With Earth Day occurring just recently, it is a good time to reflect on ways we can take better care of our planet and all the living organisms that inhabit it. Governments and conservation organizations can institute major effects to ameliorate climate change and reduce pollution. In many parts of the world, solar and wind power are cheaper than the power available from petroleum and oil. Large tracts of land are being conserved thanks to conservation organizations and governmental offices as well.
Individual efforts matter as well. Our combined efforts can make a difference. A collection of drops can make an ocean.
I want to focus today on an individual activity that poses a moral dilemma for me and, I’m sure, many others. Stated bluntly, birding has a carbon problem. We drive and fly to see the feathered creatures we love. The fuel we consume adds to the greenhouse gas load and to air pollution. Ironically, by traveling to see birds, we are degrading natural habitats.
I’ll begin by pointing out two traits of humans that are relevant. First, many humans are collectors. For some, it might be obtaining recordings of all the compositions of Bach and for others commemorative state quarters. Many birders collect sightings of life birds. We thrill at seeing a bird we have never seen before. And with nearly 11,000 species of birds in existence, lots of collecting of checklist tick marks is possible.
Secondly, most people are competitive. Sometimes our competitive fire is obvious as when playing sports. At other times, the external manifestation of our desire to win is less obvious. Sometimes, we are simply competing with ourselves, trying to better our own performance of some measurable activity.
I think that our penchant for collecting, and our competitiveness have exacerbated the carbon problem of birding. In 1967, the American Birding Association was formed to promote the sport of competitive birding. Lists of various sorts, like North American life lists or Texas life lists or Kansas year lists, were published so birders could see how they stack up with other birders. Lots of birders keep multiple types of lists.
Although several computer applications for keeping track of bird lists appeared, most bird listers use eBird to keep track of their sightings. Although the intent of eBird is primarily to provide as a repository of bird sightings, the software will generate lists of various sorts. If you want to see how your bird list for Maine in 2014 stacked up against other birders, a quick query will show you the top 100 birders for that list.
My own carbon footprint is enlarged due to birding. I have visited Ecuador twice, Costa Rica twice and a dozen Caribbean islands. I have birded in most of the Lower 48 states. My major goal has been to see birds I have never seen.
Within the state, I have become a more selective birder as far as rarities are concerned. When the Great Black Hawk and the Redwing (the Eurasian thrush not the common blackbird) appeared in Portland I went to see them. Similarly, I jumped at the chance to go see the Steller’s Sea-Eagle in Georgetown on January. I had never seen any of these species.
I lived for five years in western Washington, so I passed on going to see rarities like the Rock Wren in Ogunquit, the Surfbird and Ash-throated Flycatcher in Biddeford and the Swainson’s Hawk in Millinocket because these species were common in Washington state.
I am also a big proponent of carbon offsets. By donating funds to a project like tree planting, one can compensate for the carbon your car trip or plane flight puts into the atmosphere. Here is my favorite carbon calculator: https://rb.gy/dzbfw7
Birding’s carbon problem is a moral problem so coming to grips with it is a personal task. Reducing travel and purchasing carbon offsets are the responses I use.
Of course, birding is just a microcosm of our world. We can reduce our consumption of gasoline in other aspects of our lives. But birding is such a big part of my life, it serves as my lodestar to make me think about how my individual contribution to improving the health of our earth can be increased in all aspects of my life.