Backyard Chirper

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The Moral Plight of the Bird Conservationist

Despite weighing a mere 3 ounces, the Florida Scrub-Jay is causing a big controversy that’s infuriating residents of Cape Coral.

A planned development called Festival Park is potentially being constructed in an area that’s home to three Florida Scrub-Jay families, which are considered endangered birds protected under federal laws.

Home owners could be charged an additional $25,000 permit fee for building a house in the scrub-jay area unless city council members approve a $788,000 plan to create 125 acres of county-owned scrub jay habitat, according to the News Press.

The reason behind this is that the habitat will encourage them to naturally leave the area, so the park will not affect the endangered birds. Some residents understand the importance of protecting these birds, but others, like Councilman Bill Deile, are crying foul.

This whole topic raises an important question: how much is one species worth?

This reminded me of an episode of Radiolab, a public radio science show, which attempted to answer that question. Although the circumstances were different in that the other species was facing extinction, there was still a trade off between saving an endangered species and killing thousands of other birds and even one human.

The program, which I highly recommend for any lover of science, documents what it took to save the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler found only in the lower peninsula in Michigan. Their near extinction was blamed on the cowbird, which would lay its own egg in the nest of the warbler, and kill many if not all of the warbler chicks.

Conservationists decided they needed to kill cowbirds to increase the population numbers. However, after 12,000 dead cowbirds, the population of Kirtland’s Warbler remained stagnant.

So, taking things back to the drawing board, they decided that the lack of new brush was also contributing to the decline of the warbler. A controlled brush fire was started, but ended up burning out of control destroying 41 houses and killing one technician.

Fortunately, the population of Kirtland’s Warblers grew to nearly 4,000 after the fire but at a major cost.

Those who were affected by the fire and those who love the bird are conflicted over just how much one bird species is worth. I don’t want to give away the ending, because the radio piece is fantastically done, but ask yourself this question: is the Kirtland’s Warbler or the Florida Scrub-Jay, which are just two in thousands of other similar species, worth saving if the cost is so great?

Timothy Martinez Jr. is a writer and freelance journalist. His work has been published in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Remapping Debate in New York City and other publications. He’s been a bird lover since he was young and currently lives in New Orleans, L.A.