In the midst of climate change and other human disturbances, it seems we might not know for a long time exactly how certain human activities factor into a species decline and rapid adaptations. For instance, do humans cause cannibalism in birds? Recently, suggested as the first time ever seen in cormorants, cannibalism has now been seen nine times in the Socotra cormorant (Phalacrocorax nigrogularis). The theory is that human disturbances have caused a shift in food availability, reproductive location, egg size, and age distribution in young chicks which has led in turn to large crèches of 5,000 chicks of various sizes. Older chicks, ready to fledge and receiving less food from their parents as an encouragement to leave the nest, have eaten their crèche mates. This is unfortunate for this Persian Gulf species whose numbers have decreased dramatically in recent years.
I was struck with one authors’ suggestion that the bird is its own worst enemy: they throw up when scared, fly poor and impale themselves on thorns, have a foul smell, are not much to look at, and are hated by local fisherman who perceive them as a threat to their stock. These characteristics though are related to their success as a species. Who they are is their evolutionary biology having reached a certain degree of perfection. These traits are only seen as “wrong” in light of human preferences.
If these birds are cannibals, because they eat their young, then what does that make us? We are devouring our earth and other species, which is part of the interconnected web of life. Does this also make us cannibals?
Here’s a thought to complicate how you might answer the previous question. If I say that what cormorants are is part of the their evolutionary perfection, then so too isn’t what humans are part of their evolutionary perfection, even as it negatively impacts the earth? We too throw up when we are scared, impale ourselves or others on sharp objects, can smell terribly, are fairly bizarre looking great apes, and are often hated by our own kind.
Now I am waxing theological, but then that is how I approach the human dimensions of conservation. What does it mean to be human, and how shall we respond to this understanding?
My answer to this is that we shall respond with the best that we can offer. What’s eating me is that we can do better. We don’t have to let our consumption run rampant so that we engender more cannibalism.
Tell me, what’s eating you, and who are you eating?