I love learning about the adaptations of plants and animals, the ways they change their behavior or characteristics in order to survive difficult conditions. One of my favorites is the Montezuma oropendola, a large and spectacular bird of Central and South America.
First of all, what a cool name! Montezuma oropendola! It is a beautiful bird, with gold tail feathers and an orange beak. Its name comes from the Spanish word “oro” meaning gold, and “pendola” refers to its nests, which hang dramatically as much as 30 inches down from tree branches, sometimes more than a dozen of them in a single tree.
The other players in this tale of adaptation are the cowbird and the botfly.
Brown-headed cowbirds are the most neglectful of parents. In fact, they are so uninterested in raising young they don’t even build their own nests. They simply lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and never look back.
Cowbirds like to lay their eggs in the nests of the Montezuma oropendola among the other eggs, sneaking in to do so when the parents are away or even chasing off the adult oropendolas. The oropendolas are more aggressively protective of their nests than some birds. When they discover cowbird eggs, they typically toss them out of their nests.
Botflies are insects that lay their eggs on a variety of hosts. The hatching larvae are parasites that may eventually kill the host, especially if it is a vulnerable baby bird.
The catch – and the really clever adaptation – is this: In some areas botflies present a grave threat to the oropendola chicks. So, when botflies are present, and ONLY when botflies are present, the oropendolas do NOT throw out the cowbird egg. The cowbird chicks hatch quickly and are very active. So, when the botflies show up to lay their parasitic eggs on the newborn oropendolas, they are eaten by the cowbird chicks.
The oropendola chicks and the cowbird chick are able to grow up safely. The oropendola adults have done their part to ensure the continuation of their species. So have the brown-headed cowbirds, in their way. Presumably, they have been vacationing in Hawaii.
For birds and animals, adaptations usually evolve over long periods of time. This has often been true for humans as well. Today we are in need of adaptations on an enormous scale, and we need to make them happen quickly.
How we use and produce energy has evolved in many ways over centuries. Since the discovery of fire, humans have been finding new and creative ways to develop energy sources. Development has been accelerating at a dizzying pace since the Industrial Revolution. We do everything from preparing food to powering rockets, and make tools and materials by applying our minds and using the resources that are available.
The problem we now face is that the very energy sources that we have used so dramatically, often in ways that have enhanced our ability to thrive as a species on this earth, have been shown to have some serious unintended consequences. Until fairly recently, we just didn’t know that by burning those black rocks and the oils and gases found in the earth we were poisoning the air and changing our climate.
Now we know the truth, though many of us find it difficult to face the severity of the problem. Some of the ultra wealthy, fearing their fortunes might be diminished, have spent large sums to downplay or deny the causes and effects of the changing climate. And yet, even if they don’t want to believe it, it is still happening. Even if the circumstances are enormously inconvenient, it is still getting worse each day. Even if we wish it would just go away or be resolved by some magic, the changes in our planet’s climate are having disastrous effects. Storms, hurricanes and cyclones, wildfires, droughts, floods, and rising sea levels are becoming much more frequent and much more impactful.
Many species of animals and plants are endangered or already gone. Human communities are threatened or already severely damaged. The results are all the more troubling for people with limited resources, often people of color in the United States and around the world. Economic instability, political upheaval, and forced migration are the inevitable result.
Of course, it’s true that there is a natural cycle of warming and cooling of the earth and its oceans. These natural cycles result in changes in climate that happen over the course of many centuries. The difference with the current cycle is that it’s happening much more quickly than previous increases in earth’s temperature, and it has gone far beyond all previous warmings for at least the last 10,000 years. Nothing close to this kind of effect has ever been recorded.
The consensus (97 percent of climate scientists) is that we have 10-12 years to turn things around. This does not mean we have 10-12 years to begin thinking about doing something. It means we need to begin making the changes now, knowing it will take some time to make the transitions.
We will need to stop doing the things we have been doing that are causing this unprecedented warming. We will need to transform away from a system based on companies and a small number of individuals making huge profits. We will need to create a way of life centered in the thoughtful care of the earth and all her forms of life, nurturing good lives for all, including humans. The need for greed must give way to the preservation of all life.
It won’t be easy. Making big changes never is easy. Adapting to thrive as a species is the biggest challenge in human history. We will need to move beyond labels like capitalism and socialism to think freshly and creatively about our future.
Growing up I heard a lot about the “can-do spirit.” We in the USA have especially taken pride in that notion. It seems that spirit has been dwindling in our country in recent years. It seems to be easier to act as if it is too hard or even impossible for us as a nation to take on a big task, working together to improve all of our lives. It feels easier to criticize others for not doing it “right” than to roll up our sleeves and lend a hand.
Won’t it be great to rediscover some things about ourselves and each other:
• That our commonalities are more important than our differences.
• That we thrive when the natural world around us is thriving as well.
• That we are capable of so much more than we have been led to believe.
• That we can accomplish much more together than we can separately.
• That the can-do spirit is alive and well after all.
I believe it is possible that we can adapt to the difficult circumstances we face, unleashing the enormous creativity, energy and intelligence that is our birthright.
After all, if birds can do it...
Editor’s note: John Schmieding has lived in Athens County since 1975 with his wife Debbie. He taught for many years at River Valley Community School and was later director of the Athens Area Mediation Service. He currently chairs the Athens Community Relations commission.