Thursday, February 19, 2009

Rare Species Sold As Food

This rare bird, a Worcester's buttonquail, was photographed at a poultry market in the Philippines before being sold as food. Prior to the photograph being taken, the species had not been seen for several decades and was presumed to be extinct.

Photograph by Arnel B. Telesforo

The incident is reminiscent of tales of American endangered and extinct species, such as this great moment in American conservation:
I had been spending the winter of I885-1886 in Florida, and during the month of March had made my Headquarters at the home of my friend, Mr. E.G. Smith, on Big Lake George. One of my favorite trips was up Juniper Creek, a small stream emptying into the head of the lake one mile west of the famous Volusia bar; the country through which it passes is one of those wild, semi-tropical swamps, so common throughout the Gulf States. Anhingas (Anhinga anhinga), Little Blue Herons (Ardea cœrulea), Egrets (A. egretta) and Limpkins (Aramus giganteus) were by no means uncommon, and it was in search of these that Mr. Smith and I took a boat on March 26 and started for this locality. We took with us as oarsman 'Jim' (one of the help on the place), who had done considerable collecting for me, and in whose accuracy as a marksman I had some confidence. We had gone perhaps a mile up the stream when a new and peculiar note sounded from the forest, which I can only liken as do other writers to the false high note of a clarionet; hastily landing I immediately went in search of its author (as I had not the faintest idea from what source it proceeded), but owing to the thickness of the underbrush it was next to impossible to penetrate farther than a few yards and, the noise ceasing entirely, I returned and we continued up the stream. Noon found us eating our lunch on a small knoll some four miles from the lake in the very thickest of the swamp. Around us stood gigantic cypress trees whose trunks and branches were adorned with thousands of air plants, and from which the myriads of vines which twined and twisted, and the gray Spanish moss hanging in long festoons, cast a gloom and solemnity hard to realize by one who has never seen it, yet lending a certain grandeur that the student of nature is not slow to appreciate. Scattered through the swamp and giving a tropical air to the whole were countless palmettoes (Sabal palmetto) towering to a height of seventy-five or a hundred feet, and it was in a little clump of these that we were taking our nooning. Suddenly that strange note sounded once, twice, three times,—approaching nearer with each repetition. It sounded exactly like the note of the White-bellied Nuthatch, only much louder and stronger, and grasping my gun, I remarked that I was going to kill the biggest Nuthatch on record. Hardly had the words left my lips when, with a bound and a cackle, a magnificent male Ivory-bill alighted in the trees directly over our heads; for a moment I was too astonished to speak, but in that moment it was joined by its mate, and the two began hammering away at the palmetto trunks. It was impossible for me to shoot without changing my position, while to move would be to alarm the birds; Jim saw my dilemma and whispered that he could kill them from where he sat, so passing him the gun I watched him take aim. He fired but missed, and the Woodpeckers bounded away into the thickest part of the swamp; hastily snatching the gun I started in pursuit, but failed to find them. Day after day I returned to the same locality in hope of securing them, but without success, and on April 7 I was obliged to leave for home without adding this much coveted species to my collection.
The author, Edwin M. Hasbrouck was writing in The Auk in April 1891, when the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was already known to be in serious decline. In fact, the author acknowledges this. His article survey evidence for the species's range at the time, in response to fears that it and the Carolina Parakeet might follow the Labrador Duck and Great Auk into oblivion. While some of the reports are strictly visual observations, most seem to be from specimen collecting activity, by people who probably should have known better.

Hasbrouck's prognosis for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker seems hopelessly optimistic, given the benefit of hindsight:
It will be seen from the foregoing, that in many instances the accounts are modified with the statement that the species is extremely rare as compared with past years, or else has disappeared from the localities entirely. Probably this is not altogether owing to the actual decrease in the numbers of the birds, but to its extreme wildness and desire for seclusion.... There are thousands of square miles of swamp throughout the Mississippi Valley and Gulf States that never will or can be reclaimed or settled, country that is admirably suited to this bird, and in which, as I have shown, it is much more common today than elsewhere; and here, it is safe to say, it will be found indefinitely; for, into those swampy fastnesses in which it most delights, few care to penetrate, at certain seasons none dare; and as but few are killed, and each pair in existence today will presumably raise its brood the coming spring and together with them repeat the multiplication each successive year,—it is reasonable to assume that the species will be found there many years hence.
The cavalier attitude that leads to killing to extremely rare species is not unique to the Philippines.

Update: See also this post on the buttonquail incident from Beginning to Bird.