Whether the topic at hand involves birds or some other issue, when emotion overrules facts it is cause for concern. This is a delicate issue, and to be honest, I’m not sure I’m the right person to take this on. Truth is, I would rather just ignore it and focus on things like the upcoming Ohio Young Birders Conference and all the other positive things BSBO has going on. But part of what creates this problem is the fact that we need more and better communication. If I simply walk away from this issue, I become part of the problem. So I’m going to share some thoughts and hope they will help people come to terms with the ongoing necessity for bird research.
You know, now that I think about it, maybe I am the right person to tackle this issue. This is as much about people and emotion as it is about science. I may not be a Ph.D. ornithologist or biologist. But, I have been a volunteer bird bander for more than 12 years and have assisted with many kinds of bird research, banding, color-marking, radio telemetry, and others. But I am also a passionate birder, and I’m not afraid to say that I love birds and that I get pretty emotional about it sometimes. I’m not going to talk to you like a scientist, throwing around terms like spatial movements, site fidelity, or functional connectivity of habitats. Instead, I’m going to share my thoughts about the merits of research in my own plain language.
I have been blessed as a woman and as a birder. I am married to the love of my life and together we have traveled the world to study birds. I have been moved in ways I could never have imagined by our experiences with birds of every size, shape, and color. Birds inspire our emotions. There is a strong visceral response to birds that can be powerful enough to change the course of peoples’ lives. I know. It happened to me.
On a trip to the Antarctic, I knelt on the damp, spongy soil of South Georgia Island and wept as a yearling King Penguin waddled up within a few feet to investigate this strange creature that had suddenly arrived in his land. I felt a surge of overwhelming joy at my first glimpse of parrots in the wild – a flock of Maroon-fronted Parrots - gliding against the backdrop of a lush green mountainside in Mexico.
Research is about learning. About gaining a greater understanding of what birds do, how and why they do it, and monitoring population trends. The more we know, the more insight we gain, the better our chances of helping birds. When something goes amiss on the wintering grounds or the breeding grounds, banding stations will be among the first to sound the alarm call. And let’s face it: some of this information is more inspiring, more fascinating, more moving, than any mere sighting could be. For example…
Think Northern Cardinals don't migrate? Think again.
|Photo courtesy of USGS|
There are still so many questions about birds and many ways to gather this data. Yes, we can (and do) stand on the edge of a flooded field observing shorebirds every day, for the same length of time, from the same location, and count the number of birds we see, documenting their presence / absence. But when that flock of 500 Dunlin takes flight and whirls out of sight, where do they go? Why do they move from one habitat to another? How long do they stay? What is their energetic condition (in other words, how much fat do they have) when they get there? How much fat do they need before they leave our area to continue their migration? How long does it take them to build up these reserves? These are questions no binocular on the market can answer. We’ve got to have the bird in hand to get at these details, and we need these details to garner support for habitat conservation, and to assist with managing these habitats.
With the battle for funding hitting everyone hard, we cannot simply say that there are “a lot” of birds in this area; that we need to draw down more of these diked impoundments because there are “a lot” of shorebirds depending on these mudflats during migration. Anecdotal observations will not cut it. We need documentation of these needs. We need science.
In a similar vein, if I walk into our congresswoman’s office and tell her that there are “a lot of birds” in this region, or that “a lot of birders” are visiting the area and spending “a lot of money,” how far do you think I’ll get in convincing her that conserving bird habitat is important? But when I present more than 500,000 banding records—more than 10,000 from last spring alone—it is irrefutable evidence.
When I can show her the results of our 2011 Biggest Week In American Birding post-event economic impact study, indicating that birders spent approximately 29 million dollars in her district, then I have more than just her attention. Now I have her district’s best interests on the table.
Learning is something that I love, and I especially love learning about birds. When we stop the learning process at the point where we can pin a name on a bird, then we do a great disservice to ourselves and to the birds. If we approached our interactions with humans in the same manner, we wouldn’t be much of a society, would we? We fall in love as we get to know something, and at BSBO we are as much about helping people fall in love with birds as we are about answering research questions. In fact, we use those detailed answers learned through scientific studies to help build that initial curiosity about birds into a passion. And it works. I’ve seen it happen, over...
Bird banding is an invaluable tool for learning and for inspiring people to care more deeply about birds. As a teacher, as a bander, as a dedicated bird conservationist, I hope no one—especially those with big voices in the birding community—ever tries to take this powerful learning and teaching tool away from us.
We live in an age where with the click of a mouse, we can find a staggering amount of information on just about everything. The one answer that isn’t out there is the solution to these human dilemmas. Perhaps the best answer lies within us. Is it impossible to think that we could learn to respect one another, in spite of our differences, and do our best to achieve the highest level of understanding that we possibly can - before we send our opinions out into the ether? With bird conservation as our common ground, surely we can arrive at some level of compromise. When thousands of intelligent people who love birds enough to dedicate their lives to bird conservation all agree that research is necessary and that banding is safe, perhaps it is not out of the question to ask for a measure of faith and trust. Perhaps we can all work together for the good of the birds and all that they add to our quality of life.