Saturday, February 20, 2010
Due to the Absence of Birds
I am not being flip when I write, “whatever normal may mean.” It may simply imply, “what I expect, or what I want.”
Around my feeders, wintering finches have been absent. Except for a very brief visit by five Evening Grosbeaks three weeks ago, and a few random visits by a couple of goldfinches, there have been no redpolls, no siskins, no purples, no house. There have been no sparrows. An absence of birds.
But, all winter there have been 60+ Dark-eyed Juncos that forage through my yard every day. Last week the largest flock of Mourning Doves ever to visit my yard started coming several times a day - 50+. Blue Jays have been present all winter (about 15). Last Monday their numbers grew to at least twenty-five - had numbers been added to the original flock, or was this a new flock? The same day a flock of 15 goldfinches appeared.
The pattern for this winter’s feeder birds seems to be that the pattern can suddenly change, but I can only speak for my yard.
Audubon was wrong. I speculated that Audubon was trying to balance North America with Europe, which has six nuthatch species. Why would he be concerned? Some background first.
Audubon was also promoting the wonders of North America. He was continuing the long effort to bring the New World out of the cultural and intellectual shadow of the Old World, a shadow which even extended to the flora and fauna.
One of the earliest deliberate efforts to defend the New World against the Old World’s superiority in all things was mounted by Thomas Jefferson during his tenure as ambassador to the French count, 1784-1789. Joseph Ellis, in his biography, American Sphinx, writes that “Jefferson decided to refute the leading French naturalist of the day, Georges du Buffon, who had argued that the mammals and plants of North America were inferior in size, health and variety to those of Europe. Buffon’s theory, silly as it sounds today, benefitted from his reputation as France’s premier natural scientist; it also had the disarming implication of rendering the entire American environment as fatally degenerate, a kind of laboratory for the corruptive process.”
Jefferson responded to Buffon by arranging for specimens to be gathered from the White Mountains of New Hampshire - skin, skeleton, and horns from moose, caribou and elk - animals larger than any in Europe. Eventually a seven foot moose carcass was put on display, shipped from North America without the modern convenience of refrigeration or deep freezing. “Buffon, who was himself a minuscule man less than five feet tall, was invited to observe the smelly and somewhat imperfect trophy but concluded it was insufficient evidence to force a revision of his anti-American theory.” Jefferson tried to refute Buffon, but the facts did not matter; Buffon’s mind was made up. America’s plants and animals were inferior and degenerate.
Buffon’s status as the leading French naturalist resulted from his monumental Natural History, a vast encyclopedia of the sciences, parts of which were not completely published until 1804, fifteen years after his death. An assessment of Buffon in the Encyclopedia Brittannica (11th edition) concludes that without “being a profound investigator, he possessed the art of expressing his ideas in a clear and generally attractive form. His chief defects as a scientific writer are that he was given to excessive and hasty generalization, so that his hypotheses, however seemingly brilliant, are often destitute of any sufficient basis in observed facts ....”
In his day, Buffon’s scientific encyclopedia was a staggering achievement and gave him a colossal reputation; both survived as the standard of truth for decades following his death.
Audubon picked a very minor nit. For whatever reason Audubon felt compelled to defend North America. His defense was unnecessary. He provided plenty of evidence for the richness and variety of the New World in his paintings of the birds and large mammals. Today Audubon is remembered, and Buffon - who’s he?
To the historian who may happen to read this far, I apologize if I have pushed facts too far, or have flown off with flights of fancy. It is all due to the absence of birds. I’m sure they will be back soon.