OCTOBER 2008 – NO. 27
The Extinction of Vancouver's Crested Mynahs
Tracing a bird's history in North America
The Crested mynah (scientific name Acridotheres cristatellus, which means crested locust-hunter) is a largish blackbird, about the size of a robin, with small white markings on the underside of its wings (barely noticeable when the bird is not flying), a thick yellow beak, and a tuft of black feathers between the eyes, where the beak meets the head. It is not native to North America; it was introduced to Vancouver from southeast Asia in the late 1890s. There are several murky legends about how this came about, most of them involving Chinese immigrants and birds in fragile bamboo cages. One tells of an exasperated sea captain who, tired of the mynahs' constant chattering, smashed the cages and released the birds as soon as he caught sight of land. The truth is probably more prosaic. Because of their mimetic skills, mynahs — not just the Crested variety but also the more aggressive Indian hill mynah — were popular in Vancouver from the end of the 19th century until well into the post-war period. An advertisement placed by the Vista-Variety Store in the Vancouver Sun in April 1958 notified customers of a shipment of Indian hill mynahs: "Young, tame birds 3-4 months old, finest talking strain. $45 each f.o.b. Victoria. Limited quantity. Free advice on how to feed and train these wonderful talking birds." Hundreds were imported, some escaped or were released.
However the bird's introduction came about, there were feral Crested mynahs swooping over the city streets by 1897, and in 1904 it was formally identified as a local breeder — citizenship status for birds. Despite the drastically different climate, the population soared. By 1920, there were 20,000 Crested mynahs in the city. By 1935, its success so alarmed the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that that august body issued a special report urging that "every precaution should be taken to check the spread of this species and prevent its spread into the United States." Crested mynahs were the suspected terrorists of the 1930s.
The USDA needn't have worried, for the mynah never ventured very far from Vancouver. They couldn't make it over the mountains. But even had the birds spread like Japanese knotweed the USDA would by now have relaxed its vigilance, for the Crested mynah has declined steadily since 1950. From its 1920 high, the Vancouver population plummeted to 906 by 1971; in 1980 the figure was 630. The Christmas count in 1985 turned up only 98 mynahs. (In 1983, five Crested mynahs were reported in Dade County, Florida, in the vicinity of the Miami Airport — another last-minute release, perhaps — but by 1989 they were gone.) By 2002, the numbers were even more alarming. Just before my visit, a brief article in the Globe and Mail declared that the total number of Crested mynahs in Vancouver had dwindled to "seven, or maybe five." I realized that if I wanted to see a Crested mynah without having to fly to Taiwan, I had better hurry.
The largest single roost of mynahs in Vancouver, comprising more than one thousand 1,000 birds, had been located at the corner of Cordova and Carrall streets, more or less in the city's downtown core, and that's where I went first, on the chance of seeing a remnant of that enormous flock, or at least to get an idea of the kind of place they once preferred. Cordova and Carrall is an unspiffed corner not far from Gastown. It was noon, still cold in the shadows, a faint warmth when the sun came from behind a cloud. There wasn't much bird life in evidence. The massive buildings had seen better days. Some scaffolding blocked part of the sidewalk. I stood and looked up at the Lonsdale Building, an imposing, three-story edifice built in 1889. The upper windows were blank, the ground floor occupied by an Army & Navy outlet. A solitary crow landed on one of the upper windowsills and eyed me as though waiting for me to drop a sandwich or a pizza crust. One of the shops on the corner was a takeout chicken joint, and Crested mynahs were once often found scavenging around such establishments — not, as was supposed, because they liked junk food, but because they ate maggots, thus doing the city a valuable service. I poked hopefully around a dumpster behind the chicken place, but there were no birds of any kind on the ground. High above, a few gulls wheeled up from the harbor, and a squadron of pigeons flew over in formation, as though rehearsing for an air show. But that was it.
I walked up a block to Hastings, where a group of street people wrapped in grey blankets sat cross-legged on the pavement, their backs against a formerly grand bank building that had evolved into the Treasure Island Bargain Centre, its treasure of odds and ends spilling out onto the sidewalk like costume jewelry from a battered trunk. More pigeons strutted about outside, pecking at a handful of seeds someone had tossed them. No mynahs. At one point a small, black bird flew down from a leafless tree and joined the pigeons, but it was a starling. I glared at it for a minute, then drifted back to Cordova and continued down to Water Street, the next corner, and the heart of Gastown. Here the storefronts tended to cafés and curio shops. Although it was early in the season for tourists, a few sidewalk tables had been set out, so I sat at one across from the statue of "Gassy Jack" Deighton, Vancouver's first hotelier, ordered a decaf Americano, took out my binoculars, and watched the starlings.
The decline of Vancouver's Crested mynah population began with the arrival of starlings in 1950. The European starling (Sturnus vulgaris), closely related to the mynah, is another introduced species. Fifty of them were let loose in New York's Central Park in the 1880s by a drug manufacturer named Eugene Schieffelin, who'd been struck by the dubious notion that North America should have every bird mentioned in the works of Shakespeare. There are now an estimated 50 million starlings in North America, devouring grain and ousting native songbirds from their preferred nesting places. It was the starling experience that turned the USDA against the Crested mynah in 1935.
Ironically, starlings helped ease the USDA's concerns. They ate the same foods and promptly took over all of the ideal nesting sites — in Vancouver, that meant the unheated eaves of wooden houses. The weather conspired with the starlings to doom the city's mynahs. To a bird from southeast Asia, anything but a year-round 25 degrees Celsius is cold. Female Crested mynahs usually lay clutches of five to seven eggs, of a color registered as "light Niagara green," but because they come from relatively tropical climes they don't feel obliged to sit on them for 24 hours a day, as more northerly birds — like starlings — do. Mynahs, male and female, spend only about 50 percent of their time incubating their eggs. The rest of the day they are on the lookout for food. This meant that in the cooler climate of Vancouver on average only two of the eggs in the clutch would actually hatch. It also meant that the nest site was undefended half the time, and after 1950 a lot of mynahs must have flown home from the chip wagon to find a pair of starlings settled in where their own nest used to be.
Vancouver's Gastown turned out to be a good place to think about acclimatization. Up on Hastings, the homeless crouched on the sidewalk or on car seats propped in unnumbered doorways, or cruised the darkened alleys wearing Sorel boots and zipperless winter coats with the hoods up. Here on Water Street, two blocks away, cyclists in yellow Gortex jackets and Spandex shorts basked in the sun, sipping lattes. Both groups seemed comfortably in sync with their worlds. Who were the long-term survivors? Which group was adapting?
After an hour I'd had my fill of Gassy Jack and cold coffee, and took a taxi to an address on the other side of False Creek. Local birders had started a Crested mynah hotline in the early 1990s, and word soon got out that the species' last stronghold, their Alamo, was a small, red-brick building at the corner of First and Wylie, the offices of the Best Janitorial & Building Maintenance Company. As I stepped out of the taxi beside the south entrance I heard some shrill peeping from a row of cedars flanking the building. I spent a few minutes poking among the branches, just in case, before finding a cluster of house sparrows celebrating the spring-like sunshine against the brick wall.
When I emerged from the shrubbery, I found a man near the entrance, leaning against the wall, smoking a pipe and reading a book. He looked up as I came out.
"Looking for our mynahs?" he said.
"How could you tell?" I asked, brushing cedar fronds off my shoulders.
He grinned. "They never go in the trees. And they aren't here right now. They usually don't show up until later in the afternoon. They were here yesterday."
His name was Cliff and his office was on the third floor, second from the right. His window was at the same height as two exterior light fixtures, one sticking out of the brick just to the left of his window and the other two windows over, above the cedar hedge. Between Cliff's window and the far light fixture was a hole in the brick wall where a third, central light fixture had once been. Cliff pointed out these features carefully. The mynahs perched on the two extant light fixtures, he said — I could see a fan of white guano on the wall under each metal pole — and they nested in the middle cavity where the third fixture used to be. Cliff could watch all three sites from his window, and was thus probably the most experienced observer of Crested mynah behavior in North America.
"It gets very hot inside during the summer," he said. "Even in early spring this south wall gets a lot of sunlight. That's probably why they like this building."
I asked him how many mynahs he'd seen this year. "We're down to three," he said sadly. "Last year we had five: two males, a female, and two hatchlings. The females don't sing as much, and their crests are smaller. I take it the two hatchlings were females, and something bad happened to the males over the winter, because now there are only three, and all three are female."
When Cliff returned to work, I crossed Wylie Street and fixed my binoculars on the nest cavity. The entrance seemed to slant up, probably leading to a larger hole deeper in, where warmth from the building would nurture the eggs. This would give these birds a slight advantage over other mynahs. Mynahs carry dried grass and even paper and bits of plastic into their nests for warmth and comfort; Crested mynah nests also, according to a 1950 report, "invariably contain a snakeskin."
Here's how Darwin thought acclimatization led to evolution: when the mynahs started reproducing in Vancouver in 1904, most of them spent 50 percent of their time incubating the eggs, but a few would spend 53 or maybe 55 percent. Those that spent more time on their eggs would have a slightly better chance of producing young. Perhaps the 50-percenters would successfully raise one chick, while the 55-percenters would raise two or three. Gradually, the 50- percenters would disappear, and the population would be made up entirely of 55-percenters. Among this population, a few 60-percenters might emerge, and gradually they would ease out the 55-percenters. Over time, the Vancouver Crested mynahs would have acclimatized so well they could be considered to have adapted; they would constitute a new subspecies that sat on their nests much longer than the original Asian population. Before that happened, however, the starlings arrived.
I hung around, but no mynahs appeared. When the sun dropped behind the Maynard's Auctioneer building behind me, it began to get really cold. At four o'clock the police officers in the Canine Division compound across First changed shifts. A few minutes later a thin man in a light jacket pushed a shopping cart up to the Best Janitorial dumpster and started rummaging for plastic bottles and aluminum cans. He whistled as he worked. He made me think of mynahs, chirping and foraging in the city's trash cans for a living. A lot of us can live off what others throw out, as long as the competition keeps away. This man told me a friend of his was going to give him a brand-new, 28-inch TV set — all he had to do was go and pick it up, which he planned to do the next day. "You don't have a car, do you?" he asked me. I said that regrettably I did not. I was just passing through. When he left, I looked up at the nest cavity and the light fixtures one last time. Is this what extinction looked like, I wondered? All day watching an empty hole in a brick wall?
The next day I arrived shortly after noon and stayed for an hour, this time with my friend Ed Good, who is an excellent birder and a fine conversationalist. We sat in his car with the heater on, and he told me about walking around Vancouver only a few years ago and seeing Crested mynahs on the sidewalks, mixed in with starlings, which to a casual observer they resemble. "You really had to look closely," he said, "but in a flock of 50 or so you usually saw two or three mynahs." It was a tactic; the fraternizers may have been the last mynahs to survive.
After lunch, Ed went back to work, and I returned to the Best Janitorial building and settled in for another vigil. This time, I was rewarded. At 4:20 two black birds flew toward the building from the direction of the Cambie Bridge and landed on the light fixtures. At first I thought they were starlings — their white wing flashes were not very visible when their wings were folded — but when I looked through my binoculars, I could see the tuft of feathers at the point where the tops of their beaks met their foreheads. They had large beaks, and their eyes were bright red. They looked about them with nervous inquisitiveness. Two female Crested mynahs. I could barely contain my excitement. I waved at Cliff's window, between the two light fixtures that held two-thirds of the entire North American population of Crested mynahs.
Darwin thought that acclimatization would gradually lead to adaptation: as Vancouver's Crested mynahs, say, became more habituated to a colder climate they would adapt to it physiologically as well, and over vast stretches of time they would evolve into a new species. "Let this process go on for millions of years," he wrote, "on millions of individuals …. " But researchers now think that adaptive changes could take place more quickly. Jonathan Weiner, for example, in The Beak of the Finch, suggests that adaptation "need not be as gradual as Darwin imagined." Citing Darwin's finches on the Galapagos Islands, whose beaks adapt to differences in seed availability from one year to the next, adaptive changes could take place within a few generations. Still, adaptation has to persist for a long time before it becomes evolution. It's as though the species, having survived one climate shift, waits around for a while to see if the climate is going to shift again before committing itself to an evolutionary plunge.
It's possible that, left alone for a few more years, Crested mynahs would have become better acclimatized to Vancouver's climate, might even have figured out a way to spread beyond the mountains and thus fulfill the USDA's worst fears. Sitting on a nest for a crucial extra hour or two a day is hardly a huge leap forward. A few years ago, two University of British Columbia (UBC) evolutionists, Craig Benkman and Anna Lindholm, conducted an experiment on crossbills, a type of seed-eating finch whose bills curve sharply at the tips and do not meet, like a pair of badly aligned nail scissors. The birds have adapted to opening a particular kind of hemlock cone; when Benkman and Lindholm clipped their beaks, the birds could forage open cones, but were unable to open tightly closed cones. As the beaks grew and became more crossed, the birds were able to open closed cones again. This suggested that beak alterations had occurred gradually in nature, and that the birds would have had to adapt in many subtle ways to take advantage of the changes. Citing the UBC experiments, Weiner posits that crossbills with slightly altered beaks would have needed to refine their instincts for cone hunting, learn to recognize new types of food, develop new muscles to operate their new beaks, and so on. These physical changes would eventually lead to social and reproductive changes (as females chose mates with well-adapted beaks), and before long the world would have a whole new species of crossbill. Given more time, something similar might have happened with Vancouver's Crested mynahs.
But it didn't. Starlings happened instead. As I watched, the two Crested mynahs left their perches on the light fixtures and flew to a nearby telephone cross-tree, obviously hoping to roost for the night. Within five minutes they were assailed by three starlings. One of the mynahs scooted along the beam, chasing two of the starlings off, but the starlings merely flew up onto a wire and then returned. Before long two more starlings arrived, and both mynahs moved grudgingly back to their light fixtures, perhaps to protect their nest, but it seemed more as though they had just given up, realized that there was nowhere else for them to go, that wherever they tried to roost they would be ousted by starlings. Not violently, not aggressively, just edged out by sheer force of numbers, made uncomfortable, unwanted, forced into retreat.
A year later I asked my friend Ed about the mynahs. He told me the last one had died. He heard about it through the hotline. Someone had found the bird on a sidewalk, possibly on Wylie Street, outside the offices of the Best Janitorial & Building Maintenance Company. Whoever it was collected the body and buried it somewhere in Stanley Park. "It isn't extinction," Ed consoled me. "It's extirpation. There are still a lot of Crested mynahs in Asia." Maybe so, but it feels like extinction, like an end. And it feels like failure — failure to adapt, failure to evolve. It is too close to our own situation to be comfortable, for we, too, have failed to adapt or evolve. We may be acclimatizing, after a fashion, but the hordes of starlings are coming down from the mountains.
Excerpted from Bringing Back the Dodo: Lessons in Natural and Unnatural History by Wayne Grady. Copyright © 2006 by Wayne Grady. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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