Tuesday, September 18, 2012
By Alex MacDonald, manager of protected areas for Nature Canada
Naturalists across Canada and, indeed, all around the world are saddened to hear of Fred Bodsworth's passing at age 94. Amidst a lifetime of notable achievements as a naturalist and author (including having been President of Ontario Nature), Mr. Bodsworth was perhaps most celebrated for his seminal novel, Last of the Curlews, which has sold over 3 million copies, has been translated into 12 languages and was adapted as an animated film. In the words of Bodsworth's obituarist, Glenn Coady, Last of the Curlews "... provided a fictionalized account of the last pair of Eskimo Curlews... . It has since been widely cited as one of the finest pieces of natural history-based fiction ever written. The book's genius is that it transforms the reader's appreciation for the extraordinary life experiences that migratory birds encounter and the challenges they must overcome on a daily basis. It uses the tragic story of the Eskimo Curlew as a parable to impart a sense of both the gravity of extinction and the sinister role played by the often wanton hand of mankind on the natural world."
Last of the Curlews is one of the most memorable books I have ever read, and despite it's focus around what some scientists and laypeople call 'anthropomorphism', or the projection of human emotions and characteristics onto non-human animals, I think it is a must-read for anyone engaged in species or habitat conservation efforts. The book is an almost heart-breaking account of what it could be like to be the very last individual of your species... left all alone in the world with no brethren. Of course it is impossible for anyone to truly know what that situation would entail, but even if it is anthropomorphic and entirely speculated, Bodsworth does a fantastic job of depicting this forlorn situation and helping we humans to understand the awful fate to which our collective actions subject some of the planet's irreplaceable creatures.
Even disregarding the fatalistic aspects of Last of the Curlews, the book provides an epic account of the numerous hazards and difficulties faced by migratory birds, or any migratory species for that matter, as they move from vital summer breeding grounds to over-wintering areas. The Eskimo Curlew, which is by almost all definitions an extinct species, belonged to an exclusive club of bird species that traverse the entire western hemisphere during their migrations, from Canada's northern tundra to the southern cone of South America. The Arctic Tern and Red Knot are among these long-distance migrants.
Eskimo Curlew were effectively hunted to extinction, and Bodsworth details how their tendency to sprial downward as a flock right into shotgun blasts when hunted, as opposed to scattering inidividually to avoid being hit, made the species an easy target. The Curlew was hunted primarily during migration and was prized as a delicacy. The last confirmed instance of breeding Eskimo Curlew in Canada was in 1866, though surveys of the former breeding grounds in the NWT, Yukon and Alaska have continued periodically in the last 40 years. The species is currently listed as Endangered under the Species At Risk Act in Canada and, if ever found, is protected under that legislation.
If you haven't read it already, consider adding Last of the Curlews to your reading list, or even read it to your children, your grandchildren, your neices and nephews, or anyone. It's a cherishable story about an all too perishable species... and it's a helpful reminder of the moral imperative we have to conserve our fellow creatures on this planet.