Northern Bald Ibis

This morning’s discussion about the Northern Bald Ibis on the Today programme was a bit pathetic and maybe exemplifies the BBC’s inability to deal accurately and seriously with wildlife stories.

Jim Naughtie couldn’t pronounce ‘ibis’ properly and neither he nor the reporter could manage to say ‘ornithologist’. Hardly the worst crime in the world, even the world of broadcasting, but imagine the shock if they had mispronounced the capital of Burundi or its President.

The story was about the imminent extinction of the species if it is lost from Syria in the fighting that is blighting so many human lives in that region. The most perfunctory search on the internet would show that there are hundreds of Northern Bald Ibis in Morocco (thanks to a recovery project by BirdLife International, including RSPB).

The Northern Bald Ibis isn’t on the brink of extinction, but thinking that it was,  the BBC trotted out its usual undermining question ‘Does it really matter?’

On ‘Bald Ibis Radio’ the question was asked ‘All this violence and people killing each other – does it really matter? After all, people are nowhere near extinction,  there seem to be c7 billion of them.’.

So it all seemed slightly inept – in a way that would embarrass the BBC if the subject were sport, politics or literature – but since this is only the future of a species on the planet then it doesn’t really matter to get the facts right or to treat it seriously.


22 Replies to “Northern Bald Ibis”

  1. Mark, it seems a bit odd of you to criticise the BBC for their pronunciation of a bird’s name, rather than praising them for giving such prominent coverage to the fate of 4 captive birds suffering in the Syria conflict? On the BBC news website, seen by millions across the world, the story makes clear that the risk is that the bird will become extinct in Syria, not globally.

    Is Ibis pronounced differently here from Syria, and who is right? Does it matter whether they messed up the pronunciation, because at least the story was told?

    Syria has an extraordinarily important flora – more than 30% of which is endemic. That’s more than 200 species of flowering plant found nowhere else in the world. It is also home to the wild ancestors of a number of agricultural crops grown across the world. Protecting these wild ancestors will enable people to cross breed to create new versions of these crops, which can help protect against crop diseases.

    You might well ask “does it matter” if these endemics, crop relatives or other wild plants are threatened by the conflict in Syria.

    I don’t know whether the future of this flora is threatened by the conflict or not, because there has been no reporting about it.

    1. Miles – I should be happy because the BBC got it wrong on their flagship radio programme but not elsewhere and because they didn’t mention lots of other wildlife issues.

      I expect the poor should be grateful for crumbs (and know their place) too.

      Even the Labour Party talks of ‘aspiration’. I wish the BBC would get serious about loss of wildlife, of course including plants, and get it right when they do. Falling far short at the moment.

    2. Eye-watering statistics regarding the importance of Syria for plant endemism, Miles. I trust you and a load of other botanists, and, say, Plantlife, have written to the BBC to complain about poor coverage?

      1. Thanks Messi.

        If I were to complain about the BBC not mentioning plants in Syria, where would I stop? I would spend my entire life complaining to the media about every single plant story that wasn’t covered. IT doesnt sound like a particularly good use of the remaining portion of my life.

        More to the point will anyone be complaining to Radio 4 about their incorrect pronunciation of Ibis and Ornithologist, and that the Northern Bald Ibis is not endemic to Syria?

    3. I totally agree with all you say Miles. If I was to similarlly pick out petty flaws in the above critique by Mark, I would say why does an eminent ornithologist not use the latin binomial system instead of using vernacular names which could mean different things in different regions.
      Ibis would be pronounced eebis in languages with a latin base like Spain so maybe this is the correct pronunciation and who is to say it isn’t ? The Today programme certainly brought to my attention something I did not know anything about and so for me was a success!

  2. Thanks Mark.

    I think it’s worth considering what the BBC got wrong and what it got right in the story. Perhaps someone could tally up the correct bits and the incorrect bits and give an overall score.

    Inevitably journalists make mistakes, as we all do (especially me), and that shouldn’t necessarily mean they need to be martyred on the cross of social media.

    I haven’t heard the story on Today ( I will when its available on iplayer) and I’m not an expert on Northern Bald Ibis, so I can’t factcheck each individual element of the story, but I do know that the story was covered and I think it’s fair to say that the overall message was accurate – rare bird facing extinction threatened by war in Syria.

    And sometimes I think yes those in the bird world (sorry to stereotype you Mark) should appreciate just how many bird stories are covered by Radio 4, the BBC in general, and the media even more generally.

    I don’t know whether nature stories in the media is a zero sum game, so for every bird story covered, there’s another nature story which is not picked up. I suspect there is a bit of that though – I can imagine the Today prog editors saying “oh this another nature story, we did that Ibis story on Monday so we’ve “done” nature this week”.

    If that is the case it would be appalling and I agree with you – I too would love the media generally and the BBC in particular to give more air (and web) time to nature in all its glorious variety. But given that this is the position we are in, it might be a good idea for bird-lovers to appreciate the relatively exalted position you are in, when it comes to media coverage, even if it is not 100% accurate (which of course no media coverage every is.)

    1. Miles – I don’t blame you for wanting more plants on the news. So do I.

      When they are, you will probably want their English names to be pronounced properly; also the English name of the people who study them which the BBC will probably think are ‘battanists’ or some such.

      1. What can we expect from an organisation that thinks libraries are full of berks

  3. Meanwhile, the people of the region are being slaughtered wholesale.

    Oooh look, a bird!

    Moving quickly on from death and destruction, we’d do better to concentrate on why this country is an ornithological desert, despite having had the RSPB and numerous other “influential” figures “raising the issue” to no effect for the last 40 years.

    By all means point out to Mr Naughtie how he should pronounce “ibis”. Rhymes with ISIS?

  4. I often have the sense that all science stories on Today suffer from lame questioning…

    1. Too true! I would be very surprised if any of their presenters can boast a science A level between them. Certainly their grasp of science is often embarrassingly weak. More generally I am a loyal listener to the programme, but whenever a science story comes up I wince.

      1. A quick look on Wikipaedia suggests that Sarah Montague has a BSc in Biology from Bristol. Perhaps they ought to let her take the lead on more of these stories. John Humphreys and James Naughtie on the other hand clearly have other areas of expertise.

      2. And what about Adrian Pitches BBC news presenter and producer who won Bird Brain of Britain 2013 !! ?

  5. Thanks Mark.

    When more stories about nature (including plants) are in the news, I will whoop with joy and not worry too much about whether the English names have been correctly pronounced; many plants have a multitude of English names anyway, so there are plenty of choices to choose from. And I won’t worry too much what botanists are called either, just happy to hear the stories.

  6. Jim Nochtie should know better than anyone how annoying it is to have your name mispronounced

  7. I hope Miles is whooping with joy this morning as BBC News online has a piece on the NT aquisition of land on Great Orme and the improved outlook for Cotoneaster cambricus. It doesn’t say whether it is extinct in Syria. Or, being the written word, how to pronounce Cotoneaster.

    1. Thanks Filbert.

      I was very pleased (whoop!) to see the NT acquire such an important site. As well as supporting Creigafal y Gogarth, which Huw Davies would have pronounced perfectly, it is important for supporting threatened butterflies, and may even have a bit of bird interest.

      Unlike Syria, the UK has very few true endemics, due to glaciations wiping pretty much everything out every 15000 years or so. But the genetics suggests Wild cotoneaster is one of them. So this is one thing we have a global responsibility to conserve.

      I pronounce it Wild ( Y-ld) co-tone-E-aster, but others say Cotton-Easter. Who knows who is right. And does it matter? As for the latin name,

      1. as for the latin name, it is now Cotoneaster cambricus having previously been integerrimus. I expect it will change again before too long.

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