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Weighing Good Intentions

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Producer Lulu Miller drives to Michigan to track down the endangered Kirtland’s warbler. Efforts to protect the bird have lead to the killing of cowbirds (a species that commandeers warbler nests), and a prescribed burn aimed at creating a new habitat. Tragically, this burn led to the death of a 29-year-old wildlife technician who was dedicated to warbler restoration. Forest Service employee Rita Halbeisen, local Michiganders skeptical of the resources put toward protecting the warbler, and the family of James Swiderski (the man killed in the fire), weigh in on how far we should go to protect one species.

Comments [41]

Josh Bradley

Perscribed Burns are way bigger than just a snippet of this story. I can truly say that a large fire would have been through this area at some point in the future due to the heavy use of fire suppression over the decades. Look at the west. Smokey the Bear was the worst public information commercial paid for by Jim Hills and Weyerhaeusers

May. 14 2017 06:56 PM
James Hayes-Bohanan from Bridgewater, Massachusetts

I agree with many of the commenters here that the framing of this story was not useful, and certainly was bothersome to the family. The reporter does not seem to have been the first one to have thought of it this way, but she erred in making that her focus.
I will be using this in my land-protection class in the fall, however, because it does raise other interesting questions relative to landscape change, the unintended consequences of long-term fire suppression, and the complexities of species protection.

May. 14 2017 04:48 PM
Tommye Mayer from Boston

I'd like to weigh in asking what seems to me the obvious question. Cowbirds. Are they indigenous? If so what is their predator? If Cowbirds are not indigenous how was the species introduced?

I 4-square agree that the life of the young man deceased in the burn vs. the bird is NOT the question.

May. 13 2017 06:55 PM

this isn't good

Oct. 20 2015 02:05 PM
Smith from U.S.A.

I love Radiolab. However, this piece left me with a very negative feeling. This story was rebroadcast today - which seems to be years after the original broadcast. I highly recommend not to rebroadcast this story again as you will lose Radiolab listeners. The reporter's inability to remain objective and instead influence her own very limited perspective and opinions highlights her non-professional and sensational reporting style. I feel sorry for the family interviewed at the end of the piece that they had to endure her annoying and immature questions.

Oct. 19 2015 03:24 PM
John from US

Lulu Miller's "correction" on the number of Warbler species was incorrect. I ran it by an ornithologist. I've said it before and I'll say it again -- I'm so glad she left the show.

Oct. 15 2015 11:50 AM

WORST RADIOLAB PIECE EVER! Well, I'm 4 years too late. But I can't help but add that I too was disgusted by this piece. As someone who also works with an endangered bird, the questions being asked in this piece are the wrong ones. I've never seen people work as hard for as little pay (not to mention additional volunteer time) as Field Technicians collecting data to protect birds. It isn't a question of human vs. Kirtland's, or Cowbird vs. Kirtland's... There will still be millions of cowbirds. There are probably even more now than there were when Bison roamed the plains. Their evolutionary strategy was to follow bison and gobble up insects, and hence evolved to drop eggs in other bird's nests rather than build their own. The amount of farmland we have now has inflated the population tremedously. We have permanently and radically altered the landscape in such a way that management is the only way option for preservation of Kirtland's Warblers. Unless we are willing to radically alter it back. I for one am deeply pained that I will never see flocks of million's of Passenger Pigeons, or our own native Carolina Parakeet, because some careless people in the past didn't "think it was worthless." Shame on them! Don't repeat history's mistakes!

Sep. 16 2014 06:54 PM

I'm having an extremely hard time trying to figure out why ONE PARTICULAR species of bird is valued over another. Why is there one type of warbler that is regarded so highly? Hell, why one type of bird? Why is the cowbird not valued instead? This is just a group of people who have grown attached to a certain animal that looks a certain way, and their emotions over it have somehow become a valid reason to spend massive amounts of money and take out another species altogether. Ridiculous.

Jul. 31 2014 09:09 AM

I'm a huge fan of Radiolab, so I was recently listening to this story from the archives, and, like so many other people here, I just got totally upset at the frame of this story. It is not an either/or question, the life of one man for the life of a species of birds. I am quite positive that nobody involved in these events ever knowingly made the decision to have a person die, or even thought there was a likelihood that someone would die. The death was a tragic accident. It should not have happened. It has absolutely nothing to do with the effort to save the Kirtland's warbler. Nobody should have died, and the bird species should have been saved.

People tragically die in all kinds of accidents, in construction projects, in medical research, in mining, just driving down the road to the grocery store. Sometimes it makes sense to ask the question "Was it worth it," but only in those cases when the activity itself carries a higher than normal risk of death. Nobody would criticize the person who was killed driving to the store, saying things like "Was it worth it just for groceries?" You could however criticize the design of the roads or the safety equipment in the car. In this particular case, the problem was not that they were trying to preserve a particular ecosystem, the problem was the related to the method they were using to preserve the ecosystem. Maybe there are things they could have done better for this particular prescribed burn (or maybe not, maybe it was just a freak unpredictable turn of the weather, I don't know the exact circumstances).

Jun. 30 2014 07:31 AM
Ajc3 from Massachusetts

I just returned from a visit to northern Michigan. My wife and I had a wonderful experience seeing Kirtland's warblers for the first time on one of the Forest Service's guided tours. Upon returning I heard from a friend about Miller's report and listened with high hopes. I was very disappointed. What I heard was a naive urbanite trying to find "a story" based on a 34 year old tragedy. The premise of the piece, whether a bird is worth a human is absurd. The answer is of course no, but that was never a real choice or question. The death of the biologist was a tragic accident, not a sacrifice. I was so relieved when the dead biologist's mother said "No more questions, please."

May. 27 2014 08:58 PM
Matthew Shanahan from Oak Park Il, but 50 years to Mio.

I found this to be a profoundly dishonest and facile piece. The premise that there was a conflict between human life and nature is fallacious. A negligently performed controlled burn killed that young man and destroyed those homes and cabins, not the Endangered Species Act or the Kirtland's Warbler. And of course you'll find some resentment of Forest Service practices in an area where unemployment and poverty are very high, and the government and large private land owners own most of the county; if it isn't the warbler, it's snowmobiles, hunting and fishing regs, ad infinitum. I suppose one could use those resentful comments as an entry into a thoughtful discussion of humanity's responsibility vis-a-vis nature, but it's an opportunity that the author of the piece never takes.

May. 19 2014 12:15 PM

Others here have said it so much better, but the premise of this whole piece; "Is a human life worth a buuurd?", was just irritatingly DUMB. I can't believe it made it to the point of actually being aired as some sort of serious, thought provoking story.

May. 18 2014 05:36 PM
ruth caprow from San Francisco

The name of this bird should officially be James Swiderski's Warbler not Kirtland's Warbler anymore. Honor the man who died so it could live and make it the state bird while your at it.

I am a native Michigander. As an artist, I've lived in San Francisco most of my life, but when I went back to Michigan I tried to see the bird on my own and failed. Just passing through it's forest was moving.

From now on I'll call it Swiderski's Warbler and if you can't say that call it James' Warbler. Thank you James for giving your life to save a species. Thank you to his family for understanding. Long live the Swiderski Warbler. Tears...

May. 17 2014 05:32 PM
CPHenly from Richmond, VA

Having just listened to this podcast again, I feel compelled to comment that the premise of this segment is false and the show is unfortunately misleading. The warbler could certainly be saved without the loss of human life; the death was a tragic off-shoot of the effort, not the direct source. No one said: okay, we want to save this warbler, but a person has to die in a fire in order to do that. People die in the process of just about everything we do. Should we stop driving cars because people could die? And the effort to ensure that we can continue driving is merely in service of our convenience. I am sorry that this reporter stirred up this town and its tragedy to promote a false, emotionally-laden, drama.

Feb. 24 2014 06:54 AM
Matt MC from Madison, WI

Seems like this particular warbler would have gone extinct anyway. I actually feel bad for the cowbirds. They have to get the life suffocated out of them because they found an evolutionary advantage over this warbler? Plus, it can't adapt to roost in older trees? This species is so specifically adapted to its environment that it wouldn't survive in any case. Take your human emotions out of it. Yes, the human impact is a part of it, but it looks like the cowbirds would have taken them out anyway. If you can't have survival of the fittest in nature, where can you have it? Perhaps, I'm just in a callous mood.

Jul. 10 2013 01:27 PM
david smith from Albany, NY

As previous commenters pointed out, this was a positively awful piece. Who approved it being aired and what was he/she thinking?

Jul. 08 2013 10:18 PM
JanE from Pacific Northwest

Thanks to everyone who wrote in to critique the summing up of a complex situation into one poorly designed comparison.

The only person who can come close to answering, "Was it worth....?", the question is the person who died. Otherwise it is not even possible to properly weigh the pros and cons and reach an answer. Asking family members is only a version of asking them how much they are devastated by their loss or still angry and hurt by it. No one can measure the value of a human life and no one can measure the value of a species any kind. All bets are off.

We cannot predict if Mr. S would have lived many years or proceeded to die the next week from West Nile so we have no way to assess what other path his life might have taken.

Every human act is based on current knowledge and understanding, which means, for the most part, on past history. This is an imperfect approach. Which is what life, imperfect and unpredictable. So it was that Jim made his decision to pursue assisting the warbler.

European settlers had no clue of the long term effects of their farming practices. Developers and builders in the 19th and 20th centuries likewise. Mostly human beings tend to solve one problem and create a whole host of new ones in the process. The crazy idea that there will be a once a final solution to anything at any time is absurd.

Why encourage faulty thinking by boiling down something so complex as to say, 'Save a bird or save a person?'. Ridiculous, and clearly, the way many people go about reasoning and making choices that got us where we are today as far as the environment goes.

Jul. 07 2013 03:35 PM
june silverman

I would like to be able to explain the importance of this little bird. It's got a pr problem - like the Spotted Owl.
Call me Crazy Old Bat

Jul. 06 2013 05:16 PM
Georgia F from Pittsburgh PA

A intriguing broadcast I heard at lunch today. I am a birder (do studies for the USGS and Cornell) and would love to see a kirtlands warbler, might travel to MI (helps the economy too). I also am a Desert Storm veteran (USAF) and can say when you enter danger for your job you know only God has your back. As a human being we make decisions, the warblers do not, birds do what instinct tells them If someone makes a decision to risk their life to save anything it should be respected, not questioned. Please learn not to project your ideals on someone else. To save the warbler and forest was important to the man who was killed, do not negate his decision. He was courageous and I applaud him and Theodore Roosevelt who had the foresight to inact Migratory and Native Bird Acts so we have a world with less insects, pollination to provide crops for food and beauty...Yes, we depend on birds for our survival. Take some ornithology classes!

Jul. 06 2013 04:55 PM
Bobby Shafto from California

To say any member bird of the species of Kirtand's Warblers had any responsibility for the fire and related death of James Swiderski is an an example of what is known as woolly thinking.

Woolly thinking should be discouraged for the sake of the survival of all the species on Earth, including the survival of Humanity.

Nov. 06 2011 03:07 PM
Ian Firestone from Richmond, VA

Dang people. Quit chastising Lulu Miller for the rhetoric posed in this episode! Do you think the announcers are really hashing out and weighing the content for the first time or from their own personal perspectives as the episode unfolds? They are playing roles, from the perspectives likely to be in the public mixture, in order to introduce a concept to that public. I think they know the anthropocentricity of human/American civilization is annihilating nature, even in some cases when our intentions are good. RadioLab is good stimulus for bettering public discourse, and they often knowingly take a "common man" point-of-view in their presentations.

Oct. 24 2011 05:25 AM
colin from haida gwaii

Did anyone else hear that?
She said 'when humans' first started coming to this area of Michigan, fire suppresion began. She should have said 'settlers.' That was an shameful, though common, slip of the toungue. Michigan, like the rest of the Americas, was already populated by humans when the settlers arrived.

Oct. 24 2011 02:13 AM
Suzzie Derkins from Texas

Being an avid Radiolab fan, I was also surprised by the approach of this piece. Ironically, I work on a military fort in Texas helping monitor and support two endangered bird species- the Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Black-capped Vireo. Millions of dollars are spent to decide how help the birds and monitor the population and habitat. As in the case of the Kirtland's warbler, many locals detest the Golden-cheeked warbler because of the restrictions it places on private land use. Also, they have killed cowbirds for years trying to help the endangered birds out, and it does work. The problem however is not the cowbirds, it's humans. We have destroyed habitat all over the world and severely in this country. To say that the money and time etc. is not "worth it" (i.e. when Lulu said she thought, "F*** it") really disturbed me. Much MORE money is spent on training young Americans to become soldiers and developing technologies to destroy human life and systems of thought. Is that "worth it?" Not that this isn't important, but I would rather have my tax dollars and personal efforts in my lifetime go towards protecting and supporting ecosystems for posterity. I think it was appalling to hear people say that they basically wouldn't kill another person to save "one warbler out of sooo many" because this is a gross misrepresentation of the real situation. You don't have to throw an environmentalist in a fire to save a species, you do have to take the time to learn about and appreciate something that obviously many people are not familiar with. Saying that the Kirtland's warbler doesn't have innate value (as an entire species) is a conclusion made out of ignorance of the importance of, most importantly, it's biological interaction with other members of the ecosystem, and the vital point that it is our fault that this creature is declining. When people finally realize how many species we are wiping out on this amazingly diverse planet, maybe it will be easier to see why the protection of one species at a time is so essential. Next time you cover a story like this Lulu, talk to an ecologist who can tell you the true and more thorough sides to this argument.

Jul. 12 2011 08:09 AM
Anne from Burlington, VT

It wasn't until I heard the voice of the family left behind by the horrible accident that I understood the importance of the bird.

Mar. 24 2011 09:18 AM
Matthew from Vermont

Sooo, what about the cowbirds? Do the warblers do something beneficial that we should kill the cowbirds, or are they just prettier? It's called natural selection, let the warblers go.

Mar. 23 2011 03:03 PM
cristina from melbourne

I'm a bit lazy now, in bed etc, so cannot really be bother getting up or googling BUT isn't this the same bird as in Franzen's book Freedom? Geee!

Mar. 11 2011 08:28 AM
carly from vermont

Whoa! A person for a bird?!

Feb. 19 2011 01:51 PM
Todd from Pennsylvania

I'm dying to know what the bumper music at 47:23 is... any help?


Nov. 28 2010 08:22 PM
Paul Smith from Lewisville, Texas

It can't really be known what would have happened to the warbler without logging, burning, protection from burning, murder of cowbirds, and more. Any attempt to decide what is right and what is wrong here is an extension of the pompous human behavior that created the problem and makes us seem so parasitic in nature. Finally no value can be placed on life. James Swiderski's famliy would not put a dollar sign to his life anymore than they would to the life of a single Kirtland Warbler. A fun game asked if I would rather skip a rock and have it accidentally give a child a black eye or kill a bald eagle. Well of course I'd let that kid get a black eye. It's not a question of value there it's a question of right and wrong. It's also not a life for a life comparison. A firefighter would gladly give his life saving another human life in the line of duty because he knew it might happen one day and he chose the irreplacable feeling of saving human lives over his own self-preservation. So would we like to ask his family and the family of the person he saved which was worth more? Radio-lab aired another segmant dealing with neuro-science and questions about the life of an individual compared to the group. That segment talked about the human ability to throw a switch that would kill one person not in danger over several for whom death was immenant. It was clear that the same person who threw the switch would be unlikely to push someone onto the tracks to save others who would have been killed by the same train. The point is that weighing in about value of life comparisons when the most influence any of us has is a tax-bill or a vote and for most of us not even that is flippant. Our Federal Emergency Management leaders define a disaster as an event that causes HUMAN suffering. that about sums up the shortsightedness of government on this issue. Every adverse action we take against the environment of this planet causes human suffering regardless of it's relativity to the other suffering involved. We should strive to leave no trace which would include a program that moves toward complete removal of our intervention from natural systems. It's not possible at this time, but let's not confuse ourselves with god like figures in the process of weighing our wild-life management principles. I don't think that was Lulu Miller's intention and if the over-all tone of the piece had boiled down to that single question I wouldn't know enough to realize all of these ancillary circumstances. The segment seems to underline the fact that we simply can't control our instinct to control everything long enough to adequately figure out if what we are doing is helpful, harmful, or has no impact at all.

Nov. 08 2010 03:05 PM
Paul Smith from lewisville, Texs

The result in the wake of that forestation would have been arguably that the warbler would thrive in the new young Jack Pines. Humans worked to rebuild the forest and perhaps too late caught onto their circumventing of the natural process of fires. Humans then sought to recreate nature by burning, but control the burning to times and places of their choice. Humans have chosen the life of one bird over another, one tree over another, and so forth. The same broadcast has a story dealing with the accidental "murder" of the world's oldest living organism. That tree would have existed until the moment it was cut purely by a combination of luck and natural selection. Over thousands of years of disease and wars and weather the tree survived. If you start comparing the value of human life to that of a bird you should inevitably start comparing the life of any species to the life of another species. That is the job of natural selection and we are the only species that seems capable of categorically short-circuiting that system. At the pound one species of dog is worth more than another, the foods we grow are worth more historically than the other plant life which existed as part of the complete food chain. The livestock we can easily corral with fences trump the natural free roaming animals. Need I go on? The people involved in the Huron-Manistee region put one foot in front of the other for the better part of a century trying to pretend like they were reversing the effect of human involvement in the area or saving something natural, but they can't even really remember what was natural. This is especially true since the bird is migratory and settled there as part of the natural process of our earth evolving after an ice age.

Nov. 08 2010 03:04 PM
Paul Smith from Lewisville, Texas

Whether or not the question is presented inproperly does not take away from the real lesson here. Humans have become so thoroughly entangled with the environment of this planet it is difficult to determine where nature ends and we begin. I would argue that the human, and not the cow-bird is the parasite here. There is a natural course to things and whether Darwin had all the answers or just some is unimportant. Evolution is an obvious force in our environment. Therefore, the arguement that a migratory bird which is one species out of 67 and has failed to overcome another species of bird is simply unable to evolve seems valid. Furthermore, it doesn't matter what the Forest Service's programs for controlled burns entail or are intended to do. The fact is this. Humans over-forested the region.

Nov. 08 2010 03:02 PM
Noah from California

Miller's question is completely relevant because it is the question that the residents of the town have asked themselves. It really wasn't even her question, as it is asked first by one of the people she interviewed in town. She may have conveyed a bit too clearly what her answer might be; however, no conclusions were ever drawn. The "Oops" is in reference to the tragic, unintended consequence of a fire, but I didn't hear any suggestion that the story is questioning a poor "choice" about bird over man. The story, ultimately, investigates the "oops" on many levels. I suggest giving it a second listening.

Oct. 26 2010 12:31 AM

Ms. Miller - I appreciate your reporting on the plight of the Kirtland's Warbler, especially given that you did a thorough job getting the biology right. However, the central question you pose - "is the life of a warbler worth the life of a human" - suggests someone living in a sadly constrained moral universe. Obviously, abandoning warbler restoration efforts will not undo the tragic death of Mr. Swiderski, though your reporting suggests that that choice is somehow still available. I was encouraged to hear that Mr. Swiderski's family had moved beyond this false choice.

Sep. 28 2010 04:56 PM

I'm in agreement with the commenters who mention the accidental nature of Swiderski's death and the rest of the fire ecosystem of the area (which means that this isn't just about "one bird" and that it also wasn't a choice anyone consciously made.)

Also, though, phrasing it as "the life of a man vs. life of a bird" is asking the wrong question because it's not "a" bird: it's "a" species. It wasn't one Kirtland's warbler at stake when the Forest Service decided to do this burn; it was all of them.

I was much moved by the voices of Swiderski's family; they said that he was doing what he wanted to do, protecting what he valued, and they implied that perhaps there are worse things than to die doing that. It's not for us to make that call for anyone but ourselves, of course, and the circumstances that demand it are so rare as to be effectively nonexistent; but if it were a choice, and if mine were the life in question, I hope I'd have the commitment to choose the life of the species, any species, over my one individual one. One individual is indeed a hole in the heart, a tragic loss, one that the survivors will remember until they die; one species is a hole in the world, one that will persist long after human memory fails, long after any human dies.

Sep. 12 2010 07:08 PM
Andy from Minnesota

I agree with the other comments that the way the reporter posed the question was wrong, but I think it was very appropriate for her to bring up the question. That's how people around there feel, obviously, and it's reasonable for her to present it.

There are lots of times this question can be asked. Was building the Miller Park baseball stadium worth the lives of the workers killed when the crane collapsed? In my opinion, probably not, but it's really the same equation as the pizza delivery example. Is it worth it for me to ride my bike to work given that I might be hit and killed? I sure don't want to die, but I might get hit and die even if I'm in a car. I'm willing to take the risk because I like riding and I know it's better for me and the world (so long that I don't get hit and die), but the question is out there, and you can be sure that if I do die, people will ask it.

The other question she asked, "Is it worth the millions of dollars to do this?", is another valid question. I think the answer is absolutely. Sometimes doing the right thing costs money.

Sep. 03 2010 06:05 PM
Meghan from Michigan

Almost all of Michigan's wildlife is fire adapted, not just the Kirkland warbler. The work, money, time, and effort that goes in to a burn or restoration work is not just the price for a bird, but to preserve our shrinking natural lands and the rest of the native plants, animals and birds that depend on them. Without the use of prescribed burns, we would lose many more species. Regardless of whether it is appropriate to balance the cost of a life, it is not against a single bird, but against the preservation of Michigan's natural land.

Aug. 17 2010 10:32 PM

Can we just make it unanimous? The frame for this piece was terrible – an ugly blot on the record of Radio Lab. I understand that a story with a wrenching conflict can help make it compelling. But the framing of this story by an ostensibly objective reporter as the conflict of choosing between James Swiderski and the Kirtland Warbler, as other commenters have noted, is, in so many transparent ways deeply, irretrievably, utterly wrong.

Aug. 10 2010 09:44 PM
Matthew from New York

I love Radiolab because the stories and shows are almost always constructed around interesting topics with a sense of intelligence, curiosity and playfulness. The inquisitiveness that's a hallmark of the program was lacking in this piece.

Ms. Miller is looking through the binoculars the wrong way. As the posters above have demonstrated, the question posed by Ms. Miller is simplistic and absurd. There are larger issues at play in the Kirtland's story and many of them would have fit in perfectly with the theme of the program.

Jul. 15 2010 10:44 AM
Steve from United States

Very unprofessional and incorrect reporting. Shame on you Lulu Miller. The only bird in this is Lulu, who would more accurately be described as a vulture.

Jim's death was a tragedy, but the comparison of tradeoff of human life vs. a bird's existence would only be made by someone who doesn't have a clue what they are talking about.

Lulu, realize that you can't live life soiling everywhere you go!

Jul. 14 2010 08:41 PM
Siobhan from Maine

I think the producers of this program are mistaking unintended consequences for a tragic accident. Jimbo's comment about pizza delivery is a great example. The idea that we should not try to save ecosystems or species because something bad might happen - hmmmm, if that was the criteria used to make decisions, nothing would ever be done. Generally this was a good program, but this story was way off base.

Jul. 11 2010 12:43 PM

I don't think that the question Lulu Miller posed is really relevant, the idea that we have to decide if the life of a person is worth the life of a warbler. Throughout the piece, the question was continually posed as if it was an actual decision that someone made. The death was an accident. People die on the roads every day, so do we ask if a pizza delivery is worth the life of a human? Of course not, deaths are unfortunate tragedies, they are accidents, they happen when people do all kinds of things. Suggesting that in order to save a species it is required to sacrifice a person is absurd.

Jul. 08 2010 11:00 AM

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