In the late 1930s, Gwendolen Howard left her seat in a London orchestra for a little house in the south of England, which she named Bird Cottage. There, she invited native birds to join her with gifts of bread, cheese, peanuts and currants — war rations, as the years wore on — and observed her companions closely. (“While I am trying to write this page,” Howard noted in her odd, beautiful book “Birds as Individuals,” “some are perching on the typewriter, some pulling at my hair, others flying to my hands and falling off as I start to tap the keys.”)
Most of the scant literature concerning Howard refers to her as an amateur naturalist; it’s better to say she was an expert human.
People are a part of the natural world, not distinct from it. One of the things we’re naturally capable of is a deep and searching kind of knowing, thanks to our facility with language and inborn curiosity; another natural ability is changing our environment. It wouldn’t be expecting anything more than humanity out of human beings to ask that people, at the very least, shape their activities to avoid the meaningless destruction of animal life.
But that is, apparently, too much. For the past 100 years, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) has, among other things, incentivized industries to avoid the intentional or unintentional slaughter of North America’s native birds, primarily using fines. But now, President Trump’s Interior Department has announced that it will no longer enforce prohibitions on “incidental takes” — the unintended, though still perhaps foreseen, killing of birds, as in open waste pits, uncovered oil spills, lit communication towers and low-visibility power lines.
It’s a bizarre, novel interpretation of the law, as the Audubon Society has pointed out, but it was well-received only by those who stand to benefit financially. The American Petroleum Institute, for instance, praised the decision for providing regulatory “certainty,” which it no doubt does for those eager for one less troublesome chore per toxic waste pit. Where companies would have previously been expected to place nets over poisonous waste pits to discourage birds from landing in their deadly waters, the Trump administration’s decision removes any penalties for failure to do so. Some firms might still bother; others probably won’t.
I asked Sarah Greenberger, the Audubon Society’s senior vice president of conservation policy, why the Trump administration might have made this interpretive change now. Have the small, relatively inexpensive fixes needed to protect birds — nets over waste pits, balls on power lines to increase visibility, blinking lights on communications towers — posed a burden on industry?
“It hasn’t been a significant regulatory burden,” Greenberger said. “Over the 100 years of the MBTA’s existence, there’s no evidence that energy development has waxed or waned due to the statute.” Nonetheless, she observed, the act has appeared on industry wish lists of regulatory annoyances it would like to see eliminated — a task the Trump administration has undertaken with gusto. Still, why so much animus directed toward such a minor duty? “I think that’s hard to understand, frankly,” Greenberger told me. “It’s only a little bit of extra effort.”
They’re so easy to kill, birds; or rather, the power of human industry is so profound that only a little carelessness — the slightest abdication of that deeply human impulse to know and understand — is tremendously destructive for them. Perhaps this is why dead birds so often stand in literarily for human cruelty and corruption: Coleridge’s senselessly killed albatross in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” for example, or the titular species of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
But maybe that’s the heart of it, and maybe that’s the heart of the Trump era: permitting cruelty without consequence for the powerful. It’s harmful to the weak — birds, in this case, whose beauty needs no argument — but also to the strong who, in the exercise of cruelty, become less humane, less human. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ tells His followers that not a single sparrow falls from the sky without God’s knowledge. Maybe this is why a person like Len Howard, with her deep and steadfast love of knowing her fellow creatures, seemed in some sense like St. Francis preaching to his birds, graced. But ours is not a graced age. So many more birds will die now, drowning in waste pits with greased feathers and electrocuted on power lines. We won’t even know.