The Eco-Conscious Side of Birding

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Every fall, just as the first frost blankets Alberta, Canada, the Whooping Crane leaves its home in Wood Buffalo National Park to make the 2,500 mile journey to the balmy salt flats and marshes of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Rockport, Texas. Here this endangered species will spend the winter feasting on blue crab, crawfish, frogs and insects and then travel back to Canada to breed.

The Whooping Crane is not the only species attracted to this region each year. Birders from around the world flock to the Texas Coast to catch a glimpse of one of the rarest birds.

Birding Background

Birding or bird watching first gained popularity in the late 19th century with one of the most famous birders, John James Audubon, spearheading this past-time. After moving to America in the early 1800s, Audubon’s fascination with the birds on his Pennsylvania property ranged from hunting to drawing and eventually led to the first known North American bird-banding experiment. Audubon was the seminal force behind the well-established National Audubon Society.

Going Beyond the Call

The sounds of the Whooping Crane were once commonplace along the Gulf Coast, but with increased use of the pesticide DDT, this species’ population dwindled rapidly. After banning the harmful chemical, establishing wildlife preserves around the country, and caring for these birds in captivity, the Whooping Crane population is slowly increasing.

But recent drought has devastated Texas land, including the Whooping Crane’s winter home. As water around the Arkansas National Wildlife Refuge diminished, the Crane’s source for food and water dried up. An estimated 23 birds died in 2009.

Climate change is making an impact across the county and birders are taking notice. Whether it’s caused by drought in Texas, milder winters in the midwest, or warmer waters spawning bigger hurricanes along the east coast, bird populations and migratory patterns are evolving – sometimes with a little help from people.

  • In order to increase the odds of survival, the international Whooping Crane Recovery Team established a second migratory flock of cranes. With an ultralight aircraft taking the lead, this flock is learning a new route from Wisconsin to Florida.
  • In the wake of super-storm Hurricane Sandy, brown pelicans, normally found along the southern coast into the Gulf of Mexico, were spotted in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Organizations like Cape Wildlife Center and Wild Care rehabilitated the sick and injured birds.
  • In response to the effects climate change has on birds migratory patterns, the Audubon Society of Portland is teaming up with other local organizations to create a Backyard Habitat Certification Program. This program provides assistance and incentives to local residents who restore wildlife habitats in their own backyards.

Backyard Birding
With more than 800 bird species in the United States and Canada, getting into birdwatching is as easy as grabbing a set of binoculars and stepping outside. These tips will help attract birds to your backyard:

  • Find out which plants are favored by local and migrant birds and plant them in your yard
  • Pools, birdbaths and misters set up around your home provide a good source of water for birds – heated bird baths offer a warm refuge in cold winter months
  • Removing invasive plant species from your yard will help native plants thrive and maintain birds habitat and food sources
  • Keep cats indoors; given the opportunity, cats love to hunt birds
  • Place bird feeders within three feet or more than 30 feet away from windows to keep birds from flying into them
  • Providing bird houses and sheltering plants will create a sanctuary for birds to rest and escape predators
  • Avoid using pesticides – they kill birds natural food sources and contaminate drinking water

Birders looking for ways to contribute to citizen science can participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count, Celebrate Urban Birds, Nest Watch, and Journey North.

Conservation Efforts
According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, there are around 48 million bird watching enthusiasts in the country today. Many of these people have found that part of their hobby includes environmental preservation. You might be surprised to find that these simple measures can help the bird population:

  • Make the switch to compact fluorescent lightbulbs and buy local, organic produce.
  • Reduce carbon emissions by taking the bus, riding a bike or switching to a fuel-efficient vehicle.
  • Plant trees around your house. According to American Forests, a single tree can absorb up to 10 pounds of pollutants a year.  
  • Reduce waste by composting and recycling whenever possible.

By taking actions to slow down the effects of global warming, birders ensure their feathered friends’ habitat is safe for years to come.