Saturday, August 02, 2003

Choose your words

Recently, on an email group concerned with birds and birdwatching, someone posted an article that seemed to suggest that the increase in peregrine falcons has directly contributed to an apparent dramatic decrease in the numbers of several shorebird species. The article generated a great of heat, but not as much light as one would hope. As a number of the regular list contributors chimed in, the posts got longer and longer and drifted further and further from fact and closer and closer to opinion and insult. Lurkers like me no doubt found it both amusing and irritating, but who wants to point out the weaknesses in somebody's arguments only to have the flame of their disdain aimed at you instead of somewhere else?

Finally, in a post boldly titled "This thread is reaching the 'dead horse' stage," list contributor Dave Irons wrote an eloquent and rational message that reminded us all of the importance of choosing your words, and your facts, carefully. The post is four paragraphs long and contains a number of bird related references, but I have included it all because I think you need to read his argument as a whole to get the full impact:

"I am surprised at the willingness of all parties involved to continue a discussion that has no end point. As pointed out by others, the complex predator/prey relationships that exist between falcons and various shorebirds evolved long before humans were a factor in the equation. Our experiences as observers of these relationships have been so short, relative to the time scale over which the relationships have developed and existed, I would argue the human created database is statistically irrelevant. Over geologic time, the Earth has been in a state of constant change. Landmasses, estuaries, mudflats and vegetation communities where we make our observations today were dramatically different as recently as 15,000 years ago during the last glacial maximum.

"Humans define reality in the natural world based on perceptions we develop over comparatively short lifetimes. For any of us to say that Peregrine Falcons are having a greater impact on shorebird populations now than in the distant past assumes we know a lot more than we can possibly know. "Endangered", "threatened" and "sensitive" are totally subjective terms that are defined by our reality not the species to which we attach them. Given the human impacts on the Earth's surface over recent centuries, it could easily be argued that no organism on Earth is at or near "natural" population levels. Eskimo Curlews and Passenger Pigeons darkened the skies over the N. American continent as recently as 200 years ago and the historical numbers of these species far exceeded any known numbers for Peregrine Falcons. Both these species are considered extinct or very nearly extinct (Eskimo Curlew), but some are arguing that there are too many Peregines around. Numbers of Peregrines will be controlled by their ability to find food. If left alone (without other human interferences or environmental degradation) Peregrines and their varied prey base will likely find a state of equilibrium. I have no idea where that balance point will be.

"It would be nice for a change to hear some of us profess to know as little as we actually know, rather than boldly proclaiming that we are experts. As an example, Merlins and Dunlin migrate together and have been for as long as any humans have been observing them. Both species seem to be doing quite well at least here in Oregon. If for some reason we started observing a few thousand less Dunlin wintering in the southern Willamette Valley, would there be an outcry to do something about all those pesky Merlins? I hope not.

"Let's all agree that everyone participating in this discussion would like to see healthy, stable populations of both Peregrine Falcons and Western Sandpipers. We should focus our efforts on reducing the negative human impacts on their habitats and cease making meaningless value judgements about the population numbers suggested by the poorly conceived article Lee Cain brought to our collective attention.

Dave Irons"

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