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The Political Objectives of American Bird Conservancy

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  • Potter at Island Resources
    [From the Sunday New York Times, page 1. . . bp] February 4, 2001 As Their Numbers Soar, Birders Seek Political Influence to Match By FRANCIS X. CLINES
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 4, 2001
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      [From the Sunday New York Times, page 1. . . bp]

      February 4, 2001

      As Their Numbers Soar, Birders Seek Political Influence to Match

      By FRANCIS X. CLINES

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      NEW ALEXANDRIA, Va., Feb. 3 - The golden-crowned kinglet alighted
      only briefly in the riverfront scrub of the Potomac River's western
      shore. But it arrived like a feathery punctuation mark for some
      fascinated bird watchers who had ducked out of the capital city
      across the river to take a midday break from their determined new
      task of building what amounts to a political lobby for birds.

      "That's the code we're now trying to crack," said one of the birders,
      Gavin Shire, a conservation officer with the American Bird
      Conservancy, a nonprofit organization. "How to translate the immense
      popularity of birding into a political force to be reckoned with."

      He referred to the quiet, teeming world of bird watchers and feeders,
      a gentle public wary of being seen as foppish, that now includes
      about one- fifth of the American population, more than 50 million
      people who outnumber hunters and anglers combined, according to the
      Fish and Wildlife Service.

      Bird watchers now spend more than $25 billion a year on feed,
      binoculars, travel forays and high-tech innovations like winterized
      birdbaths and television "nest cams" to track their plumed favorites
      from home or watch penguins caper live on the Internet.

      Many of the birders cannot believe the success of their own growing subspecies.

      "I got into birding as a kid to get away from people, and I have to
      laugh now at the idea that it's become a booming industry," said Pete
      Dunne, the vice president of the New Jersey Audubon Society. "But,
      you know, there are damn few people who don't like birds."

      The birders' world increasingly involves city and suburban denizens
      intent on breaking beyond the asphalt routine to find something fresh
      and contemplative about life. But, almost by definition, their
      pastoral calling lacks political clout. And this is the problem now
      challenging bird conservationists determined to find a way to build a
      populist lobby against the increasing threats to bird habitats
      presented by human progress.

      This task may sound no less daunting than sighting a resplendent
      quetzal to the average weekend birder. But various birding and
      wildlife groups are forming an 83-member policy council through the
      conservancy (www.abcbirds.org) dedicated to building political
      awareness and translating it into budget and legal muscle to protect
      the myriad of nongame birds fluttering under the gaze of this
      special-interest public.

      "If we could reach all of that group it would be remarkable," said
      Mike Parr, the conservancy's vice president for development, of the
      mass of amateur birders. "But so far we don't have a brilliant
      strategy to engage them all out there," he admitted in the midst of
      his midweek birding along the the Potomac River.

      The quiescence of birders is no surprise to such master birders as
      Mr. Dunne. He directs the Audubon Society's Cape May Bird Observatory
      at the Jersey Shore, where hotels that used to close after Labor Day
      are now booked deep into the fall for the seasonal bird migrations.

      "People shy away from the label bird watcher," said Mr. Dunne, who
      spies backyard feeders all over the landscape and gently questions
      their owners. "The answer is always, `Oh, no, I'm not really a
      birder.' People have gone out of their way to buy a device that will
      give them intimacy with birds, but they're not bird watchers," he
      said.

      The evidence of birding's popularity is mounting, with two major new
      field guides vying for the lucrative market, scores of new festivals
      helping local economies in some of the most exotic birding areas and
      an increasing variety of pro-bird measures. These include the annual
      Keep Your Cat Indoors Day on May 12 to sensitize the nation to the
      loss of millions of backyard birds every year.

      Hundreds of high-style bird food stores have opened, offering
      everything from the Yankee Flipper (a battery-powered feeder whose
      perch begins wildly spinning at the touch of an intrusive squirrel to
      cast him off) to Under Cover Coffee (purist beans harvested without
      the usual denuding of bird habitats). Most birders ignore kitsch
      trappings and make do simply with a pair of binoculars and a field
      guide.

      Birding has grown with Americans' leisure time and disposable income.
      Paradoxically, new birders are emerging in the suburban rings of
      "sprawl" that conservationists have denounced for destroying bird
      habitats.

      Conservationists estimate that one in every six species is in decline
      in North America and could wane by half in the next 30 years as
      humans use up more land.

      "It's this steady nibbling away at bits of habitat through big
      housing developments that's really creating a problem and could come
      to a crisis," said David A. Sibley, author of "The Sibley Guide to
      Birds" (Knopf, 2000).

      Mr. Sibley doubts some of the booming numbers but not the passion of
      modern birding. The premier watchers' group, the American Birding
      Association (www.americanbirding.org), has only 22,000 members, but
      these are among the most traveled and sophisticated devotees.

      Mr. Sibley is in daily demand as a speaker now that his book, based
      on 30 years of experience as a photographer and birder, has become a
      best seller, with 300,000 copies in print. It is being hailed as on a
      par with the classic Audubon and Peterson field guides.

      A second new guide, "Birds of North America" (Houghton Mifflin,
      2000), is also selling well. It offers computer-modified spotting
      photographs and the guidance of Kenn Kaufman, a Whitmanesque birder
      who hikes America and celebrates "the pleasure of simply watching a
      bird, without analyzing it to death."

      Such was the mood here in the Dyke Marsh preserve as Mr. Parr led his
      colleagues on a birding trek against the backdrop of the national
      capital.

      "I've got a bald eagle here," Mr. Parr announced as he trained his
      binoculars skyward.

      His companions exemplified birders' idiosyncrasies. These range from
      "twitchers" who are in a hurry to merely checklist multiple sightings
      to "extreme birders" who go native and take up residence with the
      birds. Linda Farley, the conservancy's antipesticide specialist,
      loves the sounds of birds. She calls them forth, particularly with
      her practiced "pish-pish" cry - an alarm call that rallies birds to
      flock in large protective numbers.

      "Hear that: tea-kettle tea-kettle?" Ms. Farley asked, easily
      mimicking the Carolina wren. And she beamed in responding to a nearby
      white- throated sparrow: "Oh Can-a-da!"

      But few birders can rival the adventures of Mr. Shire, a nature
      roustabout. He took up piloting an ultralight airplane so he could be
      one of the shepherdlike guides who experimentally re-educate flocks
      of trumpeter swans to rediscover their ancient East Coast flyways,
      from which the swans had been displaced.

      "Its phenomenal," Mr. Shire said of flying in the open skies as the
      trusted leader at the head of a vee of swans and even switching the
      engine off to "thermal" with them on the earth's heat vents.

      The communal aspect of birding emerged as members of the group
      alerted one another to an unexpected winter sighting of a
      golden-crowned kinglet. As they chatted, they mourned the passing of
      Phoebe Snetsinger, a world-class lister - a globe-trotting birder
      with an enviable record of exotic sightings. She died in an auto
      accident in Madagascar.

      "I'm betting Phoebe was on the trail of something special," Mr. Dunne
      said of Ms. Snetsinger. Taking up the hobby when she was stricken
      with cancer, Ms. Snetsinger added wondrous years to her life, said
      Mr. Dunne in explaining a human being's need to watch birds.

      "It's just a treasure hunt," he said.

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