Saturday, July 31, 2010

Emptying the Skies by Jonathan Franzen

In 2004, the governor of the state of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm, signed into law House Bill 5029 that allowed a three week season for dove hunting in Michigan.  In 2004 I lived half in Maryland and half in Michigan and was unaware of dove hunting.  But later, in 2006, I recall signing a petition initiated by the Committee to restore the dove shooting ban that would put a voter referendum on the November, 2006 mid-term elections ballot giving Michigan citizens the opportunity to vote on House Bill 5029. A birding friend who is active in the bird migration "lights out" campaign gave me a lawn sign to advertise "Vote No on Dove Hunting."  At the time, I remember thinking that there certainly were a lot of mourning doves; especially in the fall, they were lined up on the utility wires by the hundreds.  Would it really be so bad to allow a short season for hunting doves?  But then I heard a campaign statement by a Michigan legislator who supported dove hunting saying she "liked her doves in butter and garlic." Didn't seem right somehow. Then I thought about how small a mourning dove is and of how many hunters probably have really poor aim.  I imagined stray pellets flying around, people being hit in the eyes and windows and electricity being shot out.  I voted No on dove hunting.  Surprisingly and to their credit, voters in a state with a large population of hunters and gun owners, overwhelmingly voted down House Bill 5029 and other states used Michigan's example to begin their own campaigns to outlaw dove hunting.

I had forgotten about the dove hunting controversy and vote when I opened my July 26th, 2010 copy of The New Yorker and read the article Emptying the Skies by Jonathan Franzen, pages 48-61 - abstract here - reporting on the methods and killing of songbirds in Cyprus, Malta and Italy.

Cyprus, a large island in the middle of the Mediterranean, would be a place that migrating songbirds, upon reaching its shores, would find hard to pass up for the opportunity of rest and refueling.

Quoting from Jonathan Franzen's article:  "On the last day of April, I went to the prospering tourist town of Protaras (identified on the middle right of the Google map above) to meet four members of a German bird protection organization, the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS), that runs seasonal volunteer "camps" in Mediterranean countries.  Because the peak season for songbird trapping in Cyprus is autumn, when southbound migrants are loaded up with fat from a northern summer's feasting, I was worried that we might not see any action, but the first orchard we walked into, by the side of a busy road, was full of lime sticks: straight switches about thirty inches long, that are coated with a gluey gum of the Syrian plum and deployed artfully, to provide inviting perches, in the branches of low trees.  The CABS team, which was led by a skinny, full-bearded young Italian named Andrea Rutigliano, fanned into the orchard, taking down the sticks, rubbing them in dirt to neutralize the glue, and breaking them in half.  All the sticks had feathers on them.  In a lemon tree, we found a male collared flycatcher hanging upside down like a piece of animal fruit, its tail and its legs and its black-and-white wings stuck in glue.  While it twitched and futilely turned its head , Rutigliano videoed it from multiple angles, and an older Italian volunteer, Dino Mensi, took still photographs.  "The photos are important," said Alex Heyd, a sober-faced German who is the organization's general secretary, "because you win the war in the newspapers, not in the field."  

Franzen goes on to write that they successfully freed the collared flycatcher from the stick, cleaned the glue from its tail, feet and wings, and "it flew off low through the orchard, resuming its northward journey."  Horrible as it is, the above excerpt is by no means the most graphic.  Franzen describes other birds found stuck on the gooey sticks and the CABS team's, not always successful, efforts to rescue and release the birds.  He writes about the tradition of "lime-stick" trapping in Cyprus and about the history of ambelopoulia, as the songbirds, when prepared as food, are called.  Curiously, blackcaps are thought to be an aphrodisiac and have a unique, bitter taste.  Song thrush, on the other hand, is apparently very tender and tasty.  Franzen ends this segment of his essay with details of an assault that occurs when the CABS team is found out by some local bird killers who beat up the team members and crush their video camera.

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) near the
village of Old Milverton, 06-18-2010.


Franzen also writes about bird killing, including the killing of songbirds, in Malta, another big island in the Mediterranean that migrating birds would be unable to fly over.  It seems that, in Malta, shooting the birds is the preferred method.  It's not pretty either. Apparently, and although hunters generally seemed not to discriminate by species, a favored bird is the turtle dove.  From Malta, Franzen goes on to write about bird killing in Italy and describes the country as "a long, narrow gantlet  for a winged migrant to run."

As he exposes bird killings, by trapping, mist-netting and shooting, fortunately Franzen also writes about efforts to stop, deter and change these practices.  That which is ultimately seen as having the best chance of success are efforts to reform and change public opinion.

I could not read the article through in one sitting.  I had to pause halfway before coming back to it the next day.  I thought about what a difficult and confusing world we live in; how dramatically and rapidly it has changed - it seems right before our very eyes - and yet, of how cultures, traditions and behaviours, like machismo, have not.  On the one hand, Franzen's essay made me feel completely discouraged.  On the other hand, there is a cold sense of inevitability that runs through it. I feel completely grateful for my friends who photograph birds (with real cameras, style and technique) and wonder if, one day, photographs will be all that remain of birds and the memory of them.  Perhaps not in my lifetime ... but, we always hear about references to the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren.

Toward the end of his essay, Franzen writes of giving his statement to a young detective at a police station where he and the CABS team members go to report the assault that the CABS team experienced.  "'For people here," the detective explains when we were done, "it's tradition to trap birds, and you can't change that overnight.  Trying to talk to them and explain why it's wrong is more helpful than the aggressive approach of CABS.'" He may have been right, but I'd been hearing the same plea for patience all over the Mediterranean, and it was sounding to me like a version of modern consumerism's more general plea regarding nature:  Just wait until we have used up everything, and then you nature-lover's can have what's left."  

It's laughable to suggest that explaining to bird hunters why killing birds is wrong would be effective. They would never listen.  It is going to take something with a lot more punch than an explanation.  Having just returned from England and Wales five weeks ago and where I did a lot of birding, I will note that I saw only three blackcaps and not a single turtle dove - despite searching hard to see a turtle dove. There were several other songbirds that I also expected to see, but did not.  At the time, I just thought I wasn't looking hard enough or that I was not in the right location or habitat.  Now I wonder if I didn't see a turtle dove, or the other birds, because there really were not that many to see.

Just over a year ago a colleague gave me two pheasant breasts - cleaned and frozen - from birds that he had killed.  He warned me about the presence of "shot" that might be remaining in the flesh of the bird.  I took the pheasant breasts home and, with a friend who is an excellent cook, prepared them for a Friday evening meal.  Before being cooked, the meat of the breast was a beautiful, rich red color.  After cooking the beautiful color turned a dull brown.  True to my colleague's word, we did find an occasional pellet and had to chew very carefully so as not to break a tooth.  I was surprised by two things - how essentially tasteless the meat was and how meager it was.  A game bird of long-standing, the pheasant seems like a big bird, but it's not.  So imagine now the size of the breast of a song thrush or a blackcap.

When I finished reading Emptying the Skies, I thought of our vote to repeal House Bill 5029 and of how I, and the majority of Michigan voters, had made the correct decision.  Indeed, there are millions of mourning doves in Michigan, but they are a native songbird and the decision to allow them to be hunted would almost certainly propel us along a slippery slope, not to mention the innumerable other side effects of such hunting.  We just don't live in that kind of world anymore.

Jonathan Franzen concludes his essay with his own Silent Spring moment:  "The blue of the Mediterranean isn't pretty to me anymore. The clarity of its water, prized by vacationers, is the clarity of a sterile swimming pool.  There are few smells on its beaches, and few birds, and its depths are on their way to being empty; much of the fish now consumed in Europe comes illegally, no questions asked, from the ocean west of Africa.  I look at the blue and see not a sea but a postcard, paper thin."

As a New Yorker subscriber, I tried to attach my digital version of Emptying the Skies here.  But, the link will not work for non-subscribers.  For non-readers, I've attached a 14:31 minute interview with Jonathan Franzen which does work.  In the interview, he is modestly more hopeful than his essay would suggest.  Franzen does not let the United States off the hook.  You may order your own digital copy of Emptying the Skies from the abstract link.

Update:  01/30/2011

In the news again - this time from BirdLife International: Crisis in Cyprus.


Caleb Putnam said...

I too read this article and was very disturbed to learn more detail about what is going on in the Mediterranean. Seems to me education/awareness of the public is step #1, and though these are hard to watch these show exactly what is going on there:

Anonymous said...

Also see these disturbing videos:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting read but I do hope that the birds will still exist until all the hunters and their 'in training' children become electronic hunters on the various video games. Maybe it is time for a bird killing video game for those countries. The amount of time it takes to clean and prepare the small bites of food that come from a small wild bird makes it unusual that they contiue with this type of hunting for eating. Is there a secondary reason for this hunting?

Anonymous said...

great post, Cathy. My family lives in France, and I often have to deal with my oncles who are avid hunters. France is one of the worst countries for birds with more than 65 species of birds that are huntable, plus many (including buntings!) that are hunted illegaly. Even shorebirds like godwits are huntable!!! And true, they always love to tell their hunting stories to anyone who want to listen (or not!). I used to think that it should be possible to negociate, communicate with those people. I don't anymore. My leitmotiv now is to fight back every time I have a chance. My parents fear every family dinner now!!!!!

Anonymous said...

@ Mr. J.Franzen.
Please,get your facts right before you write something about lovely Malta, in Malta song-birds are not shot,that`s in Italy where song-birds are shot.