Sunday, January 29, 2017

January 29, 2017

Location: Visitor's Center, MINWR

This is the boardwalk at the Palm Hammock Trail at MINWR. When I took this picture, it was 44 degrees and raining, but wewere leading my annual Pish-free birding trip, so I was happy. Why Pish-free you ask?

The following is a rant I originally wrote years ago for the Space Coast Audubon newsletter. It struck a chord for many people and I was pleased to see that I wasn't alone in my intense dislike of pushing, owl tapes, and other methods used to disturb the birds while birding:

Picture yourself sitting at home in the kitchen. You are just about to sit down with a PB&J and a nice glass of juice, when suddenly you hear a voice yelling, "WHAT'S THAT? WHAT'S THAT? WHAT'S THAT?" Quickly, you get up from the table, you don't know what the problem is, but you dart around the house from room to room, checking the windows and door locks and looking for the source of the trouble. Eventually you realize that there is nothing wrong, and sooner or later your heart rate returns to normal, but by now you are stressed out, your sandwich is soggy, and you don"t feel much like having a snack anymore.

This doesn't sound like a fun time now does it? Well, I am giving up group birding because to be blunt, I am tired of birding with people who do this to the birds. Most people call it "just pishing" or "just playing an owl tape" but I call it harassing the birds. I realize that I am in the vast minority, if not completely alone in my having a problem with pishing. According to Ryan Ryan Zimmerling, in the article, "Calling in the Birds" printed in the fall 2005 issue of Birdwatch Canada, "[some people] suggest that pishing does not cause distress in birds for the simple reason that birds are fairly intelligent creatures and, while they may be initially drawn to the pishing source, they are more than capable of telling a human from a predator."

I have heard this same argument from birders before; to me it sounds like justification for rude behavior. "Initially drawn" is a euphemism, they are not so much drawn as "obviously disturbed" by pishing. It is easy to say that the birds are not disturbed by it, but the birds were off minding their own business, and they responded to the sound. They feel the need to drop what they are doing and investigate the sound; how is that not being disturbed? The "birds are fairly intelligent creatures" line doesn't excuse it for me either; I am a fairly intelligent creature too, yet if someone tells me to look out for something, at the very least I am going to stop to find out if there is really something to be concerned about.

And don"t even get me started on owl tapes. To take the analogy at the beginning of this article a bit further, if pishing is someone yelling "WHAT'S THAT!", an owl tape is someone yelling, "I'M GONNA KILL YOU!"

I enjoy hanging out with other birders and experiencing the camaraderie, however, I really cannot see myself attending group birding trips in the future, as this is where I have seen some of the worst behavior. On almost every trip I have been on over the years, people begin pishing from the second the bus doors open; I have literally seen people pish from the bottom step of a bus. On one trip I attended, I watched the trip leaders harass a single bird with an owl tape for at least 15 solid minutes. Yes, perhaps for someone on the trip it was a life bird, but at what cost to the bird?

Aside from my own personal moral qualms with this behavior, what I really worry about is the message that we are sending to beginning birders. How many beginners come away from group outings thinking that harassing birds is an appropriate way to increase their life list?

Note that I do understand that in some cases such as the quarterly bird counts, pishing and tapes are a necessary evil as it is important to see what is really there for scientific purposes. What I have trouble with is harrasing the birds for personal entertainment value (e.g., getting it on a personal list.) What I would like to do is start my own little anti-harassment movement. I would like to lead trips where we would walk quietly, and if we see a bird, we see it. If we don't, we don't. My life list might never get above 100, and I will probably always retain my Very Bad Birder crown, but at least I can sleep at night knowing that a bird got to enjoy his day with out being disturbed by me. If anyone is with me, drop me an email and we can plan some gentle birding field trips together!

Photo and text © 2017 Dee Fairbanks Simpson

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