I was recently interviewed for a profile in the current issue of Birding, and now I'm an ABA blogger! This is all a great honor, but also very humbling and scary, because I know better birders than I who have yet to receive the same recognition. (You can read a PDF of the Birding article here.) Fortunately for anyone concerned that my head is going to swell up, I couldn’t bask in the pleasure of appearing in Birding for long. The very day my copy arrived in the mail, a reader sent me a very angry email about my “profoundly disappointing answer” to Noah Strycker’s question, “Out of your 101 ways to help birds, which one would make the most difference?”
In an issue as complex as bird conservation, it’s simply impossible to choose a single thing that is absolutely the most important, especially when I didn't have space for a lengthy, detailed explanation. That’s why I wrote an entire book, 101 Ways to Help Birds, on the subject. In my Birding answer, I focused on saving natural resources (water, energy, paper and other wood products), making our windows safer, keeping cats indoors, driving a bit less and more slowly, buying a Duck Stamp, and, if we drink coffee, switching to bird-friendly coffee. I explained what shade-grown coffee is, but am embarrassed that I forgot to specify that the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center is the only entity that not only ensures that coffee they certify is organic and shade grown, but that 100 percent of the coffee sold with their “Bird Friendly” certification is grown on plantations that the Smithsonian surveys to ensure appropriate species diversity.
These are issues I discuss a lot when giving talks to diverse audiences. But I left out another very important way to help birds, one that is specifically pertinent to Birding’s readership. In my book, one of my 101 Ways to Help Birds is, “Report bird sightings to the local birder hotline, state ornithological society, and eBird.” I explained why this is essential for bird conservation. When used by enough birders, eBird in particular can provide essential information about declining populations that can be used in raising awareness of a species’ plight and informing conservation action plans.
My book was published in 2006, before eBird made huge advances which have made it extremely user-friendly, and before it reached a critical mass of participants, making eBird and eBird-based applications extremely useful for getting birders timely information about rare bird sightings. Now BirdsEye, for example, can alert birders about the exact whereabouts of exciting birds using eBird data. When I was at the Space Coast Birding and Nature Festival in 2010, BirdsEye took me to the exact spot in the Viera Wetlands where a Masked Duck was swimming. And a simple Google tool posts eBird records of birds we need for particular locations right on our homepage.
But beyond the usefulness for birders, the data in eBird allow conservation scientists to keep track of birds in ways that it’s no longer economically feasible for researchers to do on their own. The more birders who use eBird, the better for everyone. Using eBird properly takes some discipline, because precise location data and numbers for each species reported are critical. But the team from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon has worked tirelessly to make data entry increasingly easy. Just for good measure, eBird also keeps track of our lists for us.
Important as eBird is as a conservation tool, I don’t think it’s possible to list it, or any other single thing, as the one “most important” thing we can do for birds. Accurate numbers are necessary but not sufficient for ensuring adequate protection for species of concern. For example, the Greater Sage-Grouse occupies only about 44 percent of its historical range, and data from all kinds of sources show it continues to decline dangerously. But that data haven’t helped get the species listed to get protection under the Endangered Species Act, even as the US Fish and Wildlife Service admits it deserves it. eBird data can help California Condor researchers keep track of individual birds, but a lot more is necessary than that to keep the public from tossing zinc-laden pennies into the Grand Canyon (one source of mortality for condors); reducing the waste stream in the national park, though necropsied condors have tragic amounts of trash in their digestive tracts; or limiting hunters in the condor areas of Arizona and Utah to using non-lead shot and bullets only, despite the fact that lead from hunting is the main cause of mortality for condors. The complexities of bird conservation are exactly why I started my answer to the question, “Boy—that's hard to say.”
On another issue altogether, after reading the interview, a few people asked me why I have Joan Baez’s autograph in my Stiles and Skutch Costa Rica field guide. She was performing in Duluth in 2000, a couple of months before my first trip to Costa Rica. In preparation for the trip, I was bringing my field guide everywhere to study up whenever I had a free moment. It turned out that I was invited backstage after the concert to get to meet Baez. I wanted her autograph, but the only paper I had on me was in the field guide.
I also asked Joan Baez what her favorite birds are. She answered the nightingale and the Western Meadowlark for their songs (yes, she’s been to Europe, and yes, she knew the difference between Eastern and Western Meadowlarks), and also the chickadee, because it’s the only bird that will eat out of her hand. She told me about a tree house that she spent a lot of time in feeding her chickadees. A few years later, CBS Sunday Morning did a profile of her, and sure enough—there she was in her tree house, feeding chickadees!
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