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Birdwatching’s Carbon Problem

Our moral thicket: Chasing nature on a warming planet

December 2, 2021  |  by Bryan Pfeiffer  |  67 comments  | 

Note from Bryan: This essay, two years in the making and hard to put into words, is for birdwatchers of all kinds and others who chase nature on a warming planet. Photo: My friend Peter on a long walk in a salt marsh in New York. © Bryan Pfeiffer

Although it has achieved a kind of celebrity status among North American birdwatchers, let’s be honest: the Five-striped Sparrow is no bird of paradise. Mostly brown and sooty, the sparrow gets its name from five white stripes that fan out across its face and throat — an arrangement that isn’t particularly unusual among sparrows. Its song is a progression of tepid “dinks” and “chips,” almost as if the Five-striped Sparrow cannot make up its mind whether to sing out for a mate.

Even so, we birders go to great lengths to see this sparrow. The journey often begins with a flight to Tucson, Arizona, where we rent SUVs because roads to the sparrow are rough and rutted. We then drive south toward Mexico to a kind of launch point at the foot of Sycamore Canyon or California Gulch, which are among the scarce reliable places to find Five-striped Sparrow north of the Mexican border. And there among the mesquite and the rattlesnakes, among the undocumenteds and la migra chasing them down, we begin our quest. Stereotypes clad in khaki, hauling thousands of dollars in optical gear, we drive on desert dirt in search of a little brown bird.

Along the way, we might pull over to find and enjoy Gray Hawk or Montezuma Quail, Varied Bunting or Black-capped Gnatcatcher. But for the most part we’ve already seen those birds — or will see them elsewhere in southeastern Arizona. They are “specialties” at the borderlands, but not quite as special as Five-striped Sparrow. Apart from its intrinsic and genuine worthiness, rarity makes the sparrow our aspiration. If it wasn’t there, many birders might not drive into these canyons.

And once we find a Five-striped Sparrow, skulking in some thicket beside the road, we might chase it around a bit, peer at it through binoculars, snap some photos and slap high-fives. We then turn around and drive out — northbound toward the cantinas or the coffee joints to celebrate and to plan for the next day’s birding adventure.

The problem with Five-striped Sparrow is not its dingy appearance or its feeble song, not the company it keeps or the unforgiving terrain in which it lives. The problem is that through no fault of its own the Five-striped Sparrow is bad for the planet. In our hot pursuit of this rare bird, birdwatchers drive. We drive a lot. If a songbird could have a carbon footprint, the Five-striped Sparrow would be like a Hummer — except that we’re doing the driving.

Birdwatching’s dirty little secret is that in our love and pursuit of nature we are warming the planet.

Birdwatching’s dirty little secret is that in our love and pursuit of nature we are warming the planet. Yeah, I know, lots of people fly and drive and warm the planet: to buy stuff, to visit our kids, to drink microbrews, to work and to play outside. We drive riding mowers, ATVs, SUVs and Jet Skis. Petroleum fuels our freedoms and supports our notions of prosperity and happiness. We’re Americans. We drive.

Yet birdwatchers have a special relationship with our vehicles — and not only to discover birds like the Five-striped Sparrow in distant places. Vehicles are far too often the base of our existence and experience closer to home as well. We probably drive more in the pursuit of nature than do botanists, mountain bikers, backpackers, whitewater kayakers or other outdoorspeople. The irony is that as we pursue the embodiment of nature — the blend of music, flight and beauty expressed only in the lives of birds — in the process we drive around and harm some of the nature we love.

We should know better. After all, birders foster a certain kind of ethos about our pursuits: that we’re unlike snowmobilers or race car drivers or others who partake in “consumptive” forms of outdoor recreation. We make the case that birds are messengers for a better planet, a gateway to our loving more nature, that watching birds builds a conservation ethic, and that if more people enjoyed birds the way that we do then more of them might be motivated to protect what’s real and natural and wild in the world. Some of this is even true.

But we birders, ourselves and through our organizations, go on at great lengths about the climate crisis and other eco-disasters. The National Audubon Society issues warning after warning about rising global temperatures and a corresponding decline in birds or a shift in their historic patterns of distribution. We are told of “389 Bird Species on the Brink”1 or that “A Storm Gathers for North American Birds”2 or that “10 States Could Lose State Birds?”3

To be sure, Audubon and the rest of us should be sounding these alarms. The climate crisis is and will be devastating to nature and humans alike. Even so, as it calls us to action, Audubon every year encourages birdwatchers to undertake an epidemic of binge-driving. Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count is a storied community science project. On a single day around the holidays birders fan out to count every bird we encounter within established 15-mile-diameter circles — more than 2,500 of them across the Western Hemisphere. For 122 years birders have been participating in these counts, during which we gather valuable data on bird population trends. It is a triumph of conservation.

Christmas Bird Counts are also a group exercise in burning carbon.

But Christmas Bird Counts are also a group exercise in burning carbon. It basically goes like this: drive around, stop the car, get out and count some birds, get back in the car, repeat all day long. A friend of mine calls this “bird-driving.” Most birdwatchers on Christmas counts drive far more miles than they walk. On many counts, birders walk less than a mile or two over the course of the day, and drive 10 or 20 times what they walk.

Even though these counts aren’t year-round affairs, birdwatchers undertake other specialty expeditions that mirror the Five-striped Sparrow quest — only with even more driving. In Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado, for example, a well-established route brings us to at least five species4 of grouse performing outrageous mating displays in early spring. Birders who make the trip not only get to see the chicken-like birds dancing and strutting, sometimes copulating, in some of the most bizarre and wonderful rituals in North American birding, they also get to add the five species to their life lists — the ongoing tally of all the birds we’ve ever seen. But finding the grouse necessitates some serious bird-driving, including a trek across the width of Colorado and back. “We covered about the distance from New York to Los Angeles …” says one report from a grouse expedition.5

We make all kinds of crazy trips like these, including spur-of-the-moment outings when a rare bird turns up close to home — or far away. The internet helps set our travel plans, thanks in part to the esteemed Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. In addition to being the single most important tool for aggregating crowd-sourced data on bird distribution and abundance around the world, Cornell’s eBird website also issues email alerts6 about rare birds anywhere they are reported. So if a Eurasian Skylark shows up in British Columbia or a Masked Booby lands in Florida, we can hear about it on the hour. A subset of determined birders uses these alerts to hop in the car and pursue these far-flung rarities.

While visiting family in Florida about 25 years ago, before eBird existed, I was fortunate to dwell in a park with a Bananaquit, a frenetic slate-and-yellow songbird that had strayed from its normal turf across Central America, South America and the Caribbean. As I watched the Bananaquit flit in the low branches of a leafy tree, three birders from New Jersey pulled in. They had driven all night, part of it through a snowstorm, they told me, to reach the spot. We watched the Bananaquit together for about 20 minutes. Then, having ticked off the songbird for their lists, the birders piled back into the car and headed for home.

I should point out here that not all birdwatchers are so obsessive. Tens of millions of us watch birds in North America.7 We range from the hard-core chasing those rarities to the homebound who enjoy whatever happens to visit the backyard feeders. Many of us, privileged and a bit nerdy or odd, are easy prey in a tradition of worthy satire, even ridicule. And yet for our shared devotion to birds and their fate, I am proud. Passion for anything in nature, aesthetic or intellectual, is an enduring human trait, not unlike our passion for art or literature or one another, and far more genuine than most things online or conjured up and packaged for popular consumption. No wild things in nature — not orchids or butterflies or trees — command so much organized devotion. That is a good thing.

Even so, devotion to nature, however well-intentioned, hardly excuses excessive consumption, which, after all, is killing the planet — its biological abundance, diversity, capital and prosperity. Jonathan Franzen, a birdwatcher himself, poked at this moral question in an essay in The New Yorker titled “Carbon Capture.”8 Franzen first admits to some guilt about driving and listing birds. Then in no short order he picks a fight with Audubon, accusing it of a misguided focus on climate change. Birds face multitudes of threats more proximate than a warming planet, including death by house cat, lead shot, invasive species, chemicals and, most importantly, habitat degradation and destruction. “Climate change is everyone’s fault—in other words, no one’s,” he writes. “We can all feel good about deploring it.”

Finding substance and support in Dale Jamieson’s superb book about our collective failure to address the climate crisis, “Reason in a Dark Time,” Franzen writes that planetary over-heating is a “done deal.” None of us can change that by curbing or ending our individual — and relatively minuscule — carbon emissions. The best hope for birds, Franzen points out, is to confront those more proximate threats, not the least of which is to protect as much habitat as possible so that birds have refuge from deforestation, industrial agriculture, the inevitability of an overheated planet and other ecological disasters.

“To prevent extinctions in the future, it’s not enough to curb our carbon emissions,” he writes. “We also have to keep a whole lot of wild birds alive right now. We need to combat the extinctions that are threatened in the present, work to reduce the many hazards that are decimating North American bird populations, and invest in large-scale, intelligently conceived conservation efforts, particularly those designed to allow for climate change.”

A disaster in real time: fewer birds.

Franzen has become one of our most brutally honest contemporary voices at the intersection of birds, nature, us and the fate of the earth. What is most vexing is that he is of course dead-on about the futility of individual action on climate. Absent genuine moral and political leadership, any reckoning on the part of industry and their politicians for their role in the climate crisis, individual acts are merely statements. They might inspire others to act as well, and are certainly the right things to do, but they won’t save birds. Anyone who has been watching birds for 20, 30, 40 years or more, as I have, has witnessed a disaster in real time: fewer birds, often for reasons having little or nothing to do with a warming planet.

Even so, Franzen, who drew unwarranted abuse from the birding establishment for “Carbon Capture,” could have reckoned a bit more about driving and globe-trotting birdwatching. Petroleum enriches and yet destroys lives — not only owing to its carbon emissions but from its extraction. To keep the crude oil flowing, our government — Democrat and Republican alike — has invaded or bombed nations, sponsored despots, killed innocent people and spoiled places here at home. The fossil fuels that bring us prosperity, joy, comfort and Five-striped Sparrows too often carry the taint of human rights abuses from the Niger Delta to the Persian Gulf to the tar sands of Canada. For better and for worse, our culture and economy are founded upon the free flow of information, cheap goods, damaged land, exploited labor and crude oil. Blood and oil — they have always flowed together.

Can I really enjoy the luxury of birding when, in the process, I might be financing thieves and dictators in Angola9 or human rights abusers in Saudi Arabia or the shredding of boreal forests in Canada? For most of us, to live is to cause injustice, whether we buy gadgets or sweat-shop jeans, eat tuna or feed-lot cows, burn gasoline or firewood. As a field biologist focusing on birds and insects, I live in and work from a gas-guzzling Tacoma pickup. We are either perpetrators or victims or both on an overheating planet. As much as I recognize the imperative to act on climate, I do not believe that Joe Biden, Greta Thunberg, Bill McKibben, the Paris climate accord, carbon offsets, electric cars, the Green New Deal, Climate Action and the rest of us will succeed to alter earth’s fate.

More importantly — and I cannot emphasize this point enough — we must not abide forces in play much bigger than each of us. Climate deniers, demagogues, big oil, corrupt governance, and the inexorable weight of marketing and consumerism are way better at heating the planet than a bunch of birdwatchers chasing sparrows. One example: We fought a war for oil in Iraq, into which the US military deployed Humvees. Afterward, General Motors brought gas-guzzling Hummers to American driveways.

The combined and potent forces of consumption, wealth disparity, our dysfunctional American government, indifference and distraction, or even a sense of despair and powerlessness among those of us who want to do the right thing, seem to offer us little hope for progress, let alone a practical solution to the climate crisis. It took a civil war to end slavery in the United States of America. Are we now any more united? We can’t even agree on how to stop a virus.

In no way is my pessimism a form of denial or defeat, nor is it an excuse to stop trying. We must keep trying.

I hope that I am wrong about all this. And in no way is my pessimism a form of denial or defeat, nor is it an excuse to stop trying. We must keep trying. We must do better. So what is a moral course for birders? Or for any of us who burn carbon, which means all of us?

Apart from true carbon austerity, the likes of which even many progressives will not easily accept, I have yet to find a philosopher or moral leader with a suitable answer. So do not expect one from me; unlike most writers, I am posing a question I cannot answer. I’ve merely laid the problem more explicitly at the feet of myself, my friends and my constituency — birdwatchers. Shall we keep on birding and continue to send our donations to Audubon, the Cornell Lab, other allies in birdwatching and those worthy conservation projects? Or course. We can also eat less meat, drink fair-trade coffee, support and fight for human rights, board fewer airplanes, buy less stuff, drive hybrids and live closer to home; we can vote out the demagogues, liars and depraved.  Nothing new here among our obligations as citizens, whether we join mass movements or act alone. Even so, do not expect your worthy actions to save the world — or its birds.

And then there’s the driving. Even if individual action on climate is symbolic, let us drive less for birds. That means walking and accepting what comes. Another dirty secret about birders is that too many of us have lost our fondness for the familiar. Perhaps more than any other breed of nature geek, birders far too often exhibit an impatience with what is in front of us and an obsession with what is next. Sure, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet is fine, but we gotta drive on to find the Violet-crowned Hummingbird. Too many birders simply click-like the kinglet, get in the car and move on to what’s next. We were doing this long before the internet addled our brains for impatience and distraction.

I have chased more than my share of rare birds in vehicles, including as a birdwatching guide chasing Five-striped Sparrows in Arizona. I gave it up years ago for nature closer to home, for insects and plants and other wild things — and for more walking. Bird-walking. Most of the time, on my routine 4.5-mile walking loop from my home here in Vermont, I do not find the rarities that motivate many other birdwatchers. So be it. That Ruby-crowned Kinglet on my route sings with vigor and sends a bolt of energy toward his crown feathers, which explode like flames erupting from his head. Too many birders who think about what’s next have never seen these fireworks (which shall never erupt anywhere on a Five-striped Sparrow).

So, birders: walk more; drive less. At the very least, walk more than you drive this Christmas count season.

So, birders: walk more; drive less. At the very least, if you are able, try to walk more than you drive this Christmas count season, or at least walk more than a mile or two. (If walking isn’t an option due to a disability, Birdability might help.) That 4.5-mile walk of mine is my regular Christmas Count route. Zero miles bird-driving for my contribution to conservation.

In the end, birdwatching’s carbon problem is no different than everyone else’s moral quandary. The planet is baked owing to our modern-day manifest destiny of growth and consumption, orchestrated in large part by the men and women (mostly men) holding power or influence. Whether or not we chase Five-striped Sparrows in Arizona, we are all warming the planet, we are all killers.

As I have admitted, apart from worthy personal and political action, along with big conservation, I myself do not yet know a reliable path through this moral thicket — other than to do the best I can and then try to do even more. We’re human. We think. We seek. Some of us seek birds. And we act, even when hope might seem elusive or ambiguous.

“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism,” Václav Havel wrote in 1993.10 “It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

My conviction is that a Ruby-crowned Kinglet certainly makes sense. The moths in my backyard make sense. The wildflowers on my walk make sense. The quiet winter woods make sense. The prosaic makes sense — here, now, not from behind the wheel, but close to home as I stand in nature on my own two feet.

4 Greater Sage-Grouse, Gunnison Sage-Grouse, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Greater Prairie-Chicken and Lesser Prairie-Chicken
10 “Never Hope Against Hope” by Václav Havel. Esquire. October 1993.

  1. Zach says:

    The largest emitter of carbon in the world is the U.S. military, which will continue to be the case regardless of how many flights to Attu birders take. I appreciate this piece, but decarbonizing the world will require collective action rather than individual asceticism and forbearance, and I think a focus on individual carbon footprints misses the forest for the trees.

    • Deb says:

      This is a great point. I am deeply concerned about another phenomena that is feeding birds, even though we know we are not to feed wildlife we make exceptions when it comes to feeding birds. We not only purchase and distribute birdseed that is laced with fungicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers, but we purchase the seed from Mexico, who until recently was still using DDT. I also find my friends purchasing stale white bread in quantity to feed to birds. How can these practices be helpful to the health of the bird??? Cornell & others receive funding from birdseed companies and so refuse to denounce the practice.

  2. cark krause says:

    I can hardly force myself off the a well used path knowing that im destroying the very tiny flowers that I so love to photograph. I have gotten so I use the largest mm lens that will work so as not to have to tread out on the small plants. just as am doing this delicate dance an airboat with a huge motor blasts by smashing everything in sight. They dont feel it or grasp the enormity of their actions they just want to find that deer and kill it.

  3. Gregory says:

    Just want to mention that houses have a carbon footprint as well. I drive but my small van (compared to most RVs) is also my home. This means I don’t have to go AND return to get home. My home is with me wherever I am. Also, without a boatload of bells & whistles (warm sleeping bag, solar LUCI lights, laundry by hand cold water, hang to sun dry, passive solar via windshield, to name a few). Living more in tune with the elements (wind, rain, temperature fluctuations) gives one a different perspective and is really more in flow with what all the other species (well, except dogs & cats) endure. Realize how blessed I am just to be warm & dry. I realize not many people want to give up the comforts a house has to offer, they’re wonderful. But we can all do something. One big one is dryers. Clothes won’t wash themselves but they will dry themselves. And the most efficient light build is one that is off.

  4. Rob Curtis says:

    A good article but I think it didn’t go far enough. Competitive LISTING rather than birdwatching is the driver of fanaticism. Contests, BIG DAYS, MONTHS and YEARS make one compete with race car drivers for wasteful gas consumption. And things like County or State Lists, rather than Lifelists add to the problem. I see posts about driving across the state to add a Great Blue Heron to a new county. Another about driving a lot to try to get a Killdeer for December. I got banned by a bird group for suggesting a Hummer as a prize for a Big Day Contest.

    • Thanks for the comment, Rob. Well, you do have a point. I also wonder if we might be “splitting hairs” by parsing the carbon problem this way. It’s death by a thousand cuts — but is it fruitful to debate which cut is worst or the killer? If we’re all guilty to one extent or another, I wonder if we all might therefore find some way to reckon with this problem — together, wherever and however we bird.

  5. I don’t disagree with your assessment of human behavior. Homo sapiens has an amazing ability to assess, analyze, and model the world, but, whether the issue is climate change, public health, or even personal health, a pathetic ability to take the necessary action. But we do act, eventually, albeit with a long time lag. I disagree with your assessment of the inevitability of climate change. Obviously it’s already changing — a major eco-regime change began in 1985 across a broad array of species, including birds — but I believe Homo sapiens will ultimately right the ship and learn to control carbon levels and thus the earth’s climate. This may take 100-200 years (and cost us a lot in terms of warming and sea level rise), but it will happen. Already, two of the largest refineries in California and one in Washington are no longer taking crude oil. They’re making bio-based diesel, jet fuel, and propane. Calif is nearly at 50% of diesel supply being non-petroleum based. Interestingly, these changes are driven by govt policies slowly pushed by public demand — 35 years too late but it will happen.

    • Thanks very much for this, Stephen. I admire your optimism (not to mention your gull acumen and photography). I’ll admit to not extrapolating my thoughts and projections that far into the future. Yes, I agree that, given time, perhaps we’ll work this out. I hope so. I do know, however, that it won’t take long for the human suffering — mostly owing to rising sea levels, food insecurity, climate refugees, resulting wars over resources — to happen in the interim. Given all those unpleasant vagaries of the human condition, I wonder how well we can project results, however positive, so far into the future. Again, I hope we can; I hope you’re right about the human capacity to act. Unfortunately, neither you nor I will be around to find out. Let’s hope those who are around, might be able to thank the arc of history and justice.

  6. Rita Pitkin says:


  7. Susan James says:

    Thank you, Bryan, for your very well informed and thoughtful essay. We desperately need to hear this truth from responsible experts like you and to pass it in to others.

  8. Will Danforth says:

    So true, so true.
    So one of the dilemmas that my wife & I go through is to balance the question of nature travel. Essentially all vacations for decades have been centered around nature. Now she doesn’t want to do any more of it because of the carbon footprint of air travel. I read that many critical nature preserves in third-world countries rely on eco-travel to fund their operations, and especially their anti-poaching efforts. A moral dilemma to be sure. I wonder if you have perspective on this? Yes, we could just donate our travel money to such places, but we already do a lot of that, and really, for pantheists like us, the beauty and vibrancy of nature feeds our souls. I would like to support them by visiting them.

    • Thanks, Will. I am currently thinking about this idea of eco-tourism as a means of support for local communities. It’s hard to separate eco-travel from all the other factors causing strife in the world’s disadvantaged places, mostly because they are so disadvantaged for so many other reasons (having little to do with carbon or tourism): war, a history of war, political corruption, exploitation by the “first world,” cash crops for exports (rather than feeding folks locally), and other things like that. But I’ll do some more thinking on it. Thanks again!

  9. Richard Harlow says:

    Excellent Essay!!!
    “I hope that I am wrong about all this. And in no way is my pessimism a form of denial or defeat, nor is it an excuse to stop trying. We must keep trying. We must do better. So what is a moral course for birders? Or for any of us who burn carbon, which means all of us?”
    Unfortunately Bryan I don’t think you are wrong! We live in a closed society of organisms. I am sure we have all seen or heard of what happens to one or two pairs of mice living with food and water in a closed system. My concern is that humans are doing to this planet what mice did to their closed system. I have always felt it is just a matter of time. Sorry to be such a bummer, but I will try to do what I can in the remaining years that I have. Many thanks for writing this essay!!

    • Nice to hear from you, Dick. I do miss our birding adventures. But, yes, as you said, we do what we can, not the least of which is to share our ideas and try, within our means, to make the world a better place (whether or not we succeed).

  10. Carol Emily Morris says:

    Excellent essay. My husband and I have faced the same conundrum, not only flying to far-off places for birding, but also to allow us to hike the entire Finger Lakes Trail, cycle around all the Finger Lakes, and various other (mis)adventures. I used to tell my Environmental Studies students that no one can do everything, but everyone can do something. I have tried to live sustainably for the better part of my adult life, eschewing the dryer in favor of a wooden drying rack that I bought for 50 cents about 40 years ago, having only one child, and installing solar panels as soon as they became available and affordable. I lie to myself that these actions balance out my environmental impact. I also remind myself that I lectured for 30+ years about these issues. I hope that at least some of that information was retained by my students, and that they are trying to live “lightly” on this earth.

  11. Eric Palola says:

    Bryan, much enjoyed reading this piece and it picks up nicely from where Franzen’s piece left off, namely, it’s not just about the priorities of large NGO’s and institutions, it is also the sum of our individual choices. Significant policy and economic incentive shifts are needed to bend the arc of global warming; shifts that society is mostly unwilling to make because of perceived winners and losers, (and a lot of misinformation). In the meantime we can live with a lighter footprint and protect more habitat so that all critters have a better chance of survival. This is the approach we have taken with ACG in Costa Rica, even as the country’s leadership has nobly and thankfully committed to decarbonizing its economy.

  12. Colleen Bloom says:

    License to sit at the Better End of Curtis Pond and look and do nothing.

  13. Perrianne Houghton says:

    Whammo! Within the hour of my return home to the Albuquerque area from south of Carlsbad, New Mexico, to see the rare Blue Mockingbird sighted there, I was sent your article by very good Vermont-living friend. It was quite an important and necessary wake up call. Even though I have only occasionally driven to follow a rare bird alert, and never as far as the recent 500-mile round trip excursion, and I have a very casual Life List, your article tells me I have much more to do, and don’t need to go far from my “Backyard Refuge” to do it. So, thank you for the Carbon Talon print Alert!

    • Thanks for the note. (Wow, Blue Mockingbird! Wow!) Another angle on this, Perrianne, is other fauna. Once I began turning my gaze toward insects, for example, my own yard here in the capital city of Montpelier became a destination for rarities like Blue Mockingbirds. Oh, the sights you’ll see in New Mexico one of my most favorite states. Thanks, again!

  14. Bryan, this is right on target. Yes, of course, one individual birder’s decision to forego or limit the miles they drive simply to observe birds will not solve climate change … or habitat fragmentation, or acid rain, or any of the other myriad stresses that are causing the Great Decline. But if birders, who ought to be highly attuned to the plight of the biosphere, can’t muster the will to change their behavior to save the more-than-just-human world, why should we expect anyone else to do so? It’s not impossible. Reduce the geographic scope of where you will go to see a vagrant or maintain a list. Walk more for your CBC count and make that route the focus of your birding through the rest of the year. Less driving means more time observing and actually getting to know your avian neighbors.

    • Well said, Steve. Sad but true — at least I hope not. Maybe birders and various other folks will surprise us. And maybe insects, as we know, can be a way toward discovery of even more joy and diversity close to home. It’s kind of odd and ironic: even as insect abundance and diversity decline, most of us will know but a fraction of what’s out there.

  15. cacky peltz says:

    On this quiet morning as snow falling your essay gave me pause and I thank you for reminding us what we have right out our back doors. I especially appreciate your personal stories in your writing.

  16. Deb says:

    Stephen Buhner, Senior researcher at Foundation For Gaian Studies wrote today, “As Greta Thunberg has said, false hopes are not the way out of our dilemma. We have to clearly face what is before us, accept the true state of affairs, and then and only then can we create a response, a life, that is not based on false hope but on truth.”

  17. Jo Anne Edwards says:

    Thank you so much, Brian. This really hits home. Having spent 50 years as a musician, I have often thought about the miles that we musicians put on our vehicles getting to rehearsals and performances to take part in something that is so good for the soul. Even though I believe that music is vital to both musicians and listeners, it is hard to justify the damage to the planet.

  18. georgeann kuhl says:

    Thanks, Bryan. You’re right. We enjoy our birds where we are, and nothing thrills me more than the song of our white throat sparrow or the Song Sparrow. don’t need to travel anymore. Just finished a great book: “Finding the Mother Tree”, by Susan Simard. everything is interconnected! Georgeann

  19. Paul Brassard says:

    Thanks for another thought-provoker, Bryan. I look forward to reading your essays and commentaries because they are such down-to-earth examinations of the beauty that lies in the world around us and our interconnectedness to it all.
    It’s true that for many of us one doesn’t have to travel very far to experience a moment in nature’s thrall. Although my wife and I enjoy nature-watching on the many wonderful trails found here along the Maine coast and in wonderlands such as the nearby Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge, we are lucky enough to be visited daily, right here at home, by Cardinals, Orioles, Chickadees, Finches, squirrels, chipmunks, and the occasional hedgehog and more that we can watch — and be mesmerized by — through our own living room window.
    As far as our individual responsibilities to the planet we call home, we can, as you suggest, drive less and feed our souls with the nectar of local nature more. But where I disagree with you is the urgency for worldwide individual action and its potential for real impact on climate and resources. We are all such well-trained over-consumers. I’m just noodling here a bit, but imagine if there were grassroots global movements such as “Shower-free Wednesdays”, “Laundry-free Fridays”, or “Birding-free Mondays”? The impact on resources and emissions could be huge and measurable — the power of a billion ones.
    Thanks again, Bryan, for making us think about this beautiful home we all share.

    • Thanks, Paul. I’ve visited a few Rachel Carson preserves — and am now writing an essay grounded at the Rachel Carson Salt Pond preserve in Maine, which I visited for inspiration in October. Yes, I agree with those notions of activity-free days. I think I once heard Helen Caldicott say that if everyone dried their laundry on a clothesline, we wouldn’t need to build any more nuclear power plants (or maybe that we could shut them all down)such . Now, if only we could inspire collective action — we’re so divided on things like this, it’s hard to be optimistic. But I haven’t lost hope! Thanks again.

  20. Vic Berardi says:

    Thank you so much for expressing the thoughts many of us have in such an eloquent, informative and awakening manner!

  21. J. Peter Young says:

    Daring and honest article, Bryan. Wondering about your thoughts on carbon offsets. They look like a masterful greenwash to me but I have bought them when given the option buying a plane ticket.

  22. judy says:

    Thank you Bryan! This is outstanding in breadth and depth. Judy

  23. Susan Cloutier says:

    The angst of a long-time naturalist. No easy answers. Thank you for putting it into words.

  24. Cherrie Corey says:

    Bravo, Bryan. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, which find the fullest support from my own long-held view on this subject. As a naturalist, educator, photographer, mother and grandmother I have come to know that open attentiveness to the place that we stand in each moment is what matters, what inspires and moves us, and what catalyzes the understanding we need to make sustaining choices for all life.

  25. Marci says:

    Well said and something I think birders over the years have come to realize – our quest for a long list is environmentally unsound – hello!!! The older I get (83 now) the more I realize that it’s our restlessness that sends us out to find birds that are not within walking distance; but after all those “adventures,” one finds real contentment comes from appreciating what birds are in our neighborhood during all the seasons – spoken like an old lady I guesss but true for me.

  26. Sherry Stone Miller says:

    Thank you Bryan. The fact that your essay was two years in the making speaks greatly of your difficulty in writing this piece, as it does to your personal convictions towards this very complex issue. I often find myself trying to balance my desires to “consume nature” against the harm that those desires may cause. I try to remind myself that I am never alone in nature, and that others will eventually follow the not so invisible footsteps, or breadcrumbs, that I leave behind. We see it all too often. Wilderness areas that were once pristine bare witness to the ongoing human pilgrimage that has recked havoc on the landscape. I often think of Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. Here is one quote from Hardin: “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to herd?” Apply that train of thought to that of an avid birder (or nature seeker, peak bagger or whatever) and that phrase might read: “What is the problem with adding one more bird to my life list? After all, it is only one more bird, and it is only me, right?” Herein lies the tragedy that has been unfolding before our very eyes, and the eyes of those who came before us. We are never alone in our endeavours to consume nature, or anthing else for that matter.

    • Well said, Sherry. Thanks. I hadn’t thought of invoking Hardin here. But it seems to fit. I also see those bigger, more powerful forces in play in the climate disaster — they’re hard to escape. I think those forces do help shape habits and desires and consumption on our part. I wonder if the fast-garbage-food analogy might work here: 50 years ago (or more) people weren’t necessarily crying out for TV dinners, super-sized sodas, frozen sausage wrapped in chocolate-chip waffles, and the general shit-storm of other processed “foods.” But “big food” began to dish it all out to us. We gobbled it up. Same goes for the internet — and the brain-rotting of the modern-day glowing screens. We’ve been marketed consumption, including fossil fuel consumption, in some of the same ways. As I wrote, we’re Americans — we drive. It’s our modern manifest destiny. I cannot see a way to halt those powerful forces of consumption, which seem to have overtaken the commons. Hmmm. Maybe another essay here. Thanks again!

  27. David Morgan says:

    Thanks for this thought-provoking essay.
    Walking is good for the soul and the birds are a bonus.

  28. Well, Bryan, I feared you had dropped a chunk of coal in my stocking.
    However, not so as your thoughts give me hope that perhaps we can steer (or better yet walk) our passions towards more altruistic goals closer to home.

    As Santanna sings, “we’ve got to change our evil ways”. I will keep increasing the percentage of VT native plants in our yard while observing the LIFE that comes to us.

    I won’t ask for 7 swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, four calling birds, three french hens, two turtle doves, a partridge in a pear tree, NOR A five- striped sparrow for Christmas. Forgo the coal (for our stocking), we have good ole fashioned VT local carbonized wood to burn.


  29. Another piece of great writing, Bryan. Thank you for a thought provoking article on issues that are so important to so many of us, and that we continue to grapple with. Guilty as charged, and we’ve burned a little carbon together, but what glorious memories!

  30. Marcy says:

    Part is fixable now: Electric cars, powered as much as possible using renewable energy
    Part is fixable soon: Electric 4WD trucks and more renewable energy on the grid
    Part is still TBD: Airplanes, sustainable mining for battery materials
    Yes, these are all small parts, it’s not a complete solution, and the odds aren’t great that we’ll mitigate major disaster(s). I choose to have hope, do everything I can individually, and support big programs to help more people do the same.
    I do this for many reasons, including for the birds.

  31. Veer Frost says:

    I gave up, in the aftermath of the Franzen piece (at least as the Guardian reported it), waiting for a reply from the environmental community that would deepen and expand the parameters of his argument. His challenges seemed like no-brainers ie ‘do something about your cat’, ‘push for habitat protection’ etc. I believe Vermont is on Franzen’s side on this, and thankful that we are. But this essay of Bryan’s goes for the harder to reach heart of the western birder’s hunger for that to which we must be (right?) entitled: the birds. And not just listers: there is a shared birding joy of discovery commensurate with great love and hope for these beautiful species among us all. I am grateful for this essay’s precision in setting out the challenge to put ourselves second to the climate we and the birds rely on, for life itself. Thank you for a rigorous, painful, and exquisitely argued read, Mr Pfeiffer!

  32. Ann Cooper says:

    Well said and my thanks.

  33. Pam Hunt says:

    Well said my friend, well said. And Franzen’s piece is amazing! Thanks for the link.

  34. Erika Mitchell says:


    Walk longer than you drive has been my motto for years. I may not see all the species in VT, but I enjoy every bird I see. And I am so glad for a Christmas bird count route that doesn’t and has never involved any driving. Glad that you have such a route as well!

  35. Great piece of insightful writing, Bryan! Thanks.

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