Letter to the NY Times, Science section

[Updated 2006.09.14 20:41 EDT: Added Why I Wrote the Letter. Minor corrections.]

I wrote a letter last Wednesday to the New York Times in response to an interview with ornithologist Joseph M. Forshaw, a world expert on parrots, in last week's Science section, “A Passion for Parrots and the Fight to Save Them in the Wild”. They published an edited version of it (under my "real" name") today. Here it is in its entirety:
Monk parrots are now established in 14 states and spreading north in New York. In their native ranges, they are sometimes serious agricultural pests of fruit crops. We will see what economic damage they cause here as their numbers expand. We don’t know how much environmental damage they’ve already caused by competing with and displacing native species.

As the ornithologist Joseph M. Forshaw noted admiringly, “Parrots are such wonderful generalists.” This is a common trait of invasive species, including other generalists that New Yorkers are all too familiar with: starlings, pigeons, rats and roaches. Our admiration of these birds should not blind us to their potential impact.
I'm proud and excited about this. This is only the second time in my life I've had a letter published in a newspaper. (The first was a letter I wrote to Newsday when I was 16 years old in opposition to the Shoreham nuclear power plant on Long Island. I wrote a letter to NPR several weeks ago. They were interested in it, but I don't know if that ever aired.)

I'll be coming back and updating this entry with the back-story about why I wrote the letter, and what I learned about writing letters!

Why I Wrote the Letter

The article, published in last Tuesday's New York Times, was an interview with ornithologist Joseph M. Forshaw. Forshaw spoke about his experiences with parrots and humans' relationships with them all over the world, and the dangers they face from exploitation and habitat destruction.

The photos accompanying the article showed Monk Parrots from Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemetery. I already knew why those photos were there. Forshaw had accompanied Steve Baldwin on one of his "Parrot Safaris", and Baldwin had blogged about it on his blog site, Brooklyn Parrots:
I recently had the pleasure of meeting an amazing Australian naturalist ... His name is Dr. Joseph Forshaw and he's widely regarded as the world's foremost authority on parrots. I had the honor of serving as his "guide" when he came to see the wild parrots of Brooklyn. ... The New York Times wrote up a nice story on Dr. Forshaw ... I am glad to say that there are some great shots of the "Brooklyn Boids!"
The problem was, the photos accompanying the article in this way associated an introduced species with the important issue of conserving parrots in the wild in their native habitats. The Times identified the parrots as "feral monk parrots." A caption to one of the photos identified them as "nonnative New Yorkers," but provided no further explanation.

"Feral" is incorrect to describe these populations. Neither the species nor the individuals are domestic parrots "escaped" into the wild: they are breeding and reproducing in the wild. So I wrote the letter hoping to address, and correct, a misleading absence of information about their status here.


Related posts

My other posts on Parrots and Invasive species.


The letter as published


Annie in Austin said...

One of the reasons we subscribe to the NYTimes is to get that Tuesday Science section. I just found them from last week and this week.
Congratulations - being chosen for this paper is very cool!

I haven't written any real letters to newspapers, just the rants inside my head. In fact, making blog comments is a big deal for me, so I will be looking forward to your back-story and the learning curve tale.


Sue said...

Britain, at least in certain areas, is also being invaded by parakeets. A different species, ring-necked parakeets, but the effects are much the same. In London they were only first noticed in about 2000, but they are now amongst the 20 most common birds (see http://www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch/2006results/england.asp)
They live for about 35 years, produce two chicks a year, and have no natural predators in Britain - so it's not surprising that numbers are rising exponentially.
I have a garden in London which is regularly visited by flocks of these birds. I have to say I love seeing them, and wouldn't want my garden to be without them, but it's true that they are a problem, eating not only the fruit from gardens but also attacking agricultural crops. And there is also the worry that this will create problems for a number of native birds like woodpeckers and owls. Like the parakeets, these nest in holes in trees, and there is the worry that the parakeets are stealing all the holes.
I haven't seen your original letter, and maybe I've just repeated what you said - sorry. It will be interesting to seee what other people think.

Janet said...

Congratulations! A big stage to be jumping on, for sure!

lisa said...

Kudos to you for providing a different perspective for the rather biased article...even though it may not be "well-received". The problem with these and many invasive species is that people DO find them "cute", and any prospective control or eradication will be VERY unpopular, even if it's proven vital to normal habitat preservation. As you can imagine, the "feral" population of many exotics is way out of control in Florida, but I am rather surprised to hear of a parrot's sucess in NY. (Though a friend of mine said he knew a guy sucessfully breeding macaws at temps from 80 to below 40 degrees in lower Michigan.) One can only hope that some local raptors can assist in population control...but I am familiar with parrots and budgies, and they are pretty "ballsy" birds! (NY state of mind?...:)

lené said...

Congrats on the publication. I rarely write to the editors of a publication, but you're inspiring me to speak up next time I see something that raises a hair or two. :)