Headlines on the front page of the Wall Street Bible, I mean Journal, Dec. 27 proclaimed: “Feeding Wild Birds May Harm Them And Environment, It Lures Pests, Causes Illness: Changing the Relationship Between Man and Nature – A booming Business in Seeds,” by James P. Sterba.
I had seen a couple of threads regarding this article on one of the birding listservs I frequently peruse and thought it was something I would like to read. The next day, a reader sent me the article.
I was interested. I am one who would actually take my feeders down if I thought they were wreaking havoc among wild bird populations, and the piece was on the front page of the WSJ, it must have merit, right?
Well, not necessarily. The first two sentences threw me, “Last year, Americans spent $2.6 billion on birdseed. That’s more than twice as much as they spent on prepared baby food, and two and a half times as much as they spent on food for needy nations.”
I couldn’t understand what the difference in money between birdseed and baby food had to do with harming birds and the environment, but I should have picked up on the “they,” unless Sterba is not an American. Two things about the article quickly became evident: it is sorely lacking in terms of documentation and accuracy as a “news” article, and Sterba has some kind of personal axe to grind regarding people who feed birds.
If the piece were an editorial or a personal column such as this one, the sweeping generalizations and broad assumptions could be tolerated because they would simply be opinion and Sterba is, like all of us, welcomed to his own personal opinion. But one would think front page news in the WSJ would be held to a different standard.
In the second paragraph, to support a position, Sterba states that, “…many ornithologists and wildlife biologists say …” but he doesn’t bother to name any. He does vaguely refer to science in one paragraph where he points to a Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology study regarding conjunctivitis in eastern house finch populations.
Sterba tells readers that as a result of conjunctivitis, “which has been spread virtually nationwide through infected feeders … the house finch population in the East has declined an estimated 60 percent.”
This and other equivocal statements regarding Cornell studies prompted a letter to the editor from John W. Fitzpatrick, director, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (CLO), and Andre A. Dhondt, program director, bird population studies, CLO.
Some excerpts from that letter: “Although he quoted figures from Cornell studies of backyard bird mortality, Mr. Sterba missed two crucial points repeatedly emphasized by the principal author of those studies (Dr. Erica Dunn, now at the Canadian Wildlife Service, and widely considered to be among North America’s leading experts on bird population biology): ‘… bird feeding is not having a broad-scale negative impact on bird populations’ and ‘… bird feeding does not cause mortality to rise above natural levels through exposing birds to unusual danger from window collisions, disease or predation.’”
“Most egregious of Mr. Sterba’s scientific miscues is his reference to our demonstration that a disease caused 60 percent declines in some House Finch populations in eastern North America … He failed to mention that the House Finch itself was introduced to the east coast several decades ago. Explosive population growth of this highly gregarious bird throughout eastern U.S. made the species unusually vulnerable to a common bacterium, to which native birds had long since become resistant … the epidemic was not present among any native bird species common at bird feeders in the same region during the same period, and has failed to spread in western North America, where the House Finch itself was native.”
Sterba’s incongruous and unfounded rantings are sprinkled throughout with enough catch words, phrases and innuendos like “animal-welfare constituents”, “hands-off approach to nature that grew out of the environmental movement of the [gasp] 1960s”, “so-called welfare wildlife” and “political correctness” to ensure that it is palatable to the WSJ’s conservative constituents, but as a news article it fails miserably. And as an opinion piece it is evident that Sterba’s nose is out of joint because a considerable number of Americans, over 50 million according to him, enjoy the hobby of backyard bird feeding and watching. Sterba’s attempts to blame backyard feeders for all types of bird mortality from cat predation to disease to building collision are way off base.
For my part, I will continue to enjoy wild birds in my backyard and continue to keep my four cats inside. And I will still take my feeders down should scientific evidence surface that they are, indeed, detrimental to wild bird populations. And most definitely I won’t bother with reading any more of Sterba’s rantings on the subject.