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An Ear to Nature

December 30, 2023

A bald eagle flying over Plateau Mountain. PHOTO © C. HANSEN

By Lorne Fitch

To say the sights and sounds of nature inspire me seems trite and overblown. But there it is.

As thousands of Canada geese pass over me in scattered flocks their calls almost obliterate the traffic noise. I doubt that two in a hundred drivers notice the skeins of geese flying over their heads or hear the goose music inside their hermetically sealed vehicles. This, plus seeing a murmuration of mallards that, at times, blot out the background scenery, or a mistaking an immense flock of snow geese for a blizzard might remind us we still live in a place where wildlife can quicken our pulses.

These remind me there are still vestiges of what Alberta must have been like, more than a century and a half ago. It wouldn’t have been just herds of bison blanketing the grassland, with a retinue of wolves and grizzly bears. These were the charismatic megafauna, but their visual presence may have been overshadowed by the shear volume of bird racket.

It must have been deafening. A tinkling trill of a Baird’s sparrow, the scolding of a wren, the screech of a ferruginous hawk, a meadowlark’s melody, a loud, rolling call of a sandhill crane, a maniacal Sora rail and the cacophony of honks and quacks from waterfowl of every description. Those and a few hundred more chirps, twitters, screeches, hoots, croons, rattles, mutterings, mews, scolds, squawks, whistles and shrieks. Ear plugs might have been useful.

A ferruginous hawk glides through blue skies. Photo © C. Wallis

One might have heard the bugle of the whooping crane, a tall white bird standing over a metre tall. Frank Farley, an Alberta naturalist and farmer, wrote of whooping cranes nesting in the central part of the province up to the 1920s. He felt these birds had a centre of abundance there, not just the occasional occurrence. And then they were nearly gone.

There is a message in the virtual extinction of whooping cranes.

We can’t take wildlife for granted, assuming they have abundant space and suitable habitat. It’s also hubris to think our development footprint is well regulated, thoughtfully and carefully considered, with ecologically appropriate checks and balances. Every drained wetland, each piece of native grassland cultivated, that little copse of aspen woodland bulldozed and the fragmentation of the landscape into smaller and smaller islands of unconnected and relict habitats brings our biodiversity treasure closer to the edge.

Spring on the prairie is eerily quiet these days, with the catastrophic loss of ground nesting, insect eating birds. On dozens of dancing grounds the booming of Greater sage-grouse males, proclaiming their fitness to breed, is missing. My homesteading grandparents probably feasted on the pinnated grouse that perched (and feasted) on the rows of wheat stooks. Extirpation was their fate.

A group of sage-grouse found on Alberta’s southern grasslands. This species is on the brink, with under 20 males counted in the spring of 2022. Photo © C. Olson.

Gone long before my grandparents settled in central Alberta was the passenger pigeon. Pigeon Lake, Hills and Creek are the sole, enigmatic references to this biological phenomenon. My observations of waves of geese and ducks are probably a mere shadow of the exuberance of flocks of passenger pigeons that were reputed to block out the sun.

“Martha,” the last remaining passenger pigeon on Earth died on September first, 1914, at age 29 in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden. In a memorial to the extinct species Aldo Leopold wrote:

“Our grandfathers were less well-housed, well-fed, well-clothed than we are. The strivings by which they bettered their lot are also those which deprived us of pigeons. Perhaps now we grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange. The gadgets of industry bring us more comfort than the pigeons did, but do they add as much to the glory of spring?”

Some may not mourn the loss of wild critters and hardly notice the quiet that descends in their absence.

It’s easy to sleep in without the interruption of the robin chorus at dawn. That quiet, to me, is akin to a music fancier waking up one morning and there are no symphonies, no rock and roll, no pop—not a note to be heard, even the blues. Imagine not ever again hearing your child, your lover, a friend—something in your surroundings has gone missing.

A summer thunder storm descends, full of sound and fury with a pyrotechnical display. And then it’s gone. As summer heat parches the ground and leaves us panting for relief we scan the weather forecasts wondering when the next storm will arrive. What if it doesn’t? People who are inspired by wildlife, who thrill to

the sighting of a bird and the sound of its call, wonder the same thing as silence magnifies.

Imagine no bird symphonies, rhapsodies or sonatas. No solos or duets. When present, these are the indications that the world still retains some wild, some link to our past. Amid the chorus this indicates we have ensured enough places remain for the birds to make a living and enliven, enrich us with their songs. Silence speaks otherwise.

It’s not enough to have fried chicken, buffalo wings (no actual buffalo are harmed) or mechanically deboned poultry flesh, breaded and deep fried, then ingeniously marketed as “nuggets.” Convenient and abundant as these things might be, we need to decide as Aldo Leopold observed, have we gained by this exchange for wild places and wildlife?

The wild doesn’t feed us any more, not physically, but it does feed our souls, as music does. Some of us (myself included) cannot live without the music of the birds. Is anyone else listening?

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and a former Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.

If I were asked to illustrate a scene of utter serenity and peace, I would choose a picture of a mother grizzly wandering across flower-covered slopes with two small cubs gamboling at her heels. This is truly a part of the deep tranquility that is the wilderness hallmark.
- Andy Russell, 1975
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