September 4, 2009

Competitive birdwatching attracts people and pollution

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As the fall season descends on the Northwest, migratory birds from as far as the Arctic begin maneuvering their way down the West Coast in search of balmier climates. With that winged drove comes a flurry of another kind of visitor – birdwatchers, who sometimes travel long distances to simply sit and watch.

In Oregon, the annual migration of Vaux’s swifts has been attracting a crowd that is rapidly turning the nightly spectacle into a rowdy event, complete with “blankets, booze and boorish behavior,” writesLisa Grace Lednicer of the Oregonian. She writes:

The birdwatchers block driveways, leave behind empty pizza boxes and generally make a nuisance of themselves.

While the Audubon Society of Portland has promoted the event, including providing traffic cones and working with a local park to supply parking, nearly 3,000 birders arrived on Pettygrove Street last year to see the birds, making for an unruly experience.

Nearly one fifth of America actively participates in bird watching, and that includes 20 million taking trips one mile or more away from their home for the purpose of viewing birds, according to a report released in June by the United States Fish and Wildlife.

But a recent study by an Illinois professor — and avid bird watcher — suggests that the sport  may not be as environmentally friendly as it seems. In an article in the News Bureau of Illinois, Professor Spencer Schaffner suggests that birders’ competitive aspirations of tracking down rare birds has led to an “automotive-hobby culture” reliant upon fossil fuel transportation and lacking interest in conservation. What’s more, he believes the sport has actually blinded people to the environmental degradation occurring at popular birding sites — such as landfills and sewage ponds.

In particular, Schaffner discusses the Union Bay Natural Area, a restored marsh in the heart of Seattle. While the area provides a temporary home to flocks of migrating birds, he believes the toxins leftover from the existing landfill pose a serious risk to nearby Lake Washington, unbeknown to most competitive birdwatchers. Mitchell writes:

Because many of the birds found at these sites may appear to be unaffected by the toxins – in part, Schaffner believes, because some may just be passing through on migration routes – birders obsessed with tracking and listing tend to ignore the darker side of those environments that lurk below the surface.

The report and the Oregonian’s finding suggest a contradiction between an activity based on nature and conservation, and the actual habits of bird watchers. But not all hope is lost, says Schaffner:

There’s still an ongoing tradition of bird-watching that’s very connected to larger ecosystems and the environment. Many bird-watchers are not just looking at birds, but paying attention to everything, including climate change and all aspects of ecology.

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