I am going to spend Thanksgiving morning looking for birds near my parent’s home in coastal Maine. I’ll be looking for New England winter specialties, like Harlequin Ducks and Razorbills, and will stay alert for coveted November “rarity season” waifs (a White Wagtail was just seen in nearby New Hampshire!). I’ll keep track of every individual bird I can identify, rarity or not, and generally revel in their company. Then, later, I’ll join my family around the dinner table where we’ll take another bird out of the oven, carve it up, and eat it.
It’s not something I talk about very much with other birders, but it does feel like a fairly deep irony. We plead with neighbors and lawmakers to do something about the fact that domestic cats kill between one and four billion birds in this country each year, and then happily sit down to lunch and support an industry that annually kills eight billion chickens, 300 million turkeys, and additional multitudes of duck, pheasant, goose, and quail. We fight to protect every possible acre of habitat so that wild birds can live a natural life, but then turn a collective blind eye to the often-terrible conditions experienced by domestic birds.
Of course, not all “we.” I’m sure that there are plenty of vegetarian and non-vegetarian birders out there who care a great deal about the lives of all feathered friends. I’m just not one of them.
Why this disconnect between conservation and consumption? Social psychologist Melanie Joy has identified the “Three Ns of Justification” for eating meat: natural, normal, and necessity. People believe that eating meat is natural, that it’s something our species craves and has evolved to do. It’s normal to do in a civilized society, and, more than that, it’s necessary for a healthy diet.
Justifications don’t have to line up with facts, of course. It’s been scientifically disproven six ways from Sunday that eating meat is necessary for a healthy diet, for example, but that doesn’t stop people from believing it. Of those three Ns, though, the “natural” part resonates with me as a birder. Animals eat other animals, we see it all the time. Oystercatchers catch oysters, flycatchers catch flies. It’s how nature works. A frequent response from vegetarians to this argument is that humans, unlike wild animals, have a choice in what we eat, and can therefore choose to avoid causing suffering and death in other creatures. I agree with that, in principle, and strongly support efforts to improve living conditions for domestic animals. But I don’t agree that just because we have the choice we have to take it.
It’s the wild vs. domestic distinction that makes the difference for birders, I think. At least, it does for me. We care a lot about wild birds, and not so much at all about domestics. We don’t count domestic birds on our lists, we don’t pay attention to them when we see them in the field. They’re not considered part of the world we love. Not defending this thinking, just pointing it out.
Humans make all kinds of odd distinctions when it comes to eating animals. One of the prominent philosophers of our time, Louis CK , pointed out in one of his old stand-up sets the irony of “dolphin-safe tuna,” which assures us that absolutely none of one kind of creature was harmed and that the tin is filled exclusively with another kind of creature. Why are we okay with eating tuna but not dolphin? I don’t know, and Louis doesn’t know either, but he does think that eating meat is wrong: “I think it’s wrong to eat tuna, and dolphin, and cows, and everything. But I eat them. I eat them all.” His reasoning? “It tastes good, and I like the way it feels when I eat it.”
This logic gets at a fourth “N” that researchers have added to the list of justifications for eating meat: that it’s “nice.” Meat tastes good. It’s tough to deny, especially when so many vegan or vegetarian products try to “taste like real meat,” instead of the plants they’re made from. The human weakness for pleasure is at the root of many things we know are bad but do anyway, like drinking, or smoking, or eating an entire bag of Halloween candy and laying around all afternoon on the couch instead of writing your weekly column before the deadline. A, uh, a friend told me about that one.
Look, I can’t tell you whether it’s okay to eat birds or not. That’s a choice you’ll need to make for yourself. I don’t believe that causing the death of another creature to make food is unnatural or amoral, but I do believe we should afford those creatures a certain quality of life and a painless death. I also don’t think being an omnivore is necessarily at odds with being a birder or a supporter of the environment. We want to retain a planet that all creatures can thrive on, including those that will be food for others.
Easy for me to say, I suppose: I’m not the one staring down the business end of a turkey baster, or a pair of fangs. Add it to the list of things I’m thankful for this year.