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May 2001

Release Date: May 8, 2001

Urban Sophistication Falls Short When It Comes to Nature

Nature is cruel, a fact many city dwellers find much more difficult to accept than their country cousins.

That is the assessment reaffirmed each spring to Angelo State University biology Professor Terry Maxwell as a result of calls to the Biology Department reporting waif baby birds. The well-intentioned calls, however, show how far removed urban residents are from the cycle of life.

"Birds die," Dr. Maxwell said, "They are hatched, live awhile and die. I do not mean to sound callous or uncaring, but it is amazing to a biologist how protected many urban people seem to be from that simple fact."

As an ornithologist, Maxwell has devoted his professional career to the study of birds, but his perspective on rural versus urban resident's sophistication about nature is based on 50-plus years of observation. For him, that lack of understanding was exemplified by recent concerns about the number of dead birds on campus. In Maxwell's professional evaluation, there were no more than would be expected for a campus with such a large urban bird population.

"Rural children grow up with births and deaths of animals all around them," he said. "They even grow up with causing death and then eating the animal after it has died. Urban children are more or less insulated from that very natural part of humanity and life. I find this both disturbing and frustrating at times."

Spring is the season for baby birds to be found, seemingly abandoned. Maxwell has lost count of the times students have brought a waif bird to him or other biology faculty with "concern approaching if not equaling concern for a family member." That, in his mind, is the ultimate example of urban naiveté because many of these people own cats, the same cats that may have orphaned the waif bird to begin with.

"It is as though everything natural cats eating birds, birds naturally dying that occurs between loving the cat and lamenting the baby birds' plight is expunged from the mind," Maxwell said. "It is simply naïve, and perhaps charming, but not particularly rational."

About 30 species, including Northern Cardinals, Northern Mockingbirds and House Finches, occur regularly on the ASU campus along with a number of migratory birds that stop temporarily in San Angelo. Among those common species on campus, the infant mortality rate is high as it is among most urban nesting birds.

"There is essentially nothing that can be done about it," Maxwell explained. "People like and have cats. Cats are hunters, people let cats out, and so on. Cats can be highly destructive and have been responsible for species extinctions in some parts of the world where they have been introduced. You will notice in this city, however, that despite this high rate of songbird mortality, we still have cardinals, mockingbirds and finches around campus and in our yards."

In addition to his academic work and writing, Maxwell also does a weekly column on nature for the San Angelo Standard-Times. He sees that as part of his responsibility to help the public understand the excitement and the reality of nature in the Concho Valley of West Texas.

While sympathetic to the concerns of individuals with waif birds, biology faculty lack the time and the facilities to care for baby birds or, for that matter, other kinds of live wild animals. In fact, in many cases, without appropriate permits and facilities, faculty members are prohibited by state or federal laws from having live wild animals in the building. As an alternative, they refer the individuals to a local wildlife rehabilitation facility.

Having devoted his life to the study of birds, Maxwell certainly does not want to see them die, but he knows death is indeed a part of life. Not everyone, however, seems to grasp that idea that such is a fundamental concept of the biologist's understanding of nature in its broadest sense.

The urban public's naiveté statewide about wild animal death was best illustrated to Maxwell several years ago when the Texas Parks and Wildlife first began a non-game wildlife program. The program's aim was to manage for sustainable populations of plants and animals. Since there literally are thousands of non-game species of plants and animals in Texas, the agency had to focus on important management issues that help sustain wildlife populations.

"When they initiated the program, the agency faced a strange problem," Maxwell said. "Here they were with a statewide responsibility for thousands of species in the largest state of the lower 48, and their telephone lines were occupied with urban people worried about the fate of individual birds the injured and the waifed."

Without some sophistication in biology or nature, urban dwellers may miss the larger picture. In the wilds of nature, the survival of the individual is not nearly as important as the survival of the species.

"I am approached often by people who seem to want the world to be saccharine nice, to fit their preconceptions about how it ought to be," Maxwell said. "Urban people often are not confronted that much with normal death in wild organisms, but our campus is providing that, perhaps, unwelcome educational opportunity."

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