BOOKS: And No Birds Sing

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1997:

And No Birds Sing:
A True Ecological Thriller Set in a Tropical Paradise
by Mark Jaffe
Barricade Books (150 Fifth Ave., Suite 700, New York, NY 1OO11), 1997.
283 pages, paperback, $12.00.

On a small island, thousands of
miles across the Pacific, the birds have all
but disappeared. And No Birds Sing, paced
like a page-turning mystery, seeks the
answer. Mark Jaffe chronicles prolonged
governmental and scientific ineptitude in
responding to an event that had no recognized
model: the annihilation of birds on
Guam by the accidental import of the brown
tree snake. Jaffe centers on the story of
Julia Savidge, a doctoral candidate at the
University of Illinois, hired to do research
by the Guam Division of Aquatic Wildlife
Resources, who had the courage to fight
bureaucracy and bogus “scientific rules” for
years in order to prove the impact of the
snake, which she had deduced from field
observation, interviews with local people,
and archival research.

Although Jaffe primarily narrates
scientific method and discovery, he provides
historical and cultural background
about the people of Guam as well, personalizing
the characters with anecdotes, e.g.
how Julie fought a monitor lizard over a
peanut butter sandwich. There is enough
here to please both the casual reader and the
scholastic community, who should learn a
lesson about creative thinking and the need
to explore new ideas.
And No Birds Sing could also
awaken a new generation to the surprising
diversity of ecological danger, often exacerbated
by the tendency of people who sit in
offices to disregard innovative field work,
favoring instead the pet projects of higherups.
And No Birds Sing particularly illustrates
the maddening slowness of getting
anything done through government. The
book begins in 1978, long after permanent
damage to the bird population occurred, but
the influence of the brown tree snake was
not accepted until 1985. The second half of
the book, taking us from then to the present,
covers still unresolved efforts to begin captive
breeding of the two surviving native
Guam bird species, so as to eventually
restore them to the wild.
Jaffe often mentions the slowness
of “Hawaii time” and “Guam time.” Yet it
seems that “government time” is even slower.
It took six years to list the Guam native
birds as endangered, by which time several
were already extinct. It took seven years for
the government to discuss, blame, and
finally fund and kick off serious research on
aviary diseases, but that was only done to
prove that the government’s theory was correct,
under political pressure from zoos and
environmentalists to close the issue.
Quick to blame the U.S. federal
government for the catastrophe on Guam,
Jaffe seems less willing to finger Guam’s
own government, Department of Natural
Resources, and staff biologists. Yet since
they did not even notice the problem, or just
ignored it until 1978, they would seem to be
equally culpable. Even after the loss of
birds had passed the point of no return, the
Guamanian wildlife authorities did not consider
it important enough to divert money
and resources from promoting sport hunting
in order to address it. They just sat back and
waited for the U.S. to act, provide
resources, and take responsibility.
I would like to suggest that this
book become required reading for the government
and scientific community, but the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other
agencies involved in the Guam tragedy
show little willingness to learn from past
mistakes. At least since World War II the
U.S. government has viewed isolated Pacific
Islands as expendible. The Bikini Islands,
for instance, are still uninhabitable 50 years
after being bombarded by nuclear weapons.
Such bombing continues with USFWS
blessings, albeit with practice weapons now
instead of nukes, including at Farallon de
Medinilla, where even one misdirected
practice bomb could extirpate a small resident
colony of endangered Micronesian
megapodes (ovenbirds). Just a few years
ago USFWS buckled under military pressure
and allowed a floating drydock from
the Philippines to be towed into Pearl
Harbor without quarantine. Who knows
what alien species might have lurked within
it? Dogs and cats arriving in Hawaii suffer
through a mandatory four-month quarantine,
yet concerned natural resource agency staff
were told to back off when they requested a
scientific review of the drydock’s arrival.
It should be noted that many
employees of USFWS and other bureaucracies
would like to do the right thing but fear
political pressure. Titled to echo S i l e n t
S p r i n g, the Rachel Carson bestseller that
touched off the environmental movement,
And No Birds Sing may encourage them,
along with younger readers.
––Carroll Cox

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