Lessons from Cliff Swallows – Adapt or Get Run Over

30-year study on cliff swallows which was conducted by researchers from the University of Nebraska has recently garnered considerable mainstream media attention. This is somewhat surprising since coverage of wildlife-related matters is more often limited to home videos of deer found in living rooms during their annual rut.

photo credit: Current Biology/Brown

photo credit: Current Biology/Brown

Before we discuss those lessons learned from the cliff swallow study and how it may apply to us, the research itself merits further consideration.  What was compelling about the 30-year study conducted by Charles R. Brown and Mary Bomberger Brown which appears in the March 18, 2013 issue of Current Biology, is that their research revealed that the frequency of road-killed cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) in southwestern Nebraska declined sharply over the 30 years following the birds’ initial occupancy of roadside nesting sites. The study suggests that birds killed on roads had longer wings than the population at large.  It goes on to say that the “average wing length of the population as a whole exhibited a significant long-term decline during the years of the study, whereas the opposite pattern held for the birds killed on roads.”What was found to be exceptional was the short time period within which these changes occurred.  In fact, the Browns concluded that the average wing span of today’s population is shorter than it was when their research began in 1982.

So that’s our major lesson – adapt or get run over.

During a time when policy decisions are more likely to be driven by Facebook than by face time, I can’t imagine a “special interest group” more ill-equipped to respond to the rapid pace of natural resource policy proposals which have emerged in recent years than is the outdoor recreation/conservationist community.  It is not due to the that fact we are incapable of matching forces with other competing interests, it is just that our attraction to outdoor endeavors is largely based upon the longing to escape from such matters.

Having said that, most of us who choose to spend a significant portion of our free time outdoors and also profess not to “do well with change” make subtle concessions to technology nearly everyday.  Examples are numerous. Most fly anglers can’t resist the latest graphite technology and super-slick fly lines that make those from the “good ole days” archaic by comparison.  How about those trail cams, the handheld GPS units complete with aerial and topographic maps, featherweight kayaks, not to mention advances in archery equipment and muzzle-loading firearms?  At least when it comes to increasing the quality of our outdoor recreational experience — what is to some, a spiritual experience — there are clear signs that we have the capacity to adapt and change.

The lessons to be learned from the swallow study are many, but my principle take away is this; as conservation-minded outdoor-enthusiasts we can either go the way of the cliff swallow and adapt for survival with shorter wings, or we can completely detach ourselves from the world of policy engagement and end up going the way of the dodo bird – that being, extinct.

Speaking of evolutionary processes, let’s also hope that we as a species maintain sufficient contact to the natural world to avoid evolving into a human-techno cyborg with the futuristic equivalent of a “blue tooth” in one ear, and being winked at by an eye equipped with a cornea-sized iPad.


About Northern Michigan Conservation Network

The mission of the Northern Michigan Conservation Network is to "connect conservation-minded hunters, anglers, and outdoor enthusiasts to those issues affecting Michigan's forests, waters, and wildlife."

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