A Veery for the Future

Veeries were totally absent when I first undertook the Clear Creek Valley census in 1970 and I really didn't expect to find it as a breeding bird. A few nest in northeast Ohio, but the great majority go further north into Canada. It wasn't until 1982 that I discovered the first nesting pair in a rocky crevasse; a place of lights and shadows, a cool and darkly moist eco-niche with a profusion of ferns under towering hemlocks. About this same time, somebody else discovered a pair nesting in one of the nearby Hocking County state parks.

The pair that I found made that year's census results red-letter stuff, and what a thrill it was to hear their beautiful song, a melody seldom heard during it's Ohio migration

Lower in pitch than the songs of most birds, it is throaty and rich in texture, the notes seeming to spiral downward. The song itself and many of the call notes are querulous in nature, as if asking some eternal question, then seeming to answer the inquiry in paeans of praise. Another metaphoric image: The song is a magical seashell and, held to the ear, one hears the voices of the hitherto silent hemlocks.

The unbelievably good news is that by 1997, the numbers of nesting Veeries had increased to fourteen nesting pairs. Populations of the Veery's cousin, the Wood Thrush, remained stable with 26 pairs nesting in 1997. Even better overall news is the fact that most of the valley is now a Columbus and Franklin County Metro Park - even though it is located beyond both of those areas - and its valuable environment is thereby preserved.

I was thinking about these positive developments recently, then trying to place them in a proportionate relationship to a set of more sobering questions: What will this old world be like a hundred years from now? Two hundred? Three hundred? More specifically, what will Hocking County be like? What will Ohio be like? What will the United States be like? What will the world be like?

I ask these rhetorical questions when I'm talking to my students or chatting with birders on the hikes I lead, many of them in the valley. Contrary, perhaps, to the average citizen, I am wondering not only about the future of my own race, but also of all the other sojourners on this planet. The irony of it all is, of course, the fate of all are intertwined.

These attempts to read the future are always fraught with frustration. Even within the close confines of one's own family, isn't it impossible to imagine what unborn descendants are going to be like. Even their genetic makeup remains unfathomed until some future roll of the dice. What they will look like, what they will achieve, even a couple of generations into the near future remains moot. And how much do we even care? Can we care? Is it beyond our capacity to comprehend such questions? After all, we will be dead and gone.

Even so, I try to brush aside these discomfiting limitations, but it is difficult. When I think of the colossal development that has occurred during the twentieth century - much of it in my own lifetime - it is hard to conceive many favorable answers to the questions I have asked..

On a larger scale, when we speculate about the future of human societies beyond our own lifetimes, do we not run into the same obstacles? Is it not possible that this lack of real foresight could be the Achilles' heel that eventually brings all our civilizations down? After we have first destroyed the wild things we supposedly love.

Most of the problems that surely will occur in the future, in the opinion of many experts, arise from runaway population growth coupled with the excessive use of non-renewable resources.

So, as environmentalists, we worry and fret, but we all know too darned well that we are not going to turn the tide. Populations will continue to expand. Development and consumption of all types will continue. We can only be a small voice of conscience and reason.

Many years ago, Aldo Leopold wrote: "Despite nearly a century of propaganda, conservation still proceeds at a snail's pace; progress still consists largely of letterhead pieties and convention oratory . . ." It is all too apparent that things have not changed much from Leopold's time. We speak of "instinct" and the seemingly unthinking behavior of some animals, while we seem unable to comprehend our own blind rush into the abyss.

One thing we can do is to work for an ever increasing number of park systems and nature refuges. If the sum total of our wildlife sanctuaries could be doubled in the next several decades, there might be some hope for the world of the future.

We should continue to support the Nature Conservancy and all such beneficial organizations but we need more. We need an environmental crusade with the specific purpose of setting aside additional areas of land and water.

Perhaps some of the financing for such a plan could be achieved through the sales of a National Conservation Stamp. Such stamps would be similar to the Duck Stamps we are familiar with but could be marketed on a much wider basis. New stamps would be issued each year and the proceeds would go to land acquisition and maintenance, with an emphasis on saving old-growth forest, grasslands, and wetlands.

If we do these things, perhaps the voice of the Veeries - and all the other birds we cherish -will continue to be heard into the distant future.