Vanished songbirds

mercado-thumbThe silver-haired visitor from Brussels was perplexed. “Where did your birds disappear to?” he asked.

His disquiet stemmed from a continent of zealously guarded biodiversity. Storks tiptoe unhindered between tractors in his native Belgium. Robins and pigeons fill parks. “Feed the birds/Two pence a bag” is the haunting “Mary Poppins refrain.

Birds here, in contrast, run a gauntlet of slingshots, traps and pollution – and disdain. We`ve paved over mangroves (“Asphalt is the crop”) and poisoned rivers.

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Thus, the Mindoro imperial pigeon, Sulu hornbill and Mindanao parrot finch, among others, have vanished. Of 200 native species, 89 are threatened.

“Your children will no longer thrill, as we did, to the heart-stopping dive of a hawk,” National Scientist Dioscoro Umali, told UP graduating students, just before his death.

“We`ve stripped the land of its beauty,” he said. “And the bitter tragedy is: the victims are our grandchildren—flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone.”

Yet, the Philippines is a “mega-diversity” nation,” notes “State of Environment in Asia and the Pacific”. It’s wedged in the top seven (of 17) countries that “collectively more than two-thirds of the earth’s biological resources.” The Philippines and Australia top Indonesia in number of “endemic” or native birds.

No less than 77 species of egrets, plovers and sandpipers make a stopover in Cebu, as they traverse the East Asian Migratory Flyway flee winter. Olango island provides “pit for 67 per cent of these transients.

Today, the Philippines is a “bio-diversity hot spot”—one of the region’s 12. This strip extends from Indian Ocean islands, Eastern Hi layas to Sri Lanka. Many endemic species face extinction within this belt.

Deforestation saw “a number of bird species disappear from Cebu, Negros, Panay and Mindoro,” the UN study notes. “Of highest priority for conservation are Indonesia’s Lower Sundas, Eastern Himalayas, Luzon (especially Mindoro)” it adds.

On an Ulaan Bator hilltop, I watched hawks, swoop from clear Mongolian skies. Childhood memories of hawks swooping to snatch chicks in outlying barrios resurfaced. “My grandchildren never saw this,” I mumbled. “And they’re poorer for the loss.”

The Master from Galilee used the image of a hen, sheltering chicks, to underscore the “time of visitation.”

Birds perform multiple tasks: from curbing insect infestations to scattering seeds. In the shrinking North Negros Forest Reserve, 20 per cent of trees will fail to regenerate, if the present rate of hunting continues, a University of British Columbia study notes.

Like rivers, birds make up a unique early warning system. When rivers dry up, or birds disappear, they signal that “the environment is under such stress that species which lived in them for thousands of years, can no longer survive,” the Philippines Red Data Book notes.

The graybird and flower-pecker (dicaeum quadricolor) were unique to Cebu. They`ve been wiped out and are now numbered among “feathered desaparecidos.” The black shama or siloy is endangered.  “Worse, I have seen other birds that will never sing again: the tukmo, kukuk,” columnist Roy Lu wrote…”

Repeated World Conservation Union surveys found   that “concentration of endangered birds is larger in islands like Hawaii, the Philippines, Indonesia or Mauritius.”

Islands birds are smaller in number and range. They become vulnerable when forests, as in Mindanao, are razed, or rivers like Abra are laced with toxic chemicals and human waste.

In Cebu’s Guadalupe river, coliform pollution exploded by 6,000 per cent within a four year period – a candidate for the Guinness Book of Records.

Complacency stems from greed, indifference and ignorance. Used to past abundance, many assume “there’s more where they came from.” Well, there’s none.

But no bird, herb or fish disappears alone, Oxford University’s Dr. Norman Meyer warns. When they go, so do their unique genes—life building blocks.

Genes are spliced into “miracle rice,” high-yielding corn, even Dolly the sheep. Other go into drugs against cancer, AIDS, etc. No one knows what may be needed the day after.

This “killing curve” of species is genetic forfeiture. It seals off little-understood options for our grandchildren. Loss of species is irreversible obliteration of unique life forms. No one has yet invented recall from annihilation. Extinction is forever.

“And what is there to life if a man cannot hear the lonely cry of the whippoorwill?” asks the mythical Chief Seattle. “If all the (birds) were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit.”  (Email: juanlmercado@gmail.com )

By Juan L. Mercado



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