American Birding Podcast



Beautiful Truths

Entrance SignThe flight to Miami is squeezed. I dread the leg to Grenada. With age my ass is wider, my joints less pliable, and the seats skinnier. Thankfully the woman in the next seat is emaciated. The skies are friendly; I can’t say the same for the hired help.

My fellow fliers run the gamut from graybeards in Christian Motorcycle Association colors (Riding for the Son) to a covey of missionaries from a midwest church squiring hope to Haiti. The missionaries are colorful as well. Each is sausaged into a pea green tee shirt that pronounces their goodness. I wonder if the motorcycle Christians are biking to Haiti, and how they will get their bikes across the water. Maybe this is why they are motorcycle Christians.

Grenada is my last new island nation for this year. I will return to Jamaica in late November; I’ve been there before. I like Jamaica. I like Jamaicans. I like people who can scrape through colonial oppression and slavery without losing the joie de vivre. How can a people so maligned give birth to a music as hopeful as reggae?

Grenada is the tail of the Lesser Antilles. Unlike Trinidad and Tobago, islands once connected to South America by a land bridge, Grenada developed isolated from the mainland. Here volcanic thrusts lifted land out of a shallow sea. Islands formed, and plants and animals (including people), those that could make the hop or float from the mainland and adjacent islands, took root.

The Caribbean is not one of those “more birds for the buck” places that birders like to brag about. The Caribbean lacks volume (564 species been recorded, fewer than a number of U.S. states such as California and Texas). By comparison, almost 1900 species have been seen in Colombia.

But islands are Darwinian delights, isolated Petri dishes where evolution grows in rich agar. On an island species adapt, evolve, and radiate in dramatic fashion. Think Hawaii, the Galapagos, and Madagascar, for starters.

Of the 1871 species found in Colombia, only 74 are endemic. Costa Rica? Nearly 900 species of which 7 are endemic. Trinidad and Tobago? 470 species, with 1 endemic.

The islands of the Caribbean, on the other hand, have given rise to an incredible array of unique life forms. Of the 564 Caribbean bird species, 148 (26%) are endemic. According to Birdlife, the insular Caribbean also hosts 164 mammals (49 or 30% endemic), 497 reptiles (418 or 84% endemic), 189 amphibians (164 or 87% endemic), and 12,000 plants species of which 7,000 (58%) are endemic.

The people of the Caribbean have adapted and radiated as well. This mashup of Taino, Carib, Arawak, Spanish, English, French, Dutch, Indian, Chinese, Portuguese, African, and American immigrants has subdivided into cultures like no others in the world. Show me another Haiti, or Jamaica, or Cuba. Foods, languages, dress, art, and music, all implements of culture, have been twisted and turned into a new patrimony here.

The birds have borne witness. These endemics, singular birds such as the todies and tremblers, were here before the Taino, and most, surprisingly, survived the Columbian Exchange. The birds are as much a part of Caribbean patrimony as rum and callaloo (callaloo is from West Africa, sugarcane cultivation from New Guinea, and rum from India and China).

The project that brings me to Grenada, the Caribbean Bird Trail (CBT), is an effort of the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds (SCSCB) to explore this Caribbean patrimony through the eyes of birds. My compadres on this trip are Lisa Sorenson, the president of SCSCB, and Holly Robertson, the project manager. Grenada is the third Caribbean islands where we have worked this season.

We have positioned birds at the metaphorical center of the CBT. To understand the Caribbean and its people, you must first understand their space. Tuan wrote that the human being, by his mere presence, imposes a schema on space.

Our space is birds.

There are a number of bird schemas in the Caribbean, each with its own distinct purpose and funding sources. Birding trails, in general, are recreational schemas, ways of organizing places for finding birds. There are also bird conservation schemas in the Caribbean – IBAs, KBAs, and AZE sites, for example. There are thousands of these bird conservation places that have already been designated (globally there are over 11,000 IBAs alone).

Bird conservation schemas are predominantly environmental in focus. Yet, as Tuan and others have noted, the environment only refers to the biophysical components of landscapes. These components exist regardless of the types of human connections to them.

In other words, conservation of the environment has, at best, an indirect tie to how humans, particularly those who live in and around these conservation places, see meaning and value in them. Conservationists see value in the collection of species in a place. Others may see values and meanings that escape such a limitation.

…an unknown physical setting is a “blank space” that only becomes a “place” as it is endowed with meanings through lived experiences.

My concern is in how conservation actions and programs are generally focused on environmental places rather than interpretive spaces. As Stedman (2002) has pointed out,

…we are willing to fight for places that are more central to our identities…this is especially true when important symbolic meanings are threatened by prospective change.

Symbolic meanings? Why not birds as metaphors for or symbols of a nation’s patrimony? Prospective threats? In the Caribbean we could start with sea level rise, ocean acidification, extractive industries such as aggregate and bauxite mining, and the popularity of the Caribbean as a volume-based, high-impact tourist destination (all-inclusive resorts and cruise ships, for example).

In Grenada the symbol of national patrimony and of prospective change is the Grenada dove. This Lepotila is the national bird of Grenada. The Grenada dove is also one of the most endangered birds in the Caribbean with a total population of around 180 individuals.

The Grenada dove, I suspect, has always been limited by land. There are similar birds in the Caribbean, such as the Barbuda warbler. The bird’s current challenge is to survive changes that plague most of the Caribbean islands. According to Birdlife (much of this from Bonnie Rusk),

…the birds suffer from chronic and continuing habitat loss for residential housing, roads and other development. Population declines are likely to be compounded by introduced mongooses, cats, rats and manicous predating eggs and fledglings, of which rats were found to be the most widespread, followed by mongooses and manicous…following strong opposition to initial proposals, which would have proved disastrous for the species, modified plans for the development of a Four Seasons resort and golf course at Mt Hartman are now predicted to result in the displacement or loss of four pairs, or 6% of the total population.

The plans may have been modified, but I am not convinced that this project is not still disastrous. Between habitat loss and relentless predation this dove is barely hanging on by a toenail. There are fewer than 200 left in the world, for Christ’s sake. We (by we I mean the global community) would sacrifice this singular bird for another Four Seasons resort that no one needs?

Conservation groups have slaved to save this bird. Yet I wonder if the future of the bird still isn’t in the hands of Grenadians and how clearly they see and feel that this dove embodies their national heritage. Patrimony has worked well as a motivation with restoring the bald eagle in the U.S. Should we adopt such an approach as we develop our interpretive strategy for the CBT?

I will answer my own question. Yes. The endemic birds, Anolis lizards, land snails, and Calisto butterflies of the Caribbean are examples of heritage as expressed by nature. The value that the public sees in such expressions influences the values that they see in their places.

Perhaps Grenadians care little for the dove’s habitats because they care little for the dove. As I cleared customs last night, the officer asked me the reason for my visit to Grenada. I told him that I wanted to see his national bird. I then asked him if he knew his national bird, and he responded “hummingbird.” I asked our taxi driver the same question, and he gave me a blank stare.

Research has shown that place (and sense of place) involves meanings and values that facilitate intimate connections with particular geographical areas. We also know that individuals who are emotionally, cognitively, or functionally attached to a place will act to protect that place. But are we able to nurture and influence these connections? Are we capable of inspiring people to act to protect these places? Are we able to foster a connection between the people of Grenada and their national bird?

Stedman again says yes. We will act to protect places that we value. Research has shown this is true in several different contexts including parks, protected areas, and recreation landscapes. But can we endow places with value? Can we provide meanings where none exist?

Stedman gives us a final yes. He states that outside interests have a role in shaping cognition, through shaping the physical landscape, [and] through interpretation of the landscape…

Conservationists focus on cognition and the shaping of landscapes. Yet it is interpretation that offers the public meanings and values. As Freeman Tilden wrote, the role of the interpreter is to …to reveal the beautiful truths that lie behind the appearances. What better an interpretive platform, what more effective an interpretive space, than a bird trail?

Hence Grenada. This morning, the first since my arrival, I am sitting at the kitchen table of my apartment, hoping to finish this article before the day gets started. An Antillean crested hummingbird is trap-lining the shrubs outside my door. Gray kingbirds are hawking insects from the power line that stretches out from my deck. I am in Grenada, looking for birds. Yet I am also searching for meanings, for the beautiful truths that lie behind appearances. In Grenada, I hope to find both.

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