For the Birds Radio Program: We Need a President Who Is FOR the Birds

Original Air Date: Aug. 31, 1988

Why we need an ornithologist in the White House.

Duration: 4′15″


(Recording of a Blackburnian Warbler)

Our leap-year presidential extravaganzas have always struck me as being “for the birds,” but I’m drawn to the spectacles like an ovenbird to radio tower lights. In spite of the attraction, all the hoopla is unsettling, because the people leading our nation are so clearly NOT for the birds.

Knowing birds expands a person’s vision, and gives him a sense of place and balance. Sparkling sunlight on a Blackburnian Warbler’s golden plumage makes the opulence of White House finery appear mere fool’s gold. A bird defending its territory, first with eloquence and song, second with bluff, and only last with an all-out attack, makes you think about just which battles are truly worth engaging in, and about the real meaning of diplomacy.

People who watch birds are usually first attracted by dreams of taking wing in the vastness of sky. They may be earthbound, but their vision extends far beyond their own narrow interests. American presidents who indulged in a passion for birds include such visionaries as Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt, the last member of the American Ornithologists’ Union to sit in the White House.

People who understand birds understand that by defending them, we defend ourselves. Rachel Carson didn’t only save songbirds after all; the banning of DDT in the United States lowered the levels of this toxin in human tissue as well as avian. Like canaries in a mine, dying birds warn us about hidden poisons, but political parties frivolously ignore the danger, like Scarlett O’Hara dancing at the Wilkes’s ball in the shadow of war. Deforestation of our southern neighbors and of our own Pacific rainforest proceeds inexorably. Irreplaceable rainforest plants are annihilated along with birds every day. Yews, which may hold the key to ovarian cancer, were chopped down like weeds until their unique powers were discovered. Perhaps someone has already demolished the cure for AIDS with a chain saw. And dead trees can’t absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—they can only release it into the ever-thickening walls of our self-imposed greenhouse. And all the while our toxic dumps multiply, and our groundwater, oceans, and atmosphere become increasingly contaminated.

National security depends as much on internal as external enemies. We need a sense of proportion in balancing defense needs with environmental protection. We spend billions of dollars on a speculative SDI shield against a hypothetical missile attack while our essential ozone shield is destroyed. Our predominant strategy against military threats is to build up our national deficit, along with defense contractor profits, by buying weaponry that often doesn’t even work; yet our only strategy against the real devastation of acid rain is yet another scientific study.

The candidates use the environment primarily for cheap attacks on one another. George Bush even ridiculed valid concerns about Pacific rainforest destruction in one debate, dismissing those of us who would protect that unique ecosystem as “the Spotted Owl crowd.”
And none of the three candidates has shown any real commitment to actually solving environmental problems, because none has a clear understanding about or interest in the natural world.

We need a wise president—one who can strike a balance between development and preservation. We need a tough president- –one who knows that national security depends as much on defense against invisible enemies in the air and water as perceived human foes. We need a compassionate president—one who treasures every kind of American because he knows the value of diversity in any natural system. In short, we need an ornithologist in the White House once again—a president who is genuinely for the birds.

(Recording of a Blackburnian Warbler)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”