Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Keep the Minneapolis Star Tribune in Perspective


The Minneapolis Star Tribune just published an editorial about the proposed Vikings Stadium titled “Keep Bird Deaths in Perspective.” They write, “Altogether, fewer than 3 percent of the U.S. bird population dies each year from collisions with buildings,” as if 3 percent is insignificant.  To put that in perspective, the two largest killers of the U.S. human population are heart disease and all forms of cancer, which, combined, kill less than 0.4 percent of us each year. That means that collisions with windows kill almost 10 times more of the bird population each year than our two biggest killers, combined, kill us. Insignificant?

Of course, some species of birds have much higher rates of reproduction than we humans do, and other confounding factors complicate the picture, but most human mortality is concentrated on the oldest and weakest among us. Collisions with windows are entirely random, taking out huge numbers of healthy young birds and adults in their prime as well as more fragile individuals. 

That still doesn't say exactly how the Vikings Stadium, with its almost 200,000 square feet of clear, bird-killing glass, would affect bird populations. It’s impossible to say, just as it’s impossible to say how many children would really die from lung cancer or heart disease if we were to lower the age for buying cigarettes to 6. In either case, people with any conscience know it’s worth something to prevent that needless potential mortality.

The Star Tribune cites University of Minnesota ornithologist Robert Zink saying “People keeping their cats indoors would have a far greater impact on bird survival than whatever happens with the stadium.” Zink, the secondary author of a discredited paper about bird mortality at windows,* does have one thing right. Collisions with windows and predation by cats are indeed the two largest human-caused direct killers of wild birds, taking out, together, at least 6 percent of all American birds each year. Both causes of death are unacceptable and should be prevented whenever and wherever possible.

The Star Tribune says, 
Pesticides kill 72 million birds directly and many more over time. Power lines, communication towers, motor vehicles, wind turbines and bi-catch fishing operations take a big toll. Tree-cutting, swamp-draining and other habitat destruction is thought to be the biggest killer. Slaughterhouses kill 25 million chickens and turkeys. Cats, both domestic and feral, kill several times that many birds, more than a billion per year, by some estimates.
I'm not exactly sure who on the Star Tribune staff thinks the deaths of farm poultry are relevant here (and that number is wildly inaccurate, to boot!), but we already know that too many things kill wild birds. This year's State of the Birds reports on some very bleak outlooks. The Star Tribune editors and Robert Zink would apparently have us shrug and say, “Oh, well, what can we do?” I say the first thing we do is prevent the construction of brand new killers as we figure out how to reduce the death toll from the already existing ones.

As a Minnesota taxpayer, I don’t like that any of my tax dollars are paying for a football stadium I will never ever use. But these decisions are made for the totality of Minnesotans, including some of my family members and friends who love the Vikings. Lots of factors went into the decision for public financing to cover half the cost of the stadium. I can accept that. But I sorely resent my tax dollars being used to pay for bird-killing glass that will not help the Minnesota Vikings in any way. Going forward with this misguided project will do nothing for football, but will simply prop up one architectural firm’s concept of aesthetics. We do not have to make a choice between birds and football. We can have an aesthetic stadium without bird-killing glass—if one architectural firm is too lacking in creative skills to build it, the solution is the same as it would be in dealing with an incompetent football player: terminate the contract and find a better one.

But speaking of contracts, 22 current Vikings players are each, individually, guaranteed to earn more than the one million dollars that changing the glass would cost. Christian Ponder, ranked at just #15 on the list of highest contract values, is guaranteed to be paid more than 10 times what changing the glass would cost. Adrian Peterson is guaranteed to make 36 times more and, if he serves his entire contract, 86 times as much as changing the glass. But it's not like switching to safer glass would come out of the players' pockets anyway: the budget for the stadium includes millions for cost overruns--money that would easily cover changing the glass. So yes, let's put this in perspective.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune says, “A wall of glass with huge pivot doors opening to a plaza and affording a clear skyline view, would add to the feeling of being outdoors.” Do they honestly believe that the feeling of being outdoors during an indoor football game is worth more than killing the very creatures that make being in the real outdoors so wonderful? If that feeling of being outside is so important, why not just build an old fashioned outdoor stadium? Oh, yeah--because football fans and players don't like the feeling of really being outdoors in Minnesota during football season. Building this stadium will kill birds year-round to give football fans, for less than forty hours a year, an utterly false "feeling of being outdoors." Where exactly is the perspective here?

The editors end with “When controversial buildings are involved, bird collisions make for high drama. But they don’t amount to much in the larger scheme of things.” Just how much does the Star Tribune think “the feeling of being outdoors” during eight home games a year amounts to in the larger scheme of things?

* Here are some sources refuting Zink's paper. If you know of even one peer-reviewed paper supporting his conclusions, please send me the citation! Otherwise I stand by my statement that his paper has been discredited.

11 comments :

  1. Well done Laura! Perhaps it is lost on the editorial writer that all of the impacts on birds listed in the excerpt below are come from the hand of man.

    "Pesticides kill 72 million birds directly and many more over time. Power lines, communication towers, motor vehicles, wind turbines and bi-catch fishing operations take a big toll. Tree-cutting, swamp-draining and other habitat destruction is thought to be the biggest killer."

    The logic seems to be, "Why should we worry about this single building and its potential impacts on birds when there are bigger issues?"

    It's as if the existence of a bigger problem justifies ignoring the impacts and knowingly creating another smaller one. This would be like arguing against trying to stem the spread of the Ebola virus because it currently kills far fewer people than cancer. Moronic logic all around.

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  2. The paper makes a chunk of their money from NFL stories. No surprise whose side they're on.

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  3. Thank you Laura! This is spot on, and I only wish it were printed In the Star Tribune.

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  4. Excellent perspective and specifics. Thank you for your clarity!

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  5. Thank you for your eloquent challenge to prevailing ignorance and self-servitude regarding this "grand" future facility. Did you also send your editorial comments to the Trib and the makers of this project? Your words are clear and could be educational to those folks.

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  6. I take issue with your characterization of Arnold and Zink's paper being "discredited". Like all good science their assertions are reviewed and critiqued but none of the responses you cite offer definitive data for their assumptions either. This is how science works and until enough data are collected the debate is open.

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  7. I included a direct link to Arnold and Zink's paper as well as the papers criticizing it, written by authors with a far longer track record in researching the issue. Readers are welcome to draw their own conclusions. You're welcome to take issue with my use of the word "discredited," but I'm hardly more dismissive of Zink's work than he often is about the work of scientists he disagrees with. That, too, goes with the territory.

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    1. I understand Zink can be dismissive of others and I don't agree with everything he says but I think you are better than that.

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    2. A paper is, indeed "discredited" when peer-reviewed papers by credible experts find the conclusions completely wrong and NO papers by other authors affirm the findings. I've asked for citations of ANY peer-reviewed papers that support Zink's findings, but so far can't find any. I'm sorry, but that's exactly how science works.

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    1. Very well said, Laura! I can't stand when people disregard millions of bird deaths as insignificant simply because other things kill millions more. People who aren't bird watchers just don't understand what's at stake.

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