“Birds undeniably contribute to our pleasure and standard of living. But they also are sensitive indicators of the environment, a sort of ‘ecological litmus paper,’ and hence more meaningful than just chickadees and cardinals to brighten the suburban garden, grouse and ducks to fill the sportsman’s bag, or rare warblers and shorebirds to be ticked off the birder’s checklist. The observation of birds leads inevitably to environmental awareness.”
Those are the opening words from the most famous and influential bird book of all time, A Field Guide to the Birds by Roger Tory Peterson. Practically every birder I’ve met would agree with Peterson’s credo that “[t]he observation of birds leads inevitably to environmental awareness.” If you have anything more than the slightest passing interest in birds, you inevitably discover the importance of, say, habitat protection and clean water. And many birders go way beyond those basic environmental precepts; today’s birders tend to have a gratifyingly sophisticated understanding of such complex topics as invasive organisms, landscape ecology, and climate change.
It’s one thing to be aware of the environment. It’s quite another to do something with that awareness. What do birders do? For starters, many birders support the environmental cause by providing financial support to The Nature Conservancy, the National Audubon Society, and so forth. Birders also provide support via the electoral process, by voting for candidates or referenda aligned with environmentally friendly actions. And birders roll up their sleeves from time to time: They join in efforts to plant trees or pick up trash, they visit classrooms, they volunteer at parks and refuges.
Yes, most birders have gone “green.” I don’t mean they all vote for Green Party candidates, or even for Democrats. In their thoughts and words, though, most birders are concerned about the environment. I doubt there are many birders who smile at the sight of habitat destruction, who get a chuckle out of polluted waterways.
Hannah Floyd (left) and Ted Floyd (right) have enlisted in Lafayette Elementary’s “Bike to School” effort. Everybody has gone “green,” it would seem. But could we be doing more for the environment? Photo by Kei Sochi.
Here’s another generalization I’m willing to make: Most birders are affluent. I don’t mean they’re all millionaires, or even especially “comfortable.” But birding is a leisure activity, plain and simple. Show me a poor, starving bird bum, and I’ll show you a young adult who had a good upbringing: access to generally good nutrition and schooling, and—more than anything else—all-important access to opportunity.
By virtue of their affluence, birders get around. They burn up the frequent-flier miles; they own and make frequent use of SUVs with poor fuel efficiency. They wear expensive clothes, they stay in hotels, they eat out. Birders carry expensive optics. They own lots of bird books. Birding is a hugely consumptive hobby. Birders’ hearts and minds may well be “green,” but their lifestyles are anything but.
What are we to make of the vexing disconnect between birders’ environmental beliefs and consumptive ways?
“Conservation is getting nowhere,” wrote Aldo Leopold in the famous forward to A Sand County Almanac, because of our “Abrahamic” sense of entitlement. The world is ours to do with as we please, to consume and commodify. A rare bird is reported, and the chase is on! Grab the Leica scope, toss it in the back of the Lexus SUV, swing by the ATM for gas money (and swing by Mickey D’s for carbs), and hit the road!
Like Henry David Thoreau before him, Leopold retreated from the consumer lifestyle by engaging in low-tech living in the country. Thoreau and Leopold and others of their ilk are typically portrayed as mavericks, radicals even. Their rhetoric is dire and urgent, at times militant. Who among us could ever pledge to live according to the “land ethic” prescribed by Leopold?
And yet it occurs to me that Thoreau and Leopold anticipated what we birders nowadays refer to as “patchwork”—the intensive, low-budget, highly rewarding study of birds around our “patches,” that is to say, parks and open space near home.
Gee, that was easy. By committing ourselves to patchwork, we birders achieve the ambitious, even revolutionary, vision of Aldo Leopold.
Of course, it’s not that simple. For one thing, the mainstream birding culture in North America isn’t terribly friendly to the idea of patchwork. In order to become a “good” birder, the argument goes, one has to get around a fair bit, consuming an awful lot in the process. Another obstacle is that Leopold’s fundamentally agrarian outlook is unrealistic in the twenty-first century. It would be nice if every birder—indeed every person—could retreat to his or her own “shack,” the name Leopold gave to his idyllic getaway in Sauk County, Wisconsin. Sorry, but that was a pleasant—almost elitist—fantasy for the first half of the twentieth century.
We’re in need of another way forward, it seems to me, in this rapidly urbanizing, constantly technologizing world of ours.
Enter the American Birding Association (ABA).
I think the ABA could lead the way in the “greening” of American society. Here’s how. On the one hand, the ABA would do well to heed Leopold’s denunciation of our society’s Abrahamic character. On the other hand, the ABA might consider an action that would have been perplexing, to say the least, to Leopold: I think the ABA should move its headquarters to a major American city.
The future home of the ABA? By moving to a large city, might the ABA help advance a deeply meaningful transformation of American society? Photo by Bill Schmoker—http://www.schmoker.org/BirdPics/
Cities are full of people; we all know that. Cities are likewise full of wonderful “patches,” a fact lost on many urbanites, including birders. Imagine if the ABA were headquartered at New York’s Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge or Philadelphia’s John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. Thousands of people visit those refuges—local patches writ large—during the course of the year. Imagine if the ABA were able to reach practically all those visitors with Leopold’s “land ethic” and Peterson’s conviction that birds contribute to our pleasure and standard of living.
The upshot? The ABA might go down in the history books as the organization that finally succeeded at propelling American society toward Leopold’s ultimate vision:
“Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.”