For the Birds?

Local outlets miss an opportunity for regional conservation coverage

Earlier this month, the United States Department of the Interior released the results of a large-scale, collaborative report on the status of bird populations across the country. The study, which announced that approximately one-third of the nation’s 800 bird species are endangered, threatened, or in significant decline, flew over the heads of most regional and local newspapers.

That is disappointing because the survey was a good opportunity to connect with local readers and show how science and the environment are relevant to their lives. Moreover, it was a chance for small papers to demonstrate their value in a declining market. Unfortunately, it has become increasingly difficult for them to do so and most did not (or were not able to) make more of the Interior Department’s report.

According to the survey, sixty-seven bird species are endangered or threatened, and approximately 184 species have provoked conservation concerns. Bird populations living in grasslands, coastal regions, and arid ecosystems are in the greatest danger of collapse. Not all of the survey’s results were negative, however. Several species, particularly and those living in wetland habitats and raptors (i.e. birds of prey)—which were previously imperiled by the now banned pesticide DDT—have recovered.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service coordinated the survey’s creation as part of the U.S. North American Bird Conservation Initiative, which includes partners from the American Bird Conservancy, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Klamath Bird Observatory, the National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Geological Survey. It was massive in scale, analyzing forty years of bird counts from three long-running censuses.

Within a day of the survey’s release, The Washington Post, The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Wall Street Journal, and NPR had all run stories about its findings. Most of the coverage examined the state of bird populations as an indicator of environmental health, and discussed the multiple threats facing bird populations, from climate change to suburban development. Many articles also discussed how successful conservation efforts for wetland species and raptors, like the bald eagle, could form the groundwork for future wildlife preservation legislation.

The survey was also stacked with opportunities for local papers to take a closer look at the condition of bird populations in their areas. Unfortunately, few did. Most, like the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal and Concord Monitor in New Hampshire, ran an Associated Press wire story. A few newspapers simply reworded the report’s press release, including The Denver Post, Baltimore Sun, Watertown Daily Times, and Duluth News Tribune, occasionally adding one sentence about local birding enthusiasts.

“Located near two exceptional spots to see rare and endangered birds at High Island and Aransas Pass, Houston has more than its share of the estimated one in four American adults devoted to avian viewing,” wrote the Houston Chronicle in the story’s lede. But not once did the piece mention the Houston region after the first few sentences. Overall, local coverage left the issue broad and national.

The survey is divided into ecosystems—arid lands, grasslands, urban, forests, arctic, wetlands, marshes, coasts, and oceans. From there, it takes just a few steps to localize the story: Find which habitats are encompassed in the news coverage area. Identify local birds mentioned in the “Birds in Trouble” section of each ecosystem chapter. Find which of the major threats against these populations—development, agriculture, energy, or resource use—are present in the community. Lastly, call local conservation groups, researchers, developers, and officials for context. With such details, a broad, national survey quickly becomes a well-focused story about the local ecosystem.

Fortunately, a few small papers went the extra mile. An article that appeared in The Virginian-Pilot, for example, did an excellent job. The piece, which appeared on March 22, interviewed a Virginia-North Carolina migratory bird biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and discussed several local bird species listed as threatened in the study: “When looking specifically at the northeastern North Carolina region - which may not apply to the species nationally - declines have been seen in the Eastern meadow lark, Henslow’s sparrow, gull bill tern, piping plover, black skimmer, American oystercatcher and cerulean warbler,” reporter Catherine Kozak wrote. One of the major causes, her piece concluded, is the destruction of coastal shrubs and maritime forests from urban development projects in the Outer Banks.

Another good example of local reportage appeared in South Carolina’s Beaufort Gazette. For a March 23 article, reporter Liz Mitchell interviewed conservationists from the state’s Coastal Conservation League and the Hilton Head Island Audubon Society. The piece also briefly discusses the controversy surrounding wind turbines off South Carolina’s coast, and their impact on migratory birds.

Unfortunately, it’s becoming harder and harder for small media outlets, especially newspapers, to devote resources to such projects. As staffs and budgets shrink, or publications simply fold, we will undoubtedly see fewer stories about issues such as the health of local ecosystems and wildlife populations. That is a shame because, according to a 2006 Pew Research Center report, roughly nine out of ten people who read newspapers read local and community newspapers. And if they’re not covering backyard conservation issues, who will?

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Katherine Bagley is a science, environment and health journalist based in New York City. She is currently working as a reporter for Audubon Magazine.