Thursday, September 20, 2012

Aliens for dinner

Not the alien I mean
Sounds like I invited some extraterrestrials over to share a meal but, what I really mean is eating invasive species as a form of revenge against the damage they inflict on our native species.

As people move around, we tend to take critters (and plants - which I’m not going to discuss) with us. Rats and cats have been introduced across the globe, both of which have been known to decimate bird populations - especially on islands where birds have lost their ability to fly. Pigs were deliberately left on tropical islands by passing sailors to provide future food.

Sometimes animals are intentionally introduced as a means to fix a problem. For example, Australian sugar cane crops were being decimated by cane beetles, so in 1935 just over 100 cane toads were introduced to control the cane beetles. The cane toads adapted well to their new environment, now there are over 200 million - however they didn’t control the cane beetles. Instead cane toads caused all sorts of other problems as they are toxic to the animals that try to eat them.

Want to make a buck? 
How about introduce a critter that produces a luxury product, like beaver fur. In 1946, 50 beavers from Canada were introduced to the southern tip of South America for just this reason. It turned out great for the beavers as there were no predators to worry about. The beavers went on to do what beavers do - gnaw down trees and build dams. Unfortunately, the forests in that region can’t handle beaver damage like North American forests can, so the damage is extensive. Active programs are still underway to remove the beavers.

Not all introduced species create these kind of problems, however there is always a risk that a local species will be displaced by the newly arrived animals. The result is a loss to our global biodiversity as our world-wide ecosystem is becoming more and more homogenized.

In my part of the world, we have lots of introduced species (tropical areas often have more - Hawaii and Florida are perhaps the hardest hit with alien invaders). There are green crabs, manila clams, carp, house sparrows and grey squirrels to name a few. Another that has become ubiquitous in North America is the European Starling. These noisy birds like open country - like orchards and grain fields. They often flock together in massive flocks where they scour the area for fruit and insects to eat. They indiscriminately eat crops intended for human consumption which has put them on the hit list of many farmers. They also out compete local birds, for instance swallow species like the purple martin, for nest sites.

Why would anyone introduce starlings? 
In the late 1800’s, Eugene Schieffelin decided to introduce every bird mentioned in Shakespeare's works into North America. As part of this odd plan, 60 starlings were released in 1890 into New York’s central park. Now, there is an estimated population of 200 million.

So what can be done? 
One option is to eat the invaders. I was at an event recently put on by the Penticton Museum and Archives for the opening of the traveling ‘Aliens Among Us’ exhibit created by the Royal BC Museum. The exhibit highlights alien species in BC. At the opening, breaded and fried starling breast was offered - the meat was dark and gamey, reminiscent of goose, and was quite good. For Okanogan fruit growers, eating starlings must be a delicious form of revenge.

It would take a lot of effort to harvest enough starling breast to make a full meal. I’ll just keep the idea in the back of my mind in case there is a zombie apocalypse and starlings are all I can catch.

As a tangent - people are not considered ‘aliens’ in this context because people tend to move themselves around (i.e., natural dispersal) - although governments might label people as aliens for various reasons. By this same logic, extraterrestrial aliens would only be considered aliens if they hitched a ride to earth on a space shuttle instead of their own spaceship.

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