Birding research

Warblers, migration, birding & ethics

Black-throated Blue Warbler male 2-20100916
Creative Commons License photo credit: kenschneiderusa

In my dissertation, I write a bit about the ethical alignments that underpin birders’ behaviours (I asked birders what rules, if any, they followed while birding). Along a continuum from human-centred (anthropocentric) to nature-centred (biocentric), the birders I spoke with shared “rules” that ran from one end to the other. Here’s an example of a human-centred perspective shared by a birder:

I don’t want to try and get too close, but I will approach one quietly and sort of let the bird—their instinct for self-preservation, you know, rule that. If you make too much noise, it’s just going to fly away. But I don’t want to disturb the bird. I want to get a good look at it but beyond that some move away.

I consider this to be more of a human-centred perspective because the birder leaves it up to the bird to decide when the birder approaches too closely. While consideration is given to the bird, the need to get a good look (appears to be) king. I write in the dissertation:

In this case, the birder is leaving it to the bird to make the decision that [the birder] is too close—by flying away. This perspective, for example, ignores the energy required for the bird to fly away and the possible negative result on the ability for the bird to survive. This is a particularly important consideration during migration when birds are expending huge amounts of energy and time to feed and refuel. Nowhere in that practice [of birding] is there any form of self-control on the part of the birder.

My own perspective about this is clear: we as birders ought to be acting with the best interests of birds in mind. If this means not getting a good look, then so be it.

Intriguingly, as I was skimming my birding blog feeds I came across this post, Warblers in Bryant Park, on the birding blog 10,000 Birds. I’ve been impressed in the kind of attention the authors of this blog have made to bird conservation. Yet, as I read this post about warblers in New York City’s Bryant Park, I couldn’t help but examine and question the underlying ethical motivations.

In short, the post described something of a warbler migration fallout in the (very urban) park. The birds were seemingly unaware of their surroundings; unaware enough that the post’s author was able to take some stunning photographs using a 100mm macro lens. “Each and every picture here is of a wild bird,” writes the post’s author, “free to go about its business.” Responses to the post were, for the majority, positive, with the exception of this one which took the birds’ perspective into mind:

Whats lost here is that these birds are exhausted, so exhausted in fact that they will risk being out with people/predators mid-day to feed and rest.

While yes the pictures are beautiful, you have to wonder if any of those birds have what it takes to migrate and return next year to breed.

Kinda makes it bittersweet.

Bittersweet indeed. Any birder knows how difficult it can be to approach a bird: that’s why we have binoculars, to collapse the space between each other. Those birds that are “easy” to approach are those accustomed to human contact (e.g. a bird that lives in urban settings, like a Pigeon) or stressed enough that our presence is the least of their concern (e.g. think about a Killdeer feigning a broken wing to distract from young).

While these were wild, migrating warblers, I think the notion that they were “free to go about [their] business” is a bit misguided. These weren’t urban birds, so it is safe to make the assumption that their behaviour, seemingly unconcerned to the foot traffic around them, was caused by something else. During migration, when they are expending large amounts of energy on flight ((Blackpoll Warblers, for example, undertake a 72 hour, 3,500 km trans-oceanic flight from the East cost of North America to their wintering grounds in South America.)), birds are stressed for food and more willing to take risks to get it. While they do have the ability to fly away, the warblers are feeding in this urban plaza precisely because they’re hungry and they are limited where they can find food. The warblers likely have very little choice in selecting Bryant Park, and disturbances can impact their ability to fuel up.

Now it is clear that the author of the post wasn’t the only human around, and the warblers were busy feeding with all this activity going on. You could say that it wasn’t a big deal to add another human to the mix—especially one that with an interest in and appreciation for the birds. This, however, is an example of that human-centred ethic I mentioned seeing in some birders. I’m not arguing that there was a better thing to do in this situation, but I am suggesting there were other courses of action that could have been taken. Like being aware, as in the case of the commenter above, of the bird’s motivations behind being so conspicuous.

The challenge I face when looking at a situation such as this one is an awareness of the larger rhetoric of birding: generally speaking, birders see the activity as a way to re-connect to the natural world, through birds. But, it’s a reconnection that is often on a birder’s own terms. And that’s the challenge of birding, in my opinion. As migratory bird populations continue to decrease, will the underlying ethics that motivate birders’ “rules” change to meet the needs of birds?