Earlier this year, Spencer Schaffner ((Hi Spencer! I know you have a Google Alert set up and I want you to know, independent of my critique here that I appreciate your scholarship in the birding sphere. I would love to chat sometime.)), writing in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, published a paper titled “Environmental Sporting: Birding at Superfund Sites, Landfills, and Sewage Ponds”. On the whole, its an interesting read with points that I and my own research certainly agree with.
Schaffner’s overall argument in the paper focuses on the link between birding in polluted spaces and birding’s complicity with masking these toxic spaces. I find this argument challenging to agree wholeheartedly with.
My reasoning: birders look for birds in significant concentrations. Sewage lagoons (which, of the three polluted areas described in the paper, I have experience with) act to concentrate birds, hence their appearance as a place for birding. They’re sought out in spite of their shitty origins because they offer an opportunity to see many birds in one place. Are birder’s ignoring the risk to birds by visiting such sites?
These lagoons, with their increased nutrients from the effluent are a source of food for invertebrates, attract avian predators. What is worth questioning is if there are compounds that birds, attracted to the lagoons, could ingest and impact their ability to thrive. Research on this question conducted in sites around Ontario suggests that the answer is that it depends: yes, these places are sources of pollution but the birds appear not to ingest enough compounds to impact their overall health.
Significantly elevated concentrations of eight contaminants were determined in domestically raised mallards released at Hamilton Harbour CDF, Winona SL, and Big Creek Marsh. However, most of these concentrations, with the exception of PCBs and DDE, were lower than concentrations found in other studies. All concentrations were below levels believed to have harmful effects on birds. (p.241)
Significant, however, in this paper was the finding the Big Creek Marsh was a source of contaminants as the study area would typically not be seen as a waste facility: it is part of a National Wildlife Area surrounded by a large cattail marsh complex. The results indicate that it is not just classically constructed “waste spaces” that pose health risks to avian populations. Culturally, and this is damning, we have impacted the whole environment in such a way that we can’t judge the health or toxicity of a location by its ecological role or appearance as natural—marshes and sewage lagoons can both be sinks of organic contaminants.
So, to critique the act of birding at sewage lagoons as ignorance to pollution which renders toxicity invisible is an argument made more difficult given the diffuse nature of pollution. I’m not sure that birders would identify a sewage lagoon as inherently “healthy” now that they visit and find birds there. The argument could be made that any outdoor activity that does not actively interrogate the source and persistence of environmental pollution is complicit with creation—and perhaps that is true. To single out birding, though, because in its practice birders visit sources, such as sewage lagoons, seems like a bit of a low blow.
I’m left wondering where the argument will get us (us being those that are interested in birds, the people that watch them, impacts of Western culture and the larger more-than-human world). I do agree that birders have a unique opportunity to engage with the conservation of bird species, populations and individuals and that, for the most part, these kinds of interventions are left for others to do on birders’ behalf. But that’s the subject of the second post.