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Birders are turning into raptors

| Monday, July 14, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

When I was young, one of my most valued possessions was a Golden Nature Guide to birds. It introduced me to the avian creatures around me, teaching me their names and providing me with fascinating tidbits about their lives.

It's also where I learned the term “bird-watchers” to describe those who enjoyed observing and learning about birds. I was proud to call myself a bird-watcher.

Sadly, in the decades since, the enjoyment of birds has evolved from a passive hobby to a competitive sport. It's no longer sufficient to simply view the birds around you to appreciate their beauty or satisfy a curiosity regarding how they live. Nowadays, many Americans see birds as points on a scorecard. These driven birders seek to amass an ever-longer list of viewed species within a certain time frame, at a certain locale or both.

Moreover, the serious birder now sometimes sees himself as something of a scientist, too, contributing knowledge about birds to the rest of the world by participating in bird counts and bird banding. Unfortunately, for many folks, birding and citizen science have become excuses to harass birds.

Last winter a large number of snowy owls flew to the eastern U.S. from the Arctic. Birders used Internet listservs to share locations where owls had been spotted. One owl stayed for many days in a Virginia field where it could hunt rodents. While many of the people who arrived to see the owl did not leave the roadway, others forged ahead, showing no respect for either the owl or private property.

Many owls that come so far south are juveniles that do not have much experience as hunters. They are engaged in a life-and-death struggle every day — which birders make more difficult every time they press close.

Last winter, one birding scientist described online how he had walked through a Virginia field where pipits were feeding. Because the pipits were hidden by high corn stubble, he reported, he “only found them when (he) flushed them,” which he did “repeatedly, hoping to see a longspur or bunting.” This birder was hindering the pipits' ability to get food while causing them to expend energy needlessly, a potentially devastating combination during the winter of the polar vortex.

The birder excused his behavior by suggesting he was doing “research” on the birds. But any research with the potential to reduce birds' numbers is not helpful. It is for this reason that the U.S. Geological Survey should stop allowing migratory birds to be banded every fall. Birds are severely stressed by the banding process, which can drain the energy reserves that a bird spent weeks building up in order to make its journey.

While ornithologists argue that banding provides knowledge that can be used to maintain avian populations in the future, we already know that the primary factor in declining bird populations is habitat loss. It would be far better to work on habitat preservation than to band a bird.

In a world where natural habitat is fast disappearing, humans should avoid deliberately intruding on the lives of animals that are barely hanging on. For the love of birds, let's stop birding and return to bird-watching — thereby putting the welfare of wildlife ahead of human desires.

Marlene Condon is the author of “The Nature-friendly Garden” and a columnist with the Bay Journal News Service.

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