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Listen to the birds' songand reflect on human excess

THE other day at lunch, one of my colleagues living next to the Century Park in the Pudong New Area complained about the nighttime racket in the park from a pop music band.

"It was the nesting season, and I am afraid the birds would have a hard time living with such cacophony of howling and caterwauling," he explained.

I found it comforting that in this monstrosity of a concrete jungle, perpetual motorized traffic, and dazzling lights, there is still some guy who cares about birds.

Urbanized birds must have nerves of steel to survive the noise, dust, pollution and glare that have become salient features of human progress.

The other day, while working on this review, I stood on the sidewalk next to a road of packed, early morning traffic, and when I succeeded in not being distracted, and disgusted, by the ambient noise created by roaring, screeching and honking vehicles, I actually heard one bird perched on a nearby plane tree twittering a merry lay.

I cannot but marvel at their amazing powers of adaptation.

By comparison, those birds that could actually find a patch of forest in a city must be in paradise.

Racket of progress

And one such paradise is the disused campus of Shanghai Maritime University, which is dominated by old camphor trees, magnolias, and groves of sweet-scented oleander. Some of its decayed, low buildings are covered with ivy.

The campus is in a limbo, to be developed into a commercial complex complete with a fisherman's wharf and several towering high-end apartments.

But before the bulldozers move in, the ancient woods and quietude afford birds a rare sanctuary.

It also affords me, for the time being, an opportunity to marvel at the variety and beauty of birds' song from time to time.

I find some birds sing insistently, at a high pitch, while some chirrup intimately with many variations. The beauty of these tunes beggars description.

We poor humans have a lot to learn from birds about how to live gracefully and beautifully without destroying nature.

Many birds are dying out.

"The World's Rarest Birds" By Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash and Robert Still (Princeton University Press, 2013) is a beautifully illustrated book vividly depicting the most endangered birds on our once beautiful planet, elaborating on the threats confronting these species, and the measures needed to protect them from dying out.

The book publishes photographs of 515 of the 590 bird species classified as endangered or critically endangered, or which now only exist in captivity.

For the other 75 birds, for which no photos are available, wildlife artist Tomasz Cofta provides meticulously drawn illustrations.

Some photos are results of an international photographic competition in an effort to secure images of some of the most threatened birds on Earth.

The competition was organized specifically for this book.

In 2008 and 2009, a small team in Sweden produced the "Rare Birds Yearbooks" to dramatize the plight of around 190 of the most critically endangered birds in the world.

This latest book is an effort to extend the impact of the Yearbook, particularly outside Europe, following a meeting between Hirschfeld, editor of the "Rare Birds Yearbooks," and Swash, Managing Director of the British publisher of "WILDGuides."

Final reckoning

The book also includes species categorized as endangered, "data deficient" as well as critically endangered.

The book opens with a page titled "Let the birds speak for themselves ..." featuring the photo of a beautiful Araripe Manakin, classified as critically endangered. Its habitat, 28 square kilometers of moist forest in northeast Brazil, is being encroached upon by new homes.

The introductory chapters of the book explain the threat that birds face in a rapidly changing world, how their status is assessed and how this information is used to set conservation priorities.

The book's seven regional sections highlight particular conservation and threatened bird hotspots, providing detailed description of the most endangered birds, their population, distribution, key threats and conservation needs.

For a bird, its beauty is almost its only plea for survival.

Most modernized earthlings trapped in the incessant racket of progress are too busy to notice that beauty.

That beauty is, apparently, too subtle for our shriveled sensibilities now largely attuned to digitally enhanced stimuli.

As Louis J. Halle observed in the opening pages of his masterpiece "Spring in Washington" (1947), "A government functionary would not believe you should you tell him that the price of wolfram [tungsten] in Turkey today is not so important as the perennial process of budding and leafing in the neighboring woods," though the leafing concerned our ancestors 5,000 years ago, while, by comparison, the price of wolfram is not a dependable fact of life.

"It vanishes from sight in the long perspective; it is excluded from the final reckoning," Halle observed.

For your information, the first line of the book of the Confucian Canon, the "Book of Songs," mimics the tune of a bird: "Guan! Guan! Cry the osprey ..."

Of the about 300 poems in the classic, 69 make direct or oblique mention of birds, numbering at least 35 species.

Give birds their due

Today the all and sundry practical preoccupations have filled us human beings, crowding out whatever memories we may have of nature, or the universe.

We lie wrapped in the silky cocoon of civilization, which not only keeps us warm, but also shuts out the view of nature.

Birds do not exist for aesthetic purposes. They occupy an essential niche in our ecology by pollinating plants, dispersing seeds, scavenging carcasses, or in "pest" control (pest is a narrowly human misconception).

As the authors observe in "The World's Rarest Birds," "Members of families such as honeyeaters ... have co-evolved to be the main or exclusive pollinators of some plants and trees."

When birds are around, they attest to the safety of water and food. When they are gone, our ecology is in great trouble.

Paying attention to their existence is the first step in acknowledging their role.

In China it is reported that there are around 10,000 birdwatchers.

But that activity is best practiced unobtrusively, as a daily habit, rather than proactively, as an assignment, or even a new style of tourism.

When human beings have lost their sense of moderation, they have a tendency to overdo almost everything.

If someone travels half the hemisphere to take a picture of, or peep at, a rare bird, that curiosity, like nearly all human curiosity and cognizance, can be deadly.

Think of Halle, the American naturalist and ornithologist, who pedaled miles and saw the migration of birds and the budding of plants and trees in Washington and its environs, before his workday began at the US State Department, in 1945.


 

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