Anne Macquarie: White-crowned sparrows and billionaires

I’ve been living with white-crowned sparrows all my life. Their year-round range coincides nearly exactly with my life’s range: western Nevada, the Sierra Nevada, coastal California, and western Colorado. In Carson City anyone with a backyard bird feeder has seen white-crowned sparrows pecking and cracking the seed scattered under the feeder by a greedy blue jay.

Bird guides rate white-crowned sparrows as common. Lots of people have watched and studied them, both amateurs and experts. We know that they sing in their local dialect, and they learn new songs when they move into new territories. The Cornell Bird Laboratory tells us that a migrating white-crowned sparrow was once tracked moving 300 miles in a single night. Alaskan white-crowned sparrows migrate about 2,600 miles to winter in Southern California.

It’s extraordinary how extraordinary ordinary birds can be.

White-crowned sparrows are our neighbors and for me, they mean I’m home — in my own home territory. Birds do that — especially the common ones. Hear a chickadee and the song takes you to the mountains; hear a robin singing and you remember spring mornings walking to school; see a common merganser and you’re on the beach at Tahoe again.

The Audubon Society has added new information to its venerable Field Guide to North American Birds about how climate change will affect our birds. If temperatures go up 2 degrees C, 56% of the white-crowned sparrow’s range will be lost in Nevada, California and Wyoming. If temperatures go up 3 degrees C, 78% of their range will be lost.

A 2018 report by the international Panel on Climate Change gives a range of temperature rise of 0.3C to 4.8C, depending on what we do or don’t do. At the higher ranges — increasingly likely as our governments continue doing far from enough — there will be no more white-crowned sparrows in most of the American west. And Trump just last week took our nation on a giant leap backward by starting the process to withdraw from the Paris climate accord.

Meanwhile, Elon Musk is planning to go to Mars. Not just to explore it. He thinks people will need to move there. He says he wants to start building a human settlement on Mars by the 2050s and he even estimates how many trips of his starships it would take to do it. Billionaire Jeff Bezos has his own space colonization fantasies.

After the initial gee-whiz-how-smart-those-billionaires-are reaction, people who think seriously about space say how far-off these fantasies are. Problems like the effect of low and zero gravity on human bodies, the effects on our cancer-fighting cells, toxicity of Martian soil, difficulties with conception, pregnancy and childbirth. Basically humans are designed to live on this earth. We’ve evolved with it and grown up as a species on it.

And this: wild white-crowned sparrows will never live on Mars. What is our life as humans without white-crowned sparrows and all the other living beings with whom we’ve co-evolved?

Live on a sterile colony for rich people (because who else could afford to live there?) designed and ruled by arrogant technocrats? Not me. I’m not ready to give up on my planet yet. I think Musk’s and Bezo’s megalomaniacal fantasies are nothing but a distraction from the real work that needs to be done.

I prefer to protect and fight for a planet where our children and all their descendants can hear white-crowned sparrows singing in their local dialects. I wish I had Musk’s and Bezo’s billions to help me do it.

Anne Macquarie blogs about clean energy and climate change in Nevada at


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