SI Vault
There Are Problems when Man Plays God
Gilbert Rogin
November 04, 1968
The cahow, a bird that the Spaniards mistook for a devil and the English thought was silly, is a living—barely living—monument to man's effect on his environment. A Bermudian naturalist is attempting to save the cahow from its enemies and itself, while wondering if its fate is not the fate of all of us
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November 04, 1968

There Are Problems When Man Plays God

The cahow, a bird that the Spaniards mistook for a devil and the English thought was silly, is a living—barely living—monument to man's effect on his environment. A Bermudian naturalist is attempting to save the cahow from its enemies and itself, while wondering if its fate is not the fate of all of us

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"I have tremendous pride in Bermuda's heritage, which has been largely shattered. There's a grave danger if we destroy too much of our heritage we'll lose perspective on where we're going. Then we'll be like hippies—very insecure people. We've got to have roots in the past, I think."

In fact, Wingate feels so strongly about primeval Bermuda that until recently he wouldn't permit his family to keep naturalized animals such as dogs and cats as pets. "We had pet skinks instead," he said. The skink (Eumeces longirostris) is Bermuda's only endemic terrestrial reptile. "Skinks make rather good pets," Wingate said. "When you're eating lunch, they'll come up and bite your toe and ask, 'Where's my lunch?' And if you start feeding them tunafish and hamburger, they'll scorn bread crumbs." However, one fateful day a stray cat turned up at the Wingates, and the children, Janet, 7, and Karen, 5, wouldn't give it up. "There's something about a cat that satisfies a child's need that a skink doesn't," Wingate admitted. "But I have one piece of pride left. I won't let the cat on Nonsuch."

Nonsuch, the largest of the Castle Harbour group, is where the Wingates summer and is the site of what he terms the Living Museum. Wingate is trying to re-create the primeval environment on Nonsuch by reintroducing the original native plants and animals that have been extirpated, and by eliminating the naturalized plants, mice, lizards, toads, whistling frogs, etc. In the past six years he has planted 4,000 trees, all in their proper niches and properly mixed and spaced. Among Wingate's plantings are a number of yellowwoods, which, rather like the cahow, were presumed to have vanished from Bermuda, having been heavily logged in the 17th century. However, 15 specimens endure on a remote hillside. Wingate planted a yellowwood seedling in Nonsuch's tiny cemetery. "I'd like to be buried under one," he says. "It's a great honor to be contributing to the growth of the yellowwood. Anybody can be good for something."

On the first night of our watch on the cahow islet it was clear and the moon rose early so the chick we were observing only got as far as the mouth of his burrow. The next night he emerged before moonrise, walked about exercising his wings periodically and was once briefly airborne. The sensation seemed to unsettle him and he folded his wings and sat looking out to sea as though moonstruck. This, Wingate explained, is a characteristic quiescent period when the bird ostensibly studies the stars and, as it were, sets his chronometer. "This, of course, is sheer speculation," he added. After a bit the bird went back in his hole. "Chicken," Wingate muttered.

On the third night the wind was in excess of 20 mph and Wingate predicted that the chick would not dare take off; indeed, he spent the greater part of two hours wandering uncertainly around trying to find a lee area where he could exercise without being buffeted, wildly flapping his wings so a gust wouldn't carry him off. As is the case with all cahow chicks, he faced inland while exercising.

On the fourth night Wingate began to fret when the chick hadn't appeared on schedule. "If he doesn't go tonight," he said, "I'm going to put an alarm clock in his burrow." Next Wingate was worried that the chick had left before we got there; he had been delayed at a dinner party and it was already dark by the time we arrived at the islet. "I'll give him until 10:15," he said. "If he hasn't come out by then, I'm going to see if he's still there." The burrow we had under observation was one Wingate had dug, what he calls his "government housing," and when the deadline passed, he got up, removed several flat stones which camouflaged the lid, picked it up and shone his flashlight in the nest chamber. The chick stirred. "It's just Wingate," he said softly. "Go back to sleep."

"They sleep very soundly," he explained, returning to his mattress. "I don't impose myself on their life history. I try not to touch them. I just hover over them in case they need help, like a fairy godmother or a mother with a teen-age daughter. I protect them from circumstantial fate. I have a feeling that they know it now."

We lay on a gradual slope on the windward side of the islet, which was covered with native plants—sea lavender, coast sophora, scurvy grass, seaside purslane. Nearby, the cliff dropped 25 feet to the ocean, where the surf dully boomed, its spray wetting us. The only other sound was the faint chirping of the native cricket. It was a curious setting: except for being further eroded by land crabs, wind and water, the islet was exactly as it was in the 17th century, yet only a mile off was the Apollo tracking station, its great dish antennas, transmitters and receivers brightly lit. Occasionally the headlights of a car pulling up at the transmitters would nearly blind us. Too, planes and helicopters would from time to time pass overhead or suddenly a series of flares would slowly descend to the ocean for a practice capsule recovery.

All five cahow islets are bird sanctuaries and no one is permitted ashore except in Wingate's company. Oddly enough, three of the islets are under U.S. jurisdiction, and the Secretary of the Air Force has declared them off limits. However, it was necessary to erect masts on the islets as reference points to determine whether the radar dishes are settling on their foundations. The original design called for thin poles supported by guy wires. Since the wires would have been nearly invisible at night and therefore hazardous to the cahows, Wingate negotiated, as he has rather grandly said, "with Goliath on behalf of the cahows." The masts were redesigned and are now made of thick pipe painted white. Wingate was also assured that the masts wouldn't be erected in his absence. Fortunately he had the presence of mind to stick close to the workmen when they were looking for likely sites. On one islet they found a good spot, a natural cavity formed by two cahow burrows. If Wingate hadn't been on hand 8% of the world's breeding population would have been sealed in cement. Wingate helped find another location, but he still didn't trust the workmen. "I had to sit down and watch them dig this bloody, four-foot-square hole," he said. On another occasion some boys lit a campfire in a cave containing two cahows. "If I hadn't spotted it the embers could have burned the cahows' feet that night," Wingate said. "It was a real shocker. I contacted the AP's and they tightened up security."

Wingate tries to observe the departure of each cahow chick. "It gives me a feeling of success," he said. "Another year got through." On the average, a chick spends seven nights exercising before he takes off; his parents have long since left so he has nothing to eat during that period. The final night ashore is usually distinguished by violent preening and intention movements in which he vigorously bobs his head in the direction of the sea. The chick generally seeks a prominence from which to take off, and when he finally goes, he shoots straight up like a helicopter. One reason may be that he doesn't know his flying capacity and is overdoing it. Another may be that rapidly gained altitude is a safety factor; when the cahow lived inland a chick would have to get up about 40 feet to clear the cedar forest.

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