Once on a visit to a friend’s ranch, I marveled at the Black billed magpies. Despite her degree in wildlife management and knowledge to the contrary, she chuckled and declared that she was certain that hunting magpies is legal. I gently reminded her that unless there’s a formal hunting season, all native birds are protected under the 100-year-old Migratory Bird Act. I wish I had known then what I know now and added that magpies often consume ticks on livestock.
We often talk about ecosystem services of wildlife. For example, Nighthawks consume insects that may be disease vectors or agricultural pests. But how about the animals we’ve trained to remove nuisance wildlife, like raptors at airports that scare away geese? These crows take ecosystem services to whole new (and more literal) level.
We as biologists often report on bad news. This is the anthropocene, a time of rapid change akin to a geologic era. Animals cannot respond to change that fast. Restoring populations can feel like a Sisyphusian task. So, we must feel joy when small victories strike, like the story of the Northern Bald Ibis, despite the many obstacles. One of these is the lack of aesthetic beauty most people attribute to these birds. Me? I find them intrinsically gorgeous, proud and strong and ecologically important, much like my beloved Turkey Vulture.
We’ve all noticed crowds of spectators at national parks getting dangerously close to wildlife just for a great picture. Or people who race up to grab a snake to get a good look. These interactions, while memorable for the human, can be stressful for the animal. Ever notice the snake voids its bowels? Baby birds in my studies have done the same when I’ve picked them up. That is a defense mechanism to lose some weight and distract the predator so that the snake can escape. But, there’s a cost. Voiding the waste before the animal can retain the fluids in their GI tract can cause the animal to lose some hard fought for and critical resources. This process is effective if the threat is real. Surviving in the moment is more important than nutrients and fluid balance.
Similarly, tourist attractions that collect wildlife for the selfie business have a dark side. And Instagram has rightly taken a stand against it. Huzzah!