15
Jan
15

“Horrible” raptors are “becoming more aggressive”, says idiot

Prof ONeillYesterday, the Irish radio station ‘Newstalk’ broadcast a discussion on the theme ‘Are the birds going the way of the dinosaur?’

The presenter, Pat Kenny, was interviewing Professor Luke O’Neill, a prominent biochemist from Trinity College, Dublin. This leading academic was introduced as someone who has been studying the depletion of bird populations. According to Professor O’Neill, worldwide bird declines are attributable to “horrible” raptors that “are going up in numbers” and are “becoming more aggressive“. He also said a lot of other really stupid and inaccurate things.

You can listen to the broadcast here.

Is it any wonder that raptors continue to be persecuted when idiots like this are given air-time? His comments have probably set back raptor conservation in Ireland by years.

We were intrigued about O’Neill’s credentials in the field of raptor ecology and biology so we checked out the Professor’s webpage on his university’s website. We couldn’t find any evidence of his academic involvement in bird population studies, or any other ecological expertise for that matter. Have a look at his research publications here.

In response to the Professor’s unsubstantiated and moronic vilification of raptors, Dr Allan Mee, a leading raptor ecologist working with the Golden Eagle Trust in Ireland (specifically, managing the White-tailed Eagle Reintroduction Project) has today written to Professor O’Neill (email reproduced here with Dr Mee’s permission) –

Dear Prof O’Neill,

I was astonished at many of your statements made yesterday during your piece on the Pat Kenny show. I’ve made my feelings known to Newstalk and asked then for a right to reply. I’m not saying everything you said was factually incorrect but much was. Even disregarding the jocular tone of the programme the scene was set by focussing on raptors…..“the raptors, which are the horrible birds of prey, they’re going up in numbers some of those and one reason for the decline is they’re getting more aggressive” (no idea of source for this). This is set out as the centrepiece of your argument for the causes of declines in birds (songbirds, all birds?) and sets the tone for the rest of the piece and the general implications that raptors are the prime cause of bird declines.

Please by all means show me a scientific paper which shows this? No I don’t think you will find one.

Please show me a paper which attributes population declines and/or extinction to raptors? I don’t think you will find any evidence of this either apart from possibly the impacts of hen harriers on grouse on grouse moors in the UK where raptors are persecuted (shot, poisoned, trapped) because they conflict with the grouse moor owners desire to artificially maximise grouse numbers and thus profit. Look at all the evidence for declines in birds worldwide (see for example the data published by BirdLife International referenced below) or even closer to home where all our farmland birds and breeding waders have declined to the brink of extinction in many cases. No you won’t find any discussion of raptors as a causal factor there either because there are NO data to support this, rather the overwhelming evidence of declines due to farmland modernisation, loss of hedgerows, ryegrass monocultures replacing traditional meadows etc. Moreover it’s a long held tenet of ecology that predator populations respond to and are maintained by changes in prey populations, NOT the other way round.

Even your claim that climate change only changes the distribution of birds (they just move elsewhere) is wide of the mark. Birds can and do of course “respond” by changing their distribution/extending their ranges as has recently happened with Little Egrets in Ireland (if the raptors don’t get them first). But in many cases birds can’t just go somewhere else. They may be non-migratory or the habitat in “somewhere else” is already saturated with populations of that species. Or they literally have nowhere to go such as arctic relict species such as Ptarmigan on Scottish montane plateaux. The prognosis for such species isn’t good as climate warms up the montane environment and habitat changes so that the montane zoo moves further up the mountain until there is nowhere else to go. For many endemic species confined to a single island site these changes are likely to mean extinction.

You mention Red Kites increasing. Yes these have recently been reintroduced back to Ireland after being lost to human destruction 200-300 years ago. Their numbers are approx 30-50 pairs largely confined to Wicklow. They eat very few birds being largely specialist on rodents (rats), crows (young from nests), young rabbits and even earthworms. Even if they were to feed only on small birds this wouldn’t explain a decline in songbird numbers given that the numbers don’t stack up: 30-50 pairs or some 100-120 individuals compared to some hundreds of thousands of “small birds”, even if these are declining. Don’t take my word for it. Go to Avoca in Wicklow in winter to witness the stunning spectacle of many of the Wicklow kites roosting together just outside the town in winter. No you won’t find any sitting on garden bird feeders waiting for an easy meal and you’ll probably find lots of small birds feeding away happily.

Funnily enough, just to reinforce the point that raptors and healthy populations of small birds (their prey) do coexist, we once had at least 6 species of raptor in Ireland that became extinct in the last 300 years due to human persecution. Along with all that diverse and much larger raptor population there existed a diverse assemblage of bird species and much greater “small bird” populations in historic times when Ireland was still relatively pristine, lots of native woodland, intact bogs, stunningly rich marshes, healthy unpolluted rivers and lakes, beautiful extensive upland blanket bog and moorland etc. Oddly enough small birds did survive and thrive in the presence of all those raptors!

Over the past 10+ years we have been working hard to spread awareness among the public regarding the vital role birds of prey have in our ecosystem in the face to human persecution such as shooting and poisoning. There are plenty of folk out there who take what they hear on radio as “fact” especially when delivered by a Prof and backed up by a well-known presenter. It is a shame this lack of understanding still abounds even in academic circles and has the potential to damage years of conservation work by reinforcing long-held but misguided beliefs.

Over the past 25 years I have worked on species from golden eagles in Scotland, California Condors in the US and currently White-tailed Sea Eagles in Ireland (as well as being chairman of the Irish Raptor Study Group……at our annual conference in Dublin on 31 Jan we have several talks including one on raptor persecution entitled Natural  Injustice – the failure of wildlife crime enforcement in Scotland) where the common theme has been the destructive effects of human misconceptions regarding raptors and their role in ecosystems. It seems like not much has changed.

Allan

Complaints to Newstalk can be emailed to the Station Editor Garrett Harte: garrett@newstalk.com

Complaints to Professor O’Neill can be emailed to: laoneill@tcd.ie

UPDATE: Complaints from other organisations & individuals have already been made – see here.

Another UPDATE: Commentary on cause of bird population declines, and the valuable role of raptors in the environment, provided by real ecology experts from Trinity College, Dublin, not a pretend one – see here.

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29 Responses to ““Horrible” raptors are “becoming more aggressive”, says idiot”


  1. 1 Dave Dick
    January 15, 2015 at 10:05 pm

    I wonder if Prof O’Neill is a shooter?….his words are very reminiscent of the sort of nonsense we get from Save Our Songbirds….what does a biochemist know about field biology anyway. Good on Alan for his detailed response but the man seems so ignorant he probably wont understand it.

  2. 3 Tim Dixon
    January 15, 2015 at 10:16 pm

    I searched in vain for anything on the Prof’s Twitter account that might give us a clue about his ecological interests. In fact could barely find any original thinking at all. Almost exclusively re-tweets. One of his favourites appears to be “Shit Academics Say” @AcademicsSay. M’lud I rest my case.

  3. 4 Damion Willcock
    January 15, 2015 at 10:24 pm

    I hope his understanding of biochemistry is better than his grasp of raptor ecology. Yes, I could take a guess at his weekend hobby…

    • 5 Andrew
      January 15, 2015 at 11:01 pm

      Maybe more a stupid response to a sparrow hawk killing songbirds at his garden bird table. I didn’t listen to the piece but from the quotes I didn’t pick up the usual shooting lobby rhetoric. “Horrible birds of prey” is a fairly typical response from people who have had a blackbird etc nabbed in their garden.

      To give the benefit of the doubt it sounds like the “highly intelligent but very stupid academic” syndrome.

  4. 6 crypticmirror
    January 15, 2015 at 10:40 pm

    Is he tenured? Is it worth submitting a few queries to Trinny asking if his views are representative of that institution?

  5. 7 Jimmy
    January 15, 2015 at 10:47 pm

    Apparently he has apologized for his comments via twitter – according to my Irish Friends. Looks like the Golden Eagle trust will get a right of reply too

  6. January 16, 2015 at 5:29 am

    This from Prof O’Neill: Jonathan – thanks for your email. I to apologise next time I’m on and correct the unacceptable mistake regarding raptors. I’m on the show as a biochemist with a general interest in science hoping to interest listeners. My main intention was to tell them if the falling bird numbers which intrigued me. This back fired badly as I upset so many and can only apologise for any harm done which was never my intention.
    Kind regards
    Luke

    (sent as written!)

  7. 9 Peter Cosgrove
    January 16, 2015 at 7:16 am

    Whilst most academic institutions (and professional institutes) are happy for their members to talk openly about their research and areas of expertise, they tend not to like it when their members try to pass off expert opinions on matters for which they are ill equipped (not qualified) to comment on. Indeed, were I as an ecologist to try and pass off expertise in say the efficacy of heart bypass operations, then I would likely be in trouble with my professional body if someone made a complaint.

  8. 10 Bryan Keys
    January 16, 2015 at 8:27 am

    I found one of the Prof’s academic papers…… it is called “Tits and how to make a lot of money whilst being one!”

  9. 11 Circus maxima
    January 16, 2015 at 8:27 am

    The fool has ruined his academic reputation…. if he makes stuff up about ornithology, how can anyone be sure he doesn’t make up stuff in his own research. As a Professor, integrity is paramount.

  10. 13 Circus maxima
    January 16, 2015 at 8:33 am

    I wonder if the Proff would like to sound out his theory with this team……
    http://www.tcd.ie/tcbr/people/
    I cant imagine he would be very pleased if they started to make insulting statements about his research?

  11. 14 Een Historicus
    January 16, 2015 at 9:35 am

    I´m speechless. A ´witchhunt´ on raptors… This radiostation is clearly just making sensational and NON-informative programs. And the professor… Do gamekeepers pay for bad publicity? A black day.

    • 15 Andrew
      January 16, 2015 at 10:02 am

      Sadly, not much of the media get it right. Uninformed journalists and program makers led by the nose by their interviewees. If, to them, it seems to make good viewing / reading what more will they do.

      They are never going to do the same sort of research as they did on the likes of MPs expenses, sadly.

  12. 16 Neil Glenn
    January 16, 2015 at 10:02 am

    How ironic is it that a search on Twitter for Prof O’Neill first came up with a message from the Hawk and Owl Trust condemning his comments followed by an advert for a talk by the ‘Learned Prof’ on this subject: Prof. Luke O’ Neill speaks on the importance of basic research in science. I don’t think the word ‘irony’ even begins to describe the situation! :-)

  13. 17 Mo Richards
    January 16, 2015 at 10:08 am

    Well done Dr. Allan Mee on such an articulate, considered email reply – such a contrast to Prof. O’Neill’s drivel.

  14. 18 N
    January 16, 2015 at 10:16 am

    I would just like to say that Professor Luke O’Neill is a very good biochemist and lecturer. I am shocked that he was even asked to do this interview, as he is not an ecologist, or an ornithologist (as far as I am aware). I am sure he is very embarrassed. The things he said were inaccurate and indeed adding to all the “raptor hate” at the moment. Nonetheless, the has apologised, and I don’t think his reputation as a professor and scientist should be attacked- he has years and years of important research, and I think its unfair that this interview should undermine that. It is just a reflection on what uninformed non-ecologist/ornithologists/birders think, and maybe that is what we should be concerned about.

    • January 16, 2015 at 12:09 pm

      He is responsible for having agreed to an interview on an issue he probably knows very little about… So that diminishes his standing as a person of integrity, perhaps he is a good biochemist…he has caused some considerable damage and an excuse after the event does not put that right!

    • January 16, 2015 at 12:27 pm

      The Professor was introduced at the beginning of the show as somebody who has studied global bird declines. Professor O’Neill had every opportunity to say that he wasn’t actually an expert on this issue. He didn’t do that. Where’s his scientific integrity?

  15. January 16, 2015 at 10:25 am

    Is it any wonder that some people still think raptors are ‘fair game’ when their anachronistic and ignorant views are backed up by academics spouting personal views as scientific fact? Prof O’Neill may realise now that he was totally wrong, but now he needs to appreciate the damage he’s done, set the record straight, and make a strong statement condemning all crimes against birds of prey.

  16. January 16, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    Why would you interview a biochemist about ecology issues.. They hardly ever leave their laboratory. Ok it is Ireland…

    • 23 N
      January 16, 2015 at 2:29 pm

      Yes, and I totally agree that he should not have given that interview, it is not his area of expertise and he was completely misinformed! However, I still maintain that it is not a reflection on his career as a biochemist. I really have no idea why he would have agreed to speak on the subject.

      And Charlie I agree, a strong statement condemning all crimes against birds of prey would be appropriate, especially considering the issues they are having in Ireland at the moment.

    • January 16, 2015 at 4:04 pm

      Thanks for that Bryan.
      I have believe the only way to stamp out raptor persecution is through technological detection punishable by heavy penalties (financial and custodial of the perpetrator and the landowner/ employer).

  17. 26 Een Historicus
    January 16, 2015 at 3:26 pm

    I´m a bird of prey…

  18. January 16, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    He even giggles at millions dying in China!
    And cats may be getting more aggressive.
    The guy is an idiot of the highest order.
    Complaints written to show, himself and Pat Kenny

  19. February 5, 2015 at 10:34 pm

    Je suis raptor. All is forgiven Prof.!!!! Apology accepted.

  20. 29 Jack Snipe
    March 22, 2015 at 11:37 pm

    Just goes to show that academic excellence and naivety can easily go hand in hand, and we shouldn’t be in awe of scientists any more than we are in the medical profession, for example. However we need to remain healthily sceptical and seek to discriminate between good and bad science. In particular we need to keep our own house in order. I’m often shocked at how even some raptor enthusiasts can sound like gamekeepers when talking about other species which may pose a natural ‘threat’ to their own favourite species. One of the worst examples I heard recently was a talk given by a person representing the Langholm project who declared unequivocally that Carrion Crows are “vicious predators” of Hen Harrier chicks, and require to be heavily controlled. Absolute nonsense. And that wasn’t a gamekeeper speaking, it was a piece of received wisdom from a scientific officer responsible for educating and informing the public!


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