It was an honor to give the Geddes Simpson Memorial Lecture at UMaine last week. In the lecture I put forth the proposition that the State of Maine adopt an open firearms season on chickadees under which every holder of a hunting license could shoot an unlimited number of chickadees during the year. After all, the black-capped chickadee is the Maine State bird; Mainers could honor their state by having a stuffed chickadee bagged in the season displayed on the mantle at home. Chickadees might well taste good, though I suspect the amount of meat per bird is small. Filet of chickadee could rival the lobster as an iconic Maine menu item in upscale restaurants. Imagine the bragging rights of hunters who could show their firearms prowess by harvesting (the euphemism for hunting wildlife in Maine) a bag full of chickadees.
Of course, I was being facetious. The intent was to show that the idea of an open season for a song bird species seems pointless, even shocking to some people. Yet we have, effectively, an open season on chickadees and all other bird species in Maine and in every other state in the nation. Recent research by Scott Loss and colleagues reported in the journal Nature Communications suggests that free-ranging cats kill over a billion birds a year in the U.S. and maybe as many as 4 billion. That is right, billion with a B. About two thirds of this “harvest” is by feral cats with the rest by cats whose owners let them go outside.
One point of this proposition was to show how many modern humans find shooting song birds to be unacceptable but at the same time find bird mortality at the paws of cats a regrettable but unavoidable artifact of modern life. Our love of cats trumps our regard for wildlife.
For me, this is a prime example of our transition in the modern world to this new epoch, the Anthropocene. Humans, through our cultural adaptations, have now become the great force of nature. The problem with this is that we are still acting like we are not so empowered, like we cannot affect that natural world in any meaningful way. So, despite overwhelming evidence of global climate change at the hands of humans, deniers still claim that humans are too insignificant a factor to affect something so big as the Earth’s climate.
The challenge from this shift to the Anthropocene is that by not accepting that it has happened we fail to make the ethical changes needed to cope with the new reality. Bryan Norton says this best in his book Sustainability:
“What has changed in recent history, long after our moral codes were developed, is the human ability to employ pervasive and powerful technologies, as humans exert more and more dominance over natural systems. The effect of these changes on human morality is that we live in a hugely expanded moral universe of human responsibility.” (emphasis added)
So when we let our house cats roam outside and allow feral cats free range in our landscapes, we do so pretending that it has little or no effect on the natural world and that such behavior by cats is, indeed, “natural.” Of course, cats have been domesticated for centuries (or perhaps they have domesticated us). So there is nothing inherently natural about their slaughter of birds. And more to the point, this behavior is a something for which humans should take responsibility. We are not innocent bystanders.
Cats are precious, but so are birds. It is not for us to choose the wellbeing of one species over that of another. The new reality is that we have developed tremendous powers as a species that requires we become both smarter and wiser. The first step in this is to acknowledge our new-found role on this planet and develop the moral compass we need to navigate the landscape we are creating.