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Blackbirds and Black Helicopters

January 7, 2011
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New I and the Bird #141 at Birding is Fun. Go check it out!

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I think those of us that do this birding thing sort of expect that the only real attention we ever get from the media comes in two varieties; the birders do weird things trope or the birds do weird things trope.  In the first comes the annual Christmas Bird Count story written from the “Look at these nutjobs! I know, right?” perspective or, jeebus forbid, the inevitable human interest piece on birding competitions where we are shown in all our geeky, optics-ridden, hooting, chirping, Tilley hat adorned glory*.  There’s certainly no shame to be had in the more eccentric parts of our common avocation, but it’s frustrating all the same to see those aspects consistently focused upon to create the media’s impression of the “birder” (not to be confused with actual birders).

*I kid, because, well, that’s me.  Without the hat, of course.  Those are ridiculous, people.

The second can be broadly defined by any number of articles, from the identification of an interesting feeder bird to the space-filler articles that consist of little more than what your find as a “Fun Facts” in your local Audubon newsletter, you see from time to time in the local and national news.  The activities of birds are so well internalized in so many of us, that what is considered by the general public to be novel is often little more than a behavior that takes place beyond the public eye.  It’s hard sometimes to remember that the general public’s relationship with birds often stops at their neighbor’s feeder or the Starlings and Pigeons that make their homes alongside highways and near the dumpsters of fast-food restaurants.  The knowledge we accumulate as birders is easily taken for granted, and the media generally goes a really terrible job writing about birds and birders with any accuracy.

Most of the time this is the sort of thing that birders can chuckle about to themselves; after all, none of us got into this for the publicity.  But occasionally there’s an incidence that makes this mindset -generously described as a mass ignorance – painfully obvious.  I’m referring, of course, the the sudden interest in the mass death of some Red-winged Blackbirds in Arkansas this week.  Then, when other smaller mass deaths of blackbirds in surrounding states (not to mention a fish kill half the state away) were publicized, the media, and by extension the consumers of that media, made the sudden realization that large flocks of birds can show up dead other places too and isn’t this weird and maybe a little freaky.

That, in turn, was followed by some of the most egregious and ridiculous fear-mongering and conspiracy theorism since the claim that 9-11 was an inside job.  Everything from Corexit in the Gulf to agricultural poisons to ionospheric radio research to my personal favorite, a leak of biological weapons from a secret spy plane that led to the murder of an Assistant to the Secretary of the US Air Force.  No, I’m not kidding.

That a few unhinged people grasp at the straws of reality, and that those people can have a voice beyond the merit of their ideas, should be expected in this day and age, but I suppose I should be less surprised than I was that the media was so quick to jump on that aflockaplypse bandwagon.  After all, in reporting on the mysterious deaths, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, instead of contacting someone from Audubon or Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology or the American Birding Association, went to noted young earth creationist and star of the rapture-ready dramatization of the worst books ever written, Kirk Cameron, to talk about… well, that isn’t entirely clear, but it appears that Cooper was angling for Cameron’s take on the “End of the World” implications of the blackbird deaths.  This, of course, recorded after the Arkansas Fish and Game Department had suggested several reasonable explanations for the event, but Wildlife Agents don’t have that Growing Pains drawing power, I suppose.  It has to be said, however, that as mis-informed as Cameron is generally, he actually comes across as the reasonable person here.  A testament to the inanity of the 24 hour nes cycle, no doubt.

The bottom line, of course, is that mass kills of wildlife, while sobering, aren’t really that unusual.  In fact, the US Geological Survey documents nearly 200 per year, and all since 1995 can be found on their site.  Even the most cursory glance at their records shows that while the Arkansas incident was on the high side, deaths of anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand individuals of a social species are par for the course.  Of course, this is something any ornithologist or ecologist could have told Cooper and his colleagues.  In fact, the only difference between past kills and these most recent ones is that this time the media was paying attention.

Second, even 4,000 blackbirds, while it sounds like a lot to the general public, is merely a drop in the bucket when it comes to these winter flocks, which can contain up to two million birds.  Take for instance, the photo below, taken at Pocosin Lakes NWR in Washington County, North Carolina in 2008.

This is a cropped photo, yet there are easily close to 4,000 Red-winged Blackbirds plus a few hundred Cowbirds (take my word for it) visible. More so, this is scarcely 1/10th of the total flock.  Even more, it’s one of about half a dozen such flocks I found on this day.  Huge wintering flocks of blackbirds are a common occurrence across much of the rural Southeast, including Arkansas and Louisiana where the most famous of the recent bird kills have occurred.  To see something like this is to see thousands of tiny parts of a single mega-organism.  The birds are so tight, so coordinated, that it’s as if a dark cloud descends on the fallow fields where they spend their days feeding.  Having seen many of these flocks over the years it’s not hard to imagine how a loud noise, like fireworks or a sound cannon, deployed near a roost could cause a portion of the flock to panic and fly into trees, houses, mailboxes, each other, or any of the other paraphernalia you can find near even a small town.  We’re talking about a 1 to 2 oz organism with hollow bones, here.  It doesn’t take much to incur fatal traumatic injury.

These sorts of events are nothing more than a regular, if tragic, occurrence, and by continuing to obsess over them the media misses the point by a wide margin.  If they really wanted to talk about numbers that mean something, perhaps that would do well to look into the millions of birds killed per year by outdoor cats, or the perils of poor sighting for wind turbines, or birds killed by radio towers and window strikes.  Together that’s several million, even hundeds of millions, of preventable bird deaths every single year without even touching habitat degradation.  Audubon’s David Yarnold, as well as folks from Cornell Lab of O, have been trying to do this, attempting to broaden the discussion, more of less successfully, because the image of thousands of dead birds on the side of the road clearly  resonates with people.  But the mainstream media continues to be grossly irresponsible in using those legitimate emotions to give some ridiculous theories any sort of credence while failing to address the very real issues facing birds in North America and beyond.  Worse, this attention to birds is temporary at best. In time, they’ll be off to the next shiny object, failing to give these incidences of the last week a second thought and leaving viewers without the proper information to do anything about it.

Frankly, to continue to sensationalize what is a cut and dried issue is nothing short of unconscionable, and that’s no conspiracy theory.

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4 Comments
  1. January 7, 2011 12:27 pm

    Thanks for this Nate. I too was appalled at how the media handled this blackbirds from the sky event. How do we get more bona fide biologists, birders etc. on call for the media? This is perhaps something we at ABA, and also ABC, Cornell and Audubon can work on so the message about cats outdoors, irresponsible placement of turbine farms etc. can get into the consciousness of the public.

  2. January 7, 2011 2:36 pm

    Awesome post! Thanks especially for the links that I can share with my concerned non-birder friends

  3. January 8, 2011 11:37 am

    Nicely said! This google map of mass bird deaths starts to show how relatively common these events are: http://bit.ly/eGI8OM

    Like Jane, I often wonder about the “go to sources” that make up the A-list for some of the media. I know that Kevin McGowan (at the Cornell Lab) has recently been on the phone with interviews and several others were fielding calls almost non-stop. But there’s the cautionary side, where many scientists/organizations are wary of talking with the media as their words are frequently misconstrued or the interviewer may focus on some tangential point. Tricky business, communicating science!
    -Mike

  4. Nate permalink*
    January 10, 2011 7:02 am

    @Jane- Good questions. Audubon’s David Yarnold was a voice for sanity, and welcome in Newsweek. Cornell also had a few people talking to the media too, though not any of the big guys. Jeff Gordon is extremely personable, if we could raise the ABA’s profile such that he’s a go-to guy on bird issues, I think we’d be in a good place for birds and birders.

    @Nick- Thanks! And you’re welcome!

    @Mike- Thanks! Too true. The qualifications inherent in the way scientists discuss their fields doesn’t make for good television, and necessarily introduces doubt when people are looking for certainty. If a scientist doesn’t get that, they can easily be misunderstood.

    Some scientists are really good at making that stuff stick though. I’m thinking if Neil deGrasse Tyson, of course. We need a NdT for birders and ornithologists! A tall order though…

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