I first heard of Orange Band about three months before he died. He was 10 and living at Disney World, where he was closely watched, but on June 17 he was found dead in his feeding dish. Orange Band was the last of the dusky seaside sparrows.
The death of Orange Band, so called because of the metal identification tag on his leg, was noted in many newspapers. The Washington Post played the story on page 4, USA Today on page 1. The networks, too, noted his passing. It is fair to say that Orange Band's death got the media attention of a person of accomplishment -- not quite a Fred Astaire but, say, a brilliant and moderately successful playwright.
Why all the attention? The dusky was not among those animals, like cattle, that man depends on for food. The bird's range was a measly 10 square miles around the Cape Canaveral area. Except for specialists and birders, few people even knew of its existence. It was really nothing more than a sparrow, a certain kind, to be sure, but a sparrow nonetheless.
It could have been extinction that interested us, but the event is really commonplace. Scientists estimate that 99 percent of all species that ever existed are now extinct. Dinosaurs, saber- toothed tigers, mastodons, woolly mammoths and even man in his earliest forms are all gone.
But extinctions do fascinate us, especially the ones we cause. The extermination of the dusky falls into that category. The economic growth of the Cape Canaveral area -- with the establishment of the Kennedy Space Center -- meant that roads, homes and shopping centers intruded on the bird's domain. We seized the dusky's habitat, asserting man's dominion over animals.
Even this kind of extinction has been going on a long time. North America's first settlers, the so-called Clovis people, may have exterminated the continent's mastodons and mammoths. The Polynesians who settled Hawaii killed off large, flightless geese, and the Maoris of New Zealand exterminated that island's flightless bird, the moa. The dusky is just the latest species that either got in man's way or was hunted into extinction. This is the way it always seems to have been.
But a growing number of people feel that things cannot continue in this fashion. Ferocious battles have been fought to save obscure species. The snail darter, for instance, held off the construction of a Tennessee dam. The fight, which went all the way to the Supreme Court, was never really about just the snail darter itself, but what it represented -- a continuation of the extermination pattern and what it means to animals and mankind.
Our ability to avoid our own extinction may depend on breaking these patterns. One of the oldest is war. For a long time, it was a rather limited endeavor -- a fight between armies and not peoples. The explosive growth of nationalism changed all that. Napoleon marshaled all of France, and his battles were epic. At Borodino, nation was pitted against nation, France against Russia, and the world was changed. The scale of the battle was unprecedented and so, too, was the horror. Our Civil War was also fought on the new scale. Sherman marched through Georgia because his enemy was not just the Confederate Army, but the civilian population that supported it.
World War I brought an innovation: the murder of civilians from the air. And World War II brought a perfection of it. The near destruction of Tokyo, Hamburg, Dresden and certain Eastern European cities would have stood as benchmarks of horror had it not been for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was not extinction that now threatened, but something new: self-extinction.
It is probably too much to say that Orange Band stands for us all. It is probably not too much to say, though, that concerns about our own plight have started to change the way some people think. Because the next war could be absolute, we have started to build fences. The new perimeter is life itself, any species. The snail darter was a fence around other endangered species. We fight extinction where it doesn't really matter -- dusky seaside sparrows, for instance -- because those species are the DEW line, the Distant Early Warning line, for our own.
Orange Band died because highways were built and fields sprayed with pesticides. His demise is not what we had in mind. It was an accident, the consequence of taking one unrelated step after another. By the time we realized the bird was nearing extinction, we could do nothing about it. Orange Band -- studied, protected and mated with similar sparrows -- keeled over into his feeding dish.
The bird then becomes a symbol. We have taken certain steps, each one seemingly rational, each one logical. We arm, we define threats, we occasionally fight, proclaim our ethical and moral superiority -- and sense that, somehow, the sum of our logic could produce the incredible illogic of the final war.
Unlike, say, the Clovis people, we did not set out to kill. The seemingly accidental nature of the extermination is what scares us and accounts for our interest in the uninteresting bird. Like the canary whose death warns miners that the oxygen level is dangerously low, the extinction of the dusky seaside sparrow sends a message to us: We are all in peril. ::