The Fight to Protect the Birds

March 24, 2024

A review by Donna L. Schulman

A Wing and a Prayer: The Race to Save Our Vanishing Birds by Anders and Beverly Gyllenhaal
Simon & Schuster, 2023
320 pages, hardcover
ABA Sales–Buteo Books 15331

We’re in trouble, and we know it. Bird numbers are decreasing at a scarily precipitous rate. Conservation, once as simple as convincing women not to wear feathers in their hats, has become a labyrinth of strategies for habitat restoration, predator reduction, and policymaking. A Wing and A Prayer: The Race to Save Our Vanishing Birds is a personal survey of the diverse research studies, nonprofit endeavors, governmental programs, private enterprise, individual obsessions, and public-private partnerships that make up 21st-century bird conservation.

Authors Anders and Beverly Gyllenhaal, birders, spouses, and retired journalists, traveled across the country in their Flying Cloud Airstream in 2021, intent on observing bird conservation firsthand. Journeying 25,000 miles (they leave the Airstream behind to fly to Hawaii and Ecuador), they talk to visionaries and administrators, tread into the field with biologists and volunteers, bounce on muddy tropical roads, and sort through a confusing morass of public policy and governmental practices. It’s an excellent reportorial introduction to avian conservation, brightened by the smart, devoted people the Gyllenhaals interview, their own observational curiosity, and the birds, always the birds.

A cornerstone to the book is the “Three Billion Bird Project,” the name given to the startling 2019 Science report that 2.9 billion birds in the continental U.S. and Canada, including many common species, have been lost over the past 50 years. The Gyllenhaals tell the story of how that study came about in the book’s second chapter, enriched by lengthy interviews with three of its co-authors. It is the motivating thread throughout their travels, with the views of the scientists interviewed—Mike Parr of American Bird Conservancy, Ken Rosenberg (now retired) of the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, and Pete Marra of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center—acting as a form of a scientific Greek chorus throughout.

The ten chapters are organized according to concept: saving one species, using technology to track social behavior and migratory movements, partnerships with private-sector companies to preserve habitat, last resort science-fiction type initiatives, and an afterward on how we as individuals can help birds. The best sections focus on one specific project and its participants. In “Listening to the Birds,” one of my favorite chapters, we get to know the U.S. Forest Service workers who conduct large-scale bioacoustics surveys of the “California” Spotted Owl. We hike through Yosemite National Park with the Gyllenhaals and Sarah Sawyer, working mother and Regional Wildlife Ecologist, as they check audio recorders and observe a Spotted Owl. We get a bit of history about audio technology, a smidgeon more about the infamous struggle to save the “Northern” Spotted Owl, and a tiny bit (I wish there were more) about the ethics of the Forest Service’s current solution to the Barred Owl threat—killing them. In an effective postscript, Beverly ruminates on her own neighborhood Barred Owl and the dual roles birds may play as friend and predator.

I also enjoyed reading about private-sector projects and partnerships not ordinarily covered in birding magazines. There is the Flying W, a sustainable ranch in Kansas, whose persevering owners have re-cultivated prairie grasslands, bringing back Henslow’s Sparrows, and producing “bird-friendly beef.” The (unhyphenated) Sage Grouse Initiative is a government–private sector partnership offering support to ranchers who develop and conserve dwindling sage-grouse habitat in the western states. The waterbird conservation success of Ducks Unlimited is a more familiar but still amazing story. We—birders—need to expand our concept of what conservation means and who should be involved.

There are a couple of sections that are less focused. In “World Travelers,” the Gyllenhaals trace the migration of the Cerulean Warbler from Ecuador to Virginia, discussing the challenges of conservation on wintering and breeding grounds. The Virginia scenes are surprisingly much more informative than the Neotropical ones, where the Gyllenhaals seem overwhelmed by the Ecuador’s huge biodiversity. And the section on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, in which the Gyllenhaals accompany a group of true believers on a secret hike into a secret swamp to check recorders, cameras, and drones for evidence of the Lord God Bird is a fun adventure but, I think, adds little to the book. The authors’ feelings of camaraderie with the volunteer group obscure what may be the real issue here—whether engagement of our cultural imaginations and allocation of resources into a search of a lost, probably extinct bird helps support larger conservation efforts or functions as a distraction.

A Wing and A Prayer covers a lot of ground, literally and figuratively, and is an enjoyable read. I did wish for a little more depth and a larger scope for some stories. The section on Hawaii’s endangered Palila, for example, doesn’t cite the honeycreeper’s extraordinary role as plaintiff in Palila v. Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, a landmark conservation law case. The authors’ reliance on interviews, the traditional source of journalists, means many chapters read like extended feature newspaper articles. Other sources, detailed in the lengthy Notes section and a short Selected Bibliography, include newspaper and magazine articles, government reports, and popular birding books. There are few citations of ornithological studies or primary sources.

There is always a balance when writing a book like this, one that aims to describe a very large, complicated, changing canvas to an audience who might not be familiar with it. A Wing and A Prayer fulfills the author’s goals of informing people about the Three Billion Birds crisis, what is being done about it, and how much more could be done with organizational cooperation, institutional partnerships, strategically aimed funding, and coherent government policies at all levels. (The latter is the “elephant in the room,” a topic begging for its own investigative title.) Although many of its stories have been written about in birding magazines and books, I can’t think of a current title that brings it all together, focused so pragmatically on convincing us to make conservation our paramount, number one priority. The title, A Wing and A Prayer, reflects hope and spirituality. It comes from a film starring John Wayne, known for his indefatigable fighting power. We will need all of that to fuel our fight to save our birds. Reading this book is a start.

 

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Donna L. Schulman is a retired labor relations librarian and professor, and a New York City birder. She has reviewed over 220 books, initially fiction and women’s studies, now birds and nature, including monthly posts at the 10,000 Birds blog. Donna contributes to the annual “Best Bird Books of the Year” episode of the American Birding Podcast.