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Birding research

Birding: sport or conservation?

This post is one part of a two-parter that I’m writing in response to a paper on the sport of birding that was published in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues.

Feb. 15, 2010
Creative Commons License photo credit: auburnxc

Instead of protest, culture jamming, confrontation, and direct action the environmental sporting practices of traveling the state by automobile and competitively searching for vast numbers of birds is what the World Series of Birding constructs as environmentalist. Driving in search of birds in polluted New Jersey is, in this formulation, a great way to protect birds. (p.214)

This is how author Spencer Schaffner, writing in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, condemns the World Series of Birding as more sport than a form of environmental conservation. In this paper, Schaffner links birding to toxic waste writing that “birders often seek out polluted environmental niches” (p. 212) and rather than confronting the tension of our culture’s creation of the waste, the sport acts to hide or ignore it. Given my research, I don’t agree outright that birders actively seek out polluted areas and this is where I’m less impressed with the paper.

Birding and bird conservation

Returning, however, to this idea that birding is not the same as bird conservation, Schaffner writes:

The brand of environmentalism promoted by mainstream environmental organizations is made in ways palatable, conservative, and legitimate through a relationship with the accepted sport practice of birding. Unlike the growing environmental movement to end global warming, for instance, which threatens to radically change entrenched aspects of industrial capitalism, protecting wild birds has only involved relatively undisruptive changes such as the establishment of trade and hunting laws, small-scale nature preserves, and pesticide regulation. (p. 212)

And this is what I want to discuss in this post: I have yet to see a cogent reply from the birding community to address this critique. In fact, its an argument that could be made from my own work: when asking birders what kind of rules they follow when out watching birds, I was amazed at the human-centred (avoid trespassing on private property, follow the rules of the road when birding in a car) or instrumental (don’t drop trash) nature of the responses. True, there were thoughtful multicentric-centred responses, but when birds were mentioned in most birder’s ethical approach to birding, it is often along the lines of this participant’s response:

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.

Getting that good look is still at the heart of the activity with little self-regulation or questioning about what might be in the best interest for the bird. In this case, the birder is leaving it to the bird to make the decision that he’s too close—by flying away. While this may not be the practice of everyone, I have seen enough similar behaviour to this (which I call “birders behaving badly”) that I know its not an isolated practice.

Birding as sport or birding as conservation

Which returns us to the larger question that Schaffner raises: is birding an act of leisure (sport) or is it an act of conservation? And if it is more than leisure, how does the birding community address critiques that birding is an activity that does little more than promoting the status quo—appearances as an activity that appears to be doing little to address larger environmental concerns or, as I suggest, the personal well-being of birds watched?

I know that birders feel when they participate in citizen science programs (such as the Christmas Bird Count) that they are participating in the monitoring and conservation of bird populations. I know that birders feel that when they join a group (such as Field Naturalists) that purchases and protects habitat for birds that they are participating in habitat conservation. What is enough?

It is clear that people don’t like to hear that what they are currently doing isn’t enough—we all like to feel like we’re competent and illuminated. It is also clear that bird populations are continuing to decrease. We know this, ironically, through bird population monitoring. What I think articles like Schaffner’s raise is that uncomfortable feeling, an inner psychological state of angst, that what we do in the name of birds, on the whole, isn’t enough. There are at least two responses: dismiss these claims outright (as I heard from birders as the paper was published) or reflect on the larger claims of the paper and make an effort to do a bit more.

And in my research, I’ve heard from birders who are starting to make connections between their larger lives and the act of birding. Take this conversation, for example:

Gavan: Would you say that, or do you have any examples of times where you have made – whether you have made behavioural changes or even purchasing changes based on the lives of birds?

Male: Absolutely.

Gavan: Can you explain to me maybe some of those things?

Male: I read Bridget Stuchbury’s book [Silence Of The Songbirds].

Female: It’s a book at our Nature Club.

Male: Also, we are much more conscious of where a product comes from now. For example, we’re a little more sensitive about buying products in the winter that comes from South Americas. We worry about the practices.

I have even thought – I mean I haven’t acted on this, but I have thought of going up to the produce manager of the local supermarket and say “I’m not going to buy these asparagus from Peru because I don’t know what’s on it, for one, and I don’t know if there’s something on it, what impact that has had on something that I care about, birds.” So I have not done that, but it has crossed my mind, I should. I probably don’t do it because I’m generally not a confrontational and I just figure he’s going to look at me and say “what’s this jerk talking about anyway”.

It’s not a question of knowledge, it’s a question of action. And the risk of looking like a jerk.