At the mic: Mary Kate Wilcox is a seventeen-year-old birder from Overland Park, Kansas. In addition to birding, one of her favorite things is to band Dickcissels and Common Yellowthroats in the summer. When Mary Kate is not busy, she can also be found with her nose in a book.
It was that odd in between time of Sunday that occurs weekly in every high schooler’s life. The time when the day is on the verge of slipping away, and the pile of textbooks and careful construct of “keeping up” were teetering on the edge. The time when a week or two’s worth of homework and test preparation wobbles, about to hit the bleary eyed, coffee monster treatment of panicky necessity. Yet for me, every Saturday, whether it is just the tiny park resounding with catbird screeches, or a wonder like Quivira National Wildlife Refuge speckled with bobbing peeps, is worth the Sunday grind.
It is in this in between time, the witching hour that comes between freedom and drudgery, that I decide to put off the inevitable hand cramping a few minutes longer, in a much less admirable way than reading a book or taking a walk. I immediately search for my drug: news satire. Feverishly, I scan Full Frontal, The Daily Show, and without finding anything satisfactory, I type in my last savior from the agony of school, a messiah to my procrastination: Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. And my heart practically explodes out of my chest. This was not due to the impending doom of physics or biblical traditions, but because the word BIRDS is flashed across my HBOgo screen right next to the beaky nose of my favorite comedian.
This would be the final clincher. Another reason to put John Oliver in the compartment of my heart filled next to the likes of Mr. Darcy, the KU basketball team, and other such men. The intellectually or physically great. Enraptured, I clicked the play button, almost in a trance. I did not believe John Oliver could get any better. He had finally covered the creatures that keep my life ticking, that keep me from becoming the coffee monster permanently. And then that compartment of my heart shattered, ripped violently into pieces by a string of expletives I am no stranger to. But so brutal because they were directed at birds in a sad excuse for satire.
What I did next was not unusual. Writing is a way for me to shout or praise the world in ways my clumsy mouth often can’t express. Fury burst out of me onto the page. And then I cooled down, read it again, and decided to make some sense. You see, I always have grand delusions of posting my rants, of the trolls of the internet somehow undergoing instantaneous surgeries to reattach their brains, but reality strikes. I have said things at my school, in private emails, and in person, but social media terrifies me. Nonetheless, this is what I wrote.
Dear John Oliver,
I would just like to say that I am a devoted fan of your show. It has enlightened on many issues.
Your show is so informative and fact based one would think it would be a sleep inducer. Yet you bring these dry, boring, and often sad facts to life through humor and acts that often make an impact. You make a difference. Maybe not a systemic one, but by penetrating the fog of the American consciousness.
This is why I am so appalled and disappointed by this clip on birds. You have lived in the U.S. long enough to know how easily led this society is. People will base their entire worldview off of your views. And by mocking birds, you have enhanced an extremely harmful perception. This perception of birds as “rats of the sky” makes it astronomically more difficult to save them from their current plight. I understand your segment was sarcasm, meant to bemoan the fact we are caught in the cold winters.
But let’s say I take it seriously for a second. I don’t know if you truly hate birds or not. Hey, it’s fine if you do! I have no problem with your opinions. Let’s say you utterly, vindictively hate birds. When you were a child a seagull stole your french fries and it has evolved into a psychotic “never leave your house” phobia. Even if this is your case, it is for your benefit to want birds around. See, they are often keystones species. Clark’s Nutcrackers are a keystone species, co-evolving with the Whitebark pine of the West. By caching seeds (holding a mental map in their heads of thousand and thousands of hidden seeds, knowing other birds staches, and also keeping track of when certain spoils will rot: birds are not dumb Mr. Oliver) they sustain this species which in turn sustains an entire ecosystem.
Birds provide infinite functions from pollination to keeping spider populations in check to teaching kids they better learn how to hang onto their own french fries. In addition, birds are environmental indicators: literal canaries in a coal mine. I live in Kansas. Try, although it is hard isolated by the concrete prison of New York, to imagine a prairie. In July they bloom full of wildflowers. I don’t know all the names but some are milkweeds. Others are paintbrushes. And they are a riot of colors, more beautiful than anything most people can imagine. Then imagine the song of a Bobolink or a Grasshopper Sparrow (the first sounds like R2-D2, the second an insect like buzz). Think of baby prairie chickens, the result of booming males a few months previously, scurrying through the grass. Guess what? I have never seen that. All I see is farmland and oil wells, dirty pesticides strewn by crop dusters and loss. I have seen a prairie, I have seen the birds, but I have never seen the picture I just drew. Only fragments. The remnants of the prairie scattered across Kansas and Missouri. Prairie-chicken leks broken and disrupted by highways and oil wells, till there is one lone prairie chicken booming, and the next spring he is dead. I have seen the politicians of Kansas who say the Lesser-Prairie Chicken is thriving as it continues to dwindle away, who cut funds for the anything environmental. Only about 1-2% of original prairie is left. It is a wonder prairie species are still here. You would think their precipitous decline (in the 70-80 percentages) would tell us something.
The thing is, Mr. Oliver, the North American prairie is not an isolated case. Neotropical migrants (the northeastern migrants your segment was about) are in dire straits. South America is not a paradise. Their forests have been turned into coffee plantations, full of barren soil and the ghosts of warblers. It is not an easy journey in the first place. A lot of birds don’t make it across the Atlantic, such as the Ruby-throated Hummingbird in your segment. And if they arrive in their destination often the food reserves have been stripped. Already starving, there is nothing to eat. That is only the songbirds. Shorebirds face heinous poaching and Dickcissels and Swainson’s Hawks (migratory prairie birds) sometimes face mass die offs due to pesticides. Our society demands bumper crops and cheap coffee grown on the corpses of the forest. The society that would rather watch your show than go outside. The society that only gives you good ratings if you deal with sexy issues, as opposed to the most pressing.
The fact is birds are vital, whether you like them or not. I have no idea if you do. You could be a birder just like me, hiding behind the mask of dumb humor. But dumb humor is not your type. Your humor is thought provoking. I come away wanting to learn more, and I research. That is what I good humor should be. Good humor is like a good novel. It should make you question your life and values, not affirm it. You have built that up throughout your seasons. Like it or not, you are impactful. You have a platform and this is why your segment on birds was so harmful. I get it, you are on break. You need to keep people interested and flinging stupid insults is an easy way to bait our short attention spans. But I cannot stress enough how much influence you have. Perhaps you didn’t do the research. Birds face so many threats in the anthropocene. Climate change, windows, outdoor cats, light and noise pollution, pesticides, habitat loss, brood parasitism, invasive plants, harmful fishing methods, and so, so many more. The thing is, politicians do not think birds are important enough to protect. They attempt to repeal critical protections and block climate legislation. Researchers simply studying bird mortality caused by cats have death threats levied against them! We have to fight tooth and nail to prevent wind turbines from being placed in migratory flyways (wind energy is great, it just has to be in smart places). Birds for some reason carry a stigma of stupidity and unimportance. In this day and age, when species are going extinct before they are even discovered, this is toxic. Researchers are discovering so much about the bird brain, that in some ways they can be more adaptable and intelligent than us. Yet we are driving them to extinction. I don’t care if you like birds or not, but I urge you to think. You make everyone else think with your humor, so please think before you release such a powerful force. Birds need help. You can insult them for their looks, but do not project the idea that our world can function without them. Because by doing this you are projecting ignorance and channeling the politicians of my state who fight to decimate the prairie-chickens and some of the most precious ecosystems and species in the world.
I would encourage you to walk through Central Park. It is great any time of the year, being an oasis in the city. Maybe go with the New York Audubon and look and listen. You may be surprised at all the life around you. Maybe you’ll see the Ruby-throated hummingbird as a spectacular creature that somehow braves the Gulf of Mexico twice a year, using that tiny brain to keep track of thousands of flower feeding spots. I certainly see them as a wonder of evolution and adaptability. If that thought is too far, their need for a “nose job” might be a source of appreciative laughter not a bad joke.
P.S. As a birder, this is a pet peeve. Your segment was on Northeastern birds of North America, yet the only North American species shown was a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Your main segment photo pictured a European Robin and you continued to discuss ostriches, parrots (the only native North American parrot is extinct), domesticated geese, and penguins. Ostriches and penguins do not migrate so the entire point was kind of ridiculous, as the only migratory North American bird was a Ruby-throated hummingbird. If you are going to project idiotic and ridiculous ideas, at least do it in a way that doesn’t reek of Fox News-esq incompetence and stupidity.
Mary Kate Wilcox
You see I was also suffering from the delusion that entertainers and informers care what we, the masses, think. I intended to send this privately, under the mask of solitude I rarely lift except in print. And oh boy, did that intention get annihilated. As a seventeen-year old girl, I am slightly ashamed to admit that I am a social media hermit. I punctuate all texts out of habit (I can hear the laughs now). I am absolutely hopeless on piecing together the unspoken rules of social media etiquette.
So me, oblivious hermit, posted this short novella. To be honest, this was excruciating. I felt like I was going to vomit in the anticipation of the reaction. And I had to swallow down bile when the inevitable storm came. My comment received fifty-six replies. Thirty-four of them were nasty or just pointless. I was afraid I was the dumb person not getting humor. I begged my rhetoric teacher to give her honest opinion, because my head was spinning. Instead of critiquing the actual commentary of my text, people simply wrote that it was too long to read, and I was stupid by extension. Many other commenters were angry that I didn’t “get” that it was satire, also proving they didn’t read it. Many yelled to let John Oliver say what he wants, as he can and does. I, as one individual in a world of greater than seven billion, shouldn’t think I could stop him. And then there were the nasty. Those offering to serve me pigeon dinners, or commenting on the quality of my life, the amount of fun I am at parties. The cruel, who instead of not reading, or reading but not paying attention, simply attacked. That was when my stomach felt like it was at World’s of Fun (the Kansas City version of Six Flags) riding the Mamba into infinity.
But then came the other twenty-two comments. People who agreed that this segment was not up to John Oliver’s usual standards of immaculate, head-spinning satire. Those who said they had learned! Wasn’t this what I wanted, to tell people how important birds were? One comment that stuck out was this:
Don’t let the negative comments bring you down: I’ve learnt a lot by reading your comment and I get your worries. I’d take a serious matter seriously, if I were dependent from the birds. Oh, I am, am I not?
Love from Germany
These people cared that I cared, and each and everyone of them told me it was a wonderful thing to see. Only one person I actually know commented. The rest of these people were complete strangers, reaching out because they cared. I have to admit that I am pretty pessimistic about the world. Birds are my link to the positive. Perhaps that is why I need them to thrive and continue. I need the light of nature when humanity can seem so dark. But these twenty-two people were a revelation: people can be that spark too.
So to the readers of this post, stand up for your light even if you have to delve into a terrifying and unpredictable arena. You’ll have at least one person fighting tooth and nail for you. And I’m a good one to have. As you’ve seen if you made it this far, I write a lot. Enough to flummox your opponents or downright put them asleep.
As you head out into the world of the Internet, where the line between person and persona grows ever hazier, remember this quote shown to me by my rhetoric teacher. We have a lot less to lose than the creatures who make our world a beautiful place. Our only truly unfathomable, terrifying risk is losing them: birds.
Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let the pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place. – Kurt Vonnegut