Recently I was invited to write a blog about the impact of climate change on birds by the main organiser of the Climate Change and Consciousness Conference that is being held at Findhorn in April 2019. That blog is now live, and I’m publishing it here as well, with the agreement of the conference team.
Over a hundred years ago, when coal mining in the UK was producing the fossil fuels that first drove the industrial revolution, canaries were used as early warning signals for danger. One of the hazards faced by miners then was the release of toxic gases, particularly carbon monoxide, and canaries were more sensitive to them than humans. The birds were kept in cages at the coal seam face, and if they showed symptoms of sickness the miners knew it was time to evacuate, before they too succumbed to poisoning.
There is a potent and poignant symbolism to that for us in the world today. The mining of coal was, and still is, one of the major contributors to human-caused global warming. While we collectively are finally waking up to the danger that climate change poses to us, birds are already being seriously impacted by the effects of our use of fossil fuels. A comprehensive report issued by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2013 found that between a quarter and half of all bird species in the world are highly vulnerable to climate change. In 2015, the US-based bird conservation organisation, the Audubon Society, released detailed studies that identified 314 species of birds –nearly half of all North American birds – as being severely threatened by global warming. In January 2017, an article in the Guardian newspaper entitled “The 10 species most at risk from climate change” featured three groups of birds on their list – Hawaiian honeycreepers, Baird’s sandpiper and the Adelie penguin.
These are very sobering reports that touch me, and I suspect many others, very deeply. Birds are integral and special parts of the inter-connected web of life on our planet. Amongst their many collective ecological attributes, they perform the longest migration of any species (the Arctic tern, which travels each year from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back again, experiencing near-perpetual summer as a result), and they include the only terrestrial species that overwinters in Antarctica (the emperor penguin). They also perform vital ecological functions such as the pollination of many plants and the dispersal of seeds.
In addition, birds are very important to us for what they symbolise. They are masters of two elements – earth and air – which represent matter and spirit respectively. Indeed, some birds, such as ducks and geese, are at home in three elements – earth, air and water. I’ve sometimes thought if I had the opportunity to live on Earth as another species I’d choose to be a duck, because of its ability to experience, and thrive in, those three different habitats!
The two defining and special features of birds (or at least most birds) are flight and song. Although many insects and some mammals such as bats are able to fly, it is birds that we most associate with the mastery of flight. Their soaring in the air has become symbolic of spirit and the upliftment and freedom we experience when we are each in tune with our innermost self and positive energy is flowing in our lives. The singing of birds represents self-expression and creativity, and is a source of inspiration to anyone who takes the time to listen to the dawn chorus or the song of a lark in flight. Because many birds appear to sing for the sheer joy of it, they represent the joyous feeling each of us experiences when our hearts are open and we express our individual passion and inspiration in words or deeds. Birds also represent some of the other positive qualities that people aspire to in life – the dove, for example, is a widely used symbol for peace. The inspiration for Eileen Caddy (one of the founders of the Findhorn Community, where I live) for the title of her autobiography, ‘Flight into Freedom’, was also derived from the symbolism of birds.
Each autumn and spring I marvel at, and am deeply touched by, the daily arrival of large numbers of pink-footed geese at Findhorn Bay, a few hundred metres from my house. They come in skeins, often several hundred strong, to stop over for the night during their twice-yearly migrations from north to south and back again. Their calling to each other as they fly, and their constantly changing aerial configurations that optimise the effects of slipstreaming with one another, are an ongoing source of joy and wonder for me.
In recent years I’ve been connecting more and more deeply with birds, not only because of their presence where I live and in the ecosystems I visit, but also, I believe, because they, like all life, are calling out for help at this time. During a recent visit to the Araucaria (monkey puzzle tree) forests of Chile, I had the experience of birds seemingly coming to meet me whenever I entered their habitat. On many days, when I walked into one of the forest areas, birds would either fly and land close to me, or call out from nearby, drawing my attention to their presence when I hadn’t seen them. It was as though they wanted to connect with me, to show themselves to me, as beautiful representatives of the diversity of life on our planet, so that I could be touched and then act to help protect them.
I’ve had similar experiences during my work with Trees for Life to help restore the Caledonian Forest in Scotland and wrote a blog about a remarkable encounter I had with a cormorant in Glen Affric one day. I spent almost two hours getting close to the bird, eventually watching it at eye level from less than 10 metres away, where it was perched on the branch of an aspen tree at the peak of its autumn colours. It was one of those magical meetings with another species that affirmed and strengthened my inner connection with Nature, and is a memorable gift that I will treasure for the rest of my life.
The potential loss of birds in our world therefore has serious spiritual consequences, both on a personal level for someone such as myself and for humanity as a whole. This is in addition to the severe ecological impacts that their disappearance would entail. Climate change is just the most visible and well-publicised of the devastating effects that humans are having on all other life on the planet.
Those effects, which range from massive soil degradation and tropical deforestation to overfishing and ubiquitous plastic pollution, are, like climate change, direct consequences of the all-encompassing illusion that our present day culture operates under – that we are separate from Nature, and that what we do does not affect the world around us.
It is the tacit acceptance of that illusion in all aspects of our culture that enables and empowers our destructive impacts to continue unchecked. By contrast, the vast majority of indigenous cultures, where people live in close relationship with Nature, have the interconnectedness of all life as central to their values and belief systems. The essential oneness of all life is also one of the core themes of the Deva messages that Dorothy Maclean received in her meditations in the early days of the Findhorn Community.
Whilst climate change is a serious and immediate challenge, it is not the most severe threat to the fabric of life on our planet. During the last million years or so, the Earth has gone through a number of alternating Ice Ages and warm interglacial periods – we are currently living through the latest interglacial. The vast majority of species and natural habitats in the world survived those climatic changes, which were more dramatic in their temperature swings than the one that humans are causing just now, and they would do so again, if it were not for the multiple other impacts we are having on them. It is us as humans who will be most dramatically affected by climate change, because, for example, many of our major cities are situated on coastlines and our intensive agricultural systems are highly sensitive to changes in rainfall patterns.
Climate change will undoubtedly adversely affect many species in addition to us, but much more serious impacts to the overall web of life are being caused by other human actions such as habitat loss, over-exploitation and pollution. Because they are relatively high up in the food web, birds are particularly susceptible to ecological disturbance and disruption. According to Birdlife International and the IUCN, 1,375 species of birds (about one eighth of the total) are threatened with extinction. That figure, and comparable data for other groups of organisms, has led scientists to conclude that the planet is now in the early stages of a sixth mass extinction event – a biological holocaust comparable in scale to the asteroid impact 65 million years ago that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs and about 75% of all species on Earth.
This is the most serious of all the problems we are causing in the world today. Whereas the climate will almost certainly change again in future, perhaps becoming cooler in say 10,000 years when a new Ice Age develops, it would take something on the order of 5 million years for the planet’s biodiversity to recover from a mass extinction. That is the time estimated by scientists that it took for a comparable number of species to evolve again after the dinosaur mass extinction event.
Birds have already suffered greatly from human-caused extinctions. Of the 312 terrestrial vertebrate extinctions that are known to have occurred since the year 1500, 156 of those (ie 50%) are of birds. Two of the most notorious extinctions at human hands are of birds – the dodo and the passenger pigeon. The former, a large flightless bird, has become emblematic as a symbol of extinction, having been wiped out from its only home on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean by 1693, a few decades after the settlement of the island by Europeans.
The passenger pigeon was formerly the most numerous bird in North America, with vast flocks that darkened the skies when they migrated being common at the time of European arrival there. Its total numbers were estimated at between 3 and 5 billion individuals. Uncontrolled hunting and habitat destruction due to deforestation led to the species’ depletion, and the last individual, a female known as Martha, died in a zoo in Cincinnati in the USA in 1914.
Amongst the most endangered birds today are the Philippine eagle, the California condor, the kakapo (a flightless parrot endemic to New Zealand) and the giant ibis. All of those have very small populations and are literally hovering on the brink of oblivion. They are the modern day equivalent of the canaries in the coal mine, as they have the sad distinction of being on the front line of species at risk of disappearing from the planet. They are the visible tip of the iceberg of the impending mass extinction event.
While extinction is the ultimate, irreversible catastrophe to befall a species, birds are seriously imperilled in other ways as well. Another bird I regularly see in my local area is the fulmar – a sea bird that nests on the coastal sandstone cliffs a few miles to the east of Findhorn. Whenever I come across fulmars, I marvel at their ability to glide effortlessly along, just a few feet out from the cliff edge, and sometimes very close to where I’m standing and at the same eye level as me. Their grace and aerial agility are like an avian ballet dance that touches my heart.
I was therefore truly shocked in 2004 to read reports of studies that had been done on fulmars in the North Sea, off the east coast of Britain. Scientists found that 95% of the fulmars they examined had pieces of plastic in their stomachs. The dead birds they checked had an average of 44 pieces of plastic in them, and one bird had a total of 1,603 pieces. Fulmars are surface feeders, skimming the sea and catching fish as they do so, and are therefore particularly susceptible to eating plastic that is floating on the water. Now, whenever I see a fulmar, I take a deep breath and remember that in addition to being a beautiful bird, it is also an aerial receptacle of our plastic rubbish – it’s a very disconcerting and depressing realisation. It’s also a very graphic symbol of the fact that we do not live our human lives in isolation, but affect the world around us with all our actions.
It was in 1962 that Peter and Eileen Caddy and Dorothy Maclean established the Findhorn Community and its ongoing experiment in deep attunement and co-creation with Nature. The central themes of the messages that Dorothy received from the Devas in her meditations then – that all life on Earth is intimately connected and interdependent, and that human love has a profound, positive effect on whatever beings it is directed towards – are even more relevant today. They make a clear and strong statement about the importance of humanity re-awakening to our oneness with, and interdependence on, all other life on our planet.
1962 was also notable for the publication of Rachel Carson’s landmark book, ‘Silent Spring’, which drew the world’s attention to the effects of pesticides and herbicides on nature, and raised the spectre of a spring without the songs of birds. Like the early Findhorn experiences, the book drew attention to the interconnectedness of nature, and the fact that human actions affect the whole, often in unforeseen and unpredictable ways. It acted as a wake up call to the world and was one of the key catalysts for the birth of the modern day environmental movement.
Since then, positive action has been taken in some areas – for example, the use of DDT, which caused thinning of egg shells in brown pelicans and peregrine falcons in North America through bio-concentration in the food chain, was banned in many countries. However, despite that and other successes, the essential and necessary shift of human consciousness to one in which we base our culture on the reality of the oneness and interdependence of all life has still not taken place. The wake up call has not yet been heard by enough people, and as a result our mainstream culture is still sleepwalking towards the twin cliff edges of climate change, which will be a disaster for humanity, and the ecological meltdown of habitat loss and mass extinction that threatens all life on Earth.
In this respect then the imminent danger of climate change is itself functioning as a ‘canary in the coal mine’ that is alerting us all to the very real risks that our present day culture and lifestyles are posing to the future of life on our planet. It is the wake up call that can rouse us collectively into much needed action, based on the recognition that our lives are interwoven with, and dependent upon, all the other species we share the world with. This is the opportunity that the present crisis offers us. If we can rise to the challenge, we can create a new human culture that will allow our spirits, inspiration and actions to soar like an eagle and sing like a lark. Then we will truly be brothers and sisters with the birds, and can co-create together a positive future for all life on the planet.