Texbirds has buzzed the past several days with blabbing about boors, rare birds, and birding decorum. These are tedious arguments, recycled controversies like listing, collecting, and murderous cats. These debates back stroke through an ocean of regurgitated didacticism, each side quick to float the same fictive belly board used the last lap around this pool.
One Texbirder stated that "there is a big difference between doing what humans do (observation trails, visitor centers, walking in the woods, setting up a scope, etc.) and humans imitating what birds do (pishing and playback)." Another responded that "a little common sense in the field will certainly make the observation of rare species less stressful for the observers, and I'll bet that the bird could care less." A good friend commented that bird stress is "being on the Guadalupe Delta or similar with many 10-12 gauge shotguns blasting from all areas 360 degrees around you whilst roaring a background of multiple airboats roaring crush reeds and marshes full of rails, sparrows, wrens and other wildlife," while another noted that "playing recorded calls and songs or pishing is more of a matter of potential for abuse from gross over use." One made the simple point that "playbacks really get to me."
That last point gets to me. All are commenting on various aspects of carrying capacity, or how much of us can birds or birders stand in one place. Most commentators, without knowing it, are concerned with social rather than ecological disturbance. Ecological carrying capacity is an issue that I face in my business, such as when we contemplate the path of a physical trail. Do we allow a boardwalk near a Lake Huron beach with Houghton's goldenrod? What about conducting a morning bird walk near a nesting Connecticut warbler? Would we organize a group circling a wet meadow, hoping to pen a hapless yellow rail? Would we ride a rail buggy, startle a snowy owl from its perch to get a flight shot, or tramp through a protected area hoping to startle an out-of-place yellow-faced grassquit?
Ecological carrying capacity is the easiest to address. Quantify the impacts, and regulate the effects. The use of tapes (which now, of course, are digital) within a wildlife refuge is forbidden. Access to sensitive areas is often restricted. Consider these National Park Service rules for Yellowstone:
It is illegal to willfully remain near or approach wildlife, including birds, within ANY distance that disturbs or displaces the animal.
In a similar vein, here are the germane snippets from the ABA code of ethics:
To avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger, exercise restraint and caution during observation, photography, sound recording, or filming.
Limit the use of recordings and other methods of attracting birds, and never use such methods in heavily birded areas, or for attracting any species that is Threatened, Endangered, or of Special Concern, or is rare in your local area…
Practice common courtesy in contacts with other people. Your exemplary behavior will generate goodwill with birders and non-birders alike.
Research about birding impacts on birds is still incomplete, but there have been a number of studies of outdoor recreations published in the past decade or so that may serve as analogies. Here are links to a few published recently.
Behavioral responses of nesting birds to human disturbance along recreational trails
Winter tourism increases stress hormone levels in the Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus
Negative effects of tourism in a Brazilian Atlantic forest National Park
Negative effects of wildlife tourism on wildlife
Practices, needs, and attitudes of bird-watching tourists in Australia
Four-legged friend or foe? Dog walking displaces native birds from natural areas
Mountain Biking Trail Use Affects Reproductive Success of Nesting Golden-cheeked Warblers
Sound the stressor: how Hoatzins (Ophistocomus hoazin) react to ecoturist conversation
Impacts of birdwatching on human and avian communities
As Sekercioglu notes in the above paper,
…there are few well-designed, long-term studies of bird disturbance by birdwatchers and other nature observers…a review of 27 studies on the effects of wildlife observation and photography on birds reported negative effects on birds in 19 of the studies, even though most of these may be due to photography rather than birdwatching.
But what if the animal being disturbed is another birder? The general consensus is that low-density, low-impact birding has little affect on birds. There are other stones that break those bones. But what about the impact on birders?
My experience is that people often feel crowded well before wildlife. Yellowstone is used as an example of a park beyond its carrying capacity, but in truth the crowding is limited to the areas that have been developed and enhanced for visitation. Most Yellowstone visitors are not hiking grizzly country.
The same is true for birders. Most stay within the areas that are easily accessed (even by auto along tour loops), and that have been enhanced for birding (observation platforms, feeders, water features). I suspect that most birders visiting Santa Ana NWR, for example, have never actually hiked the entire refuge. Most would prefer sitting on a bench by the visitors' center, waiting for the birds to come to them.
How birders behave in these areas of dense public use, therefore, is seen and experienced by the others who are crowded into the same small space. Birders are the ones that feel crowded along the Magee Marsh boardwalk during spring migration, or in the bleachers at High Island. And what attracts birders to a single spot more readily than a rarity?
I doubt that anyone would have given the RV park outside of Bentsen-Rio Grande SP a second look if not for the recent black-vented oriole. Birders there crowded each other as well as the RV residents with predictable results. The birding lists erupted in a flurry of complaints and counter complaints, but could anyone have been surprised? If you live in an area where these rarities appear with some regularity, like South Texas, you have witnessed the same birder tsunami wash over these refuges and sanctuaries countless times. Birders rush en masse to the most recent foundling, hell-bent on seeing what they believe they have a right to see.
My right to see a bird, like your right, is squat. Our rights to see or watch, for example, are subordinate to the rights of a landholder. If a private landowner does not wish to share the birds on his or her land with us, we have no recourse. Public land, fortunately, is a different matter. Within public lands our activities are regulated by the respective land manager. If the resource agency decides that tapes are not allowed within a park or refuge, then we have no choice but to follow their wishes.
But what about public land where activities such as taping are allowed? If the ecological impacts are negligible, and the resource manager approves, shouldn't birders accept the open invitation and do whatever it takes to see the bird, to perfect their right?
Let's discuss another right, as in right from wrong. Aldo Leopold wrote the following:
A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.
I do not see how a tour leader boom-boxing their way through a tropical forest, bound to show clients some obscure ant-pitta, is preserving the beauty of the biotic community. The natural world includes sound, so how are we preserving the beauty of natural sound spreading our own digitized cacophony? If our actions cause a bird to flee, how have we preserved the stability of the biotic community? I don't care if the bird is harmed, or if the birders who failed to see the bird are angered. I do care if our presence, even for a moment, upsets the integrity and stability of a community that owes me nothing.
There are hunters who stalk deer armed only with a bow and arrow, and there are those who wait for Bambi to saunter over to a mechanical feeder. There are trout fishermen who follow stocking trucks, and those that tie their own flies and practice catch and release. In every wildlife-oriented recreation there is a universe between the getting and the act of getting.
Theodore Roosevelt and others founded the Boone and Crockett Club, one of the nation's first conservation organizations, in part to promote fair chase and a hunting ethic. ABA has done the same for birding, but from time-to-time it is important to remind birders of these tenets. Ethics are principles, not laws. Ethics are adopted by choice, not fiat. ABA has offered its suggestions as to how birders should approach and practice the recreation, and I find merit in them.
I would suggest only one addition. Boone and Crockett's Fair Chase principles include the following:
Behave in a way that will bring no dishonor to either the hunter, the hunted, or the environment.
Restated for our purposes, I would add the following to the ABA Code of Ethics:
Behave in a way that will bring credit to the birder, to the bird, and to the environment.