genetic engineering of an animal.Hans Duncker, along with others, attempted to create the red canary by “setting up red siskin x yellow canary crosses and then backcrossing the hybrids to yellow canaries, [he] hoped to rid the canary of all siskin traits, save for its red feathers” (Goldman).
The Nazis recruited Duncker and used misunderstandings about genetics, brought out by the hybridisation of animals, to reaffirm their view and underpin the Nuremburg laws, “believing that sex between an Aryan woman and a Jewish man would despoil all future children the Aryan woman might have” (Fulkner).Ultimately, turning the wild canary from green, through yellow to red pronounced the stirring and controversial developments of genetic manipulation.At that time clubs and universities began organising competitions to see who could come up with the best, most unusual bird.What will the newest genetic technologies bring?Will they blur the line of what the animal is—or even what, fundamentally, animals are?How far can it go?Does an ability to create new variations of species impact the need to secure the diversity of existing species?Since speciation is in many ways the opposite of extinction, do they cancel each other out—a neutrality or equilibrium?
Through out time, the human/bird relationship has been complex.Farmers domesticated chickens and turkeys for eggs and meat.Species became pets and were given as gifts.People caged them for their singing and adored them for their bright plumage.As well, many feared them; Hitchcock demonstrated.Miners used them as gas monitors and people hunted them for food—some to extinction, like the Moa.The rate at which nature’s fragile balance is being disrupted is appalling.At least 115 species of bird are known to have gone extinct in the last four-hundred years—mostly as a result of human interference of one sort or another (Ramel).This trend does not appear to be subsiding.Our rainforests are being destroyed at a rate of 150 acres/per minute, and “a single rainforest reserve in Peru is home to more species of birds than are found in the entire United States” (Taylor).
Carson’s message from 1962 has now become a global concern.Alarming rates of deforestation and other human impacts are impeding nature’s course of speciation.The striking irony of preservation is that preserving the specimen does nothing to protect it.Speciation is not promoted and extinction is not warded off by the mere act of skinning and stuffing.Yet, the gutting of a bird in order to give it the appearance of flight has inspired imagery and compassion.This has ultimately influenced their protection.Extinction in the past means extinction in the future—loss of biodiversity now means less diversity in the future.The birds’ eyes are the first to rot; yet our ears may be the first to realize the cost of inaction.It is without a morning song that we will notice the loudness of extinction.