HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Down the fenceline I go, in the cold wind, doing an annual farm chore that hasn't much to do with farming -- inspecting the bluebird boxes. It's usually late February or early March when I do this, but this year I'm running behind.
There are more than a dozen on trees and fenceposts around the farm, and I like to clean out last year's clutter and make minor repairs before the boxes are needed for nesting again. Lots of people do this. Bluebird boxes are everywhere these days, and bluebirds, rare when I was a child, are now abundant.
As I work on the boxes, I reflect that if we were to stop maintaining them, it would be hard on the bluebirds, and if we were to go away entirely, it would be harder still. Bluebirds need small-farm country in which woods are interspersed with open fields.
Without people, the fields would disappear. Of course, with too many people, the fields will disappear too, turning into subdivisions and parking lots, and then all the boxes in the world won't help the bluebirds.
Right now, though, from a bluebird perspective, there must be just about the right number of people around, with enough of them doing the right things. This, along with a couple of mild winters recently, means that bluebird conditions are pretty good locally. That in turn brightens life for those of us who like to look at bluebirds, so we keep the boxes up. It's a quid pro quo, a business deal.
Bluebirds aren't the only interesting wild creatures which seem to be doing better around here. Big raptors -- red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, bald eagles -- are clearly more in evidence than they used to be. Deer and Canada geese are over-abundant. Beaver are on the increase. We even have coyotes.
On the other hand, I seldom encounter skunks or copperheads (( any more. Screech owls and barn owls don't seem as numerous, and I hardly ever see or hear a quail. There isn't the variety of ducks we used to have. And it's been several years since I've seen a red-headed woodpecker. They used to be plentiful here.
It's worth remembering that the species of interest to most of us, from alligators to zebras, are a tiny minority of all that's living out there. The entomologist Edward O. Wilson guesses it could be 100 million species, of which fewer than two percent have been formally identified and named. Some, probably thousands, become extinct each year.
Congress, of course, wants to do something about that, when the members can take a break from balancing their checkbooks. This spring it will vote on whether to re-authorize the 19-year-old Endangered Species Act. Presumably this will get done, but various revisions have been proposed and, as might be expected, there's a bitter political struggle going on over these, with the usual overblown language and the usual absence of common sense.
The National Wildlife Federation sighs that the Endangered Species Act is ''one of the greatest laws in history -- a compact with the Earth in which humanity for the first time renounces the right to decide for itself which species deserve to share space on the planet.''
Others, most recently loggers thrown out of work in the Pacific Northwest because vast timberlands were placed off-limits to protect the endangered spotted owl, take a rather different view. They think economics ought to be at least considered before beginning crash government programs to save every single species, a position much of the environmental movement considers heretic Reaganism.
It seems pretty clear to a lot of people who follow this issue, though, that we're going to have to learn to make some choices about preservation, because if we don't, all our efforts are going to be in danger of going down the drain. We can -- and are, and no doubt will continue to -- intervene to save a lot of species, but we can't save every bacterium, every fungus, every lichen.
Does that mean ''playing God?'' Of course not, no more than deciding to raise cattle instead of sheep, or limiting the rockfish catch, or putting up bluebird boxes. And anyway, as one economist remarked, on this issue God is sitting on His hands at the moment.
Really, in a practical way, we're already making these hard decisions the National Wildlife Federation would have us believe we have ''renounced.'' Suzanne Winckler reported in the January Atlantic Monthly that of $105 million spent in 1990 to help 591 endangered or threatened species, $55 million went to 12.
The fortunate dozen included the spotted owl, the Florida
panther, the grizzly bear, the peregrine falcon, the bald eagle and the Chinook salmon -- all creatures without which, there's broad agreement, our national life would be much poorer. ''Charismatic megafauna,'' the biologists call such species.
Less spectacular life forms are being protected too, and not necessarily by government; the Nature Conservancy just bought tract of mountain land in Washington County in part to preserve rare and obscure plants such as Kate's mountain clover and pussytoes ragwort.
The point, I guess, is that most of these efforts are worthwhile, whether they're carried out in the name of conservation, genetic diversity or New Age tree-huggery. But there's only so much that can be done, and the Endangered Species Act would be a better tool if it didn't imply that all species are equally worthy of preservation, and that we don't have to make some hard choices.
When I reached the last bluebird box there was a woodmouse living in it. I chased him out. It may be species-ism of the worst sort, but just now I'm more interested in helping out bluebirds than woodmice.
Peter A. Jay's column appears here each Sunday.