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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In 1515, Gonzalo Fern�ndez d' Oviedo y Vald�s, a Spanish courtier bound for San Domingo, attempted to land on Bermuda, but was frustrated by a "contrarie winde." However, his sojourn was not misspent; while lying offshore he witnessed an edifying spectacle.

"I saw a strife and combat betweene these flying fishes," he wrote, "and the fishes named giltheads, and the fowles called sea mewes, and cormorants, which surely seemed unto me a thing of as great pleasure and solace as could be devised. While the giltheads swam on the brim of the water, and sometimes lifted their shoulders above the same, to raise the flying fishes out of the water to drive them to flight, and to follow them swimming to the place where they fall, to take and eat them suddenly. Againe, on the other side, the sea mewes and cormorants take many of these flying fishes, so that by this means they are neither safe in the aire, nor in the water. In the selfe same perill and danger do men live in this mortal life, wherein is no certaine securities, neither in high estate, nor in lowe."

The instructive fowl which Oviedo observed from the rail of his ship is now known as the cahow, or Bermuda petrel. In 1515 it probably numbered more than a million. Today it is one of the rarest birds in the world, only 65 or so being left, and Oviedo's moral could be drawn with equal force and relevance from its unfortunate fate.

The surviving cahows breed on five greatly eroded islets with a total area of three acres, which lie about the mouth of Castle Harbour at the east end of Bermuda. They arrive clamorously in mid-October and the last dithering chick departs in mid-June. The cahow is thought to summer upon the vast reaches of the North Atlantic, but no one able to identify the bird has ever seen a cahow off the breeding grounds.

Fossil remains dating back at least half a million years indicate that the cahow is the oldest surviving species of bird endemic to Bermuda, and when that uninhabited island was discovered by Juan Berm�dez in the first or second decade of the 16th century it was the most abundant bird as well: the remains of 30 cahows have been found in two cubic feet of talus, evidently victims of a cliff fall. Cahows make their nests at the ends of burrows which may be as long as 15 feet and have at least one turning so that light cannot penetrate—the birds are nocturnal and shun light on the breeding grounds.

Both the egg and flesh of the cahow are edible, and since it is in the habit of pottering about on the ground at night and, moreover, is utterly fearless of man and other mammals ( Bermuda, like almost all oceanic islands, has no native mammals save for a few bats), it was virtually exterminated by 1630, presumably by droves of hogs, which the Spanish customarily put ashore "for increase," and by the English colonists who arrived in 1609.

The cahow was generally considered extinct up to the present century, and it would, in fact, have died out by about 2000 A.D. but for the solicitude of a remarkable young man named David Wingate. Wingate, who is 33, is Bermuda's conservation officer, the island's only resident ornithologist—of the 300 or so birds on the Bermuda checklist, more than 50 were first sighted by him—and the cahow's savior. For the past 10 years Wingate has devoted much of his life to keeping the cahow alive, spending innumerable sleepless nights in the field, but, as a friend has reminded him, if you're going to play God you have to keep God's hours. Not only is the cahow dependent upon Wingate; in a way Wingate is dependent upon the cahow, for the bird has given his life an ennobling purpose. "I can't afford to die," he said recently. "What would the cahows do?"

However, more is at stake here than the preservation of what the early English chroniclers called a "silly Bird." No sooner had Wingate laboriously built up the tiny colony than it was faced with a new and insidious threat: in recent years the cahow has become contaminated with residues of DDT and, as a likely result, its reproduction rate has been declining. If the decline continues at its present rate, reproduction will fail completely by 1978 regardless of what a thousand Wingates might achieve. The extirpation of this silly bird after its astonishing survival would be exceedingly poignant, yet in itself hardly calamitous to man. But Wingate correlates the cahow with the canary, whose death alerts miners to the presence of poisonous gases in the mine. Indeed, if man persists in wantonly degrading his environment, he may well find himself in "the selfe same perill and danger."

The cahow is one of about 75 species of petrels, all of which are pelagic, coming ashore only to breed. (Petrel is probably derived from Peter; some petrels appear to walk on the water, a feat attributed to the disciple.) The most familiar is Wilson's petrel, or Mother Carey's chicken, a dainty little bird which is inclined to follow ships far at sea and is reputedly the most populous sea bird in the world. The cahow is roughly the size of a pigeon, but has a wingspread of 35 inches. Its scientific name is Pterodroma cahow. Pterodroma is Greek for rapid wing, and cahow (which rhymes with allow) is a phonetic approximation of the call the bird makes in its aerial courtship.

To a degree, the cahow's awful call note—most often heard on the dark and windy nights it favors for wooing—determined that England rather than Spain colonized Bermuda. The Spanish believed that Bermuda was inhabited by demons and they avoided it. One of the earliest mentions of the cahow is by a fearful Spaniard, Captain Diego Ramirez, whose galleon was driven ashore by a storm in 1603:

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