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.