(This essay originally appeared as “Eating Comes First,” in Birder’s World Magazine (now Birdwatching), October 2007
It’s not that I disliked birds. I had spent hours gaping in awe at Red-tailed Hawks that flew high above my southern California boyhood home, and I enjoyed the mockingbird’s song as much as the next person. No, I had nothing against birds per se, but I will admit to having had a slight disdain for birders. Mainly it was based on my condescending observation that they seemed to resemble birds: They gaggled in groups and made quick fluttering movements at sightings, and their exorbitantly expensive equipment somewhat matched the colors and displays that birds use to compete. And I was not just making fun from afar. My only brother is an avid birder.
For years, I teased him about being a bird nerd. He is rarely without binoculars or a field guide, and I suffered countless impatient hours as he closely studied whatever feathered creature sat preening on a branch or wire. I even began to question his priorities. Packing for a long hiking trip, I found it astounding that his three-pound Sibley Guide to Birds was more important than the second bottle of whiskey.
Our travels in Africa were a perfect example. Lilac-breasted Roller or not, I didn’t have time for birds. I wanted cheetahs, lions, Cape buffalo. But throughout the years, he always replied in the same way: “I like birding because in a place where you won’t see many mammals, you will almost always see birds.” Little did I know how prescient his words would prove in my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in eastern Paraguay.
Seven months into my service as an agricultural extension agent, I wondered if it were possible to live in the country for the next 20 months and not see a single wild mammal. (Eventually, somewhere around the 18th month, I saw an opossum.) Although it is estimated that forests, including parts of the Atlantic interior forest, one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world, once covered 60 percent of eastern Paraguay, less than 10 percent remains.
The nation has one of the highest deforestation rates of any Latin American country, and my Peace Corps site was in the midst of it, surrounded by thousands of acres of genetically modified soy fields. I knew I could not expect maned wolves or tapirs, but still, I expected to see more than the one tame capybara in a nearby city park or the occasional road-killed snake. I despaired at the irony of seeing more wildlife in the Hollywood Hills, home to 10 million people, than in the “Empty Quarter” of South America. And so birds became my only hope.
Before I left, my brother gave me the book Birds of Southern South America and Antarctica by Martín de la Peña and Maurice Rumboll (Princeton, 1998). It lay forgotten in the depths of my backpack for many months, until, in begrudging despair, I pulled it out, polished my binoculars, and started birding. The property I lived on had lots of fruiting trees, so I did not have to go far. I birded in a backyard-bench kind of way. I’d sit, drink tereré (cold yerba mate, a South American herbal beverage), and let the birds come to me. And they did. Paraguay, at the convergence of five major ornitho-geographical regions, has a growing list of more than 700 bird species, many of which were flitting around my backyard.
And to my surprise, not only did I like birding, but I found it strangely addicting. I started doing all the things I had made fun of my brother for: I kept an assiduously maintained checklist: 72 species seen! Every antshrike in Paraguay! I began to stress over whether a song was a clickety-twiddle or a clickety-toddleteetee-tiddle.
Perhaps because I had a lot of time and little reading material, I began taking the increasingly well-thumbed field guide very seriously. I questioned the author’s judgment in describing the Chestnut-bellied Euphonia’s song as “rather ugly.” I cursed the lack of imagination in whoever named the radiantly beautiful Tangara arcoiris the boring Green-headed Tanager.
When I was away from my Peace Corps site, I was sin verguenza, “without embarrassment,” whipping out the binoculars and field guide in public and gurgling happily at the sight of a new species. I had become a birder.
But it was different at home. In my village I felt constrained. I had verguenza about carrying around my binoculars. Stopping while hoeing a line of peanuts and peering at a distant falcon through $150 optics wasn’t exactly the cultural norm I was trying to fit into. I was less shy about the field guide but still worried that showing it to neighbors and friends would confirm the notion that I was not only strange but also wealthy enough to spend money on frivolous things like picture books of birds.
When I showed the book to my neighbor Sindulfo, however, he really liked it. Indeed, he knew most of the birds in it but classified them in a characteristically Paraguayan manner: whether they were good to eat or not. It turns out most of them were. Coscoroba Swan? Muy rico (very tasty). Rhea empanadas? Demasiado rico (literally, too tasty). I can’t say that the gastronomic approach to identifying birds surprised me; by that time at least nine of the species I had identified had either been shot recently or tied to a tree as a pet.
A number of the wealthier people at my site had pet parrots, including two Turquoise-fronted Parrots and one Monk Parakeet. The parakeet, named Pio, was a dearly beloved pet in a land too poor to keep pets as we do. (When the house’s skeletal dog killed and ate Pio, the family, devastated, killed the dog with a shovel.)
It did not take me long to realize that the rural Paraguayan mindset considered most wild animals — opossums, weasels, insects, and birds — bichos, detrimental pests that must be destroyed.
The attitude explained the overwhelming fondness for shooting birds with .22-caliber rifles. The residents shot for sport. My first week in the village I watched in silence as my neighbor shot a Plush-crested Jay, plucked two of its iridescent tail feathers, and casually tossed the rest to a starving kitten. They shot to protect their crops when the parakeets and anis, finding the diminishing forests replaced with corn and soy, sought food in the fields. Mostly, however, the villagers shot in order to eat the birds — songbirds and all.
Vultures were considered powerful remedies for various ailments. A Spotted Tinamou, though scrawny, provided meat and nourishment for families subsisting on last year’s manioc harvest. Throughout the developing world, such hunting, be it illegal poaching in national parks or the unregulated hunting prevalent at my site, constitutes an important source of protein and income for rural populations. And according to the United Nations Environment Programme’s World Conservation and Monitoring Center, it accounts for 23 percent of global extinctions, second only to habitat loss.
The village children would hunt birds around my house with their slingshots; the first time I showed them the field guide was to identify a Gray-breasted Martin they had killed. They took to the book instantly and then asked to see it every time they visited. Their interest stemmed in part from a lack of experience with books in general, but it was equally clear that they loved the book because of the birds. They would sit for hours, poring over page after page, identifying the birds they knew, choosing their favorites, quizzing me on various birds’ names in Guarani, the national language.
Prompted by the children’s interest, I began to use the field guide as a way to discuss greater environmental issues. I frequently heard from adults and children alike, “There used to be toucans here but not anymore.” It was not hard to direct such statements into talk of overhunting and other threats to the environment. My village, it seemed, was a perfect microcosm for conservation in the wider developing world.
Practically every issue affecting local and global flora and fauna could be summed up with relevant, at-hand examples: the conversion of natural ecosystems into mechanized agriculture and the subsequent and heavy agrochemical use; intensive cattle ranching coupled with annual grassland burning; a rapidly increasing population overhunting and trapping for the lucrative wildlife trade in the last parcels of fragmented forest. This was everyday life in my site.
And so, from a simple picture of a toucan, we were able to discuss a range of common environmental issues, their causes, and their effects on Paraguayans and toucans. I regarded our conversations as an integral part in a unique circular process: that because of Paraguayan deforestation, I became a birder, and because I became a birder, Paraguayans discussed deforestation and its effects. Our talks frequently distressed me. Reconciling the needs and traditions of desperately poor farmers with modern conservation ideals is no easy task. When faced with a malnourished child and an edible bird, no matter how brilliant its plumage or infrequently it was seen, the bird came second. On the rare occasions our conversations progressed to possible solutions for the complex, interrelated issues of poverty and ecosystem degradation, they were dismissed all too easily. Paraguay’s population grows close to 2.5 percent a year, and one-third of the population lives below the poverty line. National corruption ranks among the world’s worst, and the sole bright spot in the economy is the rapidly growing soybean sector, perhaps the largest contributor to deforestation. So a fatalistic attitude toward habitat conservation was understandable. And yet the slightest inroads we made in understanding and reconciling the issues, the mere fact that we were discussing the issues and helping place them in a wider context was, to me, an encouraging start. The country has a well-organized and dedicated non-governmental organization, Guyra Paraguay, that is collaborating with other international bird conservation organizations. Its existence assured me that similar, and perhaps more legislatively weighted, discussions would continue.
It’s also encouraging that national laws have been passed intended to slow deforestation, create national parks and protect existing ones, and teach environmental education to children. Still, for all the conversations I had about environmental issues, I was never really sure how much they broadened perspectives on birds past seeing them as an accompaniment to beans and rice.
And so I was surprised, and touched, when my neighbor called me over one evening. His dog had found a young Guira Cuckoo, and instead of letting the dog eat it, as was the norm, he was holding the pet at bay. “I know you like birds,” he said. As I picked up the terrified bird and tried to calm it, he came over to look at it. “What are you going to do with it?” he asked.
I told him I was going to release it, and to my surprise, instead of a strange or disproving look, he nodded slowly, as though it were the right thing to do. I considered it a blessing, and as I set the bird in the safety of a thicket, I was filled with hope, for the birds, and for us.