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Purple martins are one of many bird species that thrive in mankin's presence. Keith Corliss/The Pioneer

Flight Lines: Mankind an important part of global system

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The explosion and subsequent leaking of the deep-water oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico is a tragedy on every level, beginning with the deaths of the workers on day one. Daily we are inundated with continuous media coverage of the toll - both environmental and human - the event is taking on us. Granted this is a big event, but I'm reaching the saturation point.

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For years, people of the world, especially Americans, have been ripe targets for certain folks promulgating what I consider an anti-human message; one that constantly reminds us just how evil and destructive we are to the environment. If only there were no humans, their message seems to say, the world would hum along harmoniously without another problem. Every plant and animal species would thrive, carbon would stay put, sea ice would stop melting, and crude oil would stay far underground. So they say.

Sure, we've had our share of mistakes along the way. Events such as Chernobyl, Bhopal, the Exxon Valdez, and the Kuwaiti oil fires remind us how tenuous our relationship is with the environment.

One thing we rarely hear, though, is the good news. Air and water are cleaner in America today than 50 years ago. Species on the brink of extinction have returned. Ever cleaner systems are allowing us to create and use energy with less impact. And what about those species which have actually benefitted from the very existence of mankind?

Take cliff swallows for example. These colony-nesting bug-eaters can be found under just about every overpass and bridge around. Would there be as many if we hadn't built the nest sites? Not a chance. There's another bug-eater taking advantage of unnatural sites, the chimney swift. I can't recall ever seeing a chimney swift around here which was nesting in something other than a manmade chimney. The same can be said of purple martins, a bird which almost solely relies upon "apartments" erected by homeowners to facilitate nesting.

Just two weeks ago, I watched as lesser nighthawks cruised up and down an Arizona road lit up by street lights while feeding on flying insects. I would argue the birds are better off because the artificial lights group the bugs in densities not seen in the wild.

Consider also the ubiquitous killdeer. Here's a highly successful upland nesting shorebird. Before Europeans arrived in the Red River Valley this was tallgrass prairie. I highly doubt there were near as many killdeer then as there are today. Why? It desires open, barren ground on which to lay eggs. The miles and miles of gravel township roads laid out over the years opened up the entire region to killdeer nests. The bird is thriving.

Fruit-eaters have also taken advantage of our presence, I contend. Species such as Baltimore oriole and cedar waxwing are given a leg up by the vast array of plantings in our urban landscapes. It's hard to drive a city block and not see a crabapple or a mountain ash or some ornamental honeysuckle. All this fruit is available to species seeking it. And it's provided by us.

Think about the seed-eaters too. Love them or hate them, birds such as red-winged blackbirds and common grackles have certainly thrived, partially by taking advantage of agricultural practices. Another species said to have indulged itself of farming is the snow goose. Rice growing has grown exponentially in the gulf region over the past few decades which has allowed snow geese an easy winter diet. This has netted a population so large as to cause considerable concern among biologists resulting in a spring goose hunt to limit their numbers.

These are just a few examples of the many beneficial interrelationships certain species have with mankind. And that's just birds. It's difficult for some to understand that we are animals too, and an important part of the global system. By the way, we aren't going away anytime soon despite what some would have us believe.

The message here is it's not all doom-and-gloom. The gulf will recover from the spill. Nature is highly resilient and over time it will heal itself. In fact, prior to the oil rig explosion, fully two-thirds of the crude oil present in gulf waters came from natural seepage. It knows how to handle this stuff. In many cases better than we do.

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