Inchworm, inchworm,
Measuring the marigolds,
Seems to me, you’d stop and see
How beautiful they are
— Anne Murray

One recent Saturday, I went birding with friends at Pemaquid Point. Throughout my boyhood in nearby New Harbor, I tramped much of the point’s picturesque terrain on an intimate inch-by-inch basis. Mere inches (and an occasional element of lucky timing) often play determining roles in discovering birds. As timing and particular circumstance can create lasting outcomes, inches can affect our general lives as well.

In my later teens, I could have easily perished at the Point. One winter morning, I slipped on a snow-covered ice sheet while traversing a high granite ridge north of the lighthouse. I’d toted along a shotgun, intending to ambush some surf-riding sea ducks. Without warning I lost footing and fell, landing helplessly on my back. My prone body began a slow terrifying descent down the rounded cliff edge and toward the boulders 60 feet below. In that horrible instant, I recognized my probable fate, but my boot heels fetched on a 2-inch line of crusted snow farther downslope. It was just enough to interrupt my imminent drop. Still fearing disaster, I rolled gently onto my stomach and crawled up to safety — a halting, several-minute process.

Timing and circumstance. Not all threats of demise are as instantaneous or clear-cut as mine on that winter day; some threats inch their way along at a barely perceptible pace. Conservation policies and human decisions are influencing Nature’s outcomes in direct ways. Over 190 species of birds have gone extinct in the past 500 years. Of approximately 10,000 worldwide species of birds, 1,200 are presently rated as being under threat due to accelerating rates of extinction factors. Thirty percent of native Hawaiian birds have disappeared in recent decades. Historical Canadian and New England extinctions include the Great Auk, a flightless giant-sized member of the alcid family, the Labrador Duck and Heath Hen. A relative of prairie chickens, Heath Hens were common in scrubby coastal barrens from southern New Hampshire to northern Virginia during Colonial times. These tasty birds were hunted extensively for food as their numbers declined dramatically into the 1870s. A shrinking population of 300 birds remained on Martha’s Vineyard Island until around 1932 when the final one disappeared.

Undoubtedly the most widely publicized North American bird extinction was the Passenger Pigeon. In 1833 John James Audubon named the Passenger Pigeons as the most numerous birds in North America, describing a mile-wide flock of migrating pigeons that passed overhead and blocked the sun for three straight days. By 1900, none had survived in the wild. The last surviving member, named Martha, was found dead on the floor of her cage in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914. This most prolific of species had totally vanished within the span of a typical human lifetime.

Rises in global air and ocean temperatures are affecting the nesting outcomes of green sea turtle populations as male turtle numbers are plummeting. The sex of sea turtles is determined by ambient temperatures in their sandy nest sites during incubation. Warmer temperatures favor females; cooler temperatures produce males. Around 85° F, roughly equal numbers of each sex are hatched. One recent scientific study of about 200,000 turtles found that 99.1 percent of the juveniles were female and 86.8 percent of the sub-adults of the entire population were female. The mathematical implications here are inescapable.

Like the deliberate inch worm, we are quite skilled at measuring the precise status of our many wild creatures. Perhaps we should stop and see how beautiful they are.