Feathered hope: the reckless loss of bird life


"Hope is the Thing With Feathers," by Christopher Cokinos. Putnam. 359 pages. $24.95.

Every decade, someone or something reminds us that we are, for the most part, thoughtless tenants of planet Earth: Rachael Carson's "Silent Spring" in 1962, Edward Albee's "The Monkey Wrench Gang" in 1975 and the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

Perhaps fittingly, this decade's canary-in-the-coal-mine cautionary tale might be Christopher Cokinos' stirring "Hope is the Thing with Feathers."

Cokinos calls his first effort "a personal chronicle of vanished birds." But calling this a bird book would be like calling "Moby Dick" a fishing story.

Cokinos, an amateur birder, is like a great many hobbyists frustrated by the inability to experience something that has already passed into history. For the author, the frustration takes hold as he thumbs through Audubon's "Birds of America" and realizes the staggering number of species whose flocks he will never see and voices he will never hear.

Cokinos becomes an ornithological gumshoe, tracking the fate of six extinct North American birds: the Carolina Parakeet, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the Heath Hen, the Passenger Pigeon, the Great Auk and the Labrador Duck.

What he finds is what you'd suspect. Man's fingerprints are everywhere.

If humans aren't accidentally importing insects from Europe that prey on a habitat, they're killing birds for sport or their plumage or destroying their nesting areas to make room for farms and housing.

And in perhaps the most perverse twist, ornithologists aware of a species' tenuous state rush out and kill some of the remaining birds to preserve a "skin" for their collections.

Even more depressing are man's puny, and ultimately unsuccessful, efforts to reverse the destruction.

Cokinos' storytelling technique is subtle. Instead of savaging the greedy and selfish as Albee would or bashing away at the obvious villians, Cokinos draws the reader in slowly. You care about these birds, root for them, even though you know at the outset that they are doomed. Your level of despair may leave you grinding your teeth.

What we're left with is what Cokinos and others call "ecological grieving," similar to the loss of a loved one: "We must confront loss rather than deny it and, in doing so, nurture the energies to cope with the difficulties of loving a world we have systematically diminished."

And so what of the hope promised in the book's title -- taken from an Emily Dickinson poem?

Maybe future generations will be able to enjoy the sounds of long-forgotten birds if scientists can crack the genetic code and resurrect them a la Jurassic Park, Cokinos says.

But more likely hope will overcome our losses if we commit ourselves to doing better, to becoming civic activists.

He concludes with a call to arms: "... sadness at loss is a best first response. But it should not be our only response. We know the world gives us life, beauty and solace. We would be ungrateful if we failed to give that back."

Candus Thomson is an outdoors writer at The Sun who has hiked the Swiss Alps, the Presidential Range in New Hampshire and across the Grand Canyon. She has worked as a features editor, bureau chief and state reporter in her 12 years at The Sun. Prior to this, she was a reporter in Massachusetts and New Hampshire for 16 years.

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