Before sophisticated sniffing devices were introduced in mines canaries were commonly taken into mines.
The canary being a tiny bird with a high metabolism would very quickly show the effects of any noxious fumes in a mine. As long as the canary was alive and well the miners knew that they were safe. The canary served as a wildlife barometer indicating that the miners’ environment was relatively safe to work in. There are many other wildlife barometers in this world of ours but they are not in mines, they are all around us.
In the 1950’s the eggs of nesting predatory birds like the osprey and bald eagle were breaking when parent birds tried to incubate them. Wildlife enthusiast first observed this tragic phenomenon happening and an immediate study was done to determine what had caused the apparent thinning of the birds’ eggs. As it turned out and was made famous by Rachel Carsons’ Silent Spring, the ultimate cause of the softening of the birds’ eggs was the result of pesticides that were finding their way into the food chain. Something was done to try to correct the situation by the banning of some pesticides, like DDT from use in crop protection. In time, birds were observed to be successfully hatching offspring. But we soon witnessed another wildlife barometer.
The offspring of some living things were beginning to appear showing birth defects. Hatchlings with nerve damage failed to thrive and would die. Frogs with multiple limbs caught the attention of wildlife observers. Something wasn’t quite right. In some cases it was eventually discovered that chemicals dumped from our own production processes that had also leached into watersheds and food webs were to blame. If these wildlife barometers had been canaries in a mine the miners would have responded. But those of us working and living above ground don’t seem to notice the canaries around us.
As I look out my study window I can see all kinds of wildlife barometers. The seasonal visits of migratory birds can tell me something. Their numbers and varied species are an indicator of how well some bird populations are faring. Last year for the first time in my memory, Robins visited our property. Dozens of the red-chested birds hopped about our yard and rosted in the trees surrounding the house. It was a site we were thrilled to see. It made me stop and wonder why they hadn’t visited before? What had changed to encourage their visit?
If the wildlife barometers around us are indicating to us something about the health of our environment what might they also mirror about our own health and well-being?