Jonathan Franzen's Call for Love: 'You Need to Take Care of Birds Now'

“I hope they’re not scared off and think it’s like The Cove,” Jonathan Franzen says, referring to potential audiences for Emptying the Skies, Roger and Douglas Kass's new documentary based on his 2010 New Yorker essay about songbird poaching in the Mediterranean. “I never saw The Cove because everyone said it’ll just depress the hell out of you,” he says, laughing. (The Cove concerns dolphin-hunting in Japan.) “But [Emptying the Skies] isn’t depressing. It’s more moving and, to an extent, even a heartwarming movie, so I hope people are not put off by the fear of seeing violence done to birds.”

Franzen, known mostly for his fiction, has become one of the world’s leading experts on bird conservation. Emptying the Skies is the first documentary adapted from Franzen’s essays on the subject. It follows a group of activists called the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) as they fight bird poaching throughout southern Europe by breaking into private trapping sites, destroying the traps and rescuing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of birds. In the film, Franzen calls their brave (and dangerous) acts of rescue a performance “of love.” But he acknowledges the rescues make “very little difference” from the broader standpoint of conservation.

In our conversation, he explains why: “The numbers of birds captured by individual people are relatively small compared to the massive, industrial-scale bird-trapping operations that are largely controlled by criminal gangs, gangs who are also into human trafficking and drugs. Those installations will kill 2,000 to 3,000 birds every night, for weeks at a time.”

Much of this illegal slaughter occurs in Cyprus, a focal point of the film, and in Malta. So why haven’t the governments of these nations done something to curtail the poaching? “Malta just doesn’t mind threats from the European Court of Justice,” Franzen says with a sigh. “Cyprus has been named as violating European law, and they don’t really care.” One reason for their apathy, he explains, is longstanding tension between the north and the south of the EU—the political energies are focused elsewhere.

Tradition is another contributing factor: Bird poaching has been a part of southern European culture for centuries. In the film, the CABS activists confront an older Cypriot poacher who sobs as he explains the practice allows him to feel closer to deceased loved ones. What can be said to a man so emotionally invested in the ways of old?

“For a good liberal Westerner, tradition is something you try to respect,” Franzen says. “But these people, well, they need to get over it.” He argues that modernity has simply changed the world too much to keep some traditions alive. “In the past 150 years, the industrialization of agriculture has put enormous pressure on bird populations. So now, many of those populations are in free fall. You’re not going to get Europe to change its agricultural policy, so an additional 100 million birds are dying annually. Hunters don’t realize—or don’t want to realize—that what used to be a sustainable practice just isn’t sustainable in modern times.”

Franzen suggests that when it comes to tradition, modern-day hunters, perhaps even the tearful man in the film, are pickers and choosers. “That guy probably has a cellphone,” says Franzen. “Well, with the privileges of modernity comes responsibility. You can’t just take the good stuff but reject the strictures.”

In the United States, songbird poaching isn’t common, but the American way of life still poses threats to many species. “The real threats,” Franzen says, “are habitat loss and fragmentation, and that’s happening most dramatically now in the sageland of the West, which is getting fragmented for oil and gas and coal extraction.” Franzen is also adamant you keep your kitties indoors: “Good peer-reviewed studies show that the low end of the estimate of birds killed in America per year by household cats is more than 1 billion.”

If birds are dying everywhere, why aren’t more people trying to protect them? In his most recent New Yorker essay, from the April 6 issue, Franzen argues the conservation of wildlife just doesn’t seem as important to people as taking action to combat climate change. It’s easy thinking to fall into: Why put time and energy into saving a single population of animals when climate change puts every population on Earth at risk?

“You have to go with what your heart tells you to do,” Franzen says. “It’s not like birds have zero value, so it should be okay for a few people at least to be their advocate. And it’s not like I disagree with the idea that [climate change] is the most important issue of our time. But the fact is, if you’re worried about birds 100 years from now, you need to take care of them now because you won’t have a chance later. There won’t be any.”

It’s almost as if the decision to protect birds—or any wildlife—is rooted in a certain philosophy of life. Franzen seemed to think so. “I’m not going to be around in 100 years,” he says, “but I need my life to have meaning right now.”

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