Birding in the time of climate change

Are nature lovers who pursue experiences of the natural world becoming the new buffalo hunters?
Crosscut archive image.

A snowy owl stops on a sign along a jetty in Missouri during December 2011.

Are nature lovers who pursue experiences of the natural world becoming the new buffalo hunters?

Sometimes neighboring news stories speak to each other in ways their authors and editors never imagined. Take the front page of the Northwest section in Sunday’s Seattle Times. In the upper right corner: a charming column from Danny Westneat about a pair of ardent birders who’ve achieved a record “Big Year” for Washington state. By crisscrossing the state throughout 2012, Sherry and Arden Hagen recorded 370 bird species, 11 more than the previous record holder and about 40 more than actually reside here. (The rest were just passing through.)

On the same page: a report by Lynda Mapes on the damage that a warming climate will cause to Seattle’s shorelines, sewerage, water pipes and other low-lying infrastructure. It doesn’t mention that rising sea levels will inundate much larger areas of flatter, less-protected estuaries such as Port Susan, Grays Harbor and the Skagit Delta.

The connection: Those rising waters may eventually create new upland marshes and tidal flats, but initially they’ll obliterate some of the richest, most productive bird (not to mention fish and shellfish) habitat in the state. And rising seas are just one of the ways that a warming climate threatens birds here and worldwide.

Audubon Society scientists analyzed 40 years of Christmas bird counts and found that 177 species — 58 percent of the nation’s widespread species — had “shifted [their ranges] significantly north since 1966.”  But many grassland species were stranded; they were much less successful than forest and feeder birds at finding new northern habitat, because development and agricultural development had already swallowed it. Research by Audubon California concluded that 80 species there would likely see “significant climate-driven reductions in their geographic range over coming decades.”

Here in Washington, transportation — mainly automotive — produces about half of carbon dioxide emissions, the prime driver of greenhouse warming. The delightfully obsessed Hagens logged 31,531 driving miles chasing those 370 species, not counting however many boat and air miles their quest also entailed and however much they drove in their nonbirding lives. Certainly there may be worse reasons to drive that much. But there’s no free carbon lunch.

The sad fact is that fuel-guzzling nature lovers — not just birders but divers rushing to see the great reefs before they bleach and mountaineers scrambling to beat the melting glaciers — are the new buffalo hunters and cod catchers. In the act of pursuing the natural treasures we cherish, we contribute to their destruction.

I feel the allure myself, of course. I’d love to be flying off to Hawaii or the Caribbean right now to dive among the fading reefs. Even Audubon is complicit: It touts the birding movie The Big Year and, by implication, globe-trotting birding in hopes they’ll “awaken new audiences to the amazing world of birds.”

The same argument has been used to justify any number of destructive practices, from trophy hunting to keeping elephants in zoos: It will teach people about the natural world. When do the costs justify the benefits? What kind of calculus can tell us what sort of Big Years and grand tours the planet can afford?

I don’t know. I just know that we forget to ask the question when we reach for our wetsuits and binoculars.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.