Sunday, August 9, 2009

Trumpeter Swans and us

Recently a sad event occurred in Washtenaw County, Michigan at a wetland near Scio Church and Parker roads when three of a family of four Trumpeter Swans were killed by what DNR necropsy findings found to be consistent with blunt trauma. Many people driving through this four-way stop intersection enjoyed seeing the swans on their nest and then raising their two young. The fact that the swans were actually Trumpeter, and not Mute, made this nesting all the more special and delightful.

Photo copied from Dave Laird's May, 2008 blog Community Comment in The Spokesman-Review

The death of the swans were reported soon after occurring - early on a Sunday morning. The female adult and one of the cygnets were found dead. The adult male and the other cygnet were found still alive, although the adult male was found beyond saving and was euthanized shortly after being examined by a veternarian. The remaining cygnet was captured and taken to a rehabilitation organization and it was thought that it would survive its ordeal - albeit parentless and siblingless.

This event was reported, often in wildly speculative fashion, on the Michigan birding listserve You can find this thread on - type Trumpeter Swans and search. In my five years of membership on the Michigan birders listserve and reading many other crazy threads that have developed, this thread was, in many ways, the most alarming and even disturbing. In approximately the past year, the Michigan birders listserve has taken on a new voice as birders active in the field seem to have stopped posting their bird sightings (myself included, but only because I have not been birding, at least locally, all that much), and couch-based or computer-based birders and environmentalists have taken over. This transition has often led to some very interesting reading. The Trumpeter Swan event - as tragic and sad as it really is - was emblematic of this.

After the dust settled, a couple of posts were added, that I thought addressed some of our ugly truths. The first of these was by Jim McDonald of Ypsilanti and yesterday, Roger Kuhlman of Ann Arbor posted his, uncomfortable for some, viewpoint.

Trumpeter Swan with cygnets. Copied from the North Dakota Birding Hotline website

From Jim McDonald - (I have added a couple of small edits:)

"The real culprit here is us - all of us - people demanding space for themselves, and occupying more and more of it further from cities. Developing land for human habitation is an industry we encourage without thought - to the point that one measure of our economic health is based upon "housing starts." Every time someone you know buys a [newly-built] house he is eliminating the space for use by birds and other animals and native plants. We scrape the ground, dig foundations, erect homes, and surround all of this with lawns. We build concrete roads for access and run water, sewer and utility lines. We have done this so much - and it continues - that we have destroyed the natural corridors that allow animals to move between the few real wild areas that remain.

There is a marsh in Lyndon Township where Blanding's turtles live. They've lived here since the last glaciers retreated and left this wetland and thousands like it across Michigan. For 10,000 years they've shared this space with Yellow Warblers, Sandhill Cranes, massasauga rattlesnakes, leopard frogs, muskrats, dragonflies, and others. A few years ago, on the dirt road that bisects the [Lyndon Township] marsh a concrete bridge was built. On the edge of the bridge a two-foot border of gravel was placed. Last year I came across an enormous female [Blanding's] turtle trying to lay her eggs in this gravel. The turtle was probably old enough to have laid eggs in this spot for twenty years or more before this bridge was built. Her mother may have laid eggs here when the road was little more than a farm trail. If any of her offspring live long enough to reach breeding age they may have a paved road to cross to find a suitable habitat to lay their eggs. They don't have a choice; they're born knowing exactly where to walk to find the prime nesting spots. Of the thousands of eggs a lucky turtle lays in its life, only a few may live to reproduce themselves. The death of one adult female turtle has a huge impact on the local population. Cars are killing these turtles in large numbers, and land development is an even worse threat.

This has all happened in the last century, and mostly after World War II. We saved the world from fascism, wiped out polio. flew to the moon, created the most effective educational system in the history of man, and have all but destroyed the natural world. We have twisted and rent it to suit our desires. The marshes are smaller. The roads are wider. The insets are fewer. Life is harder for the animals that continue to live.

You can direct your sadness and rage over these dead swans toward the driver who I'm sure simply made a mistake, or you can do something more useful, something that helps other Trumpeter Swans and Blanding's Turtles and Wood Thrushes and ... all of the other animals that are rapidly losing out to our endless desire to pave and plow, to have pleasant mosquito-free yards and to drive on smooth, open and straight roads.

If you want to take a stand against the destruction of all things wild, stop building new places to live. Buy and renovate old buildings. Make the driving economic force of the next century the retrofitting of old buildings with energy-saving technology. Stay in cities and make them better. Work to lower speed limits. Drive less. Donate to the Nature Conservancy or to other groups trying to save wild land. Recycle. Stop allowing pets to run loose. Stop mowing and fertilizing. Buy locally produced food. Convince businesses to turn their lights off at night. Best of all, tell other people - especially kids - what you think. Take them birding. Show them what's at stake."

Well said, Jim. I admit that I would have been tempted to add a few extra comments here and there to twist the knife. Such as ... "Stay in cities - like Detroit and Flint - and make them better." Or, ... "especially kids ... get them away from their computers, cell phones and television, i.e. off their asses, and take them birding." (This second proposed comment would have been ironic since here I sit on my ass and at my computer. Nevertheless, it does represent my actual thoughts.) The fact that you avoided such commentary makes your well-made case all the stronger. Thank you for taking the time to write this and to share it. Finally, I have a special fondness for turtles going back to my early childhood, and your mention of Blanding's Turtle was especially poignant. Every time I see one I am thrilled and saddened at the same time. These turtles are very threatened in Michigan.

This morning I opened my email to see Roger Kuhlman's comments that did not spare the twist of the knife. He does generally agree with Jim's comments above but adds more with some political commentary.

Roger writes:

"We have too many people living in Washtenaw County and southeast Michigan and that means far too many cars, far too many roads, far too much suburban sprawl, far too fewer wetlands and far too fewer rich natural habitats and functioning complex ecosystems. Things are not going to get any better (and instead will probably get much worse as the population of Washtenaw county continues to increase) for species like the Trumpeter Swan and other rare plants and animals until and unless we succeed in substantially reducing human populations in our area to long-term sustainable levels that do not hog virtually all the natural resources for one species.

If you have sincere, realistic environmental concerns, you know and are fighting for control of population growth in both the United States and the world. The best and the most productive thing you can do for the environment is to stop population growth in the US and push for demographic policies that, over decades, will lead to natural declines in our population to ecologically sustainable levels. We can't go where liberal political activists and right-wing corporate interests would take America in the coming decades by adding over 150 million more people to our population through irresponsibly high levels of immigration both legal and illegal and immigration-fueled high birth rates. It's time for all environmentalists to stop deluding themselves."

As politically-incorrect as Roger's statement may seem, I feel certain that there are others all over this country who would heartily make the same observations about the damage that population growth has done to their trendy and desirable cities. Additionally, over-population is not just a concern for environmentalists, but for economists, natural resource managers, world aid workers and others, as well. It is a fact that human over-population is the major world problem we face. Not just for the environment, about which Roger and others care so deeply, but for people who have no food or drinking water, (one-third of the world's population does not have access to fresh drinking water - that's over two billion people! Think about this the next time you go to the fridge for your chilled bottle of water) etc., etc. Most, if not all, of our world crises can hardly be dismissed as being the result of geographic happenstance. Closer to home, Roger writes specifically about over-population in Washtenaw County and more generally in southeastern Michigan. One could make a perfectly coherent argument for this being a significant reason why Michigan finds itself in the pickle it is presently in. As traumatic as the economic crisis is, and will continue to be, for the citizens of the state of Michigan, one can also legitimately heave a huge sigh of relief that, for the time being at least, the crazy, unbounded and chaotic development of ugly and hideous housing communities has stopped. A drive anywhere in southeastern Michigan reveals the rape and plunder of corporate developers where ever you dare open your eyes to look. We all know they care only about lining their own pockets - the thicker the lining the better. But they are able to do this because we build the roads and buy the houses.

Please don't take my word for this. On the evening of Monday, August 10th, the PBS television show The News Hour with Jim Lehrer aired a segment titled, Blueprint America: Building Roads. You may view this segment here. This little jewel of PBS reporting is very revealing.

To conclude, I return to Jim McDonald's opening statement. "The real culprit is us - all of us ..." and the discussion of this could easily continue in many directions.

Trumpeter Swans may you rest in peace. Sic transit gloria mundi.


Susan Cybulski said...


Thank you for your thoughts on this, and for reposting Jim McDonald and Roger Kuhlman's umich birders entries. I have been following this story with interest, not so much for the loss of the swan family, which was certainly sad, but because of the sociological firestorm that ensued. The more thoughtful commentaries, such as yours and Jim's and Roger's, have helped me think more deeply about these issues and about my own role in the problems.

To piggyback further on Roger's population control message, I would add that it is practically heresy in this country to discuss childbearing as a major ecological issue. Americans are myopic in their belief of their right to have as many children as they want.

I believe this issue needs to be seriously considered in the milieu of relatively more comfortable/cosmopolitan ecological solutions we are already familiar with, such as recycling and energy conservation.

There, I've said it!

--Susan Cybulski

Allison said...

Hi Cathy,
I dicovered your blog today after checking the Swanfriends site on Facebook and I am startled at how much we have in common.

My name is Allison Carroll, my mother-in-law's name is Kathy Carroll. As far as I know, the Carolls we are related to are of French-Canadian descent and were from the Downriver area of MI as well as the Windsor area. I am employed at the Univ of Mich Hospital as a patient care tech and am currently in nursing school. I have family in Montana and have been to (and loved) West Glacier, although my all time favorite to date is Zion Nat'l Park.

I have been surprised at the passionate reaction to the tragic loss of the Trumpeter Swans, who I drove by at least weekly on my way to/from work. I was tempted to post a challenge to all who were so shocked and saddened to apply that energy to everyday problems that affect our society - urban sprawl, the unemployed and/or homeless, the flooded foster care system, promoting local agriculture, corruption in local and national government, supporting grassroots organizations and the arts, patronizing local parks, etc. There are so many ways that we can all get involved. Easy to say -- as I sit inside my air conditioned house typing away on my laptop, my two biological children sleeping in their own bedrooms with adjacent bathrooms complete with electricity and running water.

Anyway, it was a pleasure reading your blog and I look forward to reading more. Take care,
Allison :)