Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sad and icky and frustrating bird-eating stories

This morning, a listserv entry caught my eye with its subject line: "'Extinct' Bird Seen, Eaten." There was a link to this story in National Geographic about the Worcester's Buttonquail, a species of bird thought to be extinct, and how it turned up in a local market in the Phillippines and was sold as a meal. The story details how a TV crew came and photographed the bird, and then the bird was sold.

It reminded me of the anecdotes Jerome Jackson told in The Search for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, in which locals would sometimes tell IBWO searchers that the bird wasn't extinct and then proceed to shoot one and bring in the dead carcass (though Jackson admits that perhaps these were just horror stories/urban myths). Still, plenty of scientists were still collecting specimens of the IBWO long after they knew it was threatened with extinction.


So this email on the listserv generated quite a discussion, and I thought you might be interested in some of the anecdotes:

One lister told about his visits to Taiwan, where vendors still sell whatever songbirds or raptors turn up in their nets, even though the practice is now illegal (but only enforced in the more urban areas). He also said that on his visit to Taiwan earlier this year, he didn't see a Taiwan Partridge in the wild (the bird was on his list of must-see birds) but instead saw one in a market. The vendor had the bird in a cage and was selling its eggs. He went on to say that wild bird eggs are "very popular" in Asian restaurants and, though most of the time the eggs are simply domestic duck eggs, he knew that fisherman often brought in eggs "from who knows where" of such threatened species as the Crested Tern and the Black-faced Spoonbill.

After that depressing tale, another lister sent around a story of this kind of thing happening here in the US, albeit 25 years ago. The lister said that there was a bar in southern Louisiana where they held an annual "gros bec" festival, featuring a gumbo dish made of a bird called a "gros bec." Probably we all know that "gros bec" is French for large beak, like our own Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, etc. Still, that's not the bird they used in this gumbo. The lister continued, saying that the "family stories are mostly about avoiding the game wardens who were trying to catch the cooks in the act of putting an illegal bird in the pot." She found out later that the birds used were Black-crowned Night Herons.

I wonder about people sometimes. I know that people -- all of us, really -- have to hustle for money in various ways just to feed themselves and their families, and when the natural resources are out there and other people are buying--well, the inevitable happens. This applies not only to places like the Phillippines and Asia but here as well. We're all out there buying gasoline and using plastics and doing other such natural-resource-using activities.

Still, these bird-eating stories really bother me. (You'll remember my post about Thanksgiving and turkey.) I guess it all boils down to the age-old hypothetical question game, a variation of which goes, "if it meant keeping your family from starving, would you ______?" and the blank is then filled in with all manner of craziness, from petty thievery on up to, I suppose, putting endangered birds into one's soup pot.

Why does it happen? Am I just spoiled by being lucky enough to live in a country where if I wanted to eat a bird, I could just go to the grocery store and buy a commercially produced bird that doesn't rob the natural world of any kind of rarity? I'm sure that's a big part of it. I mean, they don't have Tyson's chicken farms on the island of Luzon, the only place in the world that the Worcester's Buttonquail was known to exist, so they work with what they have. Still--someone realized that this was an important bird; they called the TV people and documented it. But then, instead of the vendor (or someone) saying, "Okay, lady, you can't have this bird; he's special. But I'll give you this other kind of bird instead." Why didn't the TV guys buy the bird and release it or call the authorities or something?

It's already a rough world for our birdy friends. I just wish we humans would stop making it worse.


Lynne said...

You asked the right question at the end Delia. If someone knows it's wrong, documents it but does nothing to change it ot correct it, in my opinion THAT is the bigger crime.

KGMom said...

Delia--two responses.
First, today in class we were talking about animal liberation--it's one of the essays the students have to read. And, when I asked about eating meat and using animals, one student said--well, we get to dominate them (i.e. animals) and do whatever we want.
Second, I have not read the book The World Without Us--but when I see what over-population is doing to all the animals, including birds, in the world--I wonder. Would the world be a better place "without us"?

Anonymous said...

A couple of questions. Where did you get the information that a TV crew was called to film the bird and then told them they couldn't buy the bird? I see nothing in the NG article to indicate that. If it is just speculation on your part it is just as easy to surmise that the crew was there filming, and filmed an unusual looking bird. My first reaction when I saw the photo was "Wow that's a different bird", so it isn't much of a leap to think a TV crew would think the same and film it. There is nothing in the article to indicate that the film crew knew that it was a rare bird and would have any incentive to buy it.

Of course none of this changes the outcome a rare secretive bird thought to be extinct was sold in a market and eaten, it is a tragedy. But there is no need to further vilify either the people who filmed it, nor those who market it. I'm guessing that if they had any idea of its potential notoriety they would have been trying to get more from it then the pennies it would have fetched from someone wanting to make soup.

Yes there shouldn't be a market for wild birds, yes this is a monumental tragedy, but am I missing more of the story here?

Anonymous said...

Digging a little further I see that this article indicates that the documentary crew had no idea what the bird was until an ornithologist saw a photo in the credits of their documentary and contacted them.

dguzman said...

Lynne--I agree. Looking at later comments, however, apparently that's the big question in this particular case--did anyone know about this bird at the time? Whatever the case here, we do plenty of horrible things to birds and other wildlife, knowing it's illegal or bad or whatever you want to call it. That's my point.

Donna--I know plenty of hunters who say the same thing, that we are here to be the top of the food chain, dominate "dumb" animals, etc. I don't know if the world would be better without us--humans have created things of beauty since the first cavedwellers painted on walls. Still....

Kiggavik--you bring up good points about the motivations of the people in the story, who knew what and when, etc. Still--it's a tragedy and it made me sad, and that's why I blogged about it. Thanks for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

For a slightly different perspective on events surrounding the Worcester's Buttonquail, check out a recent commentary posted at

It's indeed easy to judge these events using our own value system with little regard for the conditions that create them. The demise of this quail is likely a symptom of much bigger issues rather than just another opportunity to indict a foreign culture.