The end of birds, butterflies and wildflowers

I’m very much afraid that we are rapidly coming to the end of birds, butterflies and wildflowers.

In the last fifty or sixty years the numbers of birds, insects and wildflowers and all of wildlife have been radically declining. Whole species have come to an end recently but the decline I am talking about is more the numbers of individuals within species. These numbers are becoming much smaller.

Desert Paintbrush in Arches National Park. It is almost impossible to realize that we may be approaching The end of birds, butterflies and wildflowers.
Desert Paintbrush in Arches National Park

In the last fifty years the sheer numbers of most bird species have declined by 50 to 70%. The numbers of insects have radically decreased . The numbers of birds in many species had dropped by 70% and more.

The decline of insects has been particularly catastrophic . A lot of people don’t think insects are important. But none of us would be alive without them.

I remember when I was a young man, it was routine to scrub thick masses of dead bugs off of car windshields. I don’t remember doing that for a long time. Maybe for thirty or forty years. And wildflowers in the mountain areas of the West are going in the same direction. The decline of wildflowers aren’t as well known as the declines in birds and bugs, but botanists are very aware of this fact.

I’ve written before about the dwindling of birds, insects and wildflowers. And the same thing is happening with mammals and all of wildlife in general.

There is one thing causing all of this. Us. Human beings. As humans become more and more numerous and more and more destructive of natural habitats, all wildlife is becoming extinct. This destruction of the natural world has not always been as horrendous as it is now, but humans have always been indifferent to the murder of the wild animals, big and small, that share the world with us.

Buffalo in Yellowstone National Park
Buffalo in Yellowstone National Park

The end of wildlife became very noticeable at about the same time global warming began its catastrophic rise, right around the end of World War II. This was the period when industrialization and human population got totally out of hand. There is a good book called The Great Acceleration by Michael McCarthy about the great ecological changes in the world since 1945.

I just finished reading an article in the New York Review of Books by Verlyn Klinkenborg titled “What’s Happening to the Bees and Butterflies?” This article is about the ongoing extinction of birds, insects, butterflies and wildflowers. It is also a review of a new book called The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy.

This book is another recounting of the rapid decline of all birds and bugs and other wildlife in the modern world. The idea of the moth snowstorm is another way of thinking about the masses of dead bugs that used to cover our windshields. Most older people like me remember driving thru snowstorms of moths that our headlights used to light up when driving on summer nights. Those moth snowstorms no longer exist. Moth populations are but a shadow of what they were only a few years ago.

Wildflowers in the Alaskan coastal range.   It is almost impossible to realize that we may be approaching The end of birds, butterflies and wildflowers.
Wildflowers in the Alaskan coastal range

McCarthy writes not so much about the extinction of whole species but more the thinning down of the numbers of individual birds and bugs and animals in general. The great multitudes of wildlife which used to engulf us has thinned down enormously in just a few years he says. And he mourns this loss.

There are several ways to think about what we have lost. For one thing, the end of wildlife and the end of nature basically means the end of us also. Humans evolved to live and survive in a very narrow and specific niche. We can survive only in a very narrow range of temperatures, we require clean air an clean water, we need a very precise amount of oxygen to survive and we rely on a whole range of insects and plants and animals to stay alive.

It only takes a little bit of alteration of our niche to mean the end of our existence. And the scientists who study this think it will happen sooner rather than later. It is only a matter of time before we wipe out ourselves as surely as we are killing all the other animals in the world.

This sounds pretty grim, but I’m afraid there is little way around this nasty fact unless we somehow manage to undo all the damage we have done very soon. Which is not likely. And this isn’t just my opinion. Pretty much all natural scientists agree with this grim appraisal.

Here is Klinkenborg on the recent loss of birds in the US”

” According to a new report from Partners in Flight, a coalition of organizations including the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, forty-six common land-bird species have lost “half or more of their populations—a net loss of 1.5 billion breeding birds” since 1970. (This is to say nothing of waterfowl, shorebirds, seabirds, and rare or threatened species.) Twenty-four of those species have lost between 50 and 90 percent of their 1970 populations. These are astonishing numbers and, like most astonishing numbers, it’s hard to know how to feel their weight. We’ve grown sadly accustomed to the tragedy of the few—to seeing a rare species on the cusp of disappearance, like the black rhino or the lowland gorilla. But this is the tragedy of the common.”

 It is almost impossible to realize that we may be approaching The end of birds, butterflies and wildflowers.
It is almost impossible to realize that we may be approaching the end of birds, butterflies and wildflowers.

Sometimes we can fix or at least try to fix nature when it tries to push us into extinction but this takes trillions of dollars and in the end we can never survive when nature turns against us. Or more accurately when we turn against nature.

An article by Yale Climate Connections says that ” it could cost the U.S. economy hundreds of billions a year by 2090.” The article spells out just how catastrophic these costs will be. It discusses various scenarios global warming might take, some worse than others depending on what action we take now. The report says that “The bottom line conclusion is that by the year 2090, impacts on those 22 economic sectors in the U.S. would cost about $224 billion more per year if we follow the RCP8.5 pathway than if we achieve the RCP4.5 pathway. This report comes with an important caveat: only a small portion of the impacts of climate change are estimated, and therefore this Technical Report captures just a fraction of the potential risks and damages that may be avoided or reduced when comparing the alternative scenarios.”

A book I read a year or so ago is The Once and Future World by JB MacKinnon. This book is similar to The Moth Snowstorm in that it also says the world we live in today is very different from how it has been for most of human existence. Up until very recently there have been immense amounts of wildlife surrounding us. Huge flocks and herds of wildlife were everywhere. Birds darkened the skies. Bison herds stretched out for hundreds of miles on the great plains. Schools of fish sometimes actually capsized boats.

 It is almost impossible to realize that we may be approaching The end of birds, butterflies and wildflowers.
It is almost impossible to imagine that we may be approaching The end of birds, butterflies and wildflowers.

The thing is, we just don’t remember all of this life that used to surround us as recently as 150 years ago. So we don’t really miss it. We all remember how the world was when we were kids. We remember the animals we saw and talked about then and that’s it. We think this is the way it has always been. We are all this way. None of us really realize the enormity of our loss.

McCarthy says that he mourns the loss of the life that used to surround us. He says that “Even more than the single species, it’s the loss of abundance itself I mourn.” And, he says, this loss is far more than economic loss. He says “Although birdsong can’t be valued in economic terms, we can at least declare that at this moment and at this place, it was worth everything to me.”

That comment brought back a very strong memory for me. When I was 23 I got a summer job as a fishing guide on Jackson Lake in Teton National Park in Wyoming. I remember driving up to the park from Laramie where I was going to college. On the drive I passed through the town of Lander which is at the base of the Wind River Mountains. I remember driving through some large alfalfa fields outside of Lander just as the sun was going down, looking at the Wind Rivers, on my way to a job that meant a lot to me at the time. As I drove through the alfalfa fields I was constantly serenaded with the calls of Meadow Larks. I remember being very moved by the sunset, the mountains, the lush fields and all that birdsong. I remember all this very distinctly today. It is one of the strongest memories I have, even though it happened over 50 years ago. It is still an important moment in my life.

Snow Geese in Apache del Bosque in New Mexico
Snow Geese in Apache del Bosque in New Mexico

But, you know, I don’t remember hearing any meadow larks after that experience. I’ve sure there were a few more times, probably many times that I heard that lilting trill. I can still whistle it. But I cannot remember any meadow lark songs for many, many years now. The earth is now a very different place than it was when I was a young man. A much more lonely place. We humans have succeeded in killing off pretty much all life but our own. And now we are almost alone in the world. What an incredible loss that is.

I find myself constantly mourning the end of birds, butterflies and wildflowers.

**********************

More reading on this subject

JB MacKinnon, The Once and Future World: Nature as it was, as it is, and as it could be.

JR McNeill, The Great Acceleration: An environmental history of the anthropocene since 1945

Farlely Mowat, Sea of Slaughter

Michael McCarthy, The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy

What’s Happening to the Bees and Butterflies?

Yale Climate Connections on the cost of climate change.

Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction

Naked SunRay in Capital Reef National  Park..  It is almost impossible to realize that we may be approaching The end of birds, butterflies and wildflowers.
Naked SunRay in Capital Reef National Park
Silver Falls in New Hampshire
Silver Falls in New Hampshire
Galatin River in Montana.  Rivers like this used to be full of trout, but not now unless they are artificially stocked.
Galatin River in Montana. Rivers like this used to be full of trout, but not now unless they are artificially stocked.

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