Swooping Down on the West Nile Outbreak

Virus-carrying mosquitoes, moribund crows and the mysterious deaths of zoo birds— creatures with wings have captured the collective imagination. Nowhere is this more true than on eBirds, an online tag team that passes avian information along a swath of nature-oriented New Yorkers.

Started in 1996, eBirds is a repository for information to be shared among the small but intense community of Gotham birders. Its current moderator, and preeminent essayist, is Ben Cacace, a born-and-bred Brooklynite who makes his living doing computer work for a cosmetics company— but who finds his true self in the wild. Cacace bought his first telescope as a teenager in the '70s, and his eyes have been trained skyward since. A friend told him about a nest of hawks in Central Park a couple of springs ago, and the serious birding began. Daily e-mails from Cacace and other eBirds members report on wildlife experiences within the five boroughs and keep avid birders informed as to where they can go to boost their life lists. Messages from latter-day Rachel Carsons spring silently onto computers across the city. Usually these messages are gentle ones. From one contributor: "Last night, I was on the Nethermead counting Nighthawks till 8 PM. I got 15. But the good part was observing the dark forms of other overflying birds. 5 Little Green Herons, one Wood Duck and 3 Black-crowned Night Herons made it an enjoyable evening." These lines make an August night in Prospect Park sound more like the Brooklyn of Walt Whitman than that of Jay-Z or the Charles Saatchi Collection.

Of late, though, eBirds' gentility is tempered with anger. Incidents like the West Nile outbreak confirm the existence of the messy, living, green, and sometimes dangerous nature that eBirders celebrate— and that tends to blip off the average New Yorker's radar screen. These events have the power to turn the loose collective of bird watchers into an informational and organizational machine— and the tone of eBirds' missives has in recent weeks switched from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Ralph Nader.

On September 13, just after Mayor Giuliani called for the widespread Malathion dousing of the city, eBirds responded: "The effects of Malathion are deadly to all living organisms— it is far from harmless as chemical company representatives and city health officials would have us believe. For people, the effects are insidious, gradually interfering with the nerve functions of all body systems; children are most at risk." And on October 1, questioning why such nonmigratory birds as crows, pigeons and cardinals were being blamed for a migratory disease, another eBirder wrote: "There is a lot of bogus biology lurking here. This is a classic situation in which panic and media frenzy are masquerading as science."

Still, Cacace hesitates to describe the collective as a political organization. He recognizes that many eBirds members take a common environmentalist stance on political issues— including the belief that potentially hazardous environmental decisions should not be made by "one man, a man running for higher office"— but he also notes that many members "just want to look at birds."

Whatever the politics of the group's members, their expertise in the area of local bird life has now been officially recognized. On September 30, city officials enlisted eBirds in the fight against the possible airborne epidemic. An official for the Department of Health passed a request through Cacace to his list of approximately 200 birders to report directly to the Bureau of Communicable Disease "any suspicious deaths of birds seen in the NYC area." Anyone who comes across such mysteriously defunct birds can e-mail Cacace at BenC@NAC.net.

Increasingly, boundaries are blurred, experiences removed from their natural contexts. A virus thought to originate in St. Louis that turns out to be from Africa is now killing birds in the Bronx that have been wrested from their own points of origin. And the Web relays concern for the environment among dwellers in a city that has done everything in its power to supersede nature. On October 3, a falconers' exhibit came to the Great Lawn. At that exhibition, Veedor, a trained Andean condor, took to the skies, circled them, and looked down at the city to which everyone else seems to migrate.

From his perspective, it would be difficult to imagine that the city was once home to real wildlife. But to the eBirders and others, what remains of that New York is as essential as the majestic urban landscape that has grown over and around it.

 
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