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    Boors (Good Birds and Bad Behavior)

    Scout's Woods Birders during fallout; Ted Lee Eubanks 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.




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    Ted Lee Eubanks

    Ted Lee Eubanks

    Ted Lee Eubanks is president and CEO of Fermata Inc. an Austin-based global leader is sustainable tourism and outdoor recreation. Eubanks and Fermata were responsible for developing the first birding trails, in Texas, in the early 1990s. He has served on the national boards of Audubon and the CLO, and received the first ABA Chan Robbins Award in 2000. Eubanks writes extensively about birds, conservation, and sustainability, and has coauthored two books about birds (The Birdlife of Houston, Galveston, and the Upper Texas Coast, and Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail). To continue his work connecting people to places, birders to birds, Eubanks has formed a new company, Great American Trails, which is using new technologies to attract new constituents to the outdoors.
    Ted Lee Eubanks

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    • Erik Bruder

      I’ve been wrestling with this issue for a while and have been working on a draft for a letter to Birding. The biggest concern I have is that the people who seem to cause the most issues have either never read the ABA Code of Ethics or willfully choose to ignore the recommendations.

      I think the crucial element is the line that says “Please Follow this Code and Distribute and Teach it to Others”. I’ve seen birders turn a blind eye to inappropriate behavior and not say a word. I guess I’m lucky that I’m not shy. I carry extra copies of the COE in my field bag and politely coach where necessary. I’ve been subject to some verbal abuse from boors but I’ve also made some friends.

      I would recommend also adding a sentence about getting involved if you see bad behavior, don’t just sit on the sidelines and gripe in an online medium at some later date. I always liked the thought: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

    • http://www.yourbirdoasis.com Chantelle Simoes

      This may be your best bit yet Ted! You had me hooked at “regurgitated didacticism” and “fictive belly board”. Really top notch writing, I appreciate giving you all the time I just took to read that, thank you.

    • Alex Watson

      I love the term “Boom Boxing”. . .
      It conjures exactly the image of bad behavior and what we should always avoid.

    • Steve Gast

      I would add that, before we decide in a broad brush stroke that playback is a bad thing, a priori, with respect to serving to preserve the biotic community, we need to assess whether the birding tour business is a positive or a negative in this sense. In many far-flung tropical forests, the only reason a local land-owner or a lodge exists is precisely because birders will come and pay for an experience to see such bird response. In such cases a playback response may be all the presents an economic incentive protect and not to log or slash-and-burn a property containing a hard to see or rare species.

      The above notwithstanding – Very well said, Ted.

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