Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Going to Guyana

Eco-lodge where we will stay (built by donations from Foster Parrots)


The day has finally arrived. Tomorrow I head north to New York to catch a flight to Guyana, where as the guest of Foster Parrots Project Guyana I will see what beauty I may, in the hopes that I will find ways to keep beauty ever present in Guyana in the form of the people, parrots, and the other species there.

In so many ways, this will be a unique trip. One, as I wrote last week, they are home to the Hoaztin, a bird I have always wanted to see. Marc Johnson of Foster Parrots read of my desire, and has so arranged that we will stop at a place where they work with these birds in the wild.  Another special attribute of Guyana is that they are only one of two countries in Central and South America that speak English. (and the other one is...........).  Furthermore, they still allow legal trapping, harvesting, and exportation of their flora and fauna. From 1900-2002 about 175,000 parrots were exported, and 2003 quotas allow for over 20,000 to be exported a year (this does not include in-country trade for birds that never leave the country).

While there I will also be conducting an ethno-ornithology survey where I will conduct interviews that seeks understanding about the relationship between humans and birds in a given country and a given people. For this aim, I am going to win the biggest luggage award because of all the video and camera gear. I'm already practicing my usual reply when people stare at my big blue duffle luggage, "It's all gear, not shoes!"

Along the way there will be only one opportunity for internet access so I don't know if I will be able to blog until I arrive back in the USA on April 13th. There won't be any phone service either so I can't tweet either. However, one of our companions is packing a gizmo (Spot Satellite GPS) that allows you to track where we are in Guyana on Facebook. You can begin tracking now by clicking here.

With beauty before me and all around,



Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Flying Free with Intimate Conversations

Blue and Gold Macaw - Sander van der Wel800px-Ara_arara_-Diergaarde_Blijdorp_-two_flying-8a
Blue and Gold Macaw (photo by Sander van der Wel)


In January I attended the Parrot Festival in Houston Texas. While there I heard a presentation by Rick Jordan, “The Future of Aviculture.” He expressed views that if we lose the ability for people to own and breed birds in captivity, we will lose a great good for the people involved, and for conservation and avian medicine. Throughout his talk, he said that we all needed to talk to one another, even though we may have different views.


In the spirit of his invitation that we should all talk, I met with Rick alone later in the day. I wanted to hear more about him and if he was willing to hear my story. We began talking of our common roots, of how we both had worked at the Aviculture Breeding and Research Center (ABRC) in Loxahatchee, Florida in the late 1980′s. This was a very large avian breeding facility that only in my last months there began to sell the hundreds of birds that hatched there to collectors and to pet owners. I left in part because these birds were so precious to me and I was not comfortable for them to enter the pet trade where many would end up in situations where they would not be adequately cared for over the span of their lives. I spoke of how much I had been a part of aviculture then, like him, and how after listening to him I could see the good that came of it: relationships between people, building a vibrant human community, income, contribution to science, conservation, and veterinary medicine, and fostering human-nonhuman relationships. He agreed and seemed to appreciate this common understanding we had.


ABRC Fighting

Rick Jordan, Sharon Wolf, Julie, and Trent at ABRC in 1989 (mock fighting)


I then told him that after leaving ABRC I had begun to work almost exclusively with wild parrots, and I had changed. Seeing their complex and beautifully compelling behaviors and social structures, I found it increasingly difficult to work with birds who were not free flying. It was as if the birds had become the “sacred other” and that I longed to be in relationship with them not on my terms, but based on their evolved natural states. I wanted to be part of a system where birds were granted the utmost consideration, compassion and care, and nothing less, and not one that often treated birds as objects of human desire and not as subjects with their own inherent worth and dignity. I claimed this story as my own, and did not mean it as a statement of what Rick should or should not do.

 It was then that Rick amazed me by saying how he resonated with what I had shared. He told of how he had the chance to see free flying Lear’s Macaws in Brazil. When he saw them, he thought, “I’m glad that there are no Lear’s Macaws in the pet trade. They should be free flying.” Rick then told me that when he returned to the U.S. he was depressed with the reality of seeing his parrots in captivity. The beauty of a flying macaw had shaken him to the core. After several months he then had a chance to see a staff member of his bond with a parrot chick, and the love and care expressed by the human to the bird was also a beauty that deeply reached him.


Learn's Macaws Rio de Janerio Zoo
Lear's Macaws


What surprised us both is how similar we were and how we could get to the heart of what motivated our behavior and relationships with birds. What I also saw was that if we can slow down and hold conversations about our deep appreciation of birds with respect and empathy towards one another, we might harvest the power of relationships between humans, and between humans and birds so that we can make a better life for all. We need all of us at the table to listen and to contribute, because the task before us in conservation and avian welfare is no easy one. There are tragic consequences to our human presence here on this planet, but together, we might just be able to preserve the magnificent splendor of this earth.


I am grateful for our conversation for it is with the telling of these kinds of stories that we engage in a process of narrative ethics. We place ourselves in the situation of others, and by being there, work out what is ours to do on behalf of others in this complex world.


Thank you Rick for sharing your story with me, and giving me permission to share it with my readers, for I believe that our conversation will help others share likewise, for the sake of all. 


Green-winged macaws Ricardo Sanchez 800px-Ara_chloropterus_-Peru_-four_flying-8
Green-winged Macaws (photo by Ricardo Sanchez)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Naming Birds, Taming Egos

  Wilson wabler

Don't mind my inexplicable delight

in knowing your name,

little Wilson's Warbler

yellow as a lemon, with a smooth, black cap..


Just do what you do and don't worry, dipping

branch by branch down  to the fountain....


A name is not a leash.

-Mary Oliver (in Swan)




Just two days ago a man came up to me brimming with ideas for a "bird ministry."  He wanted to teach troubled youth bird identification as a means to connect, focus, and move towards wholeness.  Without dropping a beat I said, "Count me in."  I'll do anything to get people to enjoy beauty, so that they can respond to it.  Though I have degrees in birds and they are my vocation and calling, I've never been overly concerned with their names, or teaching people names.   Beauty is beauty no matter what you call it. In fact, I have seen the pursuit of adding bird names to a "life list" detract from the objective wonder of the bird itself as the ego asserts its control in the field.


In this case, however, teaching the names to young people and helping them recognize the individuality of species is a discipline that is liberating.  Identifying birds gives them a choice to contribute as citizen scientists, and is a means to better understand their world.  Naming unleashes the wild possibility within.


Here comes the paradox.  We need to "know" names to contribute to this world, and we don't need to know names to contribute wholeness and healing.  Name it and then let go knowing anything about the bird so that you can meld with pure interconnection. 


Dogen the Buddhist might write (if he were a Birdist):


There is a Wilson's Warbler.

There is not a Wilson's Warbler.

There is a Wilson's Warbler.


What might you un-name today?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Owls Get a Kick Out of Soccer


There is nothing as liberating as a good soccer game.  It can also be dangerous in parts of the world as soccer has been the inciting stimulus for riots, death threats, murder, and in one case, a war between Honduras and El Salvador. Recently this harm extended to an owl.  A tame barn owl, the mascot of a Columbian soccer team, flew down to the field during a game and was hit by the ball.  While still stunned, Panamanian footballer Luis Moreno kicked the bird off the field.  The bird died two days later, suffering a broken wing and shock. The crowd yelled "murderer," and Moreno had to leave the game under police escort.  Since then he has received threats.  He won't be prosecuted because Columbia has no laws against animal cruelty, although the soccer league penalized him by requiring a fine and banning him from the next two games. 



This is a painful reminder of how humans in their worst moments do not have the capacity for compassion and care, even when beauty of game and bird surrounds them.  But sometimes we do.

In a 2008 soccer game between Finland and Belgium, a great-horned owl visits the game, flying around the stadium and landing on the goal posts. The officials stopped the game and the crowd cheers and applauds the owl. Smiles and laughter abound.




In another instance, rescuers remove another Great-horned Owl that had become entangled in a soccer net.




There is beauty all around us, and there is nothing as liberating as people responding by loving and saving the birds of our world.  How though do we make sense of our complicated natures where we both get a kick out of birds and kick them?

Sufi poet Rumi writes, "There is a field out beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing. I'll meet you there."

On that soccer field, great apes and owls are neither wrong or right. Instead  we are caught up in our goal directed lives, and make tragic choices that harm ourselves and others. 

May we this day see the beauty within and without, and in our gratitude, not penalize the beings of this earth.