Review | Birds are disappearing from our skies. What can we do to save them?

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Warblers and sapsuckers don’t often make headlines, but in September of 2019 they did: 3 billion, almost a third of all the adult birds in North America, have disappeared over a scant few decades. Avid birdwatchers and scientists have long known that the avian population was in decline, but the extent of the drop-off was staggering. In “A Wing and a Prayer,” Anders and Beverly Gyllenhaal detail the efforts by birders and scientists to stem the tide and slow the rate of extinction before it’s too late.

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The question one bumps up against these days, when reading about any of the multitude of environmental crises hurtling toward us, is an old one: What is to be done? Also: Will this book/movie/video/blog/podcast make a difference? The Gyllenhaals, longtime journalists (and bird lovers), want their book to be a wake-up call, and I hope it is. People need to know that the animals they live closest to, apart from their own pets, are in dire need of our help.

Despite the stakes, “A Wing and a Prayer” is no jeremiad. The authors tour the country in their refurbished Airstream, and like the retirees they are, calmly and competently report their observations.

What they find is a war against extinction, a war being fought by a variety of scientists, nonprofits and passionate individuals who recognize that the slow pace of conservation — a pace similar to that of a birder dawdling in the woods — will simply not work when dealing with a crisis that could be irreversible in less than a decade. Birds, the authors tell us, are “nature’s workhorses, handling such duties as pollination, seed dispersal, fertilization, and soil formation,” and they are, to use an overused metaphor, our canaries in the coal mine. If they go, we go, or at least the world as we know it does. Of course scientists can’t predict exactly how this would play out, but the fear is that a decline in birds would have a cascading effect that leads to fewer plants, trees, flowers and vegetables. Consider: More than 8,000 species of plants and flowers rely on hummingbirds for pollination. Saving these precious members of the food chain is one thing, but conservationists are up against a hard reality — habitat loss, plain and simple. When we gobble up more and more land, there is less and less left for our nonhuman neighbors. Add to this the ever-looming fact of climate change: that habitats themselves are in flux.

The book provides vivid portraits of the people on the front lines: the scientists trying to save the grasshopper sparrow in Florida; the secretive group of ivory-billed woodpecker true-believers camped out in the Louisiana swamps looking for signs of a creature so majestic it is known as the Lord God Bird; the biologists in Hawaii, ground zero for bird extinctions, who will release millions of lab-raised mosquitoes in an attempt to muscle out the malaria-carrying mosquitoes that have devastated the island’s bird population.

And then there are the if-all-else-fails efforts such as the collection of 10,000 vials of “cultures, sperm, and embryos” from endangered birds and other animals by the so-called Frozen Zoo, a division of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance that, the authors say, could provide “a genomic insurance policy” against extinction. (And the even more extreme attempts to re-create extinct birds like the passenger pigeon, Jurassic Park-style.) The authors also highlight avian success stories, like the successful efforts of Ducks Unlimited to protect waterfowl, as well as failures, like the Fish and Wildlife Service, which they portray as underfunded, bureaucratic, slow and generally ineffectual. They quote a former chief counsel of the FWS who calls the organization “timid” and point to the slow process by which an endangered species is declared, taking up to 12 years, a sluggish pace that does not match the urgency of the times, and one during more than 50 species have gone extinct.

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These scientific efforts are vital, but, the authors make clear, so too is getting people to understand and care about what is happening. The book evokes Rachel Carson, our great eco saint and savior, but what people forget about “Silent Spring” is that it was a warning that might have gone unnoticed if it were not first serialized in the New Yorker, which in turn led to its being pushed by its publisher and, eventually, to well-publicized congressional hearings. In other words, it was a good story but also a story that managed to make itself heard. Effectively telling a similar story now, in the cluttered media landscape, and having it heard and acted upon, is a challenge of a different order.

“A Wing and a Prayer” does a fine job of laying out the basics of the story, but what is missing, at least for the first hundred pages or so, are actual birds. We get plenty of computer tracking of birds and research on birds, but it is a little short on actual flying things: the flash of color, the delight in movement, the joy humans can take in something beyond the human, the way becoming engrossed in lives other than our own can let us, at least momentarily, rise out of ourselves. Thankfully, as the book progresses, the authors take a break from their reporting to describe their own close encounters with their neighborhood barred owls and great blue herons, because it is this connection and intimacy that sometimes, not always, can lead to a strange but vital metamorphosis in which love is transformed into action. After all, if you don’t love a thing, you won’t fight for it.

In this time of massive environmental crises, it is understandable to feel overwhelmed to the point of inertia. We should applaud those who do otherwise, those who do not retreat but fight back against the darkness, as well as those, like the Gyllenhaals, who tell their story.

David Gessner is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and author of “Ultimate Glory,” “All the Wild that Remains” and “A Travelers Guide to the End of the World,” which publishes in June.

The Race to Save Our Vanishing Birds

By Anders Gyllenhaal and Beverly Gyllenhaal

Simon & Schuster. 320 pp. $30

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