Radiolab

Navigate
Return Home

For the Birds

Thursday, July 24, 2014 - 06:46 PM

(Photo Credit: US Department of Agriculture)

Today, a lady with a bird in her backyard upends our whole sense of what we may have to give up to keep a wild creature wild.

When the conservationists showed up at Clarice Gibbs’ door and asked her to take down her bird feeders down for the sake of an endangered bird, she said no. Everybody just figured she was a crazy bird lady. But writer Jon Mooallem went to see her and discovered there was much more to this story. Mrs. Gibbs tells us her surprising side of the tale, and together with Joe Duff, we struggle with the realization that keeping things wild in today's world will be harder than we ever would’ve thought.

Guests:

Joe Duff and Jon Mooallem

Tags:

More in:

Comments [47]

Gandalf G. Bond from Oviedo FL

The whole point of the podcast is to warn about interfering with an endangered species. Clarice was feeding the endangered whooping cranes with feeders in her yard and they became too comfortable around humans. Several of the birds were shot and it was most likely caused because they weren't afraid when they saw people. Mrs. Gibbs used pathos to evoke emotion when when explained why she continued to feed the birds because she mentioned how her husband had Alzhiemers.

Oct. 20 2014 10:13 PM
Alice L. Harvisham from Winter Springs, FL


“For the Birds” podcast is to inform about the whopping cranes as an endangered species that almost became extinct. Thanks to Joe Duff, the leader and CEO of Operation Migration, he has been able to increase the population count of the whopping crane. He adds ethos and a sense of authority to this piece. He has been able to establish migratory patterns for the whopping cranes to roam in safe enclosed natural habitats from human interaction. Joe talks about the struggles he had encountered with a small group of whopping cranes that had adapted to specific lake in a rural suburban area, he wondered why the cranes would continuously migrate to that lake. After investigating he had found out it was because a lady by the name of Clarice Gibbs’ had bird feeders out by an oak tree where the lake was so the cranes would regularly go there. When Clarice was asked to take the bird feeders down she said denied to do so with no reason, after another visit Clarice opened up and said the real reason. It was because her husband had received Alzheimer’s disease, as most people may know it is a very sad illness to go through. Clarice said that she saw her husband diminish in front of her eyes and the only thing that would bring him back for a few minutes of the day was him when he saw those beautiful cranes. Gibbs’ said "If everyone were to act like Mrs. Gibbs, these birds won't stand a chance." And I feel that she was not fully realizing the consequences of her actions and I think more people should become aware of what they can do to help this bird thrive once again.

Oct. 20 2014 09:08 PM
Richard Moore from Salt Lake City

I just had to comment on this one because I felt that where I could applaud Robert for championing the issue, he was just too clouded by sentimentality to see the point. Jad on the other hand took an attitude, and made some comments that were downright offensive. I quote, "If everyone were to act like Mrs Gibbs, these birds won't stand a chance." That's horse-sh*t! How lucky those birds were to find a kind-hearted, loving person's backyard to hang out in. Those bird CHOSE her back yard, and that should be enough, and that should be honored! Any hang-up someone might have with her bird-feeders is just that, their own hang-up. I find it utterly ridiculous that they would knock on her door, and tell her to take her bird-feeders down. What kind of a fantasy-world are they living in, thinking they can escort these birds down through the generations without any interactions with humans? And maybe more to the point; whose definition of "wild" includes chasing down anybody that has property the birds may land on, and clearing a path, in fear that they may interact with humans? It's ridiculous and it's stupid. Let the birds decide what they want, and get over it. Taking down bird-feeders won't stop some *sshole with a shotgun.

Oct. 07 2014 10:56 PM
Michael from Florida

When a species is down to less than a few hundred pairs it is essentially extinct and the efforts made to keep the species or to reintroduce it, as with the Californian Condor, represent human interference at its most blatant. As a birder, living not too far from the whooping crane area in Florida, I am saddened at the personal level by the disappearance of an avian species but it doesn't really affect anything since the effect of an almost extinct species on our environment is by definition almost zero. Anyone who thinks that leading Cranes to a marsh in a suburban area was a sensible idea in the first place is being unrealistic. Incidentally the medium term threat to avian species in Florida is climate change not bird feeders.

Sep. 14 2014 12:38 PM
steve from San Diego, CA

Wildlife conservationists and manifest destiny champions represent two almost perfectly opposed philosophies. And while each is burdened with varied and confusing definitions, to borrow from justice Potter Stewart, I know a proponent of either when I hear him.

As a young man I sobbed when I read "Silent Spring".

Now after 48 years of marriage we seldom miss six o'clock cocktails on the patio. My wife and I sit and watch dozens of humming birds, American gold finches, house finches, mourning doves, tohees, common sparrows and a handful of rarer and migratory guests eat, drink and bathe in the playground my wife has created for them. All this while our latest crop of domestic Monarchs hop from milkweed to milkweed (and each other) without regard for the sharp-shined hawk who scatters everyone else when he makes a usually futile dive to snag a meal from "the feeding tree".

I also almost wept at end end of this broadcast. While I am not at all religious, it is very sad the money spent on bird suits and ultra-lights didn't go to Samaritan's Purse or a like organization to lessen human misery.

One other joy I have these days is watching avid proponents of an extreme philosophy do their best to thwart one another. This is essential lest a philosophy prevail and make another extinct. As some believe of nature, balance is vital in all things.

Sep. 10 2014 04:08 PM
Alex D-B from Michigan

I am very proud of you all at Radiolab for bringing the biggest questions of both science and the human experience to us on a regular basis. I recently listened to Galapagos, and Hello, and I find that this short bridges the gap between them perfectly. We are left in a world where this debate of "wildness" is huge. I personally agree with those who put forth the argument that there is no chance of returning anything to "the wild", a product of the inherent and inevitable self-interest of humans being valued over animals (the rule of natural selection, right?). The whooping cranes referred to are in no way "wild"...they required direct overseeing by humans to return to their pre-human state of affairs. The issue that failed to be presented in Galapagos was WHY we have any interest in preserving nature, as opposed to serving our self-interest by building more Wal-Marts. The answer is that many people, myself included, take great pleasure/solace/etc. from interaction with natural environments and their denizens. There have been numerous psychological studies pointing toward what E.O. Wilson termed "biophilia", the positive effect that humans enjoy when in natural environments. The issue brought up in this short is, to me, another paradox surrounding this issue: In order for humans to preserve nature, it must be part of their self-interest. They must be able to interact with it and derive pleasure, psychological benefit, eco-tourism jobs, and the like. In order to save nature in any way (ie not a parking lot), humans must come in and out. I serve as an outdoor educator, guiding young kids through wild environments, because I know this to be true. I hope some of you will think the same.

Aug. 27 2014 07:46 PM
John from Ohio

This isn't a story.

Let go.

Aug. 26 2014 11:18 PM
Tom White from Redondo Beach, CA

My feeling is that there are scores of places where they could have dressed up in their whooping crane costumes and led the cranes to. They would probably do very well in the Bolsa Chica Wetlands in Southern California, for instance, or in the warmer, more humid environment in southern Louisiana.
The problem with the conservationists is not the work they're doing, which is laudible, but the expectations they started with, that they had to find a pristine, human-free environment to re-start this species (which I hardly think necessary -- give credit to the birds' ability to adapt once given a good start) and that, once they found that, they expected the world to make room for their project in spite of the world's own issues.
It's always nice to know where the center of the universe is!
Parenthetically...dressing up as a whooping crane to sit in the glider and lead the birds...NOW who's the crazy bird person?

Aug. 26 2014 11:30 AM
sarah from skykomish wa

that bird is not a great blue heron.

Aug. 26 2014 01:17 AM
Innis Lusk from Colorado

Why would taking down her bird feeders help the Whooping Cranes? Bird feeders don't normally contain the kinds of things these birds eat! There's never any info in this podcast that the Whooping Cranes were going to her feeders.

Aug. 25 2014 01:57 PM
Syd

'God save thee, ancient Mariner!

From the fiends, that plague thee thus!--

Why look'st thou so?'--With my cross-bow

I shot the ALBATROSS.

I'm surprised to see that so many commenters seem to think this issue is solely a matter of valuing nature over humans, or vice versa. It's also a conflict between how we value current people versus future people. The couple in this story felt a wonderful connection to each other and to nature by seeing these birds. Are all future generations to be denied this experience?

In every case where a choice is being made, we are valuing ourselves not just over nature but over our children and grandchildren. We are giving them a barren world fit only for roaches and corn -- if indeed it is inhabitable at all.

"Screw the birds"? You might as well say "screw the kids -- I got here first."

Aug. 24 2014 03:10 AM
Rob Gardner from Medicne Hat, Alberta

This thought-provoking discussion did its work well, bring out quite a diversity of comments. I only wish that every new Walmart parking lot being placed on a former marsh received the same scrutiny.
And by the way, the photo looks like the illustration of a whooping crane in my field guide, although I have never been lucky enough to see one.

Aug. 20 2014 01:03 PM
Michael Bettencourt from Weehawken NJ

Screw the birds if it means dispensing with the feelings and existence of these two fragile human beings.

Aug. 18 2014 07:12 PM

I have no sympathy for the time, money and work of the "conservationist." He as much as said it, but does not have the guts to do anything like he wished the woman to do to her husband.

When will all these well intended do-gooders face reality. There are too many people on the planet. Any effort at renewal, restoration or preservation of a "wild" species starts with a rational and vigorous effort at limited population and population growth of the human species.

Until then, he has a very time and cost expensive hobby, dressing up like a bird and flying "wild" birds down to Florida. I am sure he will get some kind of "award" from other human beings who will go right on doing what brings about the demise of this and other species.

Aug. 16 2014 05:52 PM
New York from New

I spent 5 years working on this conservation project. This response however does not reflect those organizations and is solely my own feelings on this very sad tale.

This is a conversation on such a scale that there is no simple or one solution as suggested in many of these messages. And I should hope that none of you could possibly imagine that this brief podcast reflects even a fraction of the total story. The only simple answer is that there is not an answer.

Unfortunately the government has very limited powers seek out and try to bring to justice any person who illegally kills protected wildlife. There is likewise little that can be done to stop a person with a gun from shooting an animal they should not. We just have to support responsible hunters and hope that those responsible hunters stay responsible.

There is also little to be done with some poor family who likes to watch birds. Having those birds in their back yard is a dangerous situation in many ways. The birds run the risk of becoming more acclimatized to human interaction which does put them at greater risk to poaching, being attacked by pets, getting hit by cars, etc. This also puts humans at risk. These are not herons or egrets that are 2-3 feet tall and scared to death of everything that moves. These are 5+ foot tall birds that can be highly territorial and aggressive if provoked by a pet or human.

As someone who has spent countless hours observing these animals I can also tell you that having those birds in their backyard also brought them immeasurable peace at any time, let alone a very difficult time. And it is not appropriate for anyone to take something like that away from anyone else.
... So how do you balance all this. You can't. But we are trying. And the people out there working for our many conservation organizations constantly weigh this very difficult balance.
.....
ps
It is a mind boggling endeavor to try and rescue a species that was brought to the verge of extinction (15 birds) by human causes of over hunting and habitat destruction. For nearly 100 years humans have been working to correct that. It is an international partnership of mostly non-profits and volunteers with the support of the government working around the clock and year round. I find it painful to believe that anyone would suggest that the bison, whales, condors, or other such species are not worth saving. These aren't the dinosaurs. Their time didn't pass because of natural causes. There is little that man has ever done on this earth that qualifies as natural causes.

Aug. 12 2014 09:52 PM
Luella Frank from Palm Harbor, FL

This not a picture of a blue heron, it is a whooping crane. For information on the wonderful work that Joe Duff and the group do, check out operationmigration.org.

Aug. 08 2014 04:35 PM

This is another scenerio where the average person with benign graces has to make sacrifices for the malicious intents of others (in this case hunters). This is a story about an organization passionate about going after a nice old lady caring for her dying husband, instead of going after the people directly harming these birds.

Now, I'd prefer to hear a story about this organization harassing the hunters who are shooting these birds down, and providing education to them. Further educational material should be presented to individuals with hunting licenses. I mean real education, not just quotas and a list of animals unlawful to hunt- but education about the importance and dedication it has taken to save this species and what its survival means to the ecosystem as a whole.

I understand the notion of limiting a birds exposure to humans as its population grows is desirable for protection. I also support efforts made to save endangered wildlife, but at some point one must take a step back and consider that these birds became virtually extinct for a reason. One must consider if saving certain species, is a battle that cannot be won.

Aug. 06 2014 11:40 AM
Graved from Russia

This is totally unrelated to the topic, but here we go: is there any chance you will start uploading podcasts on soundcloud again? Since last app redesign, it is very convenient to listen to podcasts on the phone.

Aug. 03 2014 12:45 AM
Theodora Rezba from Winchester va

If she could have asked her husband if he had been in his right thinking, shall we take the bird feeders down, he might have said yes. But she had to make the choice alone. Shall I take away another part of who you are, when there is so little left of you? Or shall I take the chance the birds will survive, and you will know some joy in your last days of loneliness, and so will I? I've been married 46 years, and we enjoy birds. But if that had been my choice, I would have given my husband a moment of being himself a little longer, and hoped the birds lived.

If that had been a sick child I know many of us would choose the child's happiness a thousand times over.

Aug. 02 2014 06:16 PM
Judith from Borrego Springs, CA

Is the bird pictured supposed to be a Whooping Crane? It is a Great Blue Heron.

Aug. 02 2014 06:10 PM
Kelvin from Kailua, HI

"I would love it if these birds could exist on their own...but that's never gonna happen." I think that says it all. They want to try and isolate these birds from people, but I think in essence they're actually handicapping their potential to survive, the cranes need to learn how to live in this new world, not the one these scientists are nostalgically holding onto.

It is a global tragedy that humans have touched/had an effect on every environment on the planet, but it needs to be accepted, and then we can move forward on the best most practical solutions to these specific situations as well as a more cohesive global policy/strategy to reducing and encouraging a retreat of our effect on the global climate.

It is unfortunate that many of us of younger generations of this planet were born into this problem, but it is one we will have to face and bear this burden we inherited from our elders

Aug. 01 2014 06:38 PM
Trish from Ohio

I think it’s unfair to say “If everybody in the world is like her then those birds don’t have a chance.” when the only direct danger to the birds that this episode mentioned was vandals shooting them. If everybody in the world was like her than nobody would be shooting the cranes for, what, fun? I don’t know. I can’t fathom the vandal’s reasoning. They didn’t say the food in the feeders was bad for the birds. Nothing about the situation was directly harming the birds. The idea presented is that if the birds got used to people they wouldn’t be afraid and more of them would get shot. The real bad guys here are the ones shooting the birds.

Aug. 01 2014 05:43 PM
Nate from Sacramento, CA

Thank you Radiolab, this is a very moving piece. Regardless of the details of this particular story, I think it serves as an excellent metaphor for the larger circumstance of humans' relationship within nature. It is our desire to maintain or improve our quality of life that inspire us to act in ways that destroy nature. But I think it is possible to have comfort without the destruction of ecosystems. In fact, as is the case in this story, connection with nature improves quality of life too. I think the solution to the problem lies in understanding the fact that there can be no full realization of human quality of life without creating the right circumstances in which we can reconnect with nature.

Is it possible that in the future the lady in the story wouldn't need bird feeders in order to be surrounded by the beauty of nature?

Aug. 01 2014 03:31 PM
mj from Mill Valley

Yep, there are so many good examples of how the animal kingdom has been irrevocably harmed by the unintended consequences of well intentioned human intervention - http://bit.ly/1pttUch

Jul. 31 2014 11:40 AM
cray-cray from portland, oregon

Makes you wonder who the real "crazy bird people" are.

Jul. 31 2014 08:04 AM
Peter Max Lawrence from Lucas, Kansas

https://vimeo.com/10691416

Jul. 30 2014 05:22 PM
Nellie Bly from Pennsylvania, USA

I am sitting here surrounded by Monarch and other butterfly caterpillars in various stages--an attempt to save a few. My small "acre" is a designated wildlife area. I spend scores of hours teaching elementary school children to respect wild critters. All this is to say, "I care" and I have some appreciation of the effort involved to restore the crane population.

But for heavens sake, we must also care about individual humans no matter how badly our species has wrecked the world.

I believe it a false dichotomy to say that these particular bird feeders must go or the cranes die. If I've learned anything about nature, it's that we can't control it or what happens to creatures when they leave our care. We can only participate in small acts of empathetic kindness--including to our fellows

Moreover, according to the International Crane Foundation, Whooping Cranes feed on "plant tubers, blue crabs, small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, insects." How do songbird feeders affect this?

Jul. 30 2014 05:14 PM
EliseB from San Francisco

This may be a weird thing to say, but: what do the birds want?

Jul. 30 2014 05:07 PM
Sam from San Francisco

How come the woman was so sure that the birds wouldn't come to her yard without the feeders?

Jul. 30 2014 04:16 PM
Patrick Bader

Why the picture of the Great Blue Heron? :)

Jul. 30 2014 04:09 PM
Chad Fawcett from Greeley, CO

While I sympathize with both sides of this story, I find the conservationists view point to be extreme and even bordering on ludicrous. Specifically the concept that in order for this bird to truly "be wild" it would need to exist in an environment in which it NEVER comes in contact with humans. I agree that we need to be responsible in how we manage nature and our impact on it, but we at our evolutionary stage and the whooping crane at theirs have in an evolutionary sense "crossed paths". There is no changing that, and there is nothing wrong with this bird or other birds, or other species coming in contact with the human species. Would the conservationist in the story here prefer that the whooping crane never come in contact with alligators or other natural predators that could have a negative effect on their existence, but who also have a right to exist within their natural habitats? Awareness of how our behaviors affect other species and then subsequent preventative actions to maintain a positive, or better, a neutral affect on their existence is good, but trying to prevent them from ever coming in contact with humanity does not make any sense at all. We live here too.

Jul. 29 2014 12:59 PM
duke york from Dallastown Pa.

Tree hugging wackos. A human is more important than a bird. Get over it.

Jul. 28 2014 02:43 PM
Jeffrey Wong from Stockton

Now that Mr. Gibbs has gone on, has Clarice taken the feeds down yet? Will she consider donating anything (and if so, preferably in significant amount) to these organizations that helped bring her husband a bit of peace and joy toward the end? I understand human beings are inherently selfish; we come before all else, living or not, but do we have to stay that way as we make our exit, or worse, after our exit? I don't want to be a misanthrope but it is getting harder everyday.

Jul. 28 2014 02:29 PM
Margaret Thompson from Philadelphia, PA

One of the biggest threats to wildlife is loss of habitat. Why don't the naturalists work with the Gibbs's to create a sanctuary in their backyard? The cranes are attracted to the yard because the Gibbs's like birds and have made their yard attractive. The naturalists could work with the Gibbs's during the seasons when the cranes aren't there to plant wild food sources for the cranes (and other wildlife) and eliminate the need for feeders. They could work with the Gibbs's to turn their home into a field station, from which the naturalists can work to keep away people who don't sit quietly watching the birds, like the Gibbs's. After all, what's going to happen to the cranes when the Gibbs's leave their property? I think the naturalists should worked with them to create a living trust, in honor of Mr. Gibbs, with guest privileges to watch the cranes with the Gibbs's and to adapt their yard for the benefit of the local wildlife, with the agreement that the naturalists get the house and land after the Gibbs's move or die, to transform into a bird and birders paradise.

Think about why zoos exist. Conservationists don't run zoos to steal animals from their homes and cage them. They want to help the general public to meet and love animals. How many regular donors to animal protection and conservation non-profits have never seen animals in their natural habitats? But they love animals. The Gibbs's love birds. Cultivate the love, don't fight it.

Jul. 28 2014 01:36 PM
Dan from Chicago

I just started listening to this story and heard Joe Duff of Operation Migration describe the whooping crane as being "pitch white." Pitch white? I don't think he knows what color pitch is.

Jul. 28 2014 12:41 PM
P Main from California

I do understand and have compassion for this lady doing what she did, but I also know that one must look to the bigger picture. If one truly loves nature/animals one MUST look at the big picture. Once this species is repopulated, producing in numbers in the wild, then yes I am sure they will be around people, which is probably not a good thing, but we have to get there first. They must be wild, finding their own food and way in the wild or they will fail. The commenter that said the guy in the white suit is a nut doesn't know what goes into bringing the species back and I think doesn't know the organization/program and other organizations/programs like it. My hope is that the commenter learns by going to OM direct, and other organizations trying to save the Whooping Cranes, learns about them and what they do but more importantly ~ how and why.

Jul. 28 2014 11:58 AM
Jordan Taylor from Sydney, Australia

I can't believe Robert is sympathising with the woman's argument.. Incredibly shallow thinking. If one woman can't go without this direct contact with birds, disrupting an initiative that costs huge amounts of money and time - how could we possibly get to a point where humans on a larger scale undertake a greater sacrifice like paying a bit more for the cost of renewables until they cheapen?

This episode poses no great question about humans and reasoning, but makes me sad for the selfishness of individuals and the human race's need to shoot itself in the foot.

Jul. 28 2014 11:48 AM
Lou from Idaho

Perhaps getting used to humans would not be at all bad for these birds. Take a look at crows, Canada geese, pigeons. All are very used to humans and doing quite well. I know we want them to be 'wild', but that idea is more romantic and less realistic. We seem to put higher value on species that are specialists, or very rare, but it we don't care so much about very 'common' species. In reality, the very common generalist species are succeeding evolutionarily and will likely last much longer into the future.

Jul. 28 2014 10:24 AM
Nick from Fl

The guy gets in a bird suit and leads birds down south, what a crack pot!!! So the birds land in a ladys yard and the crackpot wants the land owner to choose a bird over her entire life as she knows it and the last chances to be with her dying husband.

Jul. 27 2014 12:05 AM
Fred W from Carmel CA

Similar story everywhere you look. We just lost an adult whale here due to tourist boat injury. I was on my first whale watching cruise that day, it was magical. On one hand we want to see the majesty of the animal but understanding that just observing can kill is disheartening. I worry about a future time where there are no real wild animals anymore, human progress and culture has a price are we willing to pay it?

Jul. 26 2014 09:51 PM
Max from Providence, RI

There must be other solutions. What about giving the couple some pet birds? Or a zoo pass?

Jul. 26 2014 12:35 PM
Chuck M

This might be the best episode ever. Just sat in silence after it was over. This one will stick with me a long time.

Jul. 26 2014 11:44 AM
DAVID MCROBERTS from 54865

I listened to this conversation again this morning.
It really is about us, isn't it?
It's not about the birds.

Jul. 26 2014 09:55 AM
Urooj from Pakistan

On one hand, I do agree with the conservationist when they say that these birds need to fend for themselves and left alone. However, on the other hand, and this is the part that I find ironic, the birds were saved by human intervention in the first place, and their numbers are growing because of "artificial" means, so it's really strange for the conservationists to wish for a world where the cranes do not come across humans at all.

I liked the podcast a lot (I was directed here via the Colbert Report episode that you guys did), and I'm sure to come back for more.

Jul. 25 2014 03:39 PM
Mike Anderson from Seattle, WA

For more Jon Mooallem goodness, check out a sample of the live performance of his book with the band Black Prairie on the 99% Invisible episode "Wild Ones Live" (http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/wild-ones-live/)

Jul. 25 2014 02:58 PM
Kate L. from Pennsylvania

Like it or not, people like Mrs. Biggs are part of the world these creatures must live in. Eventually our chicks not only need to fledge, but they need to learn to care for themselves in the real world. It isn't this woman's fault that the environment these cranes evolved in no longer exists. There will always be "some crazy bird lady" who refuses to take down her feeders.

If there is any hope at all for them they need to adapt. How can they develop behavioral adaptations without exposure to people? How can they evolve if none of them die?

Jul. 25 2014 10:33 AM
Michelle Slater from New York City, USA

So moved by this story...shared it on Face book and will look for the book in the library. Thanks

Jul. 25 2014 01:08 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Supported by

Feeds