H.H. Shugart’s ‘How The Earthquake Bird Got Its Name’ Provides Informative View of Environmental Issues

How The Earthquake Bird Got Its Name and Other Tales of an Unbalanced Nature. H. H. Shugart. New Haven: Yale University. 2004. 227 pages, including index. ISBN 030010457X. Available from Amazon.com for $18.50.

On May 26, 2005, it was reported that a flower, the Mount Diablo buckwheat, thought extinct for sixty years, was found in a remote part of California. Also recently reported was a sighting in Arkansas of an ivory-billed woodpecker – sometimes called the “Lord God Woodpecker” because of people’s reactions upon seeing it – also thought extinct. Conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh was jubilant on his program. To paraphrase Limbaugh, this news was ‘one in the eye’ for environmentalists who predict doom and gloom because of global warming, deforestation, and industrial pollution. But then, Limbaugh excels in obscuring issues in a fog of labeling, sarcastic wit, over-exaggeration, and ridicule, and one always feels that he would be perfectly happy living in a world where the only greenery necessary is on the golf course.

For a less heated and more informative view on the issues of environmentalism, read How the Earthquake Bird Got It’s Name. As coincidence would have it, author Shugart starts out his book talking about the ivory-billed woodpecker, in the chapter “The Big Woodpecker Who Was Too Picky,”and explains why it was “highly likely” that the bird was extinct. (The fact that there might be life in the old bird yet does not, as Limbaugh seems to think, invalidate any environmental theories.)

The title of this book is misleading. It attempts to give the impression that it is a ‘popular’ work, when it is not. It’s a scholarly piece of research, for all that the author attempts to lighten it up by providing ‘animal parables’ at the beginning of each chapter. But it’s well written, and the average individual will be able to understand it, for all that it might be necessary to have a dictionary handy for the more esoteric words!

The theme of Shugart’s book is planetary management.

“Extinction of species is a part of Earth’s biological history,” he points out. “Since higher forms of life evolved, periodic catastrophes have been associated with mass extinctions…five of the great extinction events may have been due to asteroid impacts with the Earth, the actions of industrial human society have been likened to a “sixth asteroid” – because the high level of species extinctions over the past few hundred years has been caused mainly by human alteration of the planet.”

Shugart’s topics are disguised beneath chapter names that once again attempt to be ‘popular’ – e.g. light-hearted. The deception is unnecessary, and rather annoying, since the text itself isn’t light-hearted at all. It would be better if the topics covered were identified clearly. Shugart is not a doomsayer, he merely provides the facts and explains how urgent it is for us to know how our actions effect our environment – even more so than common sense would tell us:

1. The Big Woodpecker That Was Too Picky
Vegetation and how it changes over time. Forest ecology.

2. The Black-Headed Bird Named Whitehead
Species’ habitat, and how they can, and cannot adapt to changes

3. The Rat That Hid Time in Its Nest
Reconstruction of the past through animal and plant fossils, including the middens of the packrats

4. The Earthquake Bird and the Possum
Natural disturbances, such as earthquakes, and their effects on an ecological system

5. The Most Common Bird on Earth
Movement and migration of species

6. The Engineering Rodent
Beavers and other animal’s impact on their habitat

7. The Fall of the Big Bird
The extinction of birds, such as the moa, by Polynesians, before the arrival of Europeans

8. The Wolf That Was Woman’s Best Friend
How wild animals were domesticated, from the dog to the horse

9. The Gentle Invader
The impact of imported ‘exotic’ species on the native inhabitants

10. Planetary Stewardship
“We must learn how our planet works before we lose too many of its components…at our current population density, we are committed to actively managing the planet on which we live, we have no planet to which to retreat should we err.”

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