Toward the end of our new book “A Wing and a Prayer: The Race to Save Our Vanishing Birds,’’ John Fitzpatrick gives his latest argument for why we should care about birds.
Fitzpatrick, director emeritus of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, begins by introducing a small, exotic duck-like grebe that’s threatened by the loss of its habitat in Argentina. Then he talks about what we lose if this remarkable bird should disappear.
With our book reaching bookstores and online sellers this month, we’re offering snapshots of some of the characters as a way for you to get glimpses of it. Fitzpatrick is the most passionate and thoughtful advocate for birds we met in all our travels, and we loved the way he compared the world’s great works of art like the Mona Lisa to this little bird called a Hooded Grebe.
“They’re among nature’s masterpieces,’’ he said. “They speak to our hearts.”
So Fitzpatrick developed this photo presentation as a way to talk about the sanctity of birds. He begins with a video showing the grebes in their exotic, boisterous mating dance (which you can see here). Fitzpatrick zeroes in on the bird’s bright red eyes and reddish brown crest that rises to a point at the top of their heads.
Then he clicks his presentation away from the grebe, whose history dates back 30 million years, to a photo of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting.
“We spend millions of dollars protecting artworks like this, a couple of hundred years old,’’ he told us. “But what we’re about to lose in Argentina is infinitely more complex with a vastly more elaborate history. Why do we have to convince people that it’s worth saving this? Is it worth investing in the great works of art in the world? Of course, it is. So are these little birds – not just because we depend on them, but because this is a feature of the living earth, and we have a chance to be alive during it’s time.”
We spent hours talking with Fitzpatrick, who led the Cornell Lab for two decades. His career spans the evolution of the modern study of birds, and he himself has played a central role in all the major advances for protecting birds in the past generation.
He can’t understand, he says, why this country won’t invest in the research, habitat restoration and experiments that will help keep populations stable. That’s not only for the birds’ sake, but because they make such a vital contribution to the balance of nature that every living thing depends upon.
But we found that Fitzpatrick was at his best when he made the arguments for the awe, beauty and wonder of birds themselves. Why, he asks, wouldn’t we do what it takes to save a masterpiece like the Hooded Grebe. “The idea of losing it,’’ he said, “is preposterous.’’
We hope you’ll read our book: It’s available now in bookstores, and here’s a link to where you can find it online.