Somewhere along the line, online comments got a bad rep. It’s not hard to see why. The level of discourse perpetrated by authentic, sentient human beings hiding behind dubious identities in our digital town squares tends to be, in a word, execrable. Bad behavior abounds among the trolls, so much so that it has become fashionable to suggest that the only way to deal with the problem is to cut off dialogue altogether. A couple years ago, Popular Science announced that it was hitting the off switch for web comments, citing two studies that seemed to indicate that shrill, invective-laden, or even just firmly worded disagreement in the Comments section undermined readers’ confidence in the science itself.
All of which is to say that it shouldn’t have surprised me when, sometime last fall, deep into the reinvention of audubon.org, our esteemed collaborators at Mule Design made an impassioned pitch to simply leave comments out of the new site. But I had to wonder: Had they spent any time browsing the comments on the site we were replacing? Because I had. And when I rather ungently suggested they reconsider this idea, it was because I’d experienced the extraordinarily high level of discourse that routinely takes place among members of Audubon’s passionate online audience.
My latest reminder of just how fortunate we are in this respect came when I received a thoughtful letter (see below) from Dr. Russell Regnery, president of the Highlands Plateau (N.C.) Audubon Society, questioning our decision to publish an upbeat article about a parrot rehabber’s release of nonnative patients back into the wilds of Southern California—on its face, a violation of fundamental conservation principles. I called up the story on the website to see whether it had sparked any dialogue there; I was not disappointed. In fact, a few of the comments in support of the rehabber made the case so compellingly that I was sorely tempted to plagiarize them for my own response to the good doctor. To wit: “What she is doing is not ‘introducing’ a new species; she is rehabbing existing birds and releasing them back to where they came from rather than letting them die of their injuries. These are birds that are wild and don’t make good pets and should not become pets. By law, she is told that she can only turn them into pets, take them out of the country, or kill them. That is ridiculous.”
Ultimately, I’m comfortable with our decision to publish the article, in part because I’m happy that it has helped to raise some fascinating issues and to spark an important conversation. Maybe, though, it wasn’t the right decision. As always, I’m curious to hear what you think: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Letter from Russell Regnery, on behalf of the Highlands Plateau Audubon Society Board, regarding the introduction of exotic species:
"The cover story of the July-August 2015 issue of Audubon Magazine, 'Jailbird Parrots Return to the Wild . . . As Fugitives' by Dave Good, is highly supportive of releasing non-native species of parrots into urban Southern California. Our chapter finds it concerning that National Audubon would condone the practice of releasing non-native species far from their native distribution and habitat. Conservation of birds and bird habitat are concepts our chapter feels are important goals of Audubon, at the chapter, state, and national levels. One of our chapter’s missions is to educate the public about non-native species, particularly invasive species, while simultaneously promoting native bird and plant species. While some of the particular parrot species mentioned in the article may not currently be noticeably harming native species and environments, there are numerous examples of introduced species remaining quiescent for decades before some small change in the surrounding environment, or within the exotic population, triggered a population increase resulting in major environmental and economic complications. We understand that some of the parrot species are threatened in their native ranges and we are very sympathetic to this issue. Instead of releasing species into what might be considered a hostile, urban, foreign setting (where natural food sources must be scarce and mortality levels must be especially high) perhaps a more responsible approach to would be to support efforts to enhance parrot populations in their native lands. We are puzzled why National Audubon would publish a cover article so contrary to basic conservation goals, while encouraging others to release non-native species. Please explain this conflicted conservation message."