Remembering buntings, forgetting buntings

Ortolan Bunting, male. Drawing by Wilhelm von Wright (1810 – 1887). Scanned from Svenska fåglar, efter naturen och på sten ritade 2nd ed. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Emberiza_hortulana_2.jpg
Ortolan Bunting, female. Drawing by Wilhelm von Wright (1810 – 1887). Scanned from Svenska fåglar, efter naturen och på sten ritade 2nd ed. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ortolan_bunting#/media/File:Emberiza_hortulana_1.jpg

The Ortolan Bunting and Yellow-breasted Bunting were plentiful during the first decade of my childhood. (I was born in 1975.) The latter was never common in Finland; the country was on the edge of its distribution, but it was an abundant birds throughout its range across northern Eurasia. Well, no more. Yellow-breasted Buntings are no longer seen in Finland every year and more than a decade has passed since the last documented breeding. The Finnish population of Ortolan Bunting has declined 99% in my lifetime. It is a bird I remember from my childhood, now at risk of vanishing completely from Finland within a decade or two. Both birds are caught in large quantities and eaten; the Yellow-breasted in its wintering grounds in China, the Ortolan during migration through the Mediterranean. Eating an Ortolan is an ignominious tradition in France. While habitat loss due to changes in farming is also impacting the Ortolan, hunting it does not help. I can’t help but ask: is eating these birds out of existence worth it? We did it with the Passenger Pigeon and then repeated it with the Eskimo Curlew: we replaced them with more of us.

Change in distribution of the Ortolan Bunting in Finland between the Bird Atlas of 1974-79 and 2006-10. Source: http://atlas3.lintuatlas.fi/tulokset/laji/peltosirkku
Change in distribution of the Yellow-breasted Bunting in Finland between the Bird Atlas of 1974-79 and 2006-10. Source: http://atlas3.lintuatlas.fi/tulokset/laji/kultasirkku

Will I be the last generation of Finns who remembers the Ortolan Bunting from their childhood? Xeno-canto allows me to remember the soundscape of my younger years but once I’m gone, will we care about another species if we no longer remember it? This question has been coming up for me a lot. It is not just species we are losing but we are losing the individual and collective memories of them. To borrow from Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Heather Anne Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt, the Ortolan and Yellow-breasted Bunting are becoming ghosts in the Finnish landscape, and in Finnish memory. We are ghost-makers. And yet, the remarkable recoveries of the Laysan Duck and the Kakapo, two of countless island specialists, reminds us that we are effective avian ghostbusters when we choose to be.

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