The Political Objectives of American Bird Conservancy
- [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
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
"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
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
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
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
"I've got a bald eagle here," Mr. Parr announced as he trained his
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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