Saturday, January 06, 2007

Constant Change

The only constant in life is change.
While surfing the web one day, I wandered to the National Zoo site, and found an article called "Fear, Loathing, and Adaptability in Birds." The title alone, of course, caught my attention right away. Since when do birds have fear and loathing, I asked myself. The article asks a very timely question. Why do some species seem to adapt to human-altered habitats and thrive there, while others suffer and either move on or die out? We have all seen the myriad starlings and house sparrows who thrive in our neighborhoods. I have watched as crows and even hawks are regularly seen in the suburbs now, although I never saw them there when I was a child. As their normal habitats shrink, some birds move right in along with people, while others become more rare. Some species adapt to the change, while others do not. Russell Greenberg, the author of this article for the National Zoo, suggests that neophobia, or fear of the new, may play some part in this. He conducted some experiments with the wild mallards and wood ducks that come to the zoo, selecting them because of their long association with humans. He expected them to have less fear of the new than other wild ducks, but instead found them to be "amazingly neophobic." Greenberg put some traffic cones, a new feature, near the ducks' regular feeding station. To his surprise, they showed reluctance to feed in this new situation. Other experiments with rats, crows and house sparrows, also closely associated with humans, resulted in high levels of neophobia. Behavior such as an attraction to something new (which might be a new or better food source, for example) must be tempered and balanced with caution (the new thing might be a trap or poisoned). Paying attention to novelty in the local environment has enabled an individual or a species to survive over the ages. Making a decision on what to do with the novelty is the hard part. This becomes even more difficult when one novelty is followed by many more in a short period of time. People have trouble adapting to change too. In our lifetime, I think it is the amount and speed of change that is a problem. My grandfather once related that in his life, he saw the world change from horse and buggy to putting a man on the moon. Change has never happened as fast and as frequently as during the 20th and now the 21st Centuries. Now humans seem to make changes to the world and their society simply because they can, not because the change will be a benefit. Or it may be a short-term benefit, but has anyone considered the long term consequences? Newer isn't always Better. Unfortunately, we don't always get to choose whether to accept or reject the change. It was recently announced that people who just use rabbit ears to get broadcast TV, at no charge, will have to buy a converter because everything will be broadcast in digital. Yet, how quickly we become accustomed to these changes. A hurricane near Hong Kong broke some underseas cables, disrupting Internet access for the area, including the Hong Kong stock exchange. What would happen to our "civilization" when a disaster, either natural or man-made, disrupts communication to a larger area? I once heard a statement that it would only take three days of a transportation failure for our economy to collapse. Think about a blizzard or a hurricane or earthquake that can paralyze an entire region. It is so frightening to think about. Would I trade my life and go back to live during the settlement of the Falls of the Ohio area in the late 1700's? No way! Travel was difficult and dangerous, so not many people travelled. Regional customs and practices were maintained because no one knew anything different. People died of diseases which are easily cured now. Sometimes I hear people lament about how life has changed, and I admit, sometimes the change has not been for the good. But would I go back? Definitely not. I would be interested to see what my great grandchildren will say about life in the early 21st century. Would they be interested in living our lifestyle?

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