Each bird, for Thom van Dooren, is a condensed knot of histories. A leading voice in the emerging field of extinction studies, he is an associate professor of Gender and Cultural Studies and Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the University of Sydney. When a particular species of bird or any other plant or animal goes extinct, something larger than that particular species also vanishes.
Extinction is a dominant theme of our times. So much diversity is being lost on such a large scale in so short a time that extinction, as van Dooren points out, is a “definitional theme” of our times.
According to biologist Richard Primack the current rate of extinction is 100 to 1,000 times greater than what would occur as a result of normal “background extinction”.
Among the past five mass extinction events are the end-Permian event around 250 million years ago, and the end of the Cretaceous event around 65 million years ago which wiped out the dinosaurs and obliterated 75 per cent of the earth’s species. Now we are faced with the ongoing human-induced extinction event, brought about directly or indirectly by human activity—destruction of habitat, direct pillaging and exploitation in the name of development and growth, leaching of chemicals and toxins, and climate change.
The scale of loss is mind-melting. According to biologist Richard Primack the current rate of extinction is 100 to 1,000 times greater than what would occur as a result of normal “background extinction”. Estimates from some scientists indicate that we’re on track to lose between one-third and two-thirds of living species. Amphibians like frogs and salamanders are the worst hit, with one-third of them endangered or already gone.
Birds, too, have been hit hard by extinction, especially on islands. A total of 153 bird extinctions occurred in the last 500 years. The number is probably higher as some species go extinct without being documented or those listed as “endangered” are actually extinct. At present, one in eight known birds is thought to be on a path to extinction, with those birds which live or nest on islands, like albatrosses, being particularly highly vulnerable.
In the words of biologist Bruce Wilcox, “For every species listed as endangered or extinct at least a hundred more will probably disappear unrecorded.”
Extinctions don’t happen out there, but within our communities, human and beyond human.
hom van Dooren contemplates the nature of extinction and why and how it matters in his Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction.
What do we mean when we say extinction? At what point do we call a species extinct? He narrates the story of Passenger Pigeons: Martha, the last passenger pigeon, passed away in 1914, technically rendering the species extinct. But the passing away of a last-existing bird is not really extinction. He argues that extinction is a much more drawn out unravelling of ways of life and relationships. It reaches further back, to a time when the pigeons took flight “through the sky in flocks of hundreds of millions of birds that blocked out the sun,” a phenomenon that had ended long before the lonely death of Martha in 1914.
He calls the protracted, staggered period between precariousness and the death of the last member of a species the “dull edge of extinction.” It’s a period when individuals still exist but there has been “a break-down in the distinct form of life that characterises what it meant to be a particular species. There is no single moment of extinction as such.
Nor is there a singular phenomenon of extinction. Each species is unique: “In each case there is a distinct unravelling of ways of life, a distinctive loss and set of changes and challenges that require situated and case-specific attention.”
“Far more than ‘biodiversity’—at least in the narrow sense that the term is often used—is at stake in extinction: human and more-than-human ways of life, languages, ways of mourning and being with others, even livelihoods and diverse cultural and religious worlds are often drawn into the fray as species move toward, and then beyond, the edge of extinction.”
Each bird, it seems to me, is a condensed knot of histories, carrying the past into the future. My hope is that learning to see birds in this way might allow greater appreciation for them (and other species).
Species, according to van Dooren, “do not just happen, but must be achieved in each new generation, held in the world through the labour, skill and determination of individual organisms in real relationships of procreation, nourishment, and care”.
Albatross species (or anything else for that matter), “appear both as vast evolutionary lineages and as a collection of fleeting and fragile individual birds, doing the mundane work of knotting together generations. In some sense, millions of years of evolution are “in” each of these albatross bodies: inheritances, histories, relationships, carried in the flesh.”
When they go, what is lost is all the inheritances, histories, relationships, and the act of generation itself.
In an email, he explains two main points: One is that species are profoundly inter-generational, ongoing, deeply historical, projects; the second is that they don’t just happen but are the product of ongoing lives that work towards them (more or less consciously).
For him, an ethical imperative arises from an appreciation of these two facts: that species ought to be valued and room made for their ongoing place in the world.
“Each bird, it seems to me, is a condensed knot of histories, carrying the past into the future. My hope is that learning to see birds in this way might allow greater appreciation for them (and other species).”
light Ways is a part of growing body of literature that puts the onus of extinction on people. To understand why and how extinction matters and explore “avian entanglements”, van Dooren goes specific on five bird species—albatross, Little Penguin, Indian Vulture, Whooping Crane and Hawaiian Crow—that are teetering on the dull edge of extinction. He explores the worldview and conditions that are driving them towards extinction or conserving them.
In an email he says he was drawn to think and write about extinction by the profound processes of loss that are going on all around us today. So many diverse forms of life that took millions of years to emerge are disappearing in a few human generations of life.
“While on some level we all know this, it seems not to be something that registers meaningfully for many people. By telling extinction stories, by exploring the intricacies of particular unravellings of life, my hope is to convey the diverse significances of extinction in a way that helps people to really appreciate what is being lost here and why it matters.”
The second chapter of the book—“Circling Vultures”—details the “dull edge of extinction”. Van Dooren is interested in the dynamics and practicalities of eating and being eaten in multispecies communities.
“Eating is, of course, one of the most important ways in which the dead are woven into the lives of the living. But there are many other important entanglements, too, many other ways in which the dead—through the active presence of their decaying bodies or the simple absence of their living participation—help to shape the world in which we all, for better or worse, make our lives.”
The precariousness of vultures draws in humans, cattle and many others into the entangled community of the living and the dead. As vultures disappeared rapidly in India, “the multispecies entanglements are being unmade with disastrous consequences for everyone”.
Most of the vultures in India belong to the genus Gyps, and there are three main species in India: the Oriental White-backed Vulture (G. bengalensis), the Long-billed Vulture (G. indicus) and the Slender-billed Vulture (G. tenuirostris). Roosting near slaughterhouses or dumps, they would swoop down in flocks of 20 to 30, sometimes more than 100, to pull out the insides of carcasses.
Vultures understand the intimate entanglement of life and death. Instead of taking life to produce their nourishment, they consume that which is dead, pulling dead flesh back into processes of nourishment and growth.
They possess a high level of resistance to various pathogens and diseases. By eating putrid flesh, vultures keep humans safe from deadly pathogens like anthrax. In the words of Dean Amadon, “it has been reported that vultures can, without ill effect, consume the viruses of such deadly pathogens as anthrax in such quantities as would fell an ox—or a whole herd of oxen.”
However, vultures were affected by diclofenac, used as a pain killer and anti-inflammatory drug in cattle and humans. In vultures, though, Diclofenac causes painful swelling, inflammation, and eventually kidney failure and death.
In the diverse human-vulture interactions, vultures have a special place in the Parsee community, who leave their dead on Towers of Silence to be consumed by vultures. In recent years the practice has been abandoned due to their disappearance.
It was through the work of Vibhu Prakash of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) that the disappearance of vultures appeared in the scientific literature. BNHS, in association with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the United Kingdom and the Zoological Society of London, have established conservation and breeding centres.
Van Dooren thinks vultures understand the intimate entanglement of life and death. Instead of taking life to produce their nourishment, they consume only that which is already dead, pulling dead flesh back into processes of nourishment and growth.
He says, “I suspect that alongside the insects, bacteria, fungi, and other organisms that also make their living breaking down the dead, vultures have a special place in life’s heart.”
By eating the dead, removing the sources of contamination of water and soil, and staving off deadly pathogens, vultures made life possible for many others, including humans. Van Dooren says the connectivities, the ecological relationships, that made life possible are being unmade.
Absent vultures, other scavengers like dogs and rats increased. India bears the highest burden of rabies deaths in the world, primarily spread by dogs.
The disappearance of so many members of a species produces what ecologists call a “functional extinction,” which may well be followed by an actual extinction in coming years, he says.
Local extinctions have happened in India. The Asiatic cheetah became locally extinct in 1952. It was common in the dry open lands of the country a century ago.
“In contrast to the simple black-and-white notion of extinction as the singular event of the death of the last individual of a “kind” …, Indian vultures remind us that extinction is a far more diffuse and complex phenomenon. Never a sharp, singular event—something that begins, rapidly takes place, and then is over and done with—extinction is by its very nature a slow unravelling … of complex ways of life that have been co-produced and delicately interwoven.”
The “dull edge of extinction” names this difficult and drawn-out space.
n Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy, author, journalist and one of the leading environmental writers in Britain, coined the term “The Great Thinning,” for the decimation of as much as half of the wildlife population in his own lifetime. The term speaks to insidious and largely unnoticed declines that don’t end up yet in extinction but rather in great reductions that are eventually taken as normal.
In a 2015 conversation with Fountain Ink, John Waldman, a professor of biology at Queens College in New York, coined the term “eco-social anomie”, to describe how a species standing slowly declines through time.
Local extinctions, too, have happened in India. The Asiatic cheetah became locally extinct in India in 1952. It was common in the dry open lands of the country a century ago. It was non-aggressive, kept mostly as a pet and used for hunting smaller animals, says Saunak Pal of BNHS. Along with hunting, inbreeding and habitat loss were a major reason for the extinction of the cheetah. A few exist in Iran but they’re declining rapidly there, too.
The other is the Pink-Headed Duck, always rare in its known distribution range in India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. According to Pal, the last confirmed sighting of a pink-headed duck in India was in 1935. There were unconfirmed reports of two individuals in Myanmar in 2006. The Great Indian Bustard is flailing for its life. Naturalists fear its tale is all but told.
hapter one of Flight Ways explores the story of the Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) and the Laysan Albatross (P. immutabilis ) of Midway Atoll in the remote north Pacific ocean. It focuses on the work—the time, energy, and labour—that goes into raising a fledgling, the relationship-building between breeding birds, the laying and incubating eggs, the months of movement back and forth between land and sea in search of food to satisfy hungry young chicks.
Chapter three details the building of a tiny colony of Little Penguins (Eudyptula minor), one of the last penguin colonies left on the Australian mainland and the last in the state of New South Wales.
Chapter four tells the story of one of North-America’s longest-running conservation programmes, that of the iconic Whooping Crane (Grus americana), which brought the species back from the edge of extinction from fewer than 20 birds in the early 20th century to approximately 600 birds.
Chapter five encourages us to mourn the possible extinction of the Hawaiian Crow (Corvus hawaiiensis). In 2002, the last free-living crow died. The crows, forest-dwelling fruit specialists, were undone by the degradation of local forests, as well as by increased predation and introduced diseases. In the last couple of years, though, since van Dooren published this book, there has been some good news for these birds. Twenty Hawaiian crows have been released from captivity and are surviving in the forest again. It is only a small step, but there is hope that the species might still endure.
Mourning, far from being about the simple expression of grief, is an active process of coming to better understand how we are at stake in the world, and so how the deaths of others matter.
Van Dooren says that much of the history of Western thought has used animals’ understandings of and responses to death to construct a dualism between “the human” and “the animal.” It has been argued by many philosophers that it is only humans that really understand mortality, that all other species live unaware of death.
“This dualistic thinking is at the core of a human exceptionalism that holds us apart from the rest of the world and, as such, contributes to our inability to be affected by the incredible loss of this period of extinctions, and so to mourn the ongoing deaths of species.”
By telling the stories of how crows mourn their own dead, van Dooren thinks, we might open up a path into the kind of connections that will help us to mourn extinctions.
“This would be a mode of mourning that does not announce the uniqueness of the human, but works to undo exceptionalism, drawing us into company with crows and others to grieve for the loss of a world that includes us, to grieve the countless deaths that constitute this time of extinctions.”
He argues here that mourning, far from being about the simple expression of grief, is an active process of coming to better understand how we are at stake in the world, and so how the deaths of others matter.