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The Big Apocalyptic Bird Story Everyone Read This Week May Have Missed Some Necessary Nuance

3 9 0

Patrick Pleul/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

This story was originally published by Undark and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

When a major new study on North American bird populations appeared in the journal Science last week, it included all the trappings of a typical scientific paper, along with one, less conventional addition: The study also came with its own hashtag, #BringBirdsBack.

Certainly, the central finding of the research team, led by Ken Rosenberg, a conservation scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, seemed likely to trigger strong public reaction, on and off social media. Since 1970, the researchers estimated, the North American bird population had declined by roughly 2.9 billion birds, a 29 percent drop. It was, the researchers wrote, “an overlooked biodiversity crisis.”

The finding received widespread media coverage. “Where Have All the Birds Gone?” a headline in The Seattle Times asked. A piece in Vox wondered whether the trend would end in a “bird apocalypse.” (Not necessarily, the piece conceded.) And the headline on a front-page story in The New York Times declared that “Birds Are Vanishing From North America.” The dramatic opening line of the piece: “The skies are emptying out.”

Researchers affiliated with the Cornell team even managed to land an accompanying op-ed essay in The Times the very same day. “The Crisis for Birds,” the headline opined, “Is a Crisis for Us All.”

The declines were certainly notable, but some ecologists have begun to question whether the calculus undertaken in the paper truly warranted this sort of language, and the ominous future it seemed to suggest. And those concerns have raised further questions among some scientists—and even some reflection among authors of the paper themselves—about how high-stakes research, the constraints of high-profile journal publishing, and sophisticated publicity can sometimes combine to drive a story into the news cycle while eclipsing important uncertainties, and perhaps even delivering an incomplete message to the public.

Rosenberg’s team analyzed bird population monitoring data for more than 500 species of birds in the continental United States and Canada. Ten years of data from sophisticated weather radars, which pick up the movements of migratory birds, offered additional support. The researchers found that many bird species had made significant gains in population over the past five decades. But many more had experienced losses, yielding a net population loss of between 2.7 and 3.1 billion birds, centered around an estimated total of 2.9 billion.

“It was kind of a shocking result to us,” Rosenberg told Undark.

The researchers recognized that their paper would draw considerable public attention, and they also began thinking about how to publicize the result. “You know, as scientists we don’t normally do that,” Rosenberg said. “But because the authors of the paper represented multiple organizations that were already active in bird........

© Mother Jones