‘Where are all the birds?’

'We're after eatin' all of dem," he said, without missing a beat.

‘We’re after eatin’ all of dem,” he said, without missing a beat.

We were on a carriage ride through the beautiful Killarney National Park on March 19, and our driver was a guy who had no problem playing to tourists’ expectations. He was a burly guy in a cloth cap whose previously broken nose made him look like an ex-boxer — an Irishman who embraced all stereotypes, cracking a steady stream of jokes that prominently featured Guinness, leprechauns and Irish whiskey.

And he did it in such a natural, unstudied way, and seemed to be enjoying himself so, that it was for me a highlight of our trip to Ireland.

As we rode through the park admiring the scenery, the medieval ruins, the miniature deer and other attractions, one of the ladies in our carriages noticed something I had not. She asked the driver, “Where are all the birds?”

He didn’t miss a beat. Looking over his shoulder with a smile, he said “We’re after eatin’ all of dem.”

As I tweeted at the time, I hadn’t kissed the Blarney Stone, but someone had…

My wife later said she would have liked a serious answer to the question. Me, I was delighted because I’m pretty sure that’s the only time during our almost two weeks in the country that I heard someone use that famous Irish construction of “after” followed by a gerund. Word guy that I am, it made my day.

So much for the anecdotal lede.

For those of you still after wanting a serious answer to the question, I’ll be after giving it to ye, soon as I finish me Guinness…

OK, here you go…

It was in The New York Times today, an opinion piece headlined “Three Billion Canaries in the Coal Mine:”

A new study in the journal Science reports that nearly 3 billion North American birds have disappeared since 1970. That’s 29 percent of all birds on this continent. The data are both incontrovertible and shocking. “We were stunned by the result,” Cornell University’s Kenneth V. Rosenberg, the study’s lead author, told The Times.

This is not a report that projects future losses on the basis of current trends. It is not an update on the state of rare birds already in trouble. This study enumerates actual losses of familiar species — ordinary backyard birds like sparrows and swifts, swallows and blue jays. The anecdotal evidence from my own yard, it turns out, is everywhere.

You may have heard of the proverbial canary in the coal mine — caged birds whose sensitivity to lethal gasses served as an early-warning system to coal miners; if the canary died, they knew it was time to flee. This is what ornithologists John W. Fitzpatrick and Peter P. Marra meant when they wrote, in an opinion piece for The Times, that “Birds are indicator species, serving as acutely sensitive barometers of environmental health, and their mass declines signal that the earth’s biological systems are in trouble.”

Unlike the miners of old, we have nowhere safe to flee….

It’s an ominously interesting piece, so I thought I’d bring it to your attention.

And now this picture I took last year of a dead bird on a street in my neighborhood comes in handy:

I was struck by the beauty of this dead bird. Can anyone identify it for me?

I was struck by the beauty of this dead bird. Can anyone identify it for me?

20 thoughts on “‘Where are all the birds?’

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Y’all, did I tell that story before about the Killarney carriage driver? It seems like I did, but my efforts to search for it on the blog just now were unsuccessful. I may be remembering writing about that experience on social media back at the time.

    But if I’m repeating myself here, I’m sorry. Were I that Irish driver, I would then blame it on too much Guinness.

    And then, after a pause, I’d explain that I was only kidding, because “There’s no such t’ing as too much Guinness…”

  2. bud

    It’s time to stop wasting money on the military, the wall and other wasteful crap and get serious about solving the global warming.

    1. David T

      Do you believe the US is behind the majority sources that are being blamed to be behind global warming? Or are you just saying that we should be the ones paying for it?

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Ah, here we go again — our nation’s military is “wasteful crap.”

      Bud, rhetoric like that makes it hard to have a constructive conversation…

      1. bud

        Give me a break! You never offer ANY real reason why we spend so much money on the military other than you’re reflexive “gut” instincts. We spend far more on the military than the next 3 or 4 nations combined. Why? It’s absolutely 100% NOT for any realistic security purpose. In the meantime we have evidence in the bird deaths that global warming is a VERY real threat. The logical conclusion is we need to spend less, far less on something that does nothing to make us safe and instead spend that money on something that IS a threat. If you want a constructive conversation rather than just throwing out this tired old right wing screed about the need to keep our military strong then explain why we need to spend so much.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          It’s not reflexive gut instinct. It’s about making sure the world’s largest liberal democracy IS the nation with the largest military — by far the largest. Because if it’s not us, it will be someone like China, which is systematically building its military alongside its economy.

          China’s military has a long way to go, and may never catch up to us (not if I and other serious people have our way), but its economy could catch up to ours in total size within a year or so, and after that — who knows?

          I realize some of you out there think, “Oh, who cares about which nation has the most powerful military?” Well, I care. And I think not caring is nuts. It is extraordinarily important that it be someone like the United States rather than a totalitarian state led by a guy who is convinced that the way forward is to stay true to Mao.

          Or forget China. You know Putin, Trump’s puppetmaster, would LOVE to play the same role if he could. Until then, he’s satisfied to outplay us chess-style in Ukraine and Syria and such places.

          And among liberal democracies, we are the only one remotely in a position to play the role, as we have since 1945, of being the chief protector of liberal values in a world that can be very, very hostile to them.

          This goes way, way, way beyond gut instincts. It’s rooted in an understanding of global challenges, and what it takes to make sure our democracy will be around to stand up to all the totalitarians out there — you know, Donald Trump’s heroes…

          1. bud

            This goes way, way, way beyond gut instincts. It’s rooted in an understanding of global challenges,

            But you see, the REAL global challenge is global warming. China or Russia have zero chance of launching an invasion of the USA homeland. I’m not suggesting we eliminate military spend. Just cut it by 50%. That is a very modest proposal IMHO.

        2. David T

          The US is also expected to protect 3 to 4 times of the planet than any other country. We’ll stop throwing out the tired old right wing screed right after you stop throwing out the tired old left wing screed.

      1. bud

        I just asked my wife an interesting question. Is there anyone that just does NOT like the Beatles? If you are a Beatles fan see Yesterday. Great movie!

        1. David T

          I”ve learned to not like the Beatles the older I get. Maybe they’re just played out in my mind. I don’t really care for the Rolling Stones anymore either. If either come up on Pandora I immediately hit Skip.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I hear it’s pretty good.

      You just made me realize that it was 50 years ago this week that I read a review of the new album in TIME (to which I subscribed during my high school years, back when it was still a fairly substantial news source), and then went right out and bought the record…

  3. Norm Ivey

    At first glance I thought your bird might be a yellow-throated warbler, which I think is a bit of a prize for bird-watchers in SC. (I’ve seen two of them–one at Congaree National Park and the other at Frances Beidler Forest Audubon Center.) But after looking at some pictures Google supplied, I’m leaning more toward a common yellow-throat. It’s hard to tell if the bird in your picture has a strip of white above the black surrounding the eyes.

    The article is disturbing, but hardly surprising. They article make reference to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which reminds me of an article I’ve read in the last couple of years about a study linking autism to an accumulation of DDT in the environment. DDT is persistent and breaks down slowly in the environment and accumulates in apex predators (like humans),and can be passed to future generations.

    We are a dangerous species.

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