For the Birds Radio Program: Wall Street Journal article about bird feeding

Original Air Date: Dec. 29, 2002 (estimated date)

Why is the Wall Street Journal writing front-page stories about the perils of bird feeding?

Duration: 5′52″


The Wall Street Journal is one of the world’s most respected and trusted newspapers, and the most powerful and consistent voice for corporate America. The Journal has never been known for its sympathy for environmental causes; indeed, it ran a campaign to ridicule and discredit Rachel Carson and her book, Silent Spring, in the 1960s, and has continued to publish editorials claiming that pesticides, including D.D.T., have not been harmful to the environment, birds, or human beings despite masses of scientific research indicating the opposite. The Journal has also pooh-poohed concerns about global warming and other environmental issues that affect birds, again contrary to a large body of scientific evidence.

On December 27, 2002, The Wall Street Journal ran a hard-hitting front page expose by James P. Sterba charging one industry with harming birds and the environment. When this newspaper attacks a multi-billion dollar industry for hurting birds, the situation must be dire, indeed. Was it the power or auto industries for spewing toxins into America’s air and water and contributing to acid rain? Was it agribusiness and the chemical industry for overusing pesticides that harm huge numbers of birds? Was it the telecommunications industry whose transmission towers kill 4-5 million birds per year? Was it the forest products industry that has replaced an enormous swath of America’s magnificent hardwood and old white pine woodlands with short-rotation softwoods, sacrificing species that depend on mature forests?

No. When The Wall Street Journal aimed fire at an industry for hurting birds and the environment, the industry it attacked was backyard bird feeding.

Did you or your child ever build a bird feeder for a Scout or school project? Do your elderly parents take joy and comfort in feeding backyard birds? Do you enjoy watching chickadees and cardinals, thrill at an occasional rarity, and plot out strategies for outwitting squirrels? If so, the Wall Street Journal’s fear-mongering front page story, picked up by newspapers across the nation, claims that it is you who is responsible for bird deaths by disease and predation. You are the one who forces farmers to pour ever­ increasing loads of pesticides on crops. Both exploding and declining bird populations are your fault. The Journal even blames you for human rights abuses in Burma, apparently because one popular finch seed that is mostly imported from India, Ethiopia and Nepal also forms 2% of Burma’s exports.

Mr. Sterba presents no evidence whatsoever that feeders put birds at any greater risk than they face anywhere else, and fails to note that a few bird populations, such as chickadees and cardinals, have in fact been helped by bird feeding, which can significantly reduce their winter mortality. He does cite a ten-year-old study by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology about causes of backyard bird mortality, but this study specifically noted that bird feeding had not hurt bird populations.

Mr. Sterba is touchingly concerned about recent declines in the eastern house finch, but disease transmission in this introduced, gregarious bird is not related to feeders according to Cornell researchers. Over and over, the article criticizes bird feeding for dangers that in reality are related only minimally and tangentially, if at all, to bird feeding.

In 2000 in New York State, when 80,000 dead birds were picked up and a large sample autopsied, researchers found that over 48% had died directly because of pesticides; not one had died due to bird feeder-related causes. The Wall Street Journal chose not to cover this story, along with many others concerning issues far more dangerous to birds than bird feeding. The article ‘ s unfounded and unattributed charge that bird feeding “might be altering bird migration patterns” even deflected attention from a long-term study published in the journal Nature on January 2, 2003, written by respected scientists from several universities, about the migration and range shifts of several species that have already happened due to global warming, and the ominous implications for humans and wildlife if warming trends continue.

Had The Wall Street Journal truly developed a sudden concern about the survival of birds in America, they would have done what newspapers do when exposing dangerous situations and run a sidebar explaining how to address the problem. If a headline reads “Christmas trees cause fires!” a sidebar explains what to do to keep your Christmas tree from catching fire. If a headline reads “Computer use causes health problems!” a sidebar explains what simple measure you can take to avoid eye strain and repetitive stress disorders. Responsible newspapers and magazines all over the country have run articles for decades about bird feeding, such as one I wrote for the Wisconsin State Journal in 1979 . I discussed the unlikely possibilities of disease, pests, and predators, apparently scooping The Wall Street Journal by 23 years. My article, and virtually every other article about bird feeding I’ve ever read, included a section about the potential for these minor problems to occur, and the simple steps people can take to avoid them.

So why the unexpected attack on bird feeding, a benign and beloved American tradition since the days of Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson? Backyard feeders provide one of the last connections most people have with the natural world and one of the only places where people can see firsthand what is happening to bird numbers. People who feed birds have a vested interest in the survival of birds, and so they care about habitat, pesticides, global warming, pollution, tropical deforestation, and other issues involving birds–issues that The Wall Street Journal and the corporations it speaks for don’t want people to pay attention to. Exactly as The Wall Street Journal did when trying to discredit Rachel Carson, this article uses sly misrepresentations and distortions of facts to make its case.

Feeding backyard birds is an honorable pleasure that causes virtually no harm, helps at least a few birds, and provides entertainment and soul-sustaining benefits for human beings. And that is the truth.