A bird in hand


(This is the editor's note accompanying two stories on the evolution of wildlife-monitoring technology.)

Nearly 40 years ago, during a college ornithology course, I helped set up a "mist net" -- something like a volleyball net with nearly invisible super-fine mesh -- in a spot between bushes where small birds flew. One by one, unsuspecting birds fluttered in and became entangled.

I'll never forget how it felt: Reaching into the net for the first time, I untangled a bird and cupped it in my hands, marveling at the sensation of touching such a fragile little feathered creature, whose wild heart beat so much faster than mine. As I held the bird, another crewmember secured a tiny metal band to one of its legs, and then I opened my hands and watched it flutter away.

Awesome. We banded dozens of birds that day, so they could be identified if they were recaptured later, part of an ongoing study of local ecology.

Since then, as a journalist, I've watched as wildlife monitoring has morphed into something more like George Orwell's frightening novel, 1984, which foresees a world in which an all-powerful totalitarian government -- "Big Brother" -- spies on citizens day and night, in an attempt to control everyone.

Today, we're using satellite networks, speck-sized transmitters, "accelerometers" that measure the energy predators spend chasing down prey, and other high-tech devices to track millions of animals in the sky, on the land, in rivers and seas. Many biologists do the monitoring from the comfort of their offices, instead of on the ground in challenging field conditions. They even use wildlife to spy on other wildlife -- putting sensors on sea lions to record their interactions with other sea lions.

There are good reasons for doing this. Despite thousands of years of sharing the planet, we humans still know very little about other species' needs and abilities. Our desire to know more seems increasingly urgent, as climate change, development and pollution -- ranging from old-fashioned coal smoke to the tricky new chemicals in consumer products -- threaten to push many species into extinction.

Theoretically, the more we know, the more effective our conservation policies will be. But I wonder, as we transform wildlife into data, are we making the wild less awesome? When we no longer meet our fellow creatures eye-to-eye, have we lost the heart of wildlife biology?

Jim Robbins, a longtime New York Times writer based in Montana, explores the implications of high-tech monitoring in this issue of HCN. As we went to press, Jim emailed me to ask if we could squeeze in a few words about neurosurgeons using MRI scans to map grizzly bear brains. Like Jim, I wonder what's next in our quest for knowledge. I felt the mystery of the wild when I touched that little bird -- and I'd like us to retain some of that feeling.

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