Ripples 5-09-14

We spend a lot of time and resources studying motivation.  For different reasons, almost all of us want to convince people to do something.  Perhaps purchase a product, or maintain a tradition,  preserve beauty, treat people differently- all start with the establishment of motivation to affect a behavior.

Cultivating motivation to protect the environment runs in the same vein.  There are many reasons to do so- preserve the beauty of nature, preserve our own health, sustain populations of wild animals to harvest for food or enjoyment, maintain wild systems so that they can be studied and better understood, preserving or improving places to attract tourists, saving natural resources in case we need them in the future (money in the bank)- all can be motivators that result in good management on several levels at once.

Such motivators can be positive or negative in nature, and this year we recognize the anniversaries of important examples of both.  The positive is the life of John Muir, born in Scotland, raised in Wisconsin, and extraordinary explorer, observer, and advocate for conservation.  He is referred to as the founder of our National Parks, and influenced such leaders as Teddy Roosevelt to set aside special natural places for their own conservation and enjoyment by the public.  Muir was a religious man, and considered nature as the highest form of supernatural beauty.  Reading accounts of his travels- walking to the Gulf of Mexico, numerous trips exploring the western US and Alaska, one is impressed by both his powers of observation and deduction, and ability to express his appreciation.  He was a founder of the Sierra Club, still a strong advocate for environmental concerns, and his writings, often fiery and passionate, are still interesting and inspiring to read.  John Muir passed away on Christmas Eve 100 years ago this year.

Even though Muir made logical and convincing arguments for preserving nature, while he was writing one of the most catastrophic environmental events in our country’s history was unfolding; the extinction of possibly the most numerous bird in the world, the passenger pigeon.  These birds were extremely social, and gathered in flocks sometime numbering the billions.  They would establish enormous nesting colonies covering hundreds of square miles in forests of eastern and central North America, and in fact Wisconsin was where the largest nesting flock ever documented was found.  They were slightly larger than our mourning doves, and more deeply shaded in purple.  The ecology of eastern forests was very much affected by the doves, whose name refers to their wandering habits.  Unlike many birds, their nesting flocks moved about from place to place significantly affecting the vegetation by consuming huge amounts of nuts and other mast, and redistributing nutrients across the landscape through their droppings.  Because of their large flocks and the way they nested high in trees, they did not need to have a high reproductive rate, and would only lay one or rarely two eggs at a time- this was enough to sustain their population.

Their social habits led to their downfall.  Because they congregated in large flocks nesting in one place, they were easy picking for market hunters who could profit from the need for meat in a growing country.  Before mass communication there wasn’t as much a problem, because by the time word got out where the birds were nesting, the young might have already fledged.  But improvements like newspapers and the telegraph made possible the rapid dispersal of information about the bird’s whereabouts, resulting in the congregation of many hunters who slaughtered billions of birds.  Improved transportation, too, allowed for rapid shipment of birds to far away urban areas where they were sold for human or animal food. Muir writes as a child observing people knocking pigeon nests out of trees so that hogs could feed on the young.   At the same time many of the forests in the east and Midwest were cut for lumber, reducing habitat for the pigeons, although over harvesting was still the most important factor in their decline.

Once the ball was rolling, the population of passenger pigeons continued to collapse.  They were chased across the landscape, and no nesting colonies were undisturbed.  In the space of 30 years the flocks were gone, with just scattered birds across the landscape with flocks of mourning doves. In the booklet Silent Wings published by the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, there is an account of a single bird landing exhausted on a passenger boat on Lake Michigan at Two Rivers.   In a 40 year period the passenger pigeon went from a population estimated at ¼ of the bird life in North America, to extinction, and Martha, the last bird, died in the Cincinnati Zoo on  Sept 1 1914, a couple of months before John Muir also passed.  In 1947 Aldo Leopold helped dedicate a monument to the passenger pigeon here in Wisconsin at Wyalusing State Park, and on May 17th the renovated monument will be re-dedicated by the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology.

Both lives, Muir’s and Martha’s, give us motivation to work for a future that can sustain people and wildlife alike.  It is possible, I believe, but it requires a willingness to appreciate and adapt.  There are many outlets for that motivation- activities in our area that focus on appreciating and restoring our land and waters.  Both Manitowoc and Two Rivers are recognized as Wisconsin Bird Cities, and Manitowoc County passed a resolution in April recognizing efforts to Restore the Shore.  Woodland Dunes has many opportunities to improve areas for wildlife, and the Lakeshore Natural Resource Partnership in conjunction with many Friends groups facilitates habitat improvement and restoration projects throughout the County.  There are many other very positive organizations and projects going on.  There is an increasing participation in such projects, demonstrating that we do have a growing motivation and capacity to do good for nature and ourselves at the same time.

-Jim Knickelbine-

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