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The Here and Now in America

Big Island Singer 640The singer is Japanese, the slack guitarist Anglo, and the dancers Swiss. Tonight we (we being the National Association for Interpretation) celebrated a slice of Hawaiian culture, music, food, and dance. Kuma Keala Ching led his hybrid aggregation in a series of kahiko (the original, pre-1893 hula) dances, with the foreign-born performers laboring for authenticity with the fervor of the recently converted.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the Hawaiian people began to resurrect their culture. After decades of being subjected to Kipling’s white man’s burden (new-caught, sullen peoples, half devil and half child) in the form of American imperialism, the Hawaiians reclaimed their heritage and their humanity.

Now there are cultural schools and organizations all around the islands. Many of the people who are learning about (and often adopting) the culture are not Hawaiian natives (ie, Polynesian). The singer on stage may perform traditional Hawaiian music, but she came to the Big Island seven years ago from Japan. Many of the young girl kahiko dancers were not of Polynesian descent either (try blond hair and blue eyes for starters). This Hawaiian hodgepodge of ethnic diversity is creating a Hawaiian cultural identity based in part on that of the past with a admixture of people decidedly of the present.

Hula dancers, Hawaii, 9 May 2012_edited-1Hawaii is the quintessential American state. The melting pot metaphor is being perfected here, with the “melting together” of disparate elements into a common culture. The Hawaiian melting pot is a work in progress, yet I see few states that have reached this degree of American assimilation.

I see the birds assimilating as well. Yes, many of the endemics are extinct. The same is true of the Hawaiians themselves. It is estimated that between 400,000 and 800,000 Hawaiians lived on the islands at the time of Cook’s landing. By the 1900 census that number had declined to 40,000, a decline mostly due to the diseases brought by Europeans.

The birds (as exotic as they may seem) also have melded into what we can only describe today as a “native” population. Hawaii’s place in the Columbian Exchange simply arrived later than most of the world. Yet the Ecological Imperialism first described by Alfred Crosby has impacted these islands as profoundly as the political imperialism of the Spanish-American War.

Hawaiian birds reflect contemporary American culture. Drive across Kansas and you will see endless acres of introduced wheat (southwestern Turkey). In the west there are introduced cattle (Fertile Crescent) ranches, introduced chicken (Asia, India) farms, introduced rock pigeons (Europe) picking at spilled introduced corn (Mesoamerica), and introduced Americans consuming all of these introduced foods.

I am not saying that it is not important to preserve our heritage, natural and cultural. But I also see the wisdom of accepting the dynamics of the world we live in. Hawaii began to transform the moment the Polynesians set foot on the islands. Trying to parse the native from the introduced is hopeless here. Therefore I embrace the eclectic, and enjoy the birds no matter where they originated. Like the Polynesians, they are all native now.

I also see a danger in nativism. I see this failing in myself. I argue until I am blue in the face about controlling exotic plants such as the Brazilian peppertree. What I try to express is the need to control an aggressive invasive species. But I fear that the step from plants to people is a short hop.

NoniHow easy it is to shift the argument from “native plants are good” to “nonnative plants are bad.” How simple it is to extend that line of thinking to “native Americans are good” and “nonnative Americans are bad.” America began to change the moment the first people crossed the Bering land bridge and became “native” Americans.

The Polynesians brought the noni when they first colonized the islands over two thousand years ago. If the Polynesians are native Hawaiians, then the noni is a native Hawaiian fruit.

What Hawaiians are nurturing is a culture that exists in the here and now. Only the future can be changed; the past is irrevocable. To ignore the present as we aspire for a return to the past is self-defeating.

The same is true for the birdlife of the islands. Of course we should strive to rescue those remaining pre-Polynesian native species that have been decimated by colonization. At the same time, however, we should celebrate the eclectic avifauna that has sorted itself into what can only be described as an ecosystem. The fact that most of these species originated somewhere else is irrelevant.

They are here. They are now. They are Hawaiian. They are American.

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Ted Lee Eubanks

Ted Lee Eubanks

Ted Lee Eubanks is president and CEO of Fermata Inc. an Austin-based global leader is sustainable tourism and outdoor recreation. Eubanks and Fermata were responsible for developing the first birding trails, in Texas, in the early 1990s. He has served on the national boards of Audubon and the CLO, and received the first ABA Chan Robbins Award in 2000. Eubanks writes extensively about birds, conservation, and sustainability, and has coauthored two books about birds (The Birdlife of Houston, Galveston, and the Upper Texas Coast, and Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail). To continue his work connecting people to places, birders to birds, Eubanks has formed a new company, Great American Trails, which is using new technologies to attract new constituents to the outdoors.
Ted Lee Eubanks

Latest posts by Ted Lee Eubanks (see all)

  • “But I fear that the step from plants to people is a short hop.”

    I guess I don’t see this as short a hop as others might. To my mind there’s a huge difference – people imported *themselves* across the oceans to get there (for better or worse), whereas the plants and other invasive animal species were *introduced* by us, intentionally or otherwise. It’s for that reason that we don’t consider Cattle Egrets to be of the same ilk as House Sparrows. There’s a dignity and respect there for a species that makes its own way to our shores, at least in my opinion. It emulates the same processes that doubtlessly occurred millions of times over all across the globe before the advent of human civilization, and created the world we awoke to only recently, geologically speaking.

    I grant though that over time the distinction gets blurry and in the end we have to deal with and live with the effects of species that were not here before, regardless of how they got here. It’s a great topic for discussion – thanks for posting it.

  • Eric, interesting point and one that I am sure we will hear again. However, let me make a counter argument. The Columbian Exchange, dating to 1492, is a natural process as well. If we are going to argue that man is part of the larger global ecosystem (one among many), then man’s actions are no less natural than those of a cattle egret.

    Certainly man has the ability to weigh the impacts of his actions. But to separate our part from the whole (man from nature) is fraught with risk. In this sense, the eventual movement of man out of Africa to every corner of the globe is the product of “the same processes that doubtlessly occurred millions of times.”

  • Jason Leifester

    It would be interesting for biologists in a place like Hawaii to study how the various species sort themselves “into what can only be described as an ecosystem.” However, I agree with Eric about the difference between species introduced by humans and species that colonize a new area on their own. This may just be a personal, gut feeling sort of thing.

    As a birder, I don’t think I’m quite ready to “celebrate the eclectic avifauna” on the islands. I haven’t been to Hawaii, but I have seen introduced species while on birding trips in other places around the world. For example, two of the least exciting birds I saw in Australia were Eurasian Blackbird and European Goldfinch. I may make it to Hawaii eventually, and if I do I’m sure I will pay attention to the exotic species…but they won’t be a big part of the reason I go.

  • I agree with Eric. Unless you’re a total vegan who thinks that all animals should have rights equal to people, our introducing species to places they’re not native is not natural. It it were, eating trans fat would also be natural because we’re natural and we make it. In 30 years, my heart would probably disagree. We must draw the line somewhere, or “natural” has no meaning, and drawing it between our species and all others is perhaps the most logical place to draw it.

  • Bird Nut

    Well said Michael. I also agree with Eric. I would add that for me, the melting pot is a homogenization and reduction of biodiversity. The world is a less interesting place without niches, and biodiverse areas free of the homogenizing effects of one global ecology of aggressive invasive generalist species. Biologically, it seems similar to cultural diversity… when I was a kid many cities and towns had their own unique character (niches), but now every city has the same fast food and chain stores, and if you were blind-folded and dropped into a city, you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. For me, I’ll embrace and celebrate the remaining niches of biodiversity, pull weeds as I hike their trails, and pray they not succumb to the homogenizing effects of one global ecology.

  • Morgan Churchill

    I think many feel, including myself, that just about anything is a “natural process”, but given humanities ability to use these natural processes to eradicate ecosystems and fundamentally change the dynamics of the global environment, I am not sure such labels are useful. A common tactic for those denying the impact of climate changes as bad is that climate change is a natural process that has been occurring for millions of years, so we shouldn’t worry about.

    I think this whole matter boils down to the concept of shifting baselines. We see the current or recent past as being what we model wilderness or diversity off of, ignorant of how things might have actually functioned. Because we do this, we are unable/unwilling to see possible malfunctions in modern ecosystems. Look at the Po’ouli, the most recent Hawaiian extinction. When first discovered the tiny and declining population was only known from a small bit of rainforest on Maui. Conservation went forward to protect it within this habitat. More recently, fossil evidence shows that this species was probably a dry-forest species, and that the rainforest was probably suboptimal habitat for it. It was stuck in the rainforest because habitat destruction and other factors drove it from it’s preferred environment.

    We assume the noni is “harmless” because it has always been present since Western naturalists have been exploring the island. But we have no idea what sort of damage it might have originally done to the ecosystem, or how much more biodiverse the plant community may have been on human arrival. I am not saying we can turn back the clock in Hawaii before human arrival, but I do think it is important to note that introduced elements that predate European arrival had just a large (or even larger impact) on the original environment, and failing to note that may lead to future miscalculations in conservation.

  • Bird nut said that “I’ll embrace and celebrate the remaining niches of biodiversity.” Are you implying that conversely it is wrong to celebrate the diversity of the world as it exists? I am not disagreeing with the underlying premise that we should conserve the planet’s biodiversity. But I also recognize that the world prior to 1492, or in the case of Hawaii, 1778, no longer exists. We are left with one world, not two, and I see value in trying to understand how this “new world” is unfolding. Part of my trying to understand the implications of this unfolding.

    As for the debate over natural processes, I am afraid that I do not agree with Morgan’s idea that “we must draw the line somewhere, or “natural” has no meaning, and drawing it between our species and all others is perhaps the most logical place to draw it.” I do believe, however, that while our actions are part of a natural process we can alter our actions in anticipation of undesirable outcomes. There is nothing inherently good or bad about a natural process, it simply is. Man does have the ability to contemplate the implications of his actions, and we do have the capability of judging the good and the bad. Even that capability, however, is “natural.”


  • Bird Nut

    I found an interesting article that relates to this discussion, titled “The Sixth Extinction” by Paleontologist Dr. Niles Eldredge, Curator-in-Chief of the “Hall of Biodiversity” exhibit, here

    He makes the point that Homo Sapiens became the first species to “live outside of nature” with the advent of agriculture, and that the development of agriculture was essentially a “war on nature”. How we choose to define ‘natural’ is rather academic, but this would suggest that pre-agricultural humans were more natural in some sense.

    It also seems that humans have some potential cognitive capacity to curb their negative impacts to biodiversity, and indeed the entire planet, perhaps through population control or other efforts, but it remains to be seen whether that potential will be realized through a collective conscientiousness.

    So I agree with you Ted to some extent that its good to make peace with the world as it is, and as it unfolds. And that to some extent, the human impacts that are unfolding are ‘natural’ to the degree that humans are natural or uncontrollable, but not to the degree that we can control our environment. We shouldn’t relinquish that control, and just resign ourselves to destructive forces when it is entirely possible to protect ecological niches. I think you’d agree that we shouldn’t shrug and resign ourselves to accept human ecological destruction when it can be prevented. Biological niches are a scientific concept, and niches are necessary and essential for biodiversity. And I think you’d agree we should proactively protect them, and even try to restore damaged areas.

    Even on a small scale, we can make a difference if its done collectively… if we see an invasive weed that we know will eventually take over a niche, we can pull it before that happens. Imagine what a tremendous difference it would make if everyone had a basic education in ecology and biodiversity, and if everyone pulled the incipient invasive weeds they encountered before they became a problem. Its a matter of education and caring. And even if our efforts are small, they still have meaning. See the story of “The Hummingbird and the Fire” – as told by Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, here
    Wangari Maathai tells an inspiring tale of doing the best you can under seemingly interminable odds.

  • Morgan Churchill

    I don’t think people are arguing that we shouldn’t understand how non-native and native organisms interact, especially in the form of new environments. I think people are arguing that “native” in an ecological sense is a meaningful term, and their are differences in human aided dispersal versus animals that naturally colonize a region.

    If the Noni is “native” than so is the Feral Pig and Polynesian Rat, both introduced by Polynesians. These are known invasive species and threats to native birds and plants. Should we just let them do their thing? Like it or not, none of these species would have made it to the islands without human help. If it’s okay for Polynesians to introduce pigs and Noni, than it’s perfectly natural for Brazilian Peppertrees and Burmese Pythons to be introduced by us. After all, in a thousand years, the ecosystems will adjust to their presence, just like they have adjusted to the Noni.

    My other point was that it is horribly artificial to set 1778 or 1492 as some sort of magic date. Humans have been substantially modifying the environment for much longer than that. Failure to realize that is hurting conservation. Proposals to introduce the Bolson’s Tortoise, a highly endangered Mexican species, into Big Bend failed because the tortoise was extinct in the area before European arrival, although it was present in the US for much of the Holocene and only wiped out by human hunting. Increasingly large number of island species are being found to be not native to given habitats, but pushed into them them by human competition. Lemurs have been shown to have radically shifted their diets in response to being forced into rainforest environments, leading to tooth rot and higher mortality from subsisting on sugary fruit.

    I have no allusions we can return Hawaii to the state it was 1700 years ago, when the major waves of extinction first occurred. But I feel it is important to recognize that the environments we live in our highly altered, and that failure to do so may enable future extinctions.

  • Bird Nut, thanks for the thoughtful reply. I am afraid that I do not agree with Eldredge. However, let’s continue with the thought experiment. I agree with your comments about invasive weeds. That concept is one that inspires me to support the removal of Brazilian peppertrees from the Texas coast. But I also understand that position that many birders take that the peppertrees attract birds and are therefore of value. In both cases human beings are making a value judgement.

    But let’s take this a step forward, one that returns to my original point. We agree that we are in favor of pulling invasive weeds. What about invasive birds?


  • Bird Nut

    Ted, in a nutshell, you are arguing that humans are natural, and therefore we should celebrate the natural world being created by us humans. And I agree that we should celebrate the diversity that does exist. But by your same argument, then you would have to also argue that cats are natural too, and we should celebrate their effects. The point is that humans have control over their own actions, and whether they let their cats run amuck.

    To address your question about weed control vs. bird control. Consider bluebird trail box maintenance. True, its a value choice to exclude House Sparrows and starlings, and by those values bluebird trail box maintenance is a good thing. But there’s also a scientific component to biodiversity as well, and the science recognizes that if we want biodiversity, then niches are necessary and essential.

    Unlike other ‘natural’ animals, humans can control their environment, and make cognitive choices on the habitats they create or destroy. And you’re right, those choices are based on values, and people will disagree on values. As for the value component, unfortunately, the more insipid/apathetic among us would be perfectly content to live in a monotone and homogenized world, with the same fast food chains in both France and the U.S., and with the same flora and fauna, and with only a passing interest in protecting pockets (niches) that could contain more than the mundane, and with relic luaus to celebrate extinct cultures.

  • Bird Nut, the natural world is not created by humans. The natural world has been modified by humans. Prairie dogs modify the landscape, bison modify the landscape, and the American Indian modified his landscape through the use of fire. A natural process is neither good or bad, as I wrote before. It simply is.

    However, also as I wrote before, man has the ability to contemplate the results of his actions, and to modify these man-made and man-induced processes. We can choose to modify our consumption of fossil fuels in order not to modify the atmosphere. We can choose to remove Brazilian peppertrees in order to protect native coastal habitats. We can choose to reduce our consumption of electricity and shift to nonextractive power sources.

    Yes, we make these choices based on a value system. Some of us believe in addressing global warming in order to protect native species and their habitats (the polar bear argument). Some, on the other hand, are concerned about global temperature rise and the potential spread of cold-limited diseases such as malaria. Some are concerned about global food supply and the impacts on production (for example, wheat and corn in our country). The values and concerns may differ, but in the end all agree that this man-induced impact is unacceptable and therefore a change in behavior is in order.

    Birds do not have the same degree of contemplative insight (at least not that we are aware of). Let’s use Hawaii once again as an example. Native Hawaiian birds have been at risk from changes to the landscape since the arrival of the Polynesians. Some of the human-induced impacts were direct (the harvesting of feathers, the conversion of native habitats to agricultural production). Some of the most egregious impacts, however, were inadvertent.

    No one purposefully introduced avian malaria to the islands (just like no one purposefully introduced the brown tree snake to Guam.) Mosquitoes were not present on the islands prior to the arrival of Europeans, therefore the birds evolved with no natural defense against mosquito-borne illnesses. Mosquitoes were present in the islands by 1826, however, brought to Hawaii in the holds of European ships. Culex quinquefasciatus arrived in 1926. With Culex quinquefasciatus came avian pox and avian malaria.

    The result is that few native Hawaiian birds remain below 4000 to 4500 feet, the “malarial” line. Although there are signs that a few species may be evolving resistance to the diseases, for the most part the only areas of the islands that are habitable by these species are at high altitude.

    As native birds were being limited by malaria and pox, species with resistance to the diseases were being introduced to the islands. These birds are able to live below 4000 feet, and therefore have occupied that niche once occupied by native species.

    No one planned this disaster. No one knew the implications of introducing mosquitoes to the islands since I suspect no one was aware of the process in the first place (and they certainly did not know the link between mosquitoes and disease; the work of Reed, Finlay, and Gorgas did not come until 1900 or so). But the result is the same – an elimination of many native land birds below 4000 feet.

    Nonnative birds now occupy that strata. I find it not in the least difficult to stridently work for the restoration of native birds, particularly in their high altitude refugia, while enjoying the introduced birds that have made Hawaii their home (willingly or not). When in Hawaii I also eat the mangoes, drink the coffee, and have pineapple for breakfast. All are grown on the islands, and not one is native.

    Your final comment is oblique, even condescending. You remark that “as for the value component, unfortunately, the more insipid/apathetic among us would be perfectly content to live in a monotone and homogenized world, with the same fast food chains in both France and the U.S., and with the same flora and fauna, and with only a passing interest in protecting pockets (niches) that could contain more than the mundane, and with relic luaus to celebrate extinct cultures.”

    This is the nativist argument in the raw. A nativist would see “relic luaus to celebrate extinct cultures” while I see an admirable attempt at cultural restoration.

    I am sure that you are right about the “scientific” component to biodiversity, but I admit to being more interested in the human component. Unless we reach your “insipid/apathetic” masses, no scientific argument is going to change public policy and personal practices. If the celebration of a hybrid culture and ecosystem leads people to value their heritage, and to be concerned about conserving what remains, then perhaps we have a chance. I must say, however, that I doubt that weed pulling and name calling will get you where you want to go.


  • Morgan Churchill

    I honestly don’t think you and Bird Nut (how often do you start a sentence with that phrase?) disagree. You can recognize that a species isn’t native but also recognize that the impacts the species has on the environment are minor enough that investing funds into eradication is pointless. Certainly no one on this thread is arguing we undergo a mass slaughter of every introduced Hawaiian bird. Given that Hawaii doesn’t get the conservation dollars needed to maintain current high altitude bird populations, trying to control lower elevation bird populations is at this point a waist of time and money

    The problem is, that if Noni, meadowlarks, and cardinals are native, than why aren’t pigs, deer, mongoose, and rats? Their are hunter and animal rights groups that would use the same argument you use for the introduced birds for all of the above animals.

  • Morgan, I understand what you are saying (and I agree that beginning a sentence with “Bird Nut” is at least curious). I believe that my direct quote is “the birds (as exotic as they may seem) also have melded into what we can only describe today as a “native” population.” Then what do you call them? They have melded into a nonnative population? Perhaps that is a better approach, and it strengthens the analogy to the US as a land of immigrants.

    Your point about “pigs, deer, mongoose, and rats” is an excellent one. I will only add that we seem to have no difficulty (at least not ethically) in controlling pigs, deer, rats, double-crested cormorants, brown-headed cowbirds, ring-billed gulls, mute swans, rock pigeons, great-tailed grackles, and snow geese in our country when we choose to.

    Jason and Eric both commented on the difference between “a species introduced by humans and species that colonize a new area on their own.” I choose not to make that distinction. What I choose is to celebrate our heritage, Hawaii included, and to focus attention on the components of that heritage at risk.

  • Bird Nut

    Thanks Morgan.

    Ted, regarding luaus, you missed my point entirely. Like you, I also appreciate attempts at cultural and biological restoration.

    As a side note, I’m surprised by the use of the term “nativism” in this context, and also by a disdain for “nativists”. I understand “nativism” as it applies to an immigrant’s political favored status, so I see why you borrow the term, but I’ve not seen it used in the context of conservation before, and with such a negative connotation. I’ve been a member of the American Birding Association since the 90’s, and I’ve always felt this group has promoted conservation and preservation of native ecosystems, perhaps not as much as Audubon, but I’ve always felt, and still feel that the ABA publication ‘Birding’ has a healthy mix of science, conservation and birding fun, with frequent articles that describe the value of native ecosystem preservation, and why its important for birds.

  • Bird Nut, here is a definition of nativism – “nativism is the political position of demanding a favored status for certain established inhabitants of a nation as compared to claims of newcomers or immigrants. Nativism typically means opposition to immigration and efforts to lower the political or legal status of specific ethnic or cultural groups because the groups are considered hostile or alien to the natural culture, and it is assumed that they cannot be assimilated.”

    Therefore nativism does not imply a favored status for an immigrant. It implies the opposite.

    I am not saying that you are a nativist in the current sense of the word (start with immigration issues). What I am alluding to is a tendency by conservationists (myself included) to draw a stark line between “native” and “introduced.” Given how much of what we take for granted in the New World is introduced (start with night crawlers and honeybees), perhaps we should make peace with what is fait accompli and focus on those niches and species that have survived the onslaught.

    Finally, my writings are independent of ABA. I do not work for ABA, nor am I a board member. My writings are my own opinions, and are not intended to reflect any official position of ABA. The organization, to its credit, sponsors this blog as a platform for discussing the broadest range of ideas related to birds and birding. I am simply one of those expressing the ideas.

  • Bird Nut

    Ted, I agree with you wholeheartedly that “…we should make peace with what is fait accompli and focus on those niches and species that have survived the onslaught.”. As Morgan pointed out, no one here is proposing a mass slaughter of every introduced Hawaiian bird. I do think its misleading to mix political immigration and biodiversity concepts.

  • Ted, if everything we humans do is natural, then what, pray tell, could we possibly do that is unnatural?

  • Michael, prayer isn’t going to help. I am afraid that I am on my own. However, let me try to answer your question.

    “Natural” is a weasel word like “green.” A store may advertise natural foods without being remotely aware of the implications. Natural law is concerned with law that transcends any political environment and complies with an overarching set of “natural” rights. My daughter may have natural curls.

    I suspect that by natural you mean ethical or moral. The converse is precisely the underlying meaning in “unnatural.” Something that is unnatural is understood to be illegitimate, perverse, or perverted.

    Let’s continue with this mind experiment and strip away the social underpinnings that define humanity. Ignore ethics, mores, culture, and religion that may be integral, even essential, to life but have little to do with Bird Nut’s “biodiversity concepts.” In that world man is truly one among many, just another animal that is subject to the same biological forces as every other living creature on this planet. I guess we could describe this as a natural state.

    Of course man is a social animal, with the power to make fundamental choices about right or wrong, good or evil. I can argue that this too is “natural,” since man, as a primate, evolved with this intellectual acuity.

    We are in disagreement about a simple premise. I believe that while man’s actions may be natural, the decisions that lead to those actions (the contemplative portion of action) may be unnatural as in unethical or immoral. You and others disagree with this notion, most likely because you haven’t understood what I have written (no doubt my own fault).

    Let’s look at four examples.

    Beaver builds a dam – natural
    Man builds a dam – unnatural

    Birds fly – natural
    Man flies – unnatural

    Lion hunts – natural
    Man hunts – unnatural

    House cat kills for pleasure – natural
    Man kills for pleasure – unnatural

    The only difference in the above examples is that man builds dams, flies, hunts, and kills by choice. Those choices are made within the context of a social structure that defines right and wrong, good and evil. That social structure evolved, I believe, to help man curb his natural instincts. Religion is certainly one example of this.

    Do I view Cook’s third voyage (his discovery of Hawaii) as being natural? Yes. Do I view the results of his discovery as being moral or ethical? Yes and no. Our native instincts propel us to explore, but the results of that exploration are greatly influenced by subsequent human decisions.

    Isn’t this the crux of this discussion? I believe in the right and the responsibility of choice. If you choose to ignore the implications of global climate change, I believe that decision is immoral or unethical rather than unnatural (in fact, to care only for ourselves and little for the outer world may be among the most natural of instincts).

    BN remarked that “I do think its misleading to mix political immigration and biodiversity concepts.” Why? How is human immigration different from that of an animal? Simple. Humans consciously choose to move, and other humans consciously choose to counter such moves. The basic biological premise of immigration is shared by both. The ethical and social components, however, delineate that which is human.

    One last point; let’s return to Hawaii. I believe that the introduction of avian pox and malaria to Hawaii is the result of a natural process. Yet the result of that action has been a moral disaster (the loss of a part of Hawaii’s natural heritage). The introduction of nonnative birds to the islands, and their occupying of a niche once held by native species, is very much a natural process.

    Therefore the question is not about what is or is not natural. The question, to me, is what is or is not legitimate (a value judgement made by humans). Do you consider these nonnative birds that now flourish on the Hawaiian islands to be illegitimate? If so, do you consider the parrots in Los Angeles, or the house sparrows in Central Park, or the rock pigeons in Boston, or the ring-neck pheasants in Nebraska, or the Eurasian collared-doves in North Dakota to be illegitimate as well?

    And what about humans? Europeans introduced themselves to the New World. Africans, at the outset, did not. They were brought here, unwillingly, as slaves. How would you characterize them today?

    This is precisely the point I have been trying to make. Nativism is a zero-sum concept. You are either native (legitimate) or not (illegitimate). I find this approach to be detestable, particularly in the New World. We are all immigrants, and I simply choose to extend my ecumenism to birds as well as humans.


  • Morgan Churchill

    as others have stated, mixing political terminology with ecological terminology is wrong and only causes confusion. When lions kill Hyenas, I don’t call it racism, nor do I refer to bees as monarchists.

    “Nativism” doesn’t apply to animals the way it applies to humans…different human ethnicities and cultural groups are Still the same species, with largely the same overall impact on the environment. Invasive species may interact in ways that from the ground on up restructure natural habitats and displace native communities.

    I would love to see House Sparrows and other exotics eliminated from North America. But I realize that is not a economical or plausible goal, given limited conservation funds. I am perfectly fine with recognizing species as “non-native” and at the same time realize its not worth the effort to control them. I don’t see how this is in anyway confusing. Whereas if we use native as a label for every animal in the environment, than we loose all ability to regulate animal traffic or mediate the effects of invasive species. We turn regulation and control of exotic species into a popularity contest

  • Just to be clear, “pray tell” is a figure of speech for “please do the favor of explaining”. It has nothing to do with prayer, which should not be a part of this discussion, imo.

    I agree with Morgan. It’s nearly impossible to have an intelligible conversation when mixing disparate definitions that are meant for unrelated disciplines. We’re talking about nature here–not the human condition. In the context of biology, “natural” does not mean “ethical or moral”. Here’s what Merriam-Webster says: “being in accordance with or determined by nature…having or constituting a classification based on features existing in nature”. According to a biological definition, then, something that is unnatural is not perverted, unethical, or unmoral. It has nothing to do with human constructs of right and wrong. It’s simply means that something is not determined by nature.

    Using only that definition, I ask again, if everything we humans do is part of nature, can anything we do be unnatural? Our thoughts are just as natural as our actions.

    And as an aside, usage of the words “natural” and “unnatural” to refer to the moral or ethical quality of a behavior is not terribly PC these days. Same-sex relationships are still referred to as “unnatural acts” or “crimes against nature” in many parts of the world.

    Any way you look at it, using two different words with different definitions will only help clarify a discussion about two very different concepts.

  • Let me try another way of explaining my view of the word “natural”. In languages, there is almost always a difference between the first person and the third person. The first person (I, we) is removed from the second and third persons (he, she, it, they, you). It’s a way of separating oneself from the “other”. In biology, “natural” is used to describe anything that happens without human intervention. We simply must have to a word for that. It’s as essential as “we” and “they” being different words. Imagine if we only used “we” when speaking to people. Everyone would be perpetually confused. What is precisely what’s happened in this discussion.

    To answer a couple of your specific questions, Ted. You asked, “[Why is it] misleading to mix political immigration and biodiversity concepts?” Because they are different disciplines with different sets of definitions. And it’s not our consciousness that sets us apart in migration or any other action. For one thing, we don’t know that other animals are not conscious. Indeed, I suspect many are. The reason human migration is different from non-human migration is because one is “us” and the other is “other”. It’s simply a matter of classification that eases discussion. In a biological discussion, there is no positive or negative moral connotation to the words natural and unnatural. Therefore, introduced birds are not legitimate. Neither are they illegitimate. They are just unnatural in the places where they are introduced.

  • Michael, this is one discussion that I am more than willing to admit that we will never agree. As for the prayer comment, I admit it to being a poor attempt at humor. Nuance is still difficult to express online, particularly in a traditional linear birding community.


  • Michael, you say that “the reason human migration is different from non-human migration is because one is “us” and the other is “other”.” Trust me, I understand what you are saying. I simply disagree. In fact, I find the concept so foreign that I am perfectly happy to admit that this is a world of thought that I do not relate to. Fortunately, I don’t have to. However, I have thoroughly enjoyed this discussion. Thanks.


  • Ted, I’m sure you’re right that we’ll never agree. If we can’t agree on the definition of a word, there’s little elsewhere for us to go. As you said, a great conversation, though!

  • David Rankin

    I think what bothers me the most about exotic birds, or any plants or animals, in Hawaii is that they are replacing something that exists no where else on earth. There are Java Sparrows and Yellow-fronted Canaries and Japanese White-eyes, etc in many other places, but there’s no where else an I’iwi or an Akiapola’au can survive. And that makes native Hawaiian species more valuable than exotic ones, in Hawaii. Sure, most of the exotics in Hawaii aren’t directly threatening the native birds, but merely by existing they take up habitat and resources once devoted to things strictly Hawaiian, things that once lost, can never be replaced.

    I know that we can never go back to the way things were, pre human settlement, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to stop any more from being lost needlessly, and part of that is preventing invasive species, in any form, from doing further damage. I don’t mean to say we should rid the island of everything introduced, but I’d like to see more habitat restored to at least something like it once was, because once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.

    Yes, the exotic species have formed a new ecosytem, but at the cost of the old. And that’s the problem, in my opinion. When you talk in terms of culture, of it adopting new practices and evolving, that’s… I was going to say not the same as one ecosytem replacing another, but maybe it is. In the end, the old is lost. In terms of culture, however, people (usually) choose to change their culture. Old things can be revived, changed to fit new situations, built upon. But with an ecosystem like Hawaii, there’s not room for so many changes and new additions. It’s not a matter of all things changing to fit newcomers, but a wholesale replacement, a homogenization, a unique thing being forever lost.

    The point I’m trying to make is that something must be lost for these exotics to become established in Hawaii, and I say the price is too high, that Hawaii is too unique to celebrate the destruction of its unique ecosystem.

  • I know it’s desperately uncool (hi, Rick), in a scientific paper, to cite your own research.

    Thus, it is surely way desperately uncool to cite, in somebody else’s blog post, your own blog posts. But I can’t resist. Here are three earlier postings by Yours Truly:

    If I may presume, the two Teds are aligned on this matter.

    And since we’ve already established my way uncoolness, here’s one more, from North American Birds:

  • Bird Nut

    The Ted Eubanks post here explores what it means for an ecosystem or culture to be ‘natural’, and what it means for a species to be considered ‘native’. The Ted Floyd articles linked above discuss whether some species should be accepted by some records committee, or counted in some bird listing game. These two topics, although related, are really different in my mind.

    For me personally, I’m much more concerned about preserving native ecosystems, and keeping them ‘natural’, and promoting biodiversity, than I am concerned about the rules of any countability game, or whether a record is accepted by some committee or not.

    I feel that being overly concerned about countability rules can distract us from real conservation issues. Whether or not some record is accepted should not condone its presence, and should not imply it is ‘natural’.

  • Ted Lee Eubanks

    I am trying to understand the concept of condone. The house sparrow is here, and is not leaving. The same goes for rock pigeon, European starling, ring-necked pheasant, various parrots and parakeets, red bishop, nutmeg manikin, etc. The list goes on for states like Florida, Texas, California, and Hawaii. This is the world we live, and bird, in.

    The challenge facing us with remaining native ecosystems isn’t with ring-necked pheasants, for example. Isn’t the real threat the loss of native grasslands that once hosted prairie-chickens but now are corn fields with pheasants? Precisely which native ecosystems are being directly impacted by rock pigeons, house sparrows, or yellow-billed cardinals? Aren’t most of these birds thriving in altered habitats? I am certainly not arguing that we should alter more native habitat in order to nurture more nonnative species. But isn’t the issue habitat (the disease), and not these introduced birds (the symptom)?

    What I am not comfortable with is the notion that these introduced birds are somehow lesser beings. They are what they are – species that prosper in changed environments.

    The matter of what is or is not native is dicey. Were the original inhabitants of the US, for example, “native” Americans?How is it that walking across a landbridge makes you native, but sailing a boat across the Atlantic makes you foreign? The first people here altered the landscape, managed the land for certain species, and, most likely, contributed to the extinction of a number of large mammals. The idealized view of “native” Americans is just that, idealized.

    The same is true, fo course, for the Polynesians that made their way to the Hawaiian islands. They brought plants and animals with them, and a few, like the noni, have become, for the most part, integrated into the native flora and fauna.

    If we want to parse native (in the sense of original) from the nonnative, then we will have to use a benchmark that precedes human habitation. I am fine with that notion. Remove all introduced species from our various lists, and let’s go “back to nature.” I am perfectly happy with lopping off house sparrow, rock pigeon, ring-necked pheasant, monk parakeet, and the like.

    I am also happy to call this world we now live in, and the avifauna we enjoy in this recreation, something other than native. I have no problem working to restore and protect native ecosystems while enjoying this world around me.

    Finally, I am also very uncomfortable in deciding which birds are of natural occurrence and which ones are not. I spent a couple of weeks working in the DR recently. In the Parque Nacional Valle Nuevo the rufous-collared sparrow is a fairly common resident. This species in the Dominican Republic is less likely than one in Colorado, yet we debate Colorado. I am with Ted Floyd on this one. This is a worthy bird. For me personally, they are all worthy birds.

    Ted Lee Eubanks

  • Bird Nut

    Of course you and Ted are free to team up on some debate, but you’re actually arguing 2 different points, so I’d recommend you keep the debate to some well-defined specific topic. Since you’re now repeating your thesis, I won’t rehash my replies, but I will repeat what was emphasized earlier that invasive species are not ‘lesser’ species, and they can still be appreciated, but they are very disruptive to delicate niche ecologies that have taken hundreds of thousands of years to develop. These niche ecologies are critical for biodiversity. The idea that releasing invasives throughout the globe is ‘natural’, or that it increases diversity is bunk… just the opposite is true, it greatly decreases diversity, and leads to homogeneous ecosystems.

  • Ted Lee Eubanks

    Bird Nut, you are lost. Let’s begin with the fact that we are discussing a set of introduced birds, not all exotic species. You propose that “they are very disruptive to delicate niche ecologies that have taken hundreds of thousands of years to develop.” Name one. Give me one example of an introduced bird that has disrupted delicate niches. The niches were disrupted by man, not the birds. Avian malaria, for example, came with man. This opened up niches once occupied by native birds, now occupied by exotic species that are resistant to the disease. You blame the bird. I blame man. No one has argued that releasing exotics increases biodiversity. Show me one example where that has been stated in this entire debate. Stick with the issues and stay on track. You have good points to make, but try not to get sidetracked by your emotions.

  • Ted Lee EubNks

    One quick note as I sit stranded on a plane. Yes. The European starling is detrimental. But would the starling have succeeded without the changes brought about by man? If the first Europeans had dumped a load of starlings and then left would they have survived?

  • Finally made it home. Kansas for 10 days, now off to DC. However, I do want to make one comment before I call it a night. Bird Nut, you may be lost, but no more than I am. You may be wrong, but no more than I am. I view the world through a particular lens, one that recognizes the world today with all of its warts and flaws. I take what I can get. Of course we should work to save what is left of that which we inherited. As we are doing so, however, I am determined to enjoy the time I have left on this planet. No matter how ABA approaches the issue, I will be back in Hawaii at the first opportunity. Life is too short to do otherwise.


  • Bird Nut

    Ted, like you, I also want to enjoy my time on this earth, and see its birds and ecosystems. And like you, I want to enjoy it even if it has ‘warts and flaws’ in your words. Few ecosystems are pristine with all their connected parts working as they had evolved to work, and yet we can still enjoy them. But I don’t have to wear rose-tinted glasses, and I don’t have to acquiesce. I know you agree that humankind can do things to the benefit of nature, rather than its detriment. And this just wouldn’t be possible if we just ‘kept it positive’, and didn’t consider or acknowledge the negative implications of our actions.

    You answered your own question with Starlings, but there are many more examples. House Sparrows have had a severe impact on Bluebird and Tree Swallow populations. I’ve even had personal experiences with House Sparrows pulling swallow parents off their nests and destroying their young by pecking at their heads.

    Since you asked to limit the discussion of invasives to birds, I’m sure there are others that could describe the impacts of introduced Mute Swans, or other introduced birds throughout the world that have had a detrimental effect on environments.

  • I apologize for the delay in getting back to this. I have been traveling.

    Let me try to get back to my original point. Bird Nut notes that “House Sparrows have had a severe impact on Bluebird and Tree Swallow populations. I’ve even had personal experiences with House Sparrows pulling swallow parents off their nests and destroying their young by pecking at their heads.”

    Therefore I am going to assume that his (or her) argument is that exotic species should not be condoned (his word) because of their “detrimental effect on environments.”

    I have argued this exact point in the past. I made the mistake of support Brazilian peppertree removal along the central Texas coast, which resulted in a birder telling me to do the anatomically impossible.

    So let’s limit our concern to those species (like Brazilian peppertree) that have a “detrimental effect on environments.” I also agree to “acknowledge the negative implications of our actions.” In fact, this is my point. I don’t blame the bird, introduced or not. I blame our actions that led to the problem in the first place.

    However, why stop with introduced species? Why not expand our concerns to any bird species that meets a single criterion:

    1. Has a detrimental effect on the environment.

    Now we can add brown-headed cowbird, bronzed cowbird, and shiny cowbird to our list of birds we do not condone. Most of the corvids would need to be included since they are notorious nest robbers. Great horned owl? Yes. Eastern screech-owl? Ditto. Ring-billed gulls? They need to be controlled in places to protect nesting terns. Peregrine falcon, merlin, gyrfalcon, American kestrel, Cooper’s hawk, and sharp-shinned hawk are obvious additions.

    I suggest that the ABA create a “Good Bird” list, and a “Bad Bird” list. ABA would then condone the good birds, and reject the bad birds. Perhaps we could establish an appeal process by which species could petition for reinstatement (for example, if peregrines agree to quit feeding on birds other than the “bad” rock pigeons).

    Alexander Skutch, famous for his love of nature, still hated snakes. We will simply follow his lead and say that we hate any bird that is not native, or, if it is native, behaves poorly.

    I’ve started my eBird “good bird” list already.


  • And, of course, this is precisely how we should handle adding or deleting states from the ABA list. We can rank states as good or bad. Good states have birds that behave well, and bad states have birds that behave poorly.

    Hawaii, Florida, and California are “bad,” while states such as North Dakota and Maine are “good.” In this way we escape the difficulties with listing numbers of species. We can focus on good birds and proper bird behavior, and ignore issues such as “self sustaining populations.” Life lists, too, should be measured by the number of good birds seen, with extra points awarded for good birds behaving in an exceptionally good way. For example, the black-capped vireo feeding a cowbird chick gets extra points for the intent, and the cowbird gets a demerit for nest parasitism.

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