Arts and Entertainment

Birds need people, too

Chris Peterson records ambient sounds on Whidbey Island for the radio show
Chris Peterson records ambient sounds on Whidbey Island for the radio show 'BirdNote.'
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Chris Peterson

Perhaps you’ve heard the call of the Varied Thrush, a robin-like bird native to Whidbey Island. It has a strong whistled tone on a single pitch like a buzz.

Or maybe you can identify the shrill whistle and rolling croak of the large black-and-white Western Grebe, a duck-like sea bird that is often seen around these parts.

Even if you don’t know what you are hearing, you would probably miss those sounds if they were no longer on the wind, just as you might miss seeing such birds grazing at the beach or pecking at your birdfeeder.

The threat is there.

Some birds, along with countless other species, are liable to end up extinct if people fail to take an active role in their survival, a message the producers of BirdNote strive to send home daily.

BirdNote is a popular radio series headquartered on South Whidbey. The show airs Monday through Sunday at 8:58 a.m. for two minutes on KPLU 88.5 FM, following National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.”

BirdNote shows are two-minute vignettes that incorporate the rich sounds of birds with stories that illustrate the interesting and, in some cases, truly amazing abilities of birds.

The founder and executive producer of the show is Chris Peterson, a Langley resident who came up with the idea in 2002 when she was the director of the Seattle Audubon Society.

“The idea grabbed me and never let go,” Peterson said.

Peterson researched other short programs on public radio, talked to more than 100 people about what they’d like to hear, and met with Whidbey writer and bird aficionado Frances Wood to develop the initial concept.

She then pulled together a talented team that included several Whidbey Island residents and created TuneIntoNature.org, the nonprofit that produces the series.

The first BirdNote aired in February 2005, with theme music created by sometime Whidbey resident and notable musician Nancy Rumbel and produced by John Kessler, also the talent behind KPLU’s All Blues radio show.

BirdNote now has approximately 240,000 listeners daily and airs throughout Western Washington, in Central Washington and on seven other national stations, including WNPR Connecticut Public Radio.

The main goal of the program, Peterson said, is to educate and inspire people to care about the future of the natural world by producing and distributing remarkable stories about the lives of birds.

Peterson said a survey was given to BirdNote listeners. They were asked: What concerns you most about birds and nature?

The single largest response was: “Loss of habitat.”

“BirdNote is in the business of empathy,” Peterson said. “People must feel a connection to nature if we want to save a species.”

She credits biologist Stephen Jay Gould as an inspiration.

Gould said, “We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature, as well — for we will not fight to save what we do not love.”

With that battle in mind, Peterson is on a mission to find the people of Whidbey Island who seek a similar empathy with birds and to create an expanded board of directors to guide BirdNote.

“We have a lean, efficient and highly talented team that produces the daily programs,” Peterson noted. “But now we need a board who can expand the nonprofit.”

Recently, Peterson stood in a field with one of the head writers of the program.

He started to identify all the birds present by the sounds he could hear.

“It adds so much depth to the landscape,” Peterson said. “You begin to realize there is so much beyond the surface of what you see, and the natural world becomes that much more interesting.”

No other environmental program in the region has the daily reach of BirdNote.

Since the show first aired, more than 800 new shows have been created through a partnership with the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, where the show obtains its high-quality recordings of birds.

The goal is to reach a million listeners within three years.

“I like to think of BirdNote as connecting the dots,” Peterson said.

“We’re trying to educate and inspire; to give people the opportunity to participate in the protection of birds.”

But there are significant challenges that stem from an increasing population, pressure from businesses and a pervasive culture of expansion and consumption that make maintaining healthy ecosystems more difficult.

In the recent State of the Birds 2009 Report, 67 of the 800 species that inhabit the terrestrial, coastal and ocean habitats of the United States are federally listed as “endangered” or “threatened.” An additional 184 are species of “conservation concern.”

BirdNote encourages everyday folks to become more interested, and directly involved in making choices that can result in fewer unintended consequences for birds and nature.

“Such simple acts can make a difference, such as if everyone chose to buy only shade-grown coffee. That one act could protect the forest canopy of South and Central America,” Peterson said.

Such buyer consciousness has the ability to save birds such as the Olive-sided Flycatcher — a North American bird that winters in the South and Central American forests and is currently on the threatened-species list.

“So many birds are challenged,” Peterson said. “Most people don’t realize it. We want people to realize and take note.”

To that end, Peterson seeks people who are actively improving habitat for birds. She would like to hear stories that might inspire others to do the same.

“We would like people to contact us if they know who we should talk to,” she said.

The BirdNote team has a wish list of volunteer positions to be filled including:

• Someone who would like to plan one or two house parties where Whidbey fans of BirdNote can meet some of the team and learn how a BirdNote show is produced.

• Persons of a corporate background, a possible corporate sponsor or a corporation that shares the same values as BirdNote and that would benefit from the added marketing and exposure.

• Someone with a background in reading maps of habitats who would like to compile a set of regional habitat maps for the Web site.

• Web metrics; a team to help track and interpret the traffic to the Web site.

• Someone with a radio or marketing background who could reach out to public radio directors.

• A four-hour-per-week office administrator.

• Any volunteers with skills to contribute as noted in the “current needs” category listed on the Web site.

Peterson said the team of about 12 currently producing the show is a fun group and that the process of putting BirdNote together is amazing to watch.

“Using the power of good storytelling, we are encouraging listeners to pay attention to a larger reality — that of nature — and to think about their personal roles as active or supportive stewards of the future,” Peterson said.

Anyone interested in joining the BirdNote board should call Peterson at 206-724-2714 or e-mail chrisp@birdnote.org or visit the Web site.

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