While not wishing to understate the possible significance of the reported
numbers of Short-tailed Shearwaters washed up on the Australian coastline
this spring, I agree with Allan Morris that birders should try to keep the
event in historical perspective.
Speaking as a former journalist, birders should treat some of the more
disaster-prone reportage with real caution. The whole point of news and
current affairs is that it is, by definition, crisis-driven. If there is no
crisis, then one has to be invented or at least exaggerated. This is how it
works. So it is all too easy to focus on any amount of oil found in a birds'
stomach without considering other possible variables.
I ask birders to think more critically about the information they receive
before jumping on the crisis bandwagon. Why is it only Short-tailed
Shearwaters that have been affected? Allan Morris' explanation seems to me
by far the most likely, but it's also the least sexy from an editor's point
This brings me to the 7.30 Report's piece on the loss of our avifauna the
other night. Evidently, the phylogenetic species concept has become
entrenched in media circles, otherwise it would not have been possible for
Kerry O'Brien to claim that Australia is blessed with more than 1200 bird
species. Naturally, I believe we should endeavour to preserve the greatest
diversity of our fauna and flora, right down to ultrataxa if possible, but
I'm wary of the media's propensity towards crisis coverage.
Of course, the bottom line is that we ARE in danger of losing many species,
particularly in our agricultural areas west of the divide, and that is a
very serious problem. I'm not advocating a soft-pedal approach. But science
must be intellectually rigorous if it's to be credible. Our mass media is
ruled collectively by two things: deadlines and commercial imperatives.
Well-intentioned birders would be well advised to think carefully about how
much faith they are prepared to place in such an institution.
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