For the Birds Radio Program: Wall Street Journal Article Distortions
On December 27, 2002, the Wall Street Journal published a front-page article about the perils of bird feeding titled, “Crying Fowl: Feeding Wild Birds May Harm Them and Environment.” The article was rife with distortions and outright misrepresentations of facts. On my web page, www.lauraerickson.com, I post a paragraph by paragraph refutation of the piece.
But what is far more troubling is why the Wall Street Journal would publish such a lengthy fear-mongering piece on their front page, written by one of their own staff writers. Why the sudden desire to discredit bird feeding?
Bird feeding has been a beloved pastime for Americans at least since Thoreau and Emily Dickinson. Although bird feeding certainly has boosted the population of Black-capped Chickadees and possibly of the eastern population of Rufous Hummingbirds, it’s always been an activity more beneficial to people than to birds. Over the years, I’ve heard from hundreds of people recovering from chemotherapy and radiation treatments and convalescing after strokes who took deep solace and comfort and hope from watching the birds at their feeders.
Rachel Carson wrote, “There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds… There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature-the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.” For people who are bedridden or housebound, the only opportunities to experience those repeated refrains of nature often come at bird feeders. The opportunity to view a hummingbird or chickadee inches away, to see that amazing life force and loveliness at close range, is a blessing. The bond between humans and nature is growing ever more tenuous in our increasingly urbanized society. Bird feeders help maintain interest in birds, and help us notice when some species of birds are in trouble. Why does the Wall Street Journal want to discredit this?
The article focuses on disease outbreaks at feeders quite a bit. Although all of the large disease outbreaks I’ve heard of among birds have taken place in natural settings, such as when botulism erupts in small ponds and lakes, the article makes disease sound like a common problem at feeders. Every book advocating bird feeding that I know of has a section about keeping feeders clean and closing down feeding stations in the rare cases when a disease does occur, so the possibility of diseases being spread at a feeder is hardly news, much less front page news in a major national newspaper. In particular the Wall Street Journal article focuses on the conjunctivitis that has spread so virulently among House Finches in the eastern United States. The population has dropped 60% in the past decade, but that case is exceptional, even unique.
The total population of House Finches in the Eastern United States before the 1940s was zero—House Finches are native to the arid southwestern United States. Many were captured and sold as “Hollywood Finches” in eastern pet shops during the late 1800s and early 1900s, and during a US Fish and Wildlife Service raid on Long Island in the 40s, some pet shop owners tossed their finches out the window. From that small handful the entire eastern House Finch population arose, so there was very little genetic diversity. Although they were successful at first, when disease struck, the entire population turned out to be vulnerable. House Finches are a sociable species, gathering in tight flocks not only at feeders but everywhere else. So it didn’t take long to reduce their numbers. But blaming bird feeding is patently ridiculous. The bacterium itself is from domesticated turkeys, so the turkey industry could far more legitimately be blamed for the outbreak than bird feeding. Which again brings us to the question, why does the Wall Street Journal suddenly want to discredit bird feeding?
The only answer I can think of is because people who feed birds grow to love birds. And people who love birds notice and care when birds are in trouble. People who feed birds have a vested interest in the survival of birds, and so they care about habitat protection, pesticide reduction, and other issues involving birds. Of course a newspaper that took a leading role in the movement to discredit Rachel Carson in the 60s would want to limit the interest people take in a clean, natural world teeming with wildlife now. That’s why the Wall Street Journal wants to discredit bird feeding. And exactly as they did when trying to discredit Rachel Carson, they use sly misrepresentations and distortions of facts to make their case. Bird feeding is a legitimate use of wildlife, and those of us who love the birds in our backyards have every right to continue to feed birds, and enjoy them, and love them, and protect them. And that’s the truth.