When I was a young girl, one of my most valued possessions was a little book called the "Golden Nature Guide to Birds."
Perfectly sized for small hands, it introduced me to the avian creatures I saw around me, teaching me their names and providing me with fascinating tidbits about their lives. It's also where I learned the term "bird-watchers" to describe those who enjoyed observing and learning about birds. I was proud to call myself a bird-watcher.
Sadly, in the decades since, the enjoyment of birds has evolved from a passive hobby to a competitive sport. It's no longer sufficient to simply view the birds around you to appreciate their beauty or satisfy a curiosity regarding how they live. Nowadays, many Americans see birds as points on a scorecard. Competing against others, or maybe just themselves, these driven birders seek to amass an ever-longer list of viewed species within a certain time frame, at a certain locale or both.
Moreover, the serious birder now sometimes sees himself as something of a scientist, too, contributing knowledge about birds to the world by participating in activities defined as "citizen science," such as bird counts and bird banding. Unfortunately, for far too many folks, birding and citizen science have become excuses to harass birds.
For example, last winter a large number of snowy owls flew to the eastern United States from the Arctic. Birders, buzzing with excitement, used Internet list-servs to share the locations where owls had been spotted. One owl stayed for many days in a Virginia field where it could hunt rodents. While many of the people who arrived to see the owl - perhaps to add it to their birding life lists - did not leave the roadway, others forged ahead, showing no respect for either the owl or private property.
Many, if not most, of the owls who come so far south are juveniles that do not have much experience as hunters. Especially prone to malnutrition, they are engaged in a life-and-death struggle every day - which birders make more difficult every time they press close. Why is it so hard for some individuals to empathize with these animals, given that they have taken such a passionate interest in wildlife?
It's not just high-profile species such as snowy owls that can suffer from human harassment. Also last winter, one birding scientist described online how he had walked through a Virginia field where pipits were feeding. Because the pipits were hidden by high corn stubble, he reported, he "only found them when [he] flushed them," which he did "repeatedly, hoping to see a longspur or bunting." When I expressed shock that he would deliberately bother these animals, he angrily explained that he hadn't been chasing after the birds but was simply walking through the field to see what was there.
His point was that such disruption is simply a fact of life for the animals in our midst. That's true, but there's a difference between inadvertently disturbing wildlife and doing so on purpose. This birder was hindering the pipits' ability to get food while causing them to expend energy needlessly, a potentially devastating combination during the winter of the polar vortex.
The birder also excused his behavior by suggesting he was doing "research" on the birds. But with many songbirds in decline, any research with the potential to further reduce their numbers is not helpful. It is for this reason that the U.S. Geological Survey should stop allowing migratory birds to be banded every fall as they move south. Birds are severely stressed by the banding process itself, with many birds suffering injuries or even dying at banding stations. Such stress can drain the energy reserves (in fat deposits) that a bird spent weeks building up in order to make its journey of perhaps a thousand miles or more. While ornithologists argue that banding provides knowledge that can be used to maintain avian populations into the future, we already know that the primary factor in declining bird (and other wildlife) populations is habitat loss. It would be far better to work on habitat preservation than to put a band on a bird.
In a world where natural habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate, humans have a responsibility to avoid deliberately intruding on the lives of animals that are barely hanging on as it is. For the love of birds, let's stop birding and return to bird-watching - thereby putting the welfare of wildlife ahead of human desires.
Marlene A. Condon is the author of "The Nature-friendly Garden" and a columnist with the Bay Journal News Service.