Monday, February 8, 2016

The Nature of Colonialism

When I was reading the chapter on European starlings in Tinkering With Eden: A Natural History of Exotics in America by Kim Todd, there was one thing that kept flashing in my head: colonialism.

Read this section from Todd’s novel:
If starlings have a noteworthy genetically programmed personality characteristic, it is aggression. They wait until other birds have created cavities for nests, then harass the architects until they abandon their site. Sometimes a starling enters a hole while the owner is gone. When the bird returns, the starling leaps onto its back, clinging and pecking it all the way to the ground. Even when it has claimed a nesting cavity, a starling may continue to abuse other birds breeding nearby, plucking their eggs out of the nest and dropping them in the dirt. One ornithologist watched a starling dangle a piece of food in front of the nesting cavity of a downy woodpecker. When the young woodpecker reached out of the hole for the bait, the starling dispatched it with a quick jab of the beak…Two cottonwoods on land hosted fourteen pairs of breeding native birds in 1978, but in early 1979 a starling couple moved in. Then a dozen more joined them…the starlings scared off American kestrels, northern flickers, olive sided flyercatchers, and house wrens in March. In April and May morning doves, tree swallows, and house finches approached the cottonwoods, only to be rebuffed. By June the trees were only offering refuge to nothing but starlings.”

The section reminded me of Edmund Morgan’s recall of history in Early Virginia, American Slavery, and American Freedom: “Since the Indians were better woodsmen than the English and virtually impossible to track down, the method was to feign peaceful intentions, let them settle down and plant their corn wherever they chose, and then, just before harvest, fall upon them, killing as many as possible and burning the corn…”

Humans often pride ourselves with not being animalistic, not acting savagely. However, these British colonists acted in ways that can only be comparable to animalistic ritual behavior. British colonialism is a harsher, crueler, and comparable personification to the spread and destruction caused by European starlings.

The patterns of behavior are so similar that the same language can be used to describe the actions of both the violence caused by European starlings and colonists. For example:

If the British colonists had a noteworthy genetically programmed personality characteristic, it is aggression. They waited until the indigenous communities settled down and planted their corn, then harassed the architects by setting the land on fire and raiding the homes of the indigenous communities until they abandoned their site...Two pieces of land hosted fourteen indigenous families in a tribe in 1808, but in 1809 an American couple moved in. Then a dozen more families joined them…the Americans scared off  the indigenous communities by harassing and pushing them off the land. By June the land only offered refuge to nothing but American colonists.

When the history and behavior of European starlings are studied it is strikingly analogous to the histories and behaviors of European colonists. When looking at the places European starlings have invaded: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Falkland Islands, Mexico, Peru, New Zealand, United States, North America, New Zealand, and South Africa—the countries all have one thing in common: they all have been colonized by Europe. Thus, there is a causation relationship between colonialism by European colonists and European starlings; without the colonialism that occurred, starlings would not have been able to be introduced to the lands they now conquer and terrorize.

When we talk about invasive species, we use the same kind of language when we are describing European colonialism. However, our perceptions of the two things are different: we easily perceive invasive species as detrimental, harmful, and something to be prevented at all costs. This is different from our perceptions of colonialism, which were sometimes seen as benevolent and inevitable. Research institutions and scientists work to secure resources to preserve endangered animals and species—the same resources and energy were not used to ensure the prosperity of indigenous communities throughout history. 

Guest Blogger: J. Raihan

map color key: 
light yellow=Introduced European starling summer breeding range
light green=Introduced European starling resident range
dark yellow=Native European starling summer breeding range 
dark green=Native European starling resident range
dark blue=Native European starling winter range

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