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Talk Birdy to Me

Recently, I wandered through "Audubon's Aviary," an exhibit at the New York Historical Society featuring watercolors by John James Audubon of birds that have, since Audubon painted them in the first half of the nineteenth century, become endangered or extinct. It was the right place to think about loss and the natural world. But, although death was everywhere apparent in the show, it was not a lugubrious place: Cries of birds--whooping crane, crested caracara--were piped in, and video images of actual birds appeared on a screen. And, of course, there were Audubon's grand paintings, part of his vast enterprise to paint in life-size every bird in America. His paintings, and the exhibition, made me think of a line in Randall Jarrell's poem about the mockingbird:

He imitates the world he drove away

So well that for a minute, in the moonlight,

Which one's the mockingbird? Which one's the world?

Audubon was famous for animating his bird subjects--the terrified bobwhite quail scattering before the talons of a red-shouldered hawk look like panic- stricken pogrom victims and make you forget that, before being given such dramatic life, they were shot and posed by Audubon himself, who also had killed the killer hawk. Audubon killed in order to capture. A Bewick's wren, sitting innocently on the branch of an elm, was, according to Audubon, shot "standing ... in the position in which you now see it."

Death is everywhere in Audubon's work, but there are different kinds of death. His painting of a pair of Eskimo curlews has a strangely prophetic quality. In Audubon's painting, the female bird is dead--not shot or visibly maimed but simply dead--the only time Audubon painted a dead bird whose cause of death was not apparent. The dead bird lies stretched on the ground, her pale underparts exposed. The male bird looks sideways at its dead mate, with a kind of avian astonishment. There were huge flocks of Eskimo curlews in the 1870s, but, as the passenger pigeon diminished, it was turned to as a market bird, and, 20 years later, the bird was essentially gone. The last official sighting was in the 1960s; today, it is presumed extinct.

Does it matter? What claim should this bird, or any other missing creature, have on our conscience? Extinction is nothing new; there are more extinct species than extant ones. We ourselves stand on the bones of superseded primate ancestors. Extinction is hardly a phenomenon only of modern industrial civilization; it is widely believed that the woolly mammoth was hunted to extinction by Neolithic man, and I learned from a book about avian extinction called Hope is the Thing with Feathers that "prehistoric islanders in the Pacific killed off some 2,000 bird species, diminishing by one-fifth the global number through a variety of activities, including habitat destruction."

But there is something about the disappearance of animals in the modern age that is different. I would not presume to know the mental state of those prehistoric islanders, but I can't help but imagine they were not conscious of the end they were causing. Edward O. Wilson, the great biologist, has speculated that, having evolved in the midst of abundance whose limit we could never fathom, we are all but programmed to go at nature with an exterminating fury necessary for our own survival that, until quite recently--when modern technology amplified human will to an equally unfathomable degree--had few lasting consequences.

I associate that pre-modern delusion of abundance with my assimilating grandmother, who was born on the Lower East Side in 1900. Shedding Yiddish and Jewish ritual observance as a young woman, it never occurred to her that her language or people could disappear in traumatic fashion; there was plenty back in the old country and a sense of everrenewing abundance. Similarly, those first settlers who came here--like Audubon himself, who arrived in this country from France in 1803, the year the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the country--could hardly imagine that swinging an ax or firing a gun might, in the space of 50 or 100 years, lead to the end of entire species. Nowadays, though, we must prop up the natural world we evolved to contend with, which is, to say the least, stressful and confusing.

In September 1914, Martha, the last passenger pigeon--a bird that, in Audubon's day, was the most populous bird on earth--died at the Cincinnati Zoo. The last wild bird had been shot by a boy some years earlier in Ohio. Martha's death made national news, and, when she died, her body was frozen into a 300- pound block of ice by the Cincinnati Ice Company, stopping time when it was already too late. The bird was sent by train to Washington, D.C., to take up posthumous residence at the Smithsonian where it became a sort of stuffed celebrity, lent out from time to time for fund-raisers in Cincinnati or celebrations in San Diego.

Four years later, the last Carolina parakeet died in the same zoo. The news was more muted, and the bird itself far less well known. I imagine that, after the slaughter of World War I, the death of a bird, even an entire species, could hardly register in the same way on the national consciousness. Our own world, certainly, has its share of human horror and political distractions.

But our technology, which of course plays a role in extinction, also can play an opposite role, in the same way that the Florida Everglades are essentially maintained by pumps and sluices built by the Army Corps of Engineers that, 100 years ago, all but destroyed the Everglades. Recently, I published a tribute in the Los Angeles Times to the Carolina parakeet on the ninetieth anniversary of its extinction--only to receive an e-mail from a scientist at the San Diego Zoo, telling me about the po'ouli, a Hawaiian bird I had never heard of. The last po'ouli died at the Maui Bird Conservation Center at 11:45 p.m. on November 26, 2004. Needless to say, the disappearance of the bird was not national news. Audubon never painted the bird; it was only discovered 35 years ago.

After the bird's death, tissues were taken from the bird and grown out--not easy to do with bird cells--but scientists did manage to obtain fresh cells that had grown and divided and that contain the entire genetic code for the bird. Cryopreserved in the Frozen Zoo, these cells might someday be thawed and reconstituted. We may yet be able to imitate--and even replicate--the world we drove away far more than Audubon ever imagined. It is hard to conceive of the bird flapping out of extinction, but it is certainly a step beyond holding Martha the passenger pigeon by the feet upside-down in a tank of water. Likewise, breeding in zoos is going to be, and already has proven, the salvation of a number of species already gone from the wild.

Questions about extinction and conservation stir complex human questions that are difficult to answer but important to frame. What do we owe the natural world and why? Is it pure self-interest--the need to maintain biodiversity in order to maintain healthy balance in the world we draw food and medicine from? Or is there a deeper, transcendent sense of obligation, even in a post- Darwinian world? Are we still biblical stewards of the earth? And what would we sacrifice to save a bird, or an animal lower on the evolutionary ladder?

Just last month, The New York Times carried an article about an area of the Pine Barrens slated for development that would endanger short-eared owls living there, as well as the tiger salamander. I immediately felt the $1.5 billion resort development had no business jeopardizing short-eared owls, wonderful birds I am instantly drawn to. But I was embarrassed to discover I didn't really care about the tiger salamander in the same way. I dutifully read up on the amphibian and brought my sentiments into line with my political convictions.

Of course species are used as a rallying cry to save a whole habitat, but the question still remains: How do we know what to save, at what cost, and why? I often think of the two missionaries in A Passage to India explaining to the native population that God's house has many mansions and all are welcome in it, black and white. But the question of animals quickly arises--what about monkeys? "Old Mr. Grayford said No, but young Mr. Sorley, who was advanced, said Yes; he saw no reason why monkeys should not have their collateral share of bliss, and he had sympathetic discussions about them with his Hindu friends. " But the Hindus press the point to a degree that challenges even the advanced Mr. Sorley:

And the jackals? Jackals were indeed less to Mr. Sorley's mind but he admitted that the mercy of God, being infinite, may well embrace all mammals. And the wasps? He became uneasy during the descent to wasps, and was apt to change the conversation. And oranges, cactuses, crystals and mud? and the bacteria inside Mr. Sorley? No, no, this is going too far. We must exclude someone from our gathering, or we shall be left with nothing.

We are still in some sense having this exchange, though it is more urgent since it is not our Father's mansion but our own that we are debating admission into. And the answer will tell us something not of the quality of God's mercy, but of the quality of human civilization.

Jonathan Rosen is the editorial director of Nextbook. His fourth book, The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature, has recently been published.

By Jonathan Rosen