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See Inside July 2006

For the Birds

Hawking interesting avians in the urban environment
Steve Mirsky



FRANK VERONSKY
New York City is lousy with birds, and I mean that in a good way: I once counted 20 species in an hour in my backyard in the Bronx, with rufous-sided towhees and American redstarts making cameo appearances beside the usual mourning doves and sparrows. The city is also clearly a human-dominated landscape. So the American Museum of Natural History was a good choice to host a late April conference called "Conserving Birds in Human-Dominated Landscapes." I went because in the Alfred Hitchcock movie The Birds, I rooted for the crows. (I also sided with the giant insects in Starship Troopers. Although I did back the humans in the Matrix movies. Well, in the first one.)

One of the speakers at the conference was Andrew Balmford of the University of Cambridge. In 2003 Balmford was named one of the "Scientific American 50," a celebration of research leaders "who have contributed to the advancement of technology in the realms of science, engineering, commerce and public policy." Balmford was recognized for his work on the economics of habitat preservation. So naturally we talked about inebriation and Pok¿mon.

Balmford discussed some birds' abilities to prosper among humans. The wood pigeon, for example, seems to have thrived in England by leaving its traditional woodland environment for the fields, where it has switched from a mostly fruit diet to crops (which some farmers aren't cooing about). Some wood pigeons have even taken up residence in towns and cities, where they hang out near bars--because of the great opportunities such establishments afford for the distribution of food directly onto the sidewalk. If you get my drift. (When I mentioned this pigeon propensity to a friend, he asked, "Food that was thrown out?" To which I responded, "Well, not out.")

As for the fictional cartoon creatures, in 2002 Balmford and his colleagues published a short report in the journal Science called "Why Conservationists Should Heed Pok¿mon." His two sons had an interest in the local flora and fauna, whereas most of their friends were much more engaged by Pok¿mon characters. "And it turns out there is actually a field guide to Pok¿mon creatures in which you can learn all their different names and all their different attributes," Balmford says, "just like you would about birds of the eastern U.S." Balmford decided to find out which group of creatures most kids knew better: a sampling of the real animals and plants in their area or the Pok¿mon organisms. You know where this is going.

According to the Science paper, "For wildlife, mean identification success rose from 32 percent at age 4 to 53 percent at age 8 and then fell slightly; for Pok¿mon, it rose from 7 percent at age 4 to 78 percent by age 8, with children aged 8 and above typically identifying Pok¿mon 'species' substantially better than organisms such as oak trees or badgers." Says Balmford of that finding, "We obviously felt that was rather sad. Sad and rather worrying, but it also maybe can give us some food for thought about how we market natural history to kids to capture their imaginations."

Such inspiration should be possible, because birds really are incredibly charismatic. Here's one possible sample pitch for the get-kids-into-birds campaign: Now, I admit to almost complete ignorance about Pok¿mon characters, which I would imagine do incredible things, like shoot fire out of their blowholes or eat rocks or design a high-mileage, low-emission SUV or other magical things. But birds can do some pretty amazing things themselves. Some can outrun thoroughbred horses, others can pluck fish out of raging rivers with their feet, a few can see a rabbit a mile away. And of course, the big one--they fly! In fact, numerous residents of Metropolis, when getting their first glimpse of no less a personage than Superman, shouted, "Look, up in the sky! It's a bird!"

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