Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Eagle Grabs Baby: stupidity goes viral

Unlike the bird in the viral video, this actually is a Golden Eagle.

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes:  I have spent my whole life trying to teach people about nature.  When I see someone intentionally misleading the public with dangerously false ideas, and others repeating the misinformation without even attempting to fact-check it, I can’t help but be angry. 

Late at night on December 18, a video showed up on YouTube that purported to show a Golden Eagle swooping in to snatch a small child in a park in Montreal.  After a few labored wingbeats, gaining several feet off the ground, the eagle drops the child and flies away, while the videographer (screen name “MrNuclearCat”) rushes over for a closeup of the scene. 

After a few shares on Facebook, the video went viral, exploding all over the Internet.  By the morning of the 19th, the clip was being played on television news shows, and millions of people had seen it. 

But it’s faked. 

To determine that, you don’t have to know anything about computer graphics, or about the weight-lifting capacity of eagles.  All you have to do is look at the bird in the video.  A Golden Eagle in Montreal would be a notable rarity, but this bird is not a Golden Eagle at all.  The pattern of white in the wings immediately rules that out.  The exact identity of the bird is still being studied, but whatever it was—assuming it was a real bird at all, and not entirely computer-generated—it wasn’t anything native to North America. 

The sport of falconry—keeping hawks, falcons, or eagles in captivity, and training them to fly after prey—is still practiced.  Some falconers have exotic raptors that don’t occur in North America, or hybrids that don’t exist in the wild at all.  The bird in the video looks most similar to certain eagles in Asia or Australia.  The most likely explanation is that this was a falconer’s bird, and that it was trained to perform this stunt for the video. 

So:  was it a real baby in the video?  If so, using the child for this stupid stunt was a crime of child endangerment, and the authorities should be looking for “MrNuclearCat.”

Was a falconer’s bird trained to swoop in and pick up a doll that looks like a child?  If so, that is insanely stupid; it would never be safe to take that bird out in public again. 

Were large parts of the video simply done with computer graphics?  If so, why?  Why would anyone do this at all?  People in modern society are too far removed from nature as it is, and all too ready to believe scary stories about wild animals.  Why go to all this effort to create fear about harmless and beautiful birds?

Perhaps the most disheartening thing is the way the story spread, the way people were so willing to believe it.  Let me emphasize that I don't fault the individuals who saw it online and shared it; at first viewing, for most people, it probably looked both scary and realistic.  But I can't understand why several morning “news” shows on American television ran the video as if it were legitimate.  What ever happened to principles of journalism?  What ever happened to fact-checking? 

By now, a little over 12 hours after the video first appeared, it is being questioned in some online media.  I just spoke with Curtis Rush from the Toronto Star, who has already questioned the video online and is working on a second story, and this may help to get the facts out.  It would be wonderful if “MrNuclearCat” would post a follow-up, to explain how he made the video and to clarify that eagles don’t pose a threat to children. 

But people have limited attention spans, and any retraction or correction will never have the reach of the original video.  Vast numbers of people, only peripherally aware of nature in the first place, will come away with the lingering impression that eagles sometimes carry away babies, that nature is dangerous.  And that will represent one more sad break with reality, one more piece of damage done, one more falsehood to carry us all farther away from a real understanding of the natural world. 

UPDATE: It has just been confirmed that the video was produced for a class assignment by three students at Centre NAD, a school in Montreal.  Both the "eagle" and the baby were completely computer-generated.  More information at this link:

So no actual children were harmed or threatened in the making of this video.  But my final complaint about the video still stands; many people will never see the retraction, and they will be forever rendered a little more suspicious and fearful of the natural world, thus darkening their lives and the lives of their children.  

Monday, December 17, 2012

So long, Rich

Rich Stallcup, as he appeared about the time I first met him in the 1970s. Photo by Van Remsen.
From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: This past Saturday, December 15, was the annual Christmas Bird Count at Point Reyes, California. One of the largest CBCs in North America, Point Reyes regularly fields around 200 observers and records around 200 species, a testament to the fabulous birding culture of Marin County.  This year, for the first time in many years, one observer was conspicuously absent: the legendary Rich Stallcup, beloved leader of the Marin birding community for the last half-century. Rich had been battling illness for many months.  As the bird counters gathered for their compilation Saturday evening, he slipped away across the horizon.  

To say that Rich Stallcup had a massive influence on birding and natural history in the great state of California would be a huge understatement.  Everyone knew him, everyone had learned from him.  But his influence spread far, far beyond the boundaries of California.  I was lucky enough to meet him when I was still a teenager, and to spend quite a bit of time with him over the following 15 years, and his impact on me was immeasurable.  

When we first met in the 1970s, I was 18 years old, on my first hitch-hiking trip to California.  Rich was only about a decade older than me, but he was already recognized as one of the top birders on the continent.  I was ignorant and inexperienced, but he never made me feel stupid.  A natural teacher, he invited me along on field trips with him and his friends, sharing knowledge freely, as he did with thousands of others.  And he shared a key idea, too.  When we met, he was going all-out to do a Big Year for the state of California.  I was considering doing my own Big Year later, with all of North America as my target area. When I asked him about his year list attempt, he told me, "The list total isn't important, but the birds themselves are important.  Every bird you see.  So the list is just a frivolous incentive for birding, but the birding itself is worthwhile. It's like a trip where the destination doesn't have any significance except for the fact that it makes you travel.  The journey is what counts."  That statement affected me so profoundly that I wrote it down in my field notebook that night, and later when I did my own Big Year and wrote a book about it (Kingbird Highway), I quoted it verbatim.  Decades later, that still strikes me as the perfect perspective on bird-listing games. 

In the following years I had many chances to go birding with Rich Stallcup, and we even led several tours together in Arizona and Mexico.  I was constantly learning from him.  Although his knowledge was extraordinary, for me his knowledge was overshadowed by his wisdom.  And, yes, I use that term intentionally.  He truly was wise in his approach to birds, nature, and people. Endlessly reveling in the joy of nature, endlessly patient and generous with beginners, he inspired everyone to greater awareness and kindness.  

I recall one time when we were staying at a hotel in Arizona, and members of our group were nervous because a sinister-looking character was hanging around the parking lot.  Rich said, "There is no need to worry" - in a singsong voice, as if he were not just commenting on the moment, but repeating a basic philosophy of life, as perhaps he was.  Striding out into the parking lot, confident and friendly as you please, Rich struck up a conversation with the sinister character.  Of course the man turned out not to be sinister at all, and for half an hour the two were talking like old buddies.  

Another time, in California, several of us were watching an American Redstart that was flitting about in some willows.  Redstarts are somewhat uncommon in California, but not extremely rare.  After a few minutes, everyone had lowered their binoculars - everyone except Rich, who was still watching the bird.  "Come on, Rich," said one of his friends. "You've seen redstarts before."

"Yes," said Rich, agreeably. "But I hadn't seen this one."

I know these stories sound like small things.  Taken individually, they are.  But similar things happened over and over, many times per day, whenever Rich was around.  Layer on layer, these little examples built up into powerful lessons about life as a joyful adventure, nature as a grand treasure.  And these lessons were passed on, directly and indirectly, to vast numbers of people throughout Rich's active life. 

I didn't hear about Rich Stallcup's passing until almost 24 hours after the fact, and I learned of it when I came in from our own local Christmas Bird Count here in Ohio.  My old friend Keith Hansen, a great bird artist and practically a neighbor of Rich's in Marin County, called to give me the news.  We were both choked up at first; but within ten minutes on the phone we were chuckling, even laughing, as we shared stories of adventures with Rich.  And I think that is fitting.  All over California, all over the world, thousands of people are undoubtedly having the same experience right now, sharing stories and smiling at memories of a man who lived so passionately and gave so much.