Sunday, April 26, 2015

Some things are worth admiring

For some of us, “beauty” is a mirage of powder that conceals darkness. Sometimes one wonders if the right people are endowed with it, considering the arrogance of the owner. One can admire it, but then reality puts down its enormous foot and squashes all its pretensions. I’m not speaking of just the superficial, but the internal. I don’t know what I might have turned out like had not most of my earliest memories not been “beautiful”; memories that I still carry to this day include being held to the ground by a gang of white boys older than I who stuffed grass into my mouth, or being sent to a hospital for stitches to the bridge of my nose (the scar of which is still visible after all these years) for the crime of spilling milk from my cereal bowl, when I was still not four years of age. 

Not “life changing” events you might say, but for someone who was naturally introverted they must have had profound effects on my dealings with people. I recall one night around that period that we visited my aunt; I recall how affectionate she was to me. This must have been a profound shock to me, because the next day we returned to her house, and upon the sight of her I ran and hid behind our car. Why? Not because I was afraid of her, but because I did not want to be touched. But I now look back on it with a certain amount of longing, considering what I was in for in the future. 

Of course, "beauty" can be found in art and music, but that is what the artist wishes the world to be, not what it actually is. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that I always preferred the company of nature and the flora within it to human company, especially that which is “beautiful” only because it is, and has no pretentions about it. Even as I get on in age, I am still fascinated by seeing animals in the wild that tend to congregate in places far from human contact. Brightly colored birds tend to fascinate me in particular. Recently late in the afternoon I was walking in along a rural roadside stream created to transport rain run-off into a watershed, where I saw something dabbling in it that I had to do a double take to convince me that I was not seeing things. It was a wood duck, a bird I had only seen once before many years paired with the equally colorful Mandarin ducks at the Hellabrunn Zoo in Munich, Germany. I had never seen one in the wild and held out no hope of actually doing so, since they are relatively uncommon in the Pacific Flyway, and its natural habit deep in remote wooded areas would prevent it. But here was a male and female pair in plain view for pedestrians from the adjacent sidewalk.

The female—which was easily identifiable by its distinctive white eye ring—began swimming to the safety of a storm drain, while the male swam in the other direction in order to attract attention away from it. Apparently satisfied that its mission was accomplished, the male swam back in the direction of the storm drain, emitting a curious “squeak” rather than the familiar “quack” of Mallards and domestic ducks.

But I had no interest in the female; it is the male wood duck in its fall and spring plumage that is so eye-catching. It’s crested head and beak is a display of purple, green, red, yellow, black and white. Its chest and rear are red, its sides yellow, the belly white, its back and wings blue and black. Not without reason did famous wildlife illustrator and author of field guides to North American birds, Roger Tory Peterson, describe the wood duck as "Highly iridescent, descriptive words fail.”

Perhaps it should not come as a surprise the wood duck’s attractiveness to hunters—at one time it was even more “popular” a target than the Mallard. So “popular” was the wood duck prior to 1918 that conservationist William Temple Hornaday noted in the chapter “Candidates for oblivion” in his 1913 call for action Our Vanishing Wildlife that while eight states (all but West Virginia in the Northeast) responded to warnings by the U.S. Biological Survey that the bird was threatened with extinction by banning hunting of the bird,

And how is with the other states that number the wood-duck in their avian faunas? I am ashamed to tell; but it is necessary that the truth should be known. Surely we will find that if the other states have not the grace to protect this bird on account of its exquisite beauty they will not penalize it by extra long open seasons. A number of them have taken pains to provide extra long OPEN seasons on this species, usually of five or six months!! And this for a bird so exquisitely beautiful that shooting it for the table is like dining on birds of paradise.

Among the 15 states with excessively long hunting season on the species, Tennessee had the longest, at nearly nine months. “Is there in those fifteen states nothing too beautiful or too good to go into the pot?” Hornaday advocated banning all hunting of the wood duck for five years in those states. He would be the principle mover in the passage of The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which made it unlawful to hunt or traffic in the “parts” of—meaning feathers, eggs and such—some 800 migratory bird species unless by waiver, meaning regulated hunting, capture for scientific purposes, or for Native American religious customs. It is also legal to kill certain bird species who may pose a danger to aircraft; I actually observed one plane that had to return to Sea-Tac Airport shortly after take-off with a peregrine falcon pasted to its windshield. 

Not surprisingly there is frequent opposition from local governments, developers, hunters and the right-wing dominated U.S. Supreme Court. A 2009 decision excluded “isolated” wetlands from protection as habitat for migratory birds, although a few states overrode the decision by passing state laws to that effect.

Today, the act’s has effectively restored the numbers of many duck species to “safe for hunting” levels. A ban on wood duck hunting from 1918 to 1941 helped restore its population, considering its relatively low duckling survival rates—especially by ones bred in man-made “nest houses,” which because these are usually located out in the open, ducklings are easier targets for predators. The total number of birds is impossible to determine because of their habitat preferences, although the Breeding Bird Survey suggests the wood duck population continues to be stable or increasing. However, it is suggested that the BBS is more unreliable in wood duck counts than other species, since they are seen less often than other species in the migratory routes that the BBS monitors. A more reliable independent count of wood ducks in the Atlantic Flywaysuggests that in some areas wood duck populations decreased by as much as 13 percent from 2012 to 2013. Wood ducks are also far less common on the Pacific Coast than west of the Mississippi, with perhaps 4 percent of the nation’s breeding pairs. 

In any case, one might still be surprised to learn that the once endangered wood duck comprises approximately 10 percent or more of the annual duck harvest in the United States, despite the fact it is rarely seen—unlike the Mallard—in populated areas. In the 2000-2001 hunting season alone, over one million “woodies” were “harvested” by far the greater part of them in the South. Given that wood ducks in the wild have a life-span of four years, one imagines that their population could be easily wiped out in two seasons unless replenished by reproduction.  

If the Bald Eagle is the United State’s national symbol, the wood duck is certainly claims pride of place as its most beautiful bird. Given its relative rarity in the state of Washington, to see one in the wild will be a memory I will cherish—a memory that won’t make me feel I committed a “crime” by having it. Some things are worth admiring.

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