Monday, July 25, 2016

The Song of the Loon--Is It Sustainable?

Common Loon, courtesy Wikimedia Commons
For centuries, nature lovers have experienced the ecosublime in the laughing, raucous, slightly unnerving song of the Common Loon. Zoomusicologists--those who work from the premise that animals make sounds for aesthetic as well as purely functional or instrumental reasons--also hear in the loon song an intentional utterance outside the signal-response theories of animal communication scientists. But the loon, which is the national bird of Canada, and which has been heard for centuries on the lakes of the state of Maine--I have heard it here--is mostly absent in southern New England, due to changes in habitat brought about by modernization and development in the previous 150 years. Gone completely from Massachusetts by the turn of the 20th century, the loon has been making a small comeback there, with 45 breeding pairs--male and female--reported last year. Now comes the news that the Biodiversity Research Institute, in the city of Portland, Maine, will add ten breeding pairs to that population in Massachusetts, in hopes of accelerating the comeback.
     Restoration ecology, of which this is an instance, is one of the most common examples of a sustainability strategy. As cultural and musical sustainability strategies borrow liberally from ecological ones, it is easy to see how cultural policy targets particular genres for revival, just as restoration ecology targets particular species like loons. I have written elsewhere about the dangers from unintended negative consequences resulting from targeting particular species, comparing it to feeding the plant rather than improving the soil. For cultural and musical sustainability, feeding the cultural soil has proven out to be a better sustainability strategy over the decades, although in the short run--a year or five--feeding the musical genre can yield impressive (but unsustainable) growth.
     Restoring the Common Loon to Massachusetts--if the ten pairs are successful in increasing the population, more will follow--seems innocent enough. It isn't likely that an increase in loons there will upset the food chain, or that dire consequences will follow. But in the long run, as the Audubon Society tells us, climate change will force the loons northward to Canada, anyway. Even Maine will lose its loons. The state of Minnesota, in losing its loons to Canada, will also be losing its state bird. These losses will occur by the end of the current century. And so I do wonder what is the point of this restoration ecology, at least from the perspective of the loon. It is unsustainable. From a different perspective, of course, whatever entertainment the cry of the loon may provide for the human population of Massachusetts, may be counted as a positive, at least for a few decades until climate change makes the habitat no longer suitable there.