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“The Will to Conserve”


The opening sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is brilliant. It is diabolical and disagreeable. I can think of no other work of literature that starts off so magnificently. Let’s take a look:

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I can’t stand it. It goes against my whole worldview. And it’s a stroke of genius.

It’s okay to admire and disagree with a writer. I’ll take it a step further: I most esteem the writers who get under my skin, who challenge my beliefs, who upset the applecart.

Which probably explains why I’ve long been drawn toward the genre of American nature writing.


Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)

American nature writers aren’t especially “nice.” The first and perhaps greatest of them all, Henry David Thoreau, was sarcastic and disillusioned about America and its institutions. Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac opens with a broadside on the American way of life (“Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land.”) and concludes with an eerie and despairing reflection on “the still unlovely human mind.” The contemporary American nature writer Terry Tempest Williams, in her unique and disquieting Refuge, recounts the satisfaction of making an obscene gesture at a trio of rednecks who had been harassing a Burrowing Owl colony.

I’ve said it already. I admire these writers. Their rhetoric isn’t affirming. They’re not saying, “I’m okay, You’re okay.” Instead, they get through to me with their hortatory rhetoric. They’re saying to me, in effect, “Don’t just stand there, Do something.”

Fine. Works for me. What about the rest of us? It’s a question I ponder all the time. It affects nearly every decision about what gets published in Birding magazine. It influences my conduct in practically all my birderly affairs: at ABA staff meetings, in conferences and conventions, and anytime I’m out birding with other people.

One might well argue that the hortatory, at times even hostile, rhetoric of American environmentalism is ineffective. Was it a self-fulfilling prophesy when Leopold wrote that conservation is getting nowhere in America? It didn’t help matters, one might argue, when Leopold famously proclaimed, “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.” Everywhere on the pages of A Sand County Almanac there is a clear division between “us” and “them.”

Leopold is undeniably brooding. Williams lashes out in anger. Thoreau’s disobedience is persistent, more than 150 years now since the publication of Resistance to Civil Government. Leopold, Williams, and Thoreau are indisputably great writers. You’re unlikely to persuade me to the contrary. But you might succeed in persuading me that their rhetoric is increasingly misaligned with the environmental movement in the 21st century.


The question of rhetoric was very much on my mind as I worked with author John Rakestraw on his commentary, “Most Birds, Least Harm: Ethical and Effective Birding in a Time of Peak Oil, Economic Collapse, and Mass Extinctions,” in the July/August 2013 Birding, pp. 56–60. Rakestraw and I have broadly convergent agendas and lifestyles. We aspire to be green. We aim to spread the gospel of green.

But how? What’s the best way? Let’s cut to the chase: Was John Rakestraw’s article effective?

imgresPart of the mission of the ABA, published in each and every issue of Birder’s Guide and Birding, is to promote “the will to conserve.” (See p. 2 of your most recent Birder’s Guide, or p. 4 of your most recent Birding.) That’s strong wording. We ABAers aren’t being directed merely to “talk about conservation” or “give some thought to conservation.” No, we’ve been charged to actually do conservation.

The question before us isn’t whether the ABA should have a conservation agenda. That matter seems settled. Instead, the question is one of outcome: How do we best promote “the will to conserve”? It’s a question facing both me and Birder’s Guide Editor Michael Retter. He’s got substantial conservation content planned for the 2014 volume of Birder’s Guide, and I’ve got a lot in the hopper, too, going forward with Birding.

What advice do you have for Michael Retter and me? What sort of green rhetoric is most likely to deliver results? How can the ABA’s publications most effectively promote the will to conserve?

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

  • Frank Izaguirre

    The hope is that environmental literature can inspire people to be conservationists exactly the same way birding does: after exposing a person to something beautiful and vulnerable, s/he will be eager to take part in caring for it.

    But the question of how effective that really is is important to look at. When I taught an environmental literature class last semester, several of my students were inspired to join environmental organizations and claimed they were going to proactively visit and learn more about the natural areas close to them. One woman wrote very movingly about how she planned to take her one year old son to a wild California beach her family had taken her to many times as a child, so that he would grow up with a strong relationship to nature the same way she had. Now that it’s been half a year since the class ended, I would be interested, and also nervous, to see how many of my students have followed up on those ideas. How deeply did the essays, poetry, and short stories we read really change their lives?

    This is a great essay, Ted, although, fittingly, I disagree with some of your ideas. Namely, I don’t like TTW or Refuge. I don’t think she pulled off the cancer story / bird conservation braid. It was really just a cancer memoir with birds sprinkled over it for novelty, since no one had ever done that before. Almost every vignette about birds, while interesting and often lyrical, abruptly ends and moves back to the cancer story. The parts about birds never get substantive, which I found really irritating, and I frankly think has been bad for the environmental literature genre. Now, the template that a lot of environmental writers use is to write about some traumatic experience and metaphorically link it to an environmental disaster. It is no longer worthwhile to write about a landscape or animal for its own sake, the way Rachel Carson wrote in her wonderful books about the sea, or the way John Muir wrote in his many pieces about the Sierras or in his beautiful essay “The Water Ouzel.”

    I don’t think an angry tone makes for effective environmental literature. The most persuasive environmental writing I’ve come across is written in a tone that is sensitive and contemplative, never angry. My favorite examples are the memoirs and essays of Alexander Skutch, such as “The Convivial Ascetic” from the book A Naturalist Amid Tropical Splendor, where he discusses frugality as a form of expressing our love for birds and other creatures. Among the consumptive habits he calls into question are eating meat, smoking cigarettes, and drinking alcohol, since each of these activities destroys the habitats of birds for completely unnecessary bodily pleasures. That really made me look at things.

    • Ted Floyd

      Great comments from Frank Izaguirre. In particular:

      “It is no longer worthwhile to write about a landscape or animal for its own sake, the way Rachel Carson wrote in her wonderful books about the sea, or the way John Muir wrote in his many pieces about the Sierras or in his beautiful essay ‘The Water Ouzel.’ ”

      The writer who is most notable in this regard, in my opinion, is Henry Beston (1888-1968). His “Outermost House,” published in 1928, is pure sensory experience, primal and cathartic. You sense that you’re right there, seeing and hearing and smelling and feeling the Cape Cod shoreline. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. Beston’s agenda is, as you put it, “a landscape or animal for its own sake.”

      Muir and Carson aren’t as “pure,” I would argue. Muir’s paean to the water ouzel (i.e., the American dipper) exalts the bird for “interpreting all that we in our unbelief call terrible in the utterances of torrents and storms as only varied expressions of God’s eternal love.” And Carson’s “Silent Spring” (not the work you allude to above, I well realize) is loaded with sentiment such as the following: “Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?”

      Muir and Carson are undeniably famous–in large part, I believe, for their critical examination of the human element in nature. Beston is less successful, I suspect, because he is “merely” a literary landscape painter. And wouldn’t you say that Carson’s polemical “Silent Spring” is more famous than her evocative “Under the Sea Wind”?

      It’s hard–it’s futile, perhaps–to try to identify an overarching theme in the diverse genre that is American nature writing. That said, the most famous nature writers are, on average, the ones who have tackled head-on the human dimension: Thoreau, Leopold, Carson, etc.

      Frank continues:

      “I don’t think an angry tone makes for effective environmental literature. The most persuasive environmental writing I’ve come across is written in a tone that is sensitive and contemplative, never angry.”

      This is an important point…about which I am decidedly undecided… 🙂

      Some writers clearly have made a difference–for example, Thoreau and Carson. In their words, I actually do sense anger. And even if it’s not outright anger, it’s surely some combination of sarcasm, distress, and social criticism. I mean, look at the famous quote, above, from Carson’s “Silent Spring.” Meanwhile, the purists–I mentioned Henry Beston–seem not to have been as influential.

      Sorry to leave you hanging with my indecisive and unresolved ponderings, but, honestly, I’m just not sure where I stand on this one. On the one hand, I’m aligned with Aldo Leopold and others: I just cannot escape the idea that there is an essential conflict between the agendas of environmentalism and progress. On the other hand, I’m aware of and intrigued by the emerging contemporary idea that being “green” is compatible with “success.” I’ve run out of hands, and we still haven’t confronted the real question, namely, what is “success”? I think our society needs to figure out that one . . .

      • Frank Izaguirre

        That’s a good point about Beston. His legacy just hasn’t aged as nicely as the others. And with Carson, again, good point. An even better example than Under the Sea-Wind might be The Sea Around Us, which was actually on The New York Times Bestseller List for 80+ weeks, and yet is still not even close to being remembered as well as Silent Spring.

        But we also shouldn’t forget that there would be no Silent Spring without The Sea Around Us, since the success of The Sea Around Us is what allowed Carson to focus on completing Silent Spring even as she was dying of cancer. Perhaps the confrontational and purist forms of nature writing are inextricably linked.

        I do think that the angry tone, currently, is often divisive and self-defeating. What the genre may be needing is a return to origins, like the sense of wonder (Carson again), which can do so much to convince people of the importance of conservation.

        A contemporary form of nature writing where I see some promise is immersion journalism-style pieces about conservation issues around the world, particularly by Jonathan Franzen, but also by writers like Scott Weidensaul, Gus Axelson, Don Stap, and others. I think they’re excellent because they deliver important information, refrain from preaching, and incorporate the sense of wonder. I can’t totally explain why, but something about them seems very timely.

  • Kirby Adams

    When you notice the vinegar isn’t catching any flies, don’t try to increase your catch with more and stronger vinegar. Echoing what Frank said above, a tone of anger will generally have the opposite of the desired effect, whether it be nature writing, scholarly debate, or an argument with the spouse. The only thing you can convey that is worse than anger is superiority. It’s why I’ll send someone to Rachel Carson long before I’d let them know Ed Abbey exists. I love old Ed, but when he’s preaching to anyone other than the choir, it’s not often received well. (Yes, I realize Carson and Abbey are both dead…I speak of their words in present tense.)

    The arrogance and superiority thing is also why Neil deGrasse Tyson is making a huge difference in the fight against anti-intellectualism and Richard Dawkins is making people hate science. Again, I personally like Dawkins, but the condescending ridicule he keeps spewing is not winning any converts. Quite the contrary.

    We need to use honey – enormous amounts of honey – to catch these flies. There are two ways to solicit protection of a Cerulean Warbler:

    A: See this beautiful bird? Every sip of sun-grown coffee from Colombia you drink is killing it. Do you want that blood on your hands? I gave up coffee all together. What are YOU going to do???

    B: See this beautiful bird? Let me tell you something about its natural history…..Gulf crossing……80% decline…..shade coffee……I’d love to have some help spreading the word about this little blue bird and how we can help it by promoting shade coffee.

    The same people that would respond with a middle finger to A, will often ask you for more information about B. Ask for help, don’t demand action. Be humble. Be positive, not visibly alarmist (even when alarm is warranted!). Be passionate, but honest. Most of all, be empathetic to those who have no interest in nature and conservation. That’s how you get the same in return, and before you know it, you’re agreeing on things.

    • Frank Izaguirre

      The cerulean warbler example is a good one. Part of what I think makes advocating concrete conservation actions so difficult is that it often involves telling people what to do with their money, which is inherently distasteful: send money to public or private entities so they can acquire land, or don’t spend money on products that are damaging to the environment.

      I think it’s actually easier to advocate spending money, since you can always just attach the qualifier “if you can.” Telling people to not buy things they like is truly unpleasant. The easiest scenario is when you can simply suggest purchasing one product instead of the other, such as shade grown coffee. But that’s not always the case.

      I also think it should be noted that although some canonized examples of environmental literature use an angry tone, I have never seen anything like that in any issue of Birding, although I have seen it in other conservation-minded magazines.

      I’m very much looking forward to Rakestraw’s article because I think Ted’s central question here, how do we promote conservation in our community, is such a difficult one to answer.

    • Ted Floyd

      As Kirby Adams notes:

      “The arrogance and superiority thing is also why Neil deGrasse Tyson is making a huge difference in the fight against anti-intellectualism and Richard Dawkins is making people hate science. Again, I personally like Dawkins, but the condescending ridicule he keeps spewing is not winning any converts. Quite the contrary.”

      Excellent to bring out Richard Dawkins. He doesn’t write within the narrow confines of the genre of “American nature writing,” but his broader agenda is relevant: Dawkins’ concern is for the environment, for humanity, and for the nexus of the two. Dawkins is undeniably a polarizing figure. But is he really “making people hate science”? I’ve pondered the question before. I’m not convinced he can be blamed for that.

      Dawkins was recently rated the world’s top thinker. Not just a pretty good thinker, or one of the best, or one of the very best, but, simply, The Best. Here:

      In Dawkins’ writings, there are unmistakable threads of sarcasm, ridicule, and, many would say, anger. So it is with some of his most noteworthy contemporaries, e.g., Paul Ehrlich and Paul Krugman.

      Is there another way? Kirby cites Neil deGrass Tyson. To that list I might add Jared Diamond, E. O. Wilson, the late Stephen Jay Gould, and the late Carl Sagan. (It’s interesting that Tyson was mentored both by Gould and especially Sagan.)

      What’s more effective?–the populist and avuncular tones struck by Diamond, Wilson, and Tyson? Or the darker, harsher rhetoric of Krugman, Ehrlich, and especially Dawkins?

      I think it’s fair to say that people at least pay attention to Krugman, Ehrlich, and Dawkins. People have also paid attention to Darwin, Marx, and Freud. But have they made a difference? That’s Kirby Adams’ question, it seems to me.

      • Kirby Adams

        I want to write a lengthy response to this, but I keep putting it off for trivial things – like my job and birding. But I’ll take a quick swing at a couple things:

        Gould is an interesting case. (I realize we’re diverging far from actual “nature writers” here, but I think popular science writing is parallel in its goals and methods to its subset nature/conservation writing.) I’d list Gould as among the the top handful of popular science writers ever. When I first met my wife, she had a keen interest in science but almost no education in the field. One of the first books I handed her was Gould’s “Full House”, which she now lists as one of the works that changed the way she looks at everything. (David Quammen’s “Song of the Dodo”, Bill Bryson’s “Short History of Nearly Everything”, and Wilson’s “The Diversity of Life” being the others.) But Gould opens another can of worms in this debate with his decidedly erudite writing. Sometimes I think only an armchair polymath with significant background in biology, theology, history, linguistics, and baseball can fully appreciate the message as delivered by Gould. E.O. Wilson, to contrast, is much more accessible, even when discussing a topic as steeped in esoteric mathematics as island biogeography. That’s another dichotomy to consider in science/nature writing along with the indignant/avuncular debate.

        Regarding Dawkins and whether his message is successful, I’ll let Tyson elucidate my fears in this video. (WARNING: Dawkins uses an obscenity at the end.) This exchange illustrates why I adore both of these scientists, despite my misgivings for Dawkins’ approach.

        • Ted Floyd

          Two responses.

          1. Re: Dawkins. What he says (or, precisely, what he attributes to an editor at New Scientist) is, in essence, the same as what Aldo Leopold has written. With apologies to Leopold, “There are those reject a science-based worldview, and those who do not. My calling is to those who do not.” Different rhetoric, for sure, but it’s the same message: “Either you’re with us, or you’re against us.”

          Richard Lewontin, a colleague of the late Stephen Jay Gould (see below), speaks of our “prior commitment” to either a scientific worldview or an anti-scientific worldview. Leopold, Dawkins, et al. aren’t trying to win converts; instead they’re preaching to the choir.

          Which approach is better? In my opinion, the jury’s out on this one. It’s fair to say that Dawkins isn’t looking for common ground; rather, he’s looking to extinguish the opposition, with the help of an inspired and informed “choir” (ironic word choice in light of Dawkins’ hatred of religion).

          2. Re: Gould. Good point, and the Gould “vs.” Wilson matter has long intrigued me. Gould was unique–a sort of populist intellectual. His methods were the methods of the dyed-in-the-wool intellectual: metaphor, allusion, deconstruction, etc. Yet he authored popular books, he wrote for popular magazines, and he lectured in a popular style. Wilson is different: charming and logical, literal and factual, and passionate. Wilson gets the message across, too.

          One more thing. There’s commentary about all of this in today’s New York Times. Here:

          • Kirby Adams

            Preaching to the choir is all well and good, but there’s a reason that phrase is used to allude to a wasteful use of time, effort, and resources. As you say, Dawkinsian characters aren’t out to win converts, so in that light their potential isn’t wasted. But why AREN’T they trying to win converts? Sure, there are those who will never come around, but what about the great mass of “undecided voters?” We need those converts, in my opinion. Preaching to the choir may rally the troops, which is great, but let’s win over some hearts while we’re at it or.

            I think there’s room at our pulpit for preachers in the mold of Dawkins and Tyson – of Gould and Wilson. Are the pews filled with existing naturalists? Intellectuals and professionals? School children? Politicians? What is the audience at “Birding?” I’m betting your answer to that is, “It depends!”

            We could plot these methods into four nifty quadrants with axes of avuncular-to-angry and simple-to-erudite.

          • Ted Floyd

            Re: “four nifty quadrants with axes of avuncular-to-angry and simple-to-erudite.” See the attached image. Note that two other dimensions, namely, genre and skill, are not shown. Four-dimensional figures don’t reproduce well in WordPress… 😉

            More to the point, genre and skill would be distractions. Our focus here is on how to broadcast the message, given that (a) we’re kinda stuck on genre (ABA publications) and (b) we can’t do a whole lot about skill (the birding community is represented by diverse and worthy voices of varying rhetorical abilities).

            I’ve “normalized” John Rakestraw’s essay so that it’s right smack dab in the middle. Relative to Rakestraw’s essay, where do you want to see other articles in Birding?

            (Remember: Where a writer places on this graph says nothing about his or her skill; Twain, Shakespeare, Conrad, and Austen occupy four different quadrants, and they were all inarguably great writers.)

          • Frank Izaguirre

            Wow, what a fantastic graph. I would plot Abbey higher on the y-axis and I think Carson averages much more “avuncular,” although perhaps you’re mainly just plotting Silent Spring? Happy to see Skutch on their too, although some of his work I would plot much further down on the y-axis.

            I think Rakestraw’s article was very well suited for Birding, and I’d like to comment more on that in the future. Some articles for Birding might work well drifting further toward the avuncular. One previously published piece about the rise of young birder clubs comes to mind.

            I can see Birding articles placing up and down on the y-axis relative to Rakestraw and still being completely successful because variety in the writing styles represented in the magazine can be inherently worthwhile. I think a negative value on the x-axis (angry) is not well suited for Birding, although a part of me would be interested to see it attempted.

          • Ted Floyd

            The article on the rise of young birder clubs is this one:

            “Birding Beyond Binoculars: The Story of a Young Birders Club,” by Chad Williams, Birding, January/February 2013, pp. 48-53

            That article inspired many thoughtful and provocative comments here at The ABA Blog. See for yourself:


          • Kirby Adams

            Hey, I want royalties on that graph! Excellent work, Ted. I have trouble quibbling with any of the placements. I have to agree mostly with Frank’s answer to where articles in Birding should head. I’ve marked three regions on the graph. The green ellipse is where I believe the most impact happens – referencing Tyson’s use of “impact” in that video as a blending of truth and sensitivity. The red ellipse is where the most attention is gained – keeping in mind that notoriety is no synonymous with positive impact. The blue is where I believe the most impact is had on me, personally, picturing myself reading prose from outside my comfort zone. Since the magazine isn’t titled “Birding for Kirby”, I’d say the majority of articles should fall within the green with judicious forays into the red and perhaps the blue.

  • J. Drew Lanham

    Thanks for writing this Ted. As a birder who also happens to be a professional
    ornithologist and Certified Wildlife Biologist (TWS), I sit in some ways uniquely at a three way split between those who deem themselves mostly as passive watchers (birders), those who call themselves the torch bearers for research and investigation (ornithologists) and those who see themselves carrying the brunt of the conservation work with applied research /management including consumptive activities like hunting
    (biologists). More than a split exists here I think. It seems more like a chasm to me and it is eroding to grow wider and deeper–a widening conservation canyon much to the detriment of birds and all other life on earth.

    A lot of this comes down to the dreaded “E” word–education. While “will” is important–I think the “way” is through education. Birders must inform themselves of the issues –beyond just wind farms, windows and feral cats–to understand the complexities of
    conservation in this country and how to join a fight that desperately needs all of our voices.

    Some of this means practicing some exercise in humility to understand that we don’t know it all just because we bird with the most expensive optics, drink the right coffee or drive the most fuel efficient car.

    As I deliver conservation -focused talks at birding festivals–big and small–there often seems to be little interest in the subject. At my recent talk at the Tucson Audubon festival, there were fewer than ten folks who showed up for a talk on bird conservation. Most of them were Audubon volunteers who I was ecstatic to see there. But where were the well-meaning birders who might need to learn something about things like
    the Conservation Reserve Program or Pittman-Robertson? I was pretty much preaching to the choir. Now that absence could have very well been attributable to yours truly and some lack of interest I generate, but then I learned that other such talks
    seem to garner the same lack of interest as most attendees would rather chase rarities and regional specialties. As Tucson Audubon continues to press this conservation issue locally perhaps an awakening will come in future years. But seeing so few birders interested in being educated about something so critical is disheartening. TA’s Executive Director Dr. Paul Green seems driven to do more and I hope to be a part of that effort.

    And then I’m given hope too. At the Biggest Week in American Birding where Kim and Kenn Kaufman do such an amazing job of pushing conservation, the audiences are bigger and folks snap up the non-game/watchable wildlife stamps and many of the duck stamps are sold too. But then I still heard birders here and there at the refuge decrying the duck stamp as a license for hunters to kill birds and therefore not something they will support. More work to do still.

    I love the roadside sign near BSBO that says “Birders do you part and buy a duck stamp to support conservation”. Seeing Ohio state wildlife law enforcement at the Black Swamp boardwalk and seeing folks stop by to understand a little bit how conservation works is a heartening thing. But then we need to do more still beyond the festivals. Let’s find more places to teach. More places to preach.

    Confession here. I happen to be a hunter and a birder. That I sometimes kill birds
    to save others is lost on many birders. That I watch more birds than I kill puzzles more than a few hunters. But then it is understandable why many hunters don’t respect birders who not only don’t seem to be informed on important issues of conservation but also why they don’t seem to put their money where there mouths are–helping to pay for conservation by buying licenses that in effect torquing the funding for wildlife research, monitoring and management state by state. One need not be a hunter to buy a hunting license or a duck stamp. Doing so does not license killing but gives more leverage to funding that states can use not only for hook and bullet efforts but for watchable wildlife too. Similarly, where hunters have the opportunity to buy non-game and watchable wildlife stamps they should be encouraged to do so. It should be a team effort. We are all after the same thing I think. Maybe sometimes with somewhat different ends –a list versus game in the bag–but conservation is the ultimate tie that will bind us into success–or if we do not join forces–failure.

    I proudly belong to the ABA and ABC. I am also a member of DU and several other
    hunter/conservation orgs. There’s no conflict in my mind between folks who love to watch birds from a duck blind or from a camera blind. Birders should educate themselves as to what they can do to help close the chasm. Let’s understand how gutting the Farm Bill negatively impacts grassland and early-successional birds. Let’s familiarize ourselves with Pittman-Robertson and understand that hunting license
    sales and over-the-counter-firearm and archery tackle sales contribute significant amounts of money to conservation coffers. Hunters need to understand the passion that those who pursue without intent to take home anything other than a list can contribute to the cause. Managing for songbirds is good for deer, turkey and variety of other game species. We’re all after the same thing–just in different ways.

    I watch lots of birds from my deer stand and in the spring turkey woods. Understanding that the game I pursue is connected to the songbirds that inhabit the same ground is easy for me. For others, somehow that connection seems to get lost. I suspect that there are more of us birder-hunters out there who could help the cause by bridging the conservation chasm. Pete Dunne stepped out years ago and so has former President Jimmy Carter. A few more of us speaking up couldn’t hurt. Also, non-hunting birders who understand the connection have an obligation to get the conservation messages out too. The more voices the better.

    And so the “E” word– In my classroom where I teach wildlife policy and ethics the students who see themselves on the birder side of the aisle and the students who
    see themselves sitting on the conservation side of the aisle depict the potential future chasm that splits our potentially powerful efforts as bird and wildlife advocates in a bad way. They come to the class with preconceived notions that a “conservationist” and an “environmentalist” are mutually exclusive passions. I ask the students to step outside of
    their boxes–think about what it means to be an ethical hunter if you don’t hunt or think about what it means to be an impassioned birder if you’ve never done that. Then ask yourself how being out of that comfort zone makes you a better conservationist-or environmentalist. I force them to talk across the chasm and come up with ideas that can move conservation forward in a new and collaborative way.

    I do the same in my conservation ornithology class where I focus not just on bird identification by sight and sound but also on the critical and complex conservation issues that face birds and all other beings–including us. At the end of the day many of them do come to some middle ground and I’m encouraged when young people begin to see that there are more that should bind us together than should split us apart.

    In my role as a nature writer I try to passionately communicate my love for wild things and places. That includes birds and their habitats. In that passion to save–love–conserve, perhaps I am brooding and not so nice sometimes about what needs to be
    done. Maybe folks are tired of hearing me “preach” about it. Maybe they’re growing weary of reading my words too. I used to feel badly about this until I thought about what’s at stake. It’s time to make a difference and if being in the company of not so nice folks like Aldo Leopold is what it takes to get it done, then I’m on board. After all, Aldo was an ardent birder who seemed to value his bins as much as his guns.

    I’ve written about this in several of my blogs– and
    also on the Birding is Fun blog. I invite you to check it out.

    J. Drew Lanham

    • Ted Floyd

      Excellent thoughts from J. Drew Lanham.

      First, just a quick note about something. Regarding birder-hunters, Lanham notes, “Pete Dunne stepped out years ago.” Newer ABA members may not realized that Pete Dunne stepped out, among other places, in our own Birding magazine. Here’s a PDF of Dunne’s essay, “Common Ground”:

      Second, regarding this:

      “As I deliver conservation-focused talks at birding festivals–big and small–there often seems to be little interest in the subject. At my recent talk at the Tucson Audubon festival, there were fewer than ten folks who showed up for a talk on bird conservation. […] I was pretty much preaching to the choir. Now that absence could have very well been attributable to yours truly and some lack of interest I generate, but then I learned that other such talks seem to garner the same lack of interest as most attendees would rather chase rarities and regional specialties.”

      This vexes us too at Birding magazine. Conservation articles–we’ve run dozens since I’ve been here–tend not to get noticed. Yes, part of the problem may be the subject matter: Perhaps the readership/membership is just more interested in shorebird ID, warbler taxonomy, and counting exotics. But we also have to be honest and ask ourselves if we’re not writing about and otherwise presenting conservation the right way.

      Bird conservation tends to practiced by professionals who very naturally think in terms of agencies and committees, stakeholders and partnerships, laws and regulations, and those dreaded TLAs (“three-letter acronymns”). That mode of thinking doesn’t translate well, I have found, into articles for Birding magazine. We’ve tried it. My predecessors at Birding have tried it. If we’re honest, it hasn’t worked too well; we’ve had some notable successes, but we’ve also had some flubs. We need other approaches.

      I’m keen on hearing readers’ reactions to John Rakestraw’s “Most Birds, Least Harm” in the current issue. Whatever else you think of Rakestraw’s commentary, you cannot fault it for an overuse of TLA’s. Indeed, there are none in his essay.

      Another notable recent example, in my opinion, is Scott Smithson’s article in the July 2012 issue, “The Green Big Day,” pp. 46-53. What do y’all think? Was Smithson’s article effective?

      Finally, there is the, hmm, stealth approach. I refer to such articles as Bill Pranty’s “Introducing the Purple Swamphen,” Birding, May/June 2013, pp. 38-45. A lot of conservation issues are touched on in Pranty’s article. If you read through it–and, given reader feedback, I know that many people did just that–you actually got a pretty heavy dose of contemporary wildlife management theory and practice. Perhaps without even realizing it!

      No question about it, there are diverse voices for conservation advocacy. And, ultimately, we’re all in this thing together: Thoreau, Leopold, and Williams; Dawkins, Krugman, and Ehrlich; Wilson, Diamond, and Tyson; Dunne, Smithson, and Rakestraw; and Lanham, Izaguirre, and Adams. But the proximate question, we all seem to be saying, is: How are we to be effective? Specifically, in this venue, how are we at Birding magazine and the ABA to be effective?

  • Brittny Martin

    I believe for the American public is a question of “what’s in it for me?”. It’s not hard to come up with many positive and desirable out comes to conservation but on the conversationalist `s part it will be give and take, or a two way street. We may not make huge headway all at once but the battles won to convince people of the great wonder and joy of living with Gods beautiful creations, in harmony, at worth the Patience and persistence of all of us! I strike peoples interest all the time. My father in law wanted to clear a bunch of “dead ugly trees” on our property and i convinced him it was more aesthetically pleasing if we trim up the trees a little and install nest boxes to enjoy! He laughed at me for being a “tree hugger”but he went along with it! Score!

  • Ted Floyd

    Hey, y’all. The conversation continues here:

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