Stolen Feathers, Poisoned Land
Flamingo-themed kitsch fills gift shops on Sanibel Island: garden statues, picture frames, postcards, key rings, shot glasses. Though the items exhibit the words “Sanibel Island” in bright letters, they misrepresent the island’s reality—there are no flamingos here. Tiny communities of them live in the Florida Keys and Everglades, but Sanibel’s pink bird is the roseate spoonbill, also called Platalea ajaja, flame bird, or pink curlew.
We almost lost the roseate spoonbill to the fashionable world’s voracity for subjugating and possessing any object of beauty in nature. Humans demanded the birds’ wings and feathers for fans and hats, and the pink bird was hunted nearly to local extinction in the 1800s, along with the reddish and snowy egrets. This took place during the “age of extermination,” when tourists on moving boats shot birds and alligators for amusement, leaving wasted, rotting corpses and terror in their wake.
In the American West, passengers on moving trains took aim at bison, contributing to the near extinction of the species, from 60 million to 541. The animal that survived the Ice Age was no match for trigger-happy colonists. It took decades for the bison numbers to start climbing again, and the species’ recovery is still in progress, thanks mainly to Native American tribes such as the Sioux and Assiniboine.
The passenger pigeon fared worse than the bison, exterminated by colonists who perhaps assumed the bounty would last forever.
In 1886, ornithologist Frank Chapman went bird watching in Manhattan. He counted forty bird species in the hats of fashionable women. Another group of women, members of the Audubon Society, boycotted milliners who used feathers. They created a feather-free hat they dubbed an Audubonnet.
At the time of Chapman’s bird census, the population of Native Americans in the United States was estimated to be 250,000, around 2.5% of their pre-Columbian numbers. European diseases such as smallpox had erased many of them; others were killed with guns, knives, and fire. Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee communities were forcibly relocated west because their presence was inconvenient to Southern white colonists. Years later, colonists’ great-great-grandchildren would conjure nativism with Kokopelli-embossed pottery, paintings of men in headdresses, and feathered flutes bought at tourist traps and gas stations.
Gift shops line Florida’s highways, luring tourists with oranges and plastic garden flamingos, which outnumber real flamingos globally. They’re also pinker. Real flamingos are born greyish white and turn pink when they eat brine shrimp, who derive carotenoids from their own diets. Salt glands lie at the tops of their beaks and protect the birds’ kidneys from taking in excess sodium. Mother and father flamingos produce bright pink crop milk, bestowing upon their growing offspring so many nutrients that they themselves often turn white during breeding season.
Closely related to the ibis, the roseate spoonbill has a long white neck, a pink body, red shoulders, and a fifty-inch wingspan. Like the flamingo, it gets its color from its diet: crustaceans and tiny fish. The bird moves its spatula-like bill back and forth through shallow water and mud. When the sensitive receptors on its bill sense food, the mandibles snap shut and, grunting softly, the bird shakes and swallows its prey. Sometimes what spoonbills eat turns out to be deadly. Shrimp eat tiny plastic particles that get into the water, mistaking them for algae, and when wading birds eat shrimp, the plastic pollutes their bodies.
The spoonbill population depends on the availability and quality of shallow, brackish water for foraging. As an indicator species, spoonbills are rigorously documented, any disruption in their population alerting scientists that all is not well in the wetlands. When the Everglades covered South Florida, wading bird colonies bred and flourished. With the draining of these wetlands, spoonbills went elsewhere to breed. And because Florida Bay no longer has a true dry season, nesting becomes complicated. The species remains globally stable but still threatened in Florida.
In 2015, the Animas River turned yellow, a result of the Gold King Mine spill in Colorado. The Animas River flows into the San Juan River, long used by residents of the Navajo Native Reservation for irrigation and livestock. The river contains lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals, as well as the radioactive particles such as uranium that made their way into the reservation’s drinking water decades ago. By the time residents realized the extent of the contamination, many suffered from cancer and kidney problems.
Meanwhile, the planned Dakota Access Pipeline was rerouted to pass near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The original route, near the mostly white state capital Bismarck, was deemed too risky for the city’s water supply. It now passes under the upper Missouri River, the reservation’s only water supply. Standing Rock residents have reason to worry, as oil has already been spilled on or near Native lands—the Keystone XL leaked in South Dakota, an oil well leaked on Fort Peck Reservation in Montana, and a train carrying oil derailed and spilled its contents into the Columbia River in Oregon, among other incidents.
Florida’s flamingos, like other wading birds, were once hunted in rivers and lakes for their feathers and meat. Until recently, ornithologists assumed that the few flamingos spotted in Florida were vagrants or escapees from zoos and tourist attractions. As sightings became more common, scientists realized not all of South Florida’s native flamingos had died, and the population was recovering—much like a phoenix, whose myth their species inspired.
The feathers of shorebirds such as spoonbills and egrets are at their most beautiful during breeding season. By the late 1800s, the hunted birds had been driven away from populated areas and nested in large numbers in remote rookeries. Plume hunters planned their attacks meticulously: if they went before the eggs hatched, the birds would fly away. If they went after the eggs hatched, they could shoot hundreds of adult shorebirds in one day. They would strip the bodies of their feathers and leave the corpses behind. The nestlings would starve or be eaten by predators. Such carnage was possible because the spoonbills and egrets refuse to leave their babies, even when they are being shot at.
Wading birds can no longer legally be sacrificed to human greed. At least not by a bullet from a plume hunter’s rifle. Rising sea levels, accelerated by our gluttony of fossil fuels, may leave spoonbills unable to access their food supply, as they can only forage in shallow water.
In the 1800s, most people saw no problem with shooting birds in the name of fashion and leaving nestlings to starve. Colonists also justified worse atrocities, such as killing Native Americans and forcing them from their lands and enslaving Africans.
Today in Utah, easy access to fossil fuels and mining deposits is the flaming pink feather and Bears Ears National Monument is the hunted bird. The land is sacred to a number of Native American tribes and protected under the Antiquities Act, but protections can be stripped away and promises broken. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Other public lands, such as Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, are under attack, as are Native American reservations such as Uintah and Ouray and Standing Rock, due to avarice for what lies under them or could be built on them. History did not end with our ancestors. The coveted objects change, but human greed lives on and recognizes no boundaries.