Birdwatching’s Carbon Problem
Our moral thicket: Chasing nature on a warming planet
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. 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.