The Roseate Spoonbills were behaving inexplicably. The birds should have been nesting throughout Florida Bay, recovering from plume hunting, but as Robert Porter Allen noted, only a “pitifully small group” could be found. So in 1939 Audubon sent Allen, its director of sanctuaries, to set up a one-man field station and, as Frank Graham, Jr., put it in The Audubon Ark: “Allen never did anything halfway; he spent most of the next three years living almost like a spoonbill.”
Allen’s commitment to swamp life, wading through mangroves as he scrupulously observed the birds and probed their environment, surely feels familiar to Jerry Lorenz and his team of field biologists. More than 80 years later they work from Allen’s Florida Bay base—now called Audubon’s Everglades Science Center—to explore the same question: What does spoonbill behavior say about the species’ ability to adapt to a changing world?
In our cover story exploring that question, avian ecologist Kara Lefevre likens today’s spoonbill situation to a “wild experiment.” It’s not the only time someone paints that analogy in this issue. In our feature about the weedkiller dicamba, Audubon Delta’s Dan Scheiman describes the widespread use of the herbicide as a “gigantic, uncontrolled experiment” as well. Many are sounding the alarm about its damaging effects, including risks to birdlife, echoing concerns once voiced over the pesticide DDT.
Of course, climate change may be the biggest, wildest planetary experiment of all. Which is why, with great relief, we report on legislation that may finally set in motion substantive action in the United States to forestall it. The Inflation Reduction Act isn’t perfect, but it holds a lot of hope for addressing an issue that science first connected to industrial carbon dioxide emissions in 1938, the year before Allen began studying Florida’s spoonbills.
In both journalism and conservation, it can sometimes feel like we’re revisiting the same issues again and again, with a modern twist. Perhaps no one feels the weight of that history more acutely than Indigenous peoples, who have been working for generations to reclaim their ancestral lands. As Chris Aadland describes, the movement to restore land to their stewardship is gaining momentum. With steadfast attention, the fulcrum of power can shift, progress is possible, and new stories can unfold.
This piece originally ran in the Winter 2022 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.