The first time I heard about the California Gnatcatcher, it was 2015, and I had a part-time contract gig writing press releases to promote new ornithology research being published by the American Ornithological Society. That year, a series of dueling papers in one of their scientific journals debated whether or not the coastal subspecies of the gnatcatcher was truly distinct, using different genetic techniques that showed it either was or wasn’t. The researchers involved called each other’s work “perplexing,” “rather extreme,” and “inappropriate”—strong language by the usually sedate standards of taxonomy papers. Accusations were lobbied about accepting funding from land developers hoping for access to the (possible) subspecies’ remaining habitat. I didn’t really understand then what it was all about, but it was striking enough that it stuck with me long after I’d moved on from that job.
Audrey Mayer’s Bird versus Bulldozer covers the story of coastal California Gnatcatchers in incredible detail, beginning with how their unique coastal scrub habitat was shaped during the Ice Ages and then moving on to the modern-day battles over their taxonomy and conservation. Mayer takes the reader through granular specifics about the conservation plans in each of the counties where the bird is found, the scientific questions underlying the decision of whether coastal California Gnatcatchers constitute a legitimate subspecies, and more. Short snippets set apart in boxes provide anecdotes of Mayer’s own encounters with coastal California Gnatcatchers throughout their limited range, contributing concrete examples to illustrate many of the places and issues discussed in the main text.
Using the gnatcatcher as a case study, this book provides an in-depth peek into how the sausage of species conservation is made. We’ve all heard of the Endangered Species Act and know it’s important, but unless you work in the field of conservation science, you probably don’t know the bureaucratic ins and outs of all the mechanisms written into the law to protect species and subspecies. After reading Bird versus Bulldozer, you will: From species-specific §4(d) Rules to critical habitat designations to Section 7 consultations, it’s all here.
A few times while reading this book, I found myself wishing Mayer had included more stories about the humans involved in all this bird drama. Surely there were some compelling characters among the developers looking to build condos in gnatcatcher habitat, the conservationists trying to prevent that, and the landowners caught in the middle? But Bird versus Bulldozer is a scholarly book and was marketed as such, meaning it’s intentionally more akin to an extended version of a paper in a scientific journal than, say, a narrative magazine feature. So, I won’t criticize it for not trying to be something it’s not. Just be aware before you pick it up that it’s perhaps not for the casual reader. In that regard, I note that there are so many acronyms to keep track of that a list is provided at the front of the book for reference.
What will the fate of this little gray bird be? As far as we know, its populations have remained fairly stable since it was listed. But not enough monitoring is being done, and current conservation plans don’t adequately account for the looming threat of climate change. We can only hope that a generation from now, it will still be around for avian taxonomists to argue over.
Rebecca Heisman is a freelance science writer based in Walla Walla, Washington. Her first book, Flight Paths (HarperCollins), to be released in 2023, explores the history and science of bird migration research. She has written previously for various professional ornithological organizations. Find her online at rebeccaheisman.com.
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