Survival Instinct.

AuthorLarson, Christina
PositionMichelle Nijhuis' "Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction"

Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction

by Michelle Nijhuis

W.W. Norton and Company, 351 PP

Conservation movements have won in the past. Can they do it again?

One cold January afternoon, as I was hiking my regular trail loop on Theodore Roosevelt Island, I noticed a bald eagle perched in a large oak tree, about 30 feet away. The island is one of Washington, D.C.'s forest parks, a dollop of wilderness in the middle of the Potomac River. I'd seen eagles flying over the river before, their white heads unmistakable, but to see one perched so close felt uncanny, as if I'd stumbled into the presence of a visitor from another world.

As the sun dipped below the horizon, the eagle lifted its wings and flew off. Twice it circled back, gliding with its outermost wing feathers spread out like long fingers.

The cold set in and my fingers and toes started to grow numb, so I hurried home along the path before the light was entirely gone. The moment would have stuck with me in any year, but this was just three days after Donald Trump's supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, plunging the city into angst and anger. The sight of the eagle felt like a bit of grace.

Such an encounter would have been far less likely in this park 30 years ago, and almost certainly wouldn't have happened in the early 1960s. At that time, there were fewer than 500 nesting pairs across the lower 48 states. Many naturalists worried that America's national bird was hurtling toward extinction, another casualty of habitat loss, hunting, and pollution--especially the indiscriminate use of DDT, an insecticide that persists in the food chain and causes eagles to lay eggs with paper-thin shells, too fragile to protect the developing embryos inside.

Today there are more than 10,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the country, and their return to the mid-Atlantic region has been particularly spectacular. This winter I've seen bald eagles cruising over the nearby Anacostia and Susquehanna Rivers. In 2014, one pair established a nest within the National Arboretum, and wildlife biologists set up a remote camera to watch the eagles raise chicks.

At a time when climate change threatens entire ecosystems and many elements of human societies, it's worth remembering the times that people have managed to undo some of the havoc they've wreaked upon the planet. That's one of the implicit messages of the journalist Michelle Nijhuis's new book, Beloved Beasts. The book is an ambitious...

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