Flocking Together Through the Web

Joel Garreau
The Washington Post
May 9, 2001

Suppose the Earth is all one big single living organism, with all the elements of it -- from the people to the birds -- connected like cells in a body. Suppose the goal of evolution is to link up individual human minds, bringing an explosion of intelligence and even global consciousness to this mammoth being.

For half a century, this idea has been batted around, much spurred by the writings of the late French Jesuit scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. But the attention the notion received, especially in the '60s, was of an airy, hand-waving, late-night-dorm-session sort. It was hard for serious people to imagine how such a global consciousness would ever be wired up in any practical way, and even harder to observe any concrete evidence of its existence.

Until now.

It seems that the fastest-growing outdoor activity in North America by far is bird watching, according to the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment. More than 71 million Americans -- one in four -- watch birds, according to the NSRE.

For 101 years, the most devoted of these citizen scientists have been conducting annual bird censuses at Christmas. But the friction in the system, even for the most dedicated birders, was enormous. They had to count their sparrows, fill out a form, put it in an envelope, mail it to a compiler and wait a full year for publication in an obscure journal.

Four years ago the National Audubon Society and the nation's foremost ornithology lab at Cornell University started moving this process to the Web.

You can now count birds without leaving your back yard and drop the numbers into sites such as Bird Source or Journey North. In short order you will see updated maps and numbers that show you how bird populations are rising, falling and changing all over North America, right now.

The projects are still embryonic -- perhaps 70,000 people contributed this year. But those numbers are vastly greater than in the days of paper and pen and have been doubling every year. The resulting picture of the natural world is consequently becoming richer and more complex.

That's not the earth-moving part, however. The earth-moving part -- literally -- is that, as a result, a movement is spontaneously emerging that alters the physical nature of the planet so as to make it more amenable to the birds that are indicator species of global environmental health.

Some of this is as simple as town-house owners deciding to plant lobelia in their back yards because these flowers please hummingbirds.

But others are more ambitious. One Fairfax County youth had his back yard certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation, one of 600 such designated refuges in Fairfax County alone.

Activists in Columbia, meanwhile, are spending this spring uprooting some of the Rouse Corp.'s well-meant ornamental plantings to replace them with habitat that woodcocks view as more homelike.

A 5,600-acre farm in Chestertown is replanting grassland to nurture the dickcissel so that the bird, which had been nonexistent on the Eastern Shore for decades, suddenly has eight breeding pairs there. International Paper Co. -- the largest private landowner in the United States -- has revamped forestry practices in South Carolina to create a population explosion of the rare Swainson's warbler. The Department of Defense, with its 25 million acres, has launched initiatives that range from burning grasslands in Fort Riley, Kan., so as to encourage native prairie and the Henslow's sparrow, to having Seabees construct wetlands in Hawaii for the Hawaiian stilt, Hawaiian coot and the Hawaiian moorhen.

All of these actions have roots in the new ease with which ordinary individuals now find it natural to come together swiftly, unceremoniously and improvisationally on the Net to create measurable change.

These changes, in turn, have encouraged a "virtuous circle" in which people are having their appetites whetted for more data about birds. Pioneering volunteers are putting on their roofs microphones that are attached to their home computers that are attached to Cornell. These microphones pick up "chip calls," which are the beeps many birds make when they migrate in order to keep in touch with the flock. The big computers in Ithaca, N.Y., can take these remote recordings and figure out how many white-throated sparrows flew over which house. At night.

Meanwhile, the Doppler radar so ubiquitous on TV weather picks up signals that have long been misidentified as scattered showers in a clear sky. No -- it's birds. Researchers at Clemson University can now take the Doppler signals from some 150 installations continent-wide and focus on the bird signals. With this vast array they can, for example, track birds migrating up from South America across the Gulf of Mexico. On a single autumn night several years ago, radar on Cape Cod revealed 12 million songbirds passing overhead. In Florida, a company called Geo-Marine Inc. is developing the technology to provide daily bird forecasts and hourly updates for the U.S. Air Force, a client that values both flying close to the ground and not sucking 12-pound geese into expensive jet engines.

Other enthusiasts are wiring birds with devices the weight of a nickel that connect directly to orbiting satellites. These record the birds moving from, say, Canada to New Jersey. Such migrations are displayed on the Web for everyone to watch. The devices are getting so small and cheap that scientists hope eventually to wire entire flocks of Neotropical songbirds -- those that summer in the States but winter in the tropics -- to the satellites.

Because bird watchers are such an enormous portion of the population in rich and powerful nations -- such as those of North America and Europe -- this is leading to modification of the terrain itself by an unprecedented number of individuals, corporations and governments with global reach. No one knows if poorer nations will follow their lead, or when. But emerging countries are where the Web is growing fastest, and environmentalists know that increased prosperity, as a rule, brings with it environmental improvements like cleaner air and water.

In his 1940 magnum opus, "The Phenomenon of Man," Teilhard said that someday our technology would allow us to create a web of thought and action that would make the world more complex, diverse and alive, moving mankind toward ultimate evolution.

In the mid-'90s, with the arrival of the World Wide Web, technos started pointing to his ideas again, with computer designer Danny Hillis saying in Wired magazine, "Now evolution takes place in microseconds. . . . We're taking off. We're at that point analogous to when single-celled organisms were turning into multicelled organisms. . . . We are not evolution's ultimate product. There's something coming after us, and I imagine it is something wonderful."

In the past decade, of course, such predictions seemed hypothetical or even delusional.

What's new is that some scientists think they are looking now at first evidence that maybe Teilhard was right.

Count, Care, and Act

Humans have been changing the environment at least since man learned to eat other animals faster than they could eat him. For the other species -- including those that early humans drove to their slaughter by deliberately setting forest fires -- this has not always been a picnic.

"We typically think of humans as hellbent on ecosystem destruction," notes John W. Fitzpatrick, director of the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell. Evidence, of course, abounds -- from clear-cutting of the Amazon rain forest to the advance of global warming.

What's new is the rise of humans connected by the Internet, acting like a flock without leaders, changing the physical planet a fraction of an acre at a time, for the benefit of the other species and thus the entire world.

"I think we're seeing history in the making," says Fitzpatrick. "People are now noticing change, searching for bio-indicators and then fixing the problem. What we're just beginning to realize is that humans represent the internal control mechanism the Earth has long sought. They're bringing feedback into the system, changing the management of the system."

"You're gardening the planet for birds," says Frank Gill, senior vice president for science of the National Audubon Society and author of "Ornithology," the most widely used text in the field. "If you count things, you care for them. If you care for them, you act. It's a counting, caring and acting system. You make fields, manage forests in certain ways. Even industrial forests are just gardens with woody sticks coming out of them. You fix things up in the back yard. The whole landscape becomes human-dominated and managed. That's just gardening on a planetary scale. The whole restoration-ecology world is now moving toward some ability to do that."

"Our long-term hope is that instead of the Weather Channel, you could turn to the Bird Channel," says Fitzpatrick. "We'll be able to count them, monitor them, observe their population crashes, on a continental scale. We're preparing the world for times after I'm gone. If this had been available in the 1800s, we'd still have passenger pigeons flying over us by the billions.

"Global consciousness?" continues Fitzpatrick. "It's true. It is exactly what we have been after. Our thesis is that the Internet is the first point in human history in the creation of consciousness at a massive and biologically meaningful scale. We've been trying to do that with paper" -- the old-fashioned way of trying to link data to action -- "but it's too damned expensive and lethargic.

"This is a fundamental power of the Internet," he says. "It drives a huge growth in citizen engagement. We're definitely feeling the power. It's the greatest thing. All of this is being done by school kids, families, retired folks."

"If you look at the conservation of birds, you're really looking at the stewardship of the landscape, using birds as indicators," says Gill. "We're starting to manage the landscape in real time. What the Web does is transform this into a global community on a local scale. That ranges from rain forests in Guyana to urban America and everything in between."

Audubon just sent a team to Guyana, setting up a project with the Makushi Indians -- hunters and gatherers in the rain forest.

The Makushi "have discovered the Internet," says Gill. "Our goal is to develop this count-care-and-act program so that it works for them. They count things useful to them -- turtles, parrots. At the same time, they share that monitoring with other communities across the globe.

"It's closing the circle, changing their lives. Our goal is to change the world. One place at a time.

"This is much more complicated than rocket science."

The Mating Fields

The woodcocks have returned to the singing grounds.

Less than three miles west of the Mall in Columbia, the show is about to begin. Before a full moon, the quail-size males start their mating ritual, sounding "peents" and then exploding up from the tufty grassland, the wind through their feathers creating a whistling sound.

The woodcocks climb to great heights and then start their crowd-pleasing gymnastics. They fall like autumn leaves, in spectacular swoops with enticing chirps and whistles. Then they land and do it again. And again. The female woodcocks are deeply impressed. So are the humans who come to watch them.

The mating fields are called "singing grounds."

Brought together one recent Saturday afternoon by a flurry of e-mail among their peers, seven volunteers from the Columbia area were creating more singing grounds.

"We used the historical records we had," says Jeff Schwierjohann (pronounced SWEER-john), the 32-year-old wildlife biologist who manages the 1,000-acre Middle Patuxent Environmental Area just west of Columbia. "When woodcocks were very dense, their singing grounds were right in the areas where we're re-creating them now.

"The reason we manage for woodcocks is that they require a lot of different habitats. If you manage for them, you manage for diversity of wildlife and vegetation. Males will roost at night in tall meadow and grassland. Females require young early forests -- saplings -- for cover and food. It's important to have good soil because 90 percent of their diet is earthworms."

The population of the woodcocks in Howard County had been declining since the 1960s, says Schwierjohann, not so much because of the disappearance of wild areas as because of the end of farming, with its complex and man-made pattern of open land and forests, fallow fields and crops.

The Rouse Corp., which developed Columbia and deeded to Howard County the land that became the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, several decades ago carefully planted much of the area with ornamental autumn olive trees and lawnlike fescue.

This recent Saturday, the volunteers from the Howard County Bird Club, the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters were taking lopping pruners and pickaxes to the suburban growth. They were restoring the land to tufts and open patches of native warm-season grasses that offer cover for the wildlife, openings for small animals to move around, and nesting areas.

"There were no recorded nests or displays of woodcocks here for years," says Schwierjohann. "This year, there are more displays and more singing than in the past several years combined."

This is hardly the first instance of mankind restoring bird species, of course. Ending the use of DDT contributed to such famous success stories as the return of the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon.

Those early successes, however, were a result of massive top-down federal action, prompted by the Endangered Species Act of 1973. At the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, by contrast, initiatives like the woodcock effort were generated by hundreds of volunteers from the Scouts to the sheriff's office, self-organizing at the grass-roots level with the kind of speed, fluidity and informality that was simply too hard before the Internet.

Among the people who think that technology is allowing humankind to evolve a global consciousness as a result of its new complex adaptive systems is Murray Gell-Mann, winner of the Nobel prize in physics and a pioneer in the study of complex systems at the Santa Fe Institute. Gell-Mann is also a fanatic birder, the sort of person who flies off to Madagascar to bird-watch, a man who took part in his first Christmas bird count in 1940, when he was 11.

"The Internet has accelerated a phenomenon of people finding one another with all sorts of consequences, some wonderful and some terrifying," he says.

"It's always been true that birdwatchers and other amateur naturalists were very much concerned about the issues directly related to nature conservation. Lately they've understood the links to a much wider spectrum of issues, such as energy, air and water pollution, a whole range of population issues, and even problems posed by rural poverty.

"There has been an explosion of interest in the conservation of nature as the number of amateur naturalists has grown fantastically, and their awareness of interlinking, likewise. All of this is growing."

A most literal form of grass-roots work is taking place on the Eastern Shore at Chino Farms, a 5,630-acre Queen Anne's County spread planted primarily in row crops. Its owner, Henry Sears, a Massachusetts cancer surgeon and amateur birder, decided to start restoring native Eastern prairie. He got in touch with Douglas Gill, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Maryland, and two springs ago set aside 230 acres to rebuild, re-create and restore native coastal warm-season grassland comparable to what the first Europeans in America found.

The results have been "oh my God, phenomenal," says ecologist Gill. "Within one month of planting, in came one of our target birds, the grasshopper sparrow. It's in sharp decline nationwide, but they just poured in. God knows where they came from. But boy did they find it. We banded nearly 400 grasshopper sparrows. In the prairie's second year another target species, the dickcissel, which migrates to Venezuela and is on the watch list, showed up and there were eight nesting pairs. It's unbelievable. We didn't expect to see those for years."

More remarkable is how easily news of success now reverberates throughout our wired world -- and to what effect. "What was a novel initiative two years ago is now being copied all over the country," Gill says. "There are Web sites for grasslands restorers. It's serving as a model. People are calling me up all the time, asking what I've found. Managers of national wildlife refuges have been given their marching orders -- manage not only for waterfowl, but for grasslands. We're gardening grassland for the birds.

"The virtuous circle," says Gill -- citing the exact opposite of a vicious circle, in which positive action leads to more positive action in an ever-increasing spiral -- "is definitely there."

At the confluence of the Great and Little Pee Dee rivers in South Carolina, in a 30,000-acre forest called the Woodbury Tract, is another striking example of the emergent power of the Web. It is part of a sustainable forestry initiative by International Paper, the forest products behemoth.

"For the last 15 to 20 years, we have been concerned about the declining populations of Neotropical birds," says Jimmy Bullock, the company's manager for sustainable forestry and wildlife.

"The Swainson's warbler has been a particular species of concern. It's a pretty rare species. We have found that if we make small clear-cuts -- 30, 40 acres -- and distribute the cuts across the landscape instead of having just a few large cuts, it performs like a natural disturbance.

"The warbler apparently likes the type of hardwood habitat that comes back 12 to 15 years after harvesting. Once the tree gets up to a certain age, for whatever reason, it is not as attractive to the warbler. So if we can get a mosaic of different age classes, the birds can find optimal nesting and breeding habitat. We have 56 active nests that we've found since 1997. That's unprecedented in the annals of Swainson's warbler research."

In part, says Sharon Haines, manager of sustainable forestry and forest policy for International Paper, this concern is reinforced by a feedback loop.

"Of late, we've had to answer questions from our customers about our sustainable forest activities. Some of the best information we have to share with them are the things that we are doing with bird species."

Here's how an increasingly fast and frictionless virtuous circle works:

"The customers' questions probably began about four to five years ago," says Haines. "Might be a producer of lumber -- a Lowe's or someone like that -- concerned about where their product is coming from. It also can be an office products company like Staples. They're getting questions, pressures, from their customers, from environmental organizations. We're actually putting people on full time, dealing with them.

"It's definitely the grass-roots community types. Now, because of the Internet, they are much better able to share information."

"It's safe to say they are demanding more," acknowledges Haines. "I'm not sure they understand what they are demanding."

Wiring the Planet

"This is just an example where the Web is mediating a collective thought process that has feedback effects. It is affecting the distribution of the species," says Robert Wright, author of "The Moral Animal." It is reminiscent, Wright says, of Teilhard's idea that technology would connect minds into a "brain for the biosphere as the human species consciously assumes stewardship of the planet." It explains, he says, why "serious people take Teilhard seriously."

"The bird-watching, Step 1, brings an increased sensitivity to the role of the environment in the health and happiness of birds," says Ralph H. Abraham, one of the progenitors of complex systems theory who is a professor of mathematics at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

"Then Step 2 is an extension of this sensitivity to the happiness of the entire biosphere, including the living conditions for the human species themselves. The emergent property is this global consciousness.

"Before the World Wide Web, the bird watchers were a bunch of independent agents. After, the emergent behavior is in the increase in the connectivity between them, as in a neural net" -- the industry term for advanced computers that can see patterns and learn from them.

"When you increase the connectivity, new intelligence emerges," Abraham says. "The World Wide Web makes the consciousness of birders akin to a flock of birds, or a termite colony in which the individuals act in harmony. A consensus emerges on what to do. The behavior of the whole thing changes.

"The reason this is so exciting is that it is totally grass-roots, bottom-up emergent behavior. The World Wide Web increases the connectivity between individual birders into a kind of global consciousness," Abraham concludes. "It cares in its altruistic loving soul for the interest of the birds.

"What we're hoping for is a global increase in the collective intelligence of the human species, without which we cannot survive on this planet. All who dream of a sustainable future for their children and grandchildren are begging for a quantum leap in the consciousness of the human species. If that happens, it is the best and most important thing to happen to the environment."

Although he died before the invention of the microchip, "Teilhard was incredibly prescient," says Thomas M. King, the Jesuit theologian at Georgetown University who has written or edited three books on the paleontologist who strove to connect science to theology. "A global culture is forming, as opposed to national cultures," King believes.

John Perry Barlow, a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Internet civil liberties organization, goes further:

"We're not just wiring our consciousness, we're wiring the planet and all its biological activity. Teilhard was talking about not simply our consciousness, but evolution in its totality.

"The changing patterns of the birds are the consequence of their consciousness interacting with our consciousnesses, being mediated by the neuro-system of the Web. Previously there hasn't been a good method for large-scale interaction between the greater 'us' and the greater 'them.' Now there is a method for remediating. We can watch what they're doing and they can watch what we're doing and respond to it.

"It means that we're all just a little bit smarter, and the planet itself is a little bit smarter. There is an increased likelihood that a symbiosis is formed.

"Sounds good to me. Very promising. Speaking as a human being, and also speaking as a friend of the birds."

BirdSource and its projects, such as the Christmas Bird Count and the Great Backyard Bird Count, can be found at birdsource.cornell.edu; Journey North at www.learner.org/jnorth; BirdCast -- including Doppler radar images of birds -- at www.birdcast.com and www.birdcast.com/home.html; and a satellite map of a migrations at www.learner.org/jnorth/images/graphics/d-e/eagle_e_map040301.html

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

« Prevail
email page                     print page                     site search: