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“Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery, 1943” © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by Vaga, New York, NY

Lately, i have had to ask: Can I take refuge in the Buddha and still remain true to my role as a conservationist? In Pali, the first precept for laypeople reads “Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami,” which translates as “I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.” While this may be the ideal, in reality the difficulties associated with a strict adherence to the first precept within a modern ecological context have caused some writers, including the Buddhist practitioner and poet Gary Snyder, to alter the first precept to mean “cause no unnecessary harm.” Perhaps this reinterpretation of the language has occurred in part because, if taken literally, the precept would interfere with the application of basic underlying concepts of ecological management, and ultimately with the development of a true environmentally engaged, or “green,” Buddhism.

Buddhist ethics seem clear insofar as the taking of human life is concerned; the Buddha’s assessment of the immorality of homicide, as well as suicide and euthanasia, is relatively unambiguous. Things get a bit more complicated, however, when it comes to beings other than humans.

This is the first winter in the high desert of eastern Oregon that I’ve made an effort to provide food and water for the birds in my backyard. I’m compelled to do so out of curiosity and admiration for the native stalwarts who stick out the winter here, forsaking the long journey to warmer climes south. By remaining, they avoid the risky trip made by hundreds of migratory bird species, which I would imagine has never been easy but has become increasingly dangerous, as less and less habitat remains to sustain them in the U.S. and in the tropical forests of the Americas. There is a trade-off, however: by remaining here, birds must contend with the perils of the cold season, where the nighttime temperatures regularly dip into the single digits and where March snow squalls can freeze solid the unwary. Living closest to the edge are the mountain chickadees, whose life flame burns so brightly that they can lose 10 percent of their body weight overnight, and who face certain death if a high-calorie meal is not forthcoming every twenty-four hours. And yet they stay here, living by their sharp little wits, consuming everything from last year’s dried elderberries to road-killed deer. They are my companions through the freezing, bleak, short days of winter, and in this spirit of camaraderie, I purchased several hundred pounds of black oil sunflower, millet, and niger thistle seed before the first heavy frost of October.

By November, the feeder is attracting a consistent crowd of hungry visitors. I shouldn’t be surprised to find that my efforts accommodate all manner of appetites, and not just for seed. A few weeks after the banquet starts in earnest, I encounter a goshawk, a formidable predator of smaller birds, holding down a struggling, bloodied mourning dove in the dun-colored grass near the feeding area. Goshawks are normally dwellers of the highlands, but this one, faced with a particularly cold mountain winter and tempted with easy pickings near town, has come slumming down into the lowlands. We are both equally startled at our unexpected encounter, and the goshawk abruptly releases its hold on her prey before flying off. I contemplate the torn body of the dove, which has now ceased its struggle with death, interrupted by my intrusion in its transmogrification into goshawk flesh.

%MCEPASTEBIN%While I am troubled by the possibility that my provision of seed has done little more than concentrate, fatten, and perhaps render complacent the local passerine birds, offering an unnatural largesse to the local raptors, things become even more complicated when a new set of visitors arrives: starlings. Natives of Europe, starlings were brought to the U.S. in 1890 by a man named Eugene Scheiffelin, who headed up an organization called the American Acclimatization Society. For some inexplicable reason, Scheiffelin’s group was obsessed with introducing every bird mentioned by Shakespeare, no matter how fleeting the reference. Somewhere in Henry IV there is the line “Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer.’” Because of Scheiffelin’s release of between eighty and one hundred starlings in New York’s Central Park, the native biota of the Lower 48 has had to contend ever since with a bird that has been likened unfavorably by conservationists to a Norway rat with feathers. Out here in the high desert, the starlings behave like fat tourists, in the harsh months of winter venturing only where they are assured warm quarters and abundant food. In the spring and summer months, they fan out into the surrounding countryside, invading nesting boxes and tree cavities used by the declining Western bluebird and eating the eggs and young of other birds. After the starlings, I notice a large number of European house sparrows, which also outcompete the cavity-nesting native species for breeding space. Then my neighbor’s semiferal cats begin hanging around the feeders. These latter creatures are but a few of the estimated 63 million domestic cats and 30 million feral cats in the U.S. that kill approximately 200 million birds each year.

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