The Birds and the Beaches

“Stop!” When he saw a woman running up to his Jeep, yelling “We have wanderers!” my friend Chip Cunningham’s first thought was, “What? Like hobos?” What he anticipated, a five-foot tall vagabond, turned out to be a five-inch long bird. The term “wanderers,” in this scenario referred to baby Piping Plovers, small, toddling birds that happen to be members of an endangered species. Chip is the suave, popular manager of the Cliffside Beach Club in Nantucket, Massachusetts. As club manager, Chip drives his Jeep along the beach, dragging laterally a four-by-four “log” attached by chains to the back of the vehicle so that he could smooth out the sand for guests. It’s reminiscent of ironing a shirt, only on a much larger scale. “I’m not going to hit a plover!” Cunningham replied to the running woman. Threatened with a $250,000 fine and ten years of jail for murdering one of these animals, he knew how to recognize a plover. “We have baby plovers on this beach!” screamed the vigilante. “If you scare them to more than 500 feet away from their mothers, they will die.” Unhappily, good citizen Chip was unable to comb the beach for over a month, waiting for these sacred Plovers to come out of “wandering stage.” Moses wandered the dessert longer, so it seemed. The Plover issue did not shrink for our protagonist. Cunningham told me, “I can understand the law when it was passed back in 1986. There were about ten plovers left on the island, but now, they’ve moved all over. Beaches have been placed off limits because of them, and it’s an even bigger problem on Cape Cod.” It is worthy to note that Cunningham is not a violent or destructive soul. Loved by children of the guests and guests themselves for his Jeep rides and unbelievable amicability, Cunningham seems like the type of guy who wouldn’t hurt a dust mite, much less a plover. The following year, Cunningham had still not seen the last of his wandering companions. In May of 2003, piping plovers laid eggs, as is customary, inside human footprints on the beach. (It seems like Mother Nature was using human nature to try to kill these birds.) Their incubation process only a few days from completion, the plover eggs disappeared! Vanished! Environmental agencies placed ads in the local paper, in an attempt to force the guilty man or dog to come forward, but to no avail. As a result, leash laws were passed and more strictly enforced all around the island. (Dogs may have thought they were man’s best friend, but some people felt a closer relationship with plovers.) As it was early enough in the plover’s mating season for them to “get their groove on” and mate again, about a month later, baby plovers, wanderers, could be seen on Jetties Beach, another Nantucket beach adjacent to Chip’s Cliffside. Laws banned humans from this seashore because of these wanderers. Yet, the Boston Pops had scheduled an annual July 4 concert on Jetties, a concert that had raised one million dollars for the local hospital the year before. One million dollars rested on the wings of some five-inch birds. Would they leave in time for the concert, or would the safety of these birds jeopardize health care for humans? (Remember the humans?) An environmental agency predicted that the plovers would learn how to fly and leave their wandering stage the day after the concert. The island trembled with anticipation. As July 4 dawned over the Nantucket beaches, plovers could be seen soaring a day ahead of schedule. Maybe their body clocks were fast, or maybe this endangered species likes to live dangerously. Regardless, the show went on. Fortunately, the birds enjoyed survival while man enjoyed his concert, and neither came to a collision. But the situation poses an interesting question. To answer this question is beyond the scope of this article, because an answer could establish the framework of environmental debates ranging from energy emissions to the rain-forest. We should to what extent should the preservation of the environment, if at all, trump the rights of man? Should the celebration of July 4, the beginning of our democracy, or the benefit to the hospital tilt the scales in the human favor? Or is genetic diversity a categorical necessity for the planet? When is it time to say, “Move over plover?”