The Canary in the Coal Mine: A Cautionary Tale

Maybe you have heard of the practice that coal miners used in the pre-modern technology “old days” of mining; they took a canary in a cage with them into the underground mine to detect the presence of deadly gases that would pose a mortal threat to the miners.  The theory was that the canary, more sensitive to the noxious gases than humans, would die if conditions were unsafe for men and would provide a warning to the men to leave the mine before they were stricken with the same fate as the poor bird.

monarch 1 denoiseai standard gigapixel standard scale 4 00x
Photo taken by Tom Schrader

I worry that we may be unwitting participants in a “canary in the coal mine” scenario that might be playing out right now on a much larger, even global, scale.  The “canary” that I’m referring to is specifically the Monarch butterfly and other pollinators in general.  Those of you who follow my articles here on the Friends of the Fox River website blog or follow my Facebook posts know that I spend a lot of time outdoors hiking and observing and photographing nature.  One of my favorite haunts over the last several years has been the Hoover Forest Preserve in Yorkville, Illinois.  This wonderful preserve consists of between 300 and 400 acres of varied habitat along the south bank of the Fox River.  A beautiful hardwood forest interspersed with meadows consisting of restored native prairie plants provide a wonderful refuge for all kinds of animals, birds, and insects including butterflies and other pollinators.  In the last couple of weeks of July (as I write this) the restored prairie has been blooming more profusely than I’ve seen in previous years with a magnificent collection of wildflowers like Wild Bergamot, Brown-eyed Susan, Grey-headed and Pale Purple Coneflower, Tall Bellflower, and a myriad of other species providing a beautiful palette of color to appreciate and enjoy while hiking through the preserve.

In past years, this riot of native blossoms would be accompanied by an equally large variety and number of butterflies, bees, hummingbird moths, and other pollinators feasting on the bounty of pollen that the lovely flowers provide, and in turn, providing the plants their service to sustain the plants for future generations by cross-pollinating them. 

This year, several of my naturalist/photographer friends and I have noticed a conspicuous absence of many of these pollinators in the Hoover Preserve.  I have personally only seen one Monarch butterfly and no Swallowtails (of any species) in the preserve.  Similarly, I have not seen either of the clearwing moth species (Hummingbird and Snowberry) this year and have seen very few bumblebees or honey bees visiting the flowers in the preserve.  I was hoping that this might just be a local phenomenon that was specific to the Hoover/Yorkville area this season and not a more ominous, widespread threat.  However, earlier this week, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature placed the Monarch on its Red List of threatened species and categorized it as “endangered.”   This categorization is a step in the process that may lead to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service declaring the Monarch butterfly to be a “threatened” or “endangered” species under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA).

While I knew that the Monarchs had been in a period of decline over the last decade or so, the listing of the species coupled with my personal observations of the absence of the butterflies on my hikes this year was a shocking warning that something really serious was going on that posed an existential threat to this beautiful and iconic species that is a favorite of so many people across the continent.  It caused me to think in retrospect how I had taken the Monarchs for granted, taking a few pictures of them and then focusing my attention on to what I though were more “rare” species that were more desirable photographic targets.  The Monarch butterfly was such a ubiquitous part of my outdoor life since childhood that I came to take this beautiful but then common butterfly as something that would always be a part of my experiences in nature. 

Now, it seems that the Monarchs’ future existence is in imminent jeopardy.  Habitat fragmentation and loss, increasing use of herbicides and pesticides, fewer milkweed plants on which the butterflies feed, excessive mowing of habitat, and climate change have all been cited as potential causes for the Monarchs’ demise.  The thought of such an ever-present symbol of nature disappearing is sobering and frightening.  It certainly is not without precedent, though.  The Passenger Pigeon went from such a common bird that huge flocks of them would darken the sky and take hours to pass a single spot and they went extinct within the lifetime of a single generation of humans.  Human activity was directly attributable to the extirpation of the Passenger Pigeon and seems to be playing a large part in the threat to the Monarch butterfly.

We no longer have the excuse of ignorance in how human activities affect other species that we share the planet with.  Back in the days of the Passenger Pigeon, people perhaps reasonably thought there were so many of them, nothing that man could do could harm them as a species and they would always be there.  We now know that wasn’t true.  Through the unfortunate example of the Passenger Pigeon, we no longer have the excuse that man’s activities cannot affect the survival of other species. 

Is it too late for us to help the Monarch butterfly to avoid the fate of the Passenger Pigeon?  Only time will tell.  However, we can try to help them recover by planting more native milkweed plants in our yards, encouraging our friends and neighbors to use fewer pesticides and herbicides, support local government in maintaining more natural areas, and support actions that attempt to mitigate world-wide climate change.  Hopefully we will heed the “canary in the coal mine” warning that the Monarch butterfly and other pollinators that appear to be decreasing in numbers are providing us. 

The consequences of our pollinators disappearing would be truly catastrophic as the plant-based food chain that we rely on for our sustenance would collapse  Unlike the coal miners who could leave the mine to avoid the threat, humanity as a species has no where to go to escape the calamitous effects the demise of our pollinators would cause.