Book Review: Scarlet Experiment
Birds and Humans in America
by Jeff Karnicky
University of Nebraska Press, 2016
There’s a striking tone of asperity in the opening of Drake University English professor Jeff Karnicky’s new book Scarlet Experiment that’s worth quoting at length:
This is not a birding memoir. I am not writing about how bids have impacted my life. I am not writing about a wild bird I took in and befriended. I am not writing about what I have learned from studying extinct birds. I am not writing about what I have learned from a life of bird-watching. There are already a lot of these books out there … But I have never named or lived with a bird and my experiences watching birds have been rather pedestrian. I do not believe that hope is the thing with feathers.
Karnicky takes the title of his book from an Emily Dickinson poem, and despite the occasional notes of grudging optimism he strikes throughout these pages, readers will come away with very little doubt as to the outcome of this particular “experiment.” Karnicky’s book is about the three-century relationship between humans and birds in America, but even readers who know nothing about migratory routes or fowling rates or the establishment of animal protection legislation and sanctuaries will know the fate of, to take only the most famous example, the passenger pigeon. It once roamed the country in some of the largest aggregations of any animal species on the face of the Earth, and in an eye-blink, human predation wiped it out completely.
Such examples abound in American history, and the list of them very much extends to the present day, when studies estimate that somewhere between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds are killed annually by domestic cats alone. The US Wildlife Services kill millions of “nuisance” birds every year. One study Karnicky quotes says that “hundreds of millions to more than one billion North American birds are directly killed each year by human stressors.” Virtually all bird species in the country, including “common” birds once thought mostly immune – are declining by millions every year.
Karnicky focuses the chapters of his sobering study on a handful of species, including the blue jay, the Canada goose, and the European starling. He looks at the state of these birds’ lives as they try and fail to peacefully co-exist with the humans who live, hunt, and pollute all along their migratory routes, feeding grounds, and mating areas. Karnicky describes himself as an “avid birder,” (he’s also, alas, an avid reader of Foucault, hence the liberal appearance throughout his otherwise-excellent book of ghastly Gallic quotations featuring scandalizing words like “governmentality”) and his love of the avian world shines through even the crushingly depressing tidings he has to report.
The brutal truth, touched upon often in Scarlet Experiment, will be obvious to anybody who’s even glanced at the numbers: no animal population, no matter how fecund, can possibly survive mortality incursion in the millions and billions annually. Those are species-killing rates. That’s the lesson of the passenger pigeon, and it applies just as tightly to high-rise office buildings whose bright lights at night turn their glass walls into deadly barriers for millions of migrating birds. It applies just as tightly to environmental devastation that robs millions of birds of their only habitats. It applies just as tightly to wind farms and oil spills and hunting and a dozen other “stressors” that act relentlessly, year after year. Scarlet Experiment is a first-rate work of popular science and a bracing wakeup call, even if there’s every good reason to think it arrives much too late.