Or – “What does it do for us?” Two questions I get asked very often, sometimes at the same time put together in one compound sentence. It is an anthropocentric question that I personally find very difficult to answer for a number of reasons. I’ve been asked this question countless times and yet I still get stumped each time I’m asked. My immediate reaction is to freeze and internalize another question: “Why shouldn’t you care about this bird?” But I know I can’t answer the question this way out loud, that would be rude and it wouldn’t serve any purpose. There are so many ways I can answer this question depending on who I’m speaking with, what outcome I hope to get out of my response, and frankly, how much time I have on my hands. Do I want to try to educate the person – always my first instinct – or do I give a stock answer to quickly move past the question – often my real reaction? Since I was actually asked this question about the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow on my drive down to the Everglades this weekend I thought it might be interesting to explore this philosophical question in the first blog post of the 2017 sparrow field season.
I want to start by saying that I really appreciate being asked this question this weekend. Seriously, I want to thank the woman I met while I was stopped to buy my Sunpass transponder before jumping on the FL Turnpike to head south. After striking up a conversation she asked me what I did and that led to talking about the sparrow. And of course the question followed: “Why should I care about this bird?” I think I was caught especially off guard since it is the very beginning of our field season. I paused for a moment contemplating possible responses, and eventually answered with something like: “The sparrow is a good indicator species for the prairies being restored in the Everglades.” A true answer, but not a very thoughtful answer – I wanted to be on my way because I had a long drive ahead of me. Later, I found myself thinking about this question for a long time on my drive south. “Why should we care about this bird?”
Here we go…
First, I am going to skip what I believe may be the best response and save that for later. There are other ways I could have responded, some that would have taken some time. Let’s start with the kind of answer that people often expect to hear: “The sparrow eats mosquitoes so it is beneficial to us.” But this isn’t true. So how else does the sparrow help us: “What does it do for us?” I hate answering this part of the question. I actually won’t answer this part of the question. This question, unfortunately, is being asked more and more often in our society, even more so in our current political climate. If something doesn’t provide some benefit to us then it has no value. Really, why does a sparrow have to do something for us to care about it?
I could have explained why this particular sparrow is so different from the many common sparrows that most people know. Maybe explain why it is so threatened. Why it is on the endangered species list. I could have explained that the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow is restricted to a very unique ecosystem, the seasonally flooded marl prairies found only in the Florida Everglades, and it is under severe threat due to loss or alteration of its critical habitat due to our actions. That the population has declined drastically in recent decades, and maybe again last year (we will know more in the weeks to come). That this sparrow displays traits that many threatened species often share: low population size, restricted range, specific habitat requirements. I could have gone into length about how a closely-related sparrow also endemic to the Florida peninsula, the Dusky Seaside Sparrow, went extinct in 1987 while everyone watched it happen (read “A Shadow and a Song” by Mark Jerome Walters). Maybe talk about the endangered Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, another endemic subspecies in Florida that could be next in line for extinction. This is why we should care about the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow.
Not enough? How about this…maybe we should be trying to save as many endangered species from going extinct as we possibly can? Why? We can go back to the anthropocentric question here: “What does <blank> do for us?” I can tell you the answer: “We don’t know.” We are currently in the midst of a mass extinction event that humans have not witnessed before. We really don’t know that the loss of biodiversity will do to us, or how quickly it will do it. One thing I can tell you for sure – once things are extinct they stay extinct. And we will never have the opportunity to find out what they could have done for us. Medicinal plants always come to mind when I think about this. Maybe sparrows won’t cure cancer, but maybe they eat an insect that eats another insect that pollinates a plant that cures cancer? Or maybe sparrows disperse seeds for some plant that slows storm surges in the coastal prairies and without them sea level rise from global climate change moves inland faster – wait, this is a stretch – you need to believe in climate change.
And even if this bird doesn’t do anything for us, what would the world be like without birds? Could we lose all birds? Probably not. But then again, who would have thought that 3-5 billion passenger pigeons could go extinct in a hundred years or so in North America? I personally like seeing birds in my back yard. I like waking up to the songs of Swainson’s Thrushes and the chatterings of Willow Flycatchers. And I like hearing Cape Sable Seaside Sparrows when I walk into the marl prairies of the Florida Everglades. I don’t want to see a world without these birds. And if we want to go back to the anthropocentric viewpoint again – imagine what would happen to us if we lost all of these important pollinators and seed dispersers?
Maybe the best response to this often-asked question is simply this: “We should care about this bird because it is alive.”
I encourage people to keep asking this question. And I encourage those of us working in conservation to keep thinking about the answer. And to maybe take the time to explain to people why they should care so we can all affect positive change.