Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Of mangos and Iraq

I took this photo in Costa Rica with a group of Wisconsin birders in 2002. I bet a lot of those same birders have gone to Beloit in the past week or so, to see that same species. There's a real thrill when a bird turns up in an unexpected out-of-range place. It's partly the delight of surprise--a mango in Wisconsin?! And it's a mystery. What prompts a tropical bird to suddenly wander so far from home? How could it suddenly appear in Wisconsin when it hadn't been reported once anywhere else after it left the tropics? Such an unexpected vagrant gives us a feeling of a genuine miracle, right there in Beloit.

The news passes like electricity through the birding community. Everyone naturally wants to see it--by definition, birders want to experience birds first hand, and to see such a rarity so easily--well, who wouldn't want to go?! Of course, there's a much greater feeling of accomplishment for a birder to be the one who discovers a rarity himself or herself, but chasing someone else's discovery provides the exact same boost to one's state checklist and for many in this case, lifelist. And there's a genuinely sad feeling of being left behind when everyone else rushes off to see a rare bird when we can't join in the fun.

So for a birder to bring up the subject of squandering natural resources in the face of so much joy and fun is...well, what kind of person would do that? A spoilsport? A crank? A supercilious preacher? The boring grownup squelching the fun of the partying kids? Al Gore vs. George W. Bush? Holier-than-thou? One comment on a previous blog entry said people like this, "like to stereotype listers as insensitive people who do not care about habitat or other concerns with birds. I prefer to not to judge listers and its not any of my business what they do with their hard earn money or how they should spend it." Of course, that same post stereotyped ardent conservationists. We've developed an "us vs. them" mentality within our own small ranks as birders.

I've been watching Ken Burns's series The War this week. During that war, Americans were all making major sacrifices--giving up many kinds of food, limiting their driving, saving cans and fat and other products to recycle for the war effort. At that time of privation, if people chased a rare bird they would be shunned by their community, especially if they made a huge, exultant thing of it. America was emerging from the Great Depression when the war started, so maybe it didn't feel like people were giving up very much when so recently they hadn't had many of those things anyway. And there certainly was an atmosphere of giving up things for a noble purpose, as they were being bombarded with news every day that friends and neighbors and brothers and sons had been wounded or killed. And because everyone sacrificed and felt that unified purpose, we decisively won that war, defeating both the Nazis and the Japanese Empire, in less than five years. Imagine that.

Right now most of us Americans and virtually all of us American birders are no longer used to privation. Even as we hear news of friends and neighbors and, for some of us, brothers and sisters and sons and daughters dying in the current war, we are so accustomed to the high levels of consumption that have become a hallmark of America that there is a genuine and heartfelt cry of outrage when people suggest that we stop and think about how much we are consuming. It's especially ironic because as even prominent supporters of the war have now admitted, we are only engaged in this war because of the limited supplies of the very natural resource that we're squandering.

Imagining the natural resources being burned up in every flight taking our men and women to Iraq makes the travels of a few dozen birders to Beloit, Wisconsin, seem pretty paltry. But I wonder--during World War II, the almost universal national will was to support our soldiers in every way possible. Saving bacon grease. Rationing fabric and food items. And saving gas.

We are at war right this moment. We aren't quite doing the math in this war the way we did in that war or in Korea or Vietnam. After a battle, the military once reported to the news the number of casualties. Now we hear the numbers of the soldiers who died but not unless we search hard can we unearth the numbers of the soldiers who have lost limbs, eyes, chunks of brain. We have a dangerously reduced perception of the sacrifices our soldiers are making. And instead of sacrificing together to win a noble cause, indeed, as if to underline the fact that at root, this war is for no noble cause at all, we're being encouraged to keep shopping, keep consuming, keep burning up the natural resources that our men and women's blood is being spilled for.

I'm not going to go into the issues of environmental degradation that directly affect birds as well as humans when we extract oil, when we transport it (sign up for a Google News Alert for oil spills if you don't think they're happening almost every day), when we refine it, and finally when we burn it, contributing to pollution and global warming. We feel we are entitled to burn as much as we can afford. Burn, baby, burn. Our consumption of oil is somehow so rooted to our national identity that, ironically, for the most part the people who most support this war are the ones who most conspicuously squander oil. The very people who most stridently want to dictate what individual Americans can do in our own bedrooms whine about being preached to when it comes to conserving the one natural resource at the heart of this ugly, ever-lasting war and at the root of the global warming that will, unchecked, destroy our coastal cities, wipe out species that we treasure, and change the course of world history.

I don't care if you chase the mango. It's a lovely bird, and as out-of-place in Wisconsin as an environmentalist is at a Hummer dealership. But the America I'm seeing in The War was not a place where people got shouted down for even mentioning the idea of sacrifice for a larger purpose and the greater good. If we want this war to end the way that one did with the good guys triumphing, maybe we should start acting like the good guys again.


  1. Hear, hear!

    A major reason that, during World War II, people were willing to accept restrictions and make sacrifices was that their leaders led the way. Today, our "leader" responded to the attack on the World Trade Center by telling us to do *more* shopping. Instead of putting the country's economy on a war footing, he reduced the government's revenue by huge tax cuts at the same time he increased expenditures.

    It's not just that we're not being called upon to make sacrifices. We're not being called upon to SHARE. Instead of uniting the country, the war is dividing us. Our national spirit is one of the casualties.

  2. I've removed two paragraphs of the original post because they change the flow of the essay. But since they're still pertinent, here they are:

    I hear from soldiers in Iraq fairly often as they contribute photos to my Iraq Bird Gallery. My brother fought in Vietnam, and I understand the deep patriotism that leads men and women to join the armed forces. I know many people who opposed the Vietnam War who joined the National Guard and the Reserves because they deeply love our country and want to protect it in the event of foreign invasion or natural disaster. And being from a low-income family, I understand the appeal of the military for people who without the G.I. Bill could not afford college, and who don't have a lot of windows of opportunity other than minimum-wage jobs after high school. I believe nations must have a strong military, and that the only way a military can be strong is when the soldiers dutifully follow their chain of command. The soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are doing what they need to do to keep America strong. They're doing our dirty work in a terrifying and depressing and bizarre environment.

    The question is not what our soldiers are doing. It's the other end of the chain of command that I question. The end of the chain of command that each of us Americans over 18 years of age are responsible for as voters and as citizens. I firmly disagreed with this war from the moment right after September 11, 2001, when George Bush spoke of an "axis of evil" with no mention at all of Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that virtually all of the hijackers who'd brought such devastation upon my country came from Saudi Arabia. With a bare minimum of questioning, his administration gave special treatment to family members of Osama bin Laden to expedite their leaving the country at a time when planes were barely getting off the ground again, when our own citizens were still being delayed from flying even in emergencies. We (meaning people high up in our government, not me personally) have close ties to the Saudis. That same "we" once had close ties with Saddam Hussein, providing him with weapons and support when "we" thought he would serve our interests against Iran.

  3. Laura:

    During the owl irruption of 2004-2005 birders were traveling in HUGE numbers to witness this event. No one blogged backed then about the waste of natural resources birders were burning up. Everyone including us were blogging about how small towns like Cotton, MN (Wilbert's Cafe) or Meadowlands, MN (Country Market & Rocket Saloon) were seeing a huge increase in business. We welcomed birders to visit northern Minnesota! We encouraged birders to make the trip to view the owls!

    Here is another point -- There are more festivals these days celebrating birds. Should we now criticize birders who travel to these festivals? all these festivals do wonderful things to thier communities. I would bet there are a few busineses that greatly appreciate the increase of revenue because of the influx of birders in Beloit, WI. Why are we not blogging the postives about those that went to see the Mango? Why are some more interested in blogging about the negatives about traveling to see a Mango?

    How many top ornithologists or birders traveled to Central America for an AOU meeting in 2006? How many binocular reps each year travel to ABA events or bird festivals to sell thier products to birders? Is that a waste of natural resources as well? Was is a waste of money for birders to travel all over Arkansas to locate a Ivory-billed Woodpecker?

    Birders travel each year either in thier home state, out of state or out of country to be part of festivals or go on bird trips or just a get away to view birds. Is this all a huge waste of money?

    Is it a huge waste of money that someone who is sick of staying around the home listening to the sickness that is going on in Iraq and decides to make a trip or an escape to view a rare hummingbird? Should we point the finger at the guy and tell him stay at home instead?

    Again birding is suppose to fun!! There are many aspects of birding and there is not a right way or a wrong way to enjoy the hobby. As long as we follow the ABA code of ethics. If some people are more interested in the conservation side of birding thats great, if some are more interested in building their list than that is great too! But we ALL travel when it comes to birds and we all burn gas to view birds or go to festivals, trips and meetings. Birders need to escape and if we escape by using a bike or taking a bike than fine. If birders rather take a plane, a car, a train, or a boat to escape and enjoy the hobby of birds than thats fine with me.

    I'll be out tomorrow with Chet Meyers birding and its not important what I am burning in the gas tank but to me its more about getting outside and viewing birds!

    Mike H

  4. I don't think anyone should feel defensive about their birding, and I don't think we should feel holier-than-thou, either. None of the conservationists I've been discussing this issue with are being preachy--just asking people to consider issues that are easier to ignore--issues that affect the futures of our children and of the birds we love. What we are asking is for people to be mindful of all the effects of our actions, and to minimize the harmful effects when possible. That's part of being a responsible adult. Sacrifices WILL need to be made--now or later. And the longer we put those sacrifices off, the worse off everyone will be.

    Enjoying and sharing the natural world is critical for garnering the national will to protect it. But wasting energy for that enjoyment has a cost that is far more than $3.00 per gallon. At the very least it's worth thinking about.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Mike,

    Again, you've made some great points worthy of consideration.

    Think on the mango from a slightly different angle – the perspective of a person who reports a rarity. Now this particular host probably wasn't aware how many individuals would choose to travel to see the hummingbird at her house, and I can appreciate that.

    But say it was me. Let's say I had the mango in my backyard knowing what the bird would mean to birders, and also businesses in Waunakee with increased patronage at area stores. I would stack this against all of the gasoline that would inevitably be consumed on account of a single action by me: reporting the bird. I know birders will come in droves. I must also think about how the bird might serve as an ambassador for the hobby of birding for non-birders. This, too, must be weighed against the welfare of the bird, which in the case of a hummingbird I wouldn't be overly concerned. There have been “good birds” I haven't reported for precisely these reasons.

    As far as consumption goes, when we make a few approximations and assumptions on types of vehicles and fuel efficiency, it becomes a little more significant based on causality from a single person's action. So far the Beloit mango has attracted some 500 birders (there are sure to be more so long as the bird sticks around). Let's just say, on average, the roundtrip was 100 miles. Let's also make an assumption that, on average, the fuel efficiency is 28 miles per gallon:

    500 birders X 100 miles = 50,000 total travel miles
    50,000 miles / 28 miles per gallon = 1,785 gallons of gasoline
    1,785 gallons of gasoline @ $3.00 = $5,357.00

    I report such a bird and blamo – more gasoline I use in 5 years is consumed in a matter of several days on account of my personal decision. That's right, Mike. Given the predictability of all of the above, I probably wouldn't have reported the bird!



  7. I shortened this commentary for Friday's For the Birds radio program and my phone has been ringing off the hook and my email box has been filling up. So far, 100% favorable.

  8. I will stand by my comments and I respect Mike's & Laura's comments on this topic. Like I said there are many types of birders and I respect them all.

    Mike H.

  9. Mike,

    One other minor point, since you brought it up...

    In 2006, my employer donated to:

    1. Hawk Watch International
    2. Armand Bayou Nature Center
    3. Great Texas Birding Classic
    4. Natural Heritage Land Trust
    5. Point Reyes Bird Observatory
    6. San Francisco Nature Education
    7. Necedah Whooping Crane
    8. Centerville Middle School World Series of Birding Team
    9. Wisconsin Society for Ornithology
    10. Hawk Mountain Sanctuary
    11. Cleveland Metro Parks
    12. American Bird Conservation Alliance
    13. Denali Foundation
    14. Gathering Waters Conservancy
    15. The Valley Land Fund
    16. International Migratory Bird Day
    17. World Bird Sanctuary
    18. American Birding Association
    19. National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
    20. Valley Nature Center
    21. Wisconsin Important Bird Areas
    22. Iowa Important Bird Areas
    22. Pinellas County Environmental Fund
    23. Space Coast Birding and Wildlife
    24. Wisconsin Wetlands Association
    25. International Migratory Bird Day
    26. Houston Audubon Society
    27. Natural Heritage Land Trust
    28. Optics for the Tropics
    29. Birders' Exchange
    30. North American Butterfly Association
    31. Texas Butterfly Festival
    32. Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences
    33. International Crane Foundation
    34. Great Florida Birding Trail
    35. World Birding Center
    36. Midwest Birding Symposium
    37. Cornell Lab of Ornithology
    38. Operation Migration
    39. South Eastern Bird Observatory
    40. North Country Trail
    41. University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum
    42. Pronatura Vera Cruz-Mexico
    44. Bald Eagle Days Sponsor
    45. Whooping Crane Festival Sponsor
    46. Rivers & Wildlife Conference Sponsor
    47. Kachemack Bay Shorebird Festival Sponsor
    48. Detroit Lakes Birding Festival Sponsor
    49. Neceedah Whooping Crane Festival Sponsor
    50. Colonial Coast Bird and Nature Festival Sponsor
    51. Florida Birding and Nature Festival Sponsor
    52. Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival Sponsor
    53. Space Coast Birding Festival Sponsor
    54. Bosque Del Apache Festival of Cranes Sponsor
    55. Point Lobos State Preserve
    56. Tree Frog Treks
    57. River Bend Nature Center
    58. Rock River Coalition
    59. Golden Gate Raptor Observatory
    60. Watsonville Wetlands Watch
    61. Lincoln Park Zoo
    63. Pomona College
    64. Wooster College
    65. San Francisco Day School
    66. Friends of the Inyo
    67. Bahamas National Trust
    68. Albion College
    69. University of Oregon
    70. Bureau of Reclamation Denver
    71. US Fish and Wildlife Study
    72. Audubon Arkansas
    73. Bitter Lake NWR
    74. Institute for Wildlife Studies
    75. Army Corp of Engineers
    76. Oahu National Wildlife Refuge Complex
    77. Petoskey Regional Audubon Society
    78. Davey Tree Expert
    79. Strawberry Plains Audubon Center
    80. Chinsegut Nature Center
    81. Idaho State University
    82. Brooker Creek Preserve
    83. University of Platteville
    84. Little Rock School District
    85. Chicago Audubon Center
    86. Bryn Mawr College
    87. The Conservancy of Southwest Florida
    88. Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
    89. Peterborough Elementary School
    90. Napa Solano Audubon Society
    91. Platte River Whooping Crane Trust
    92. Idaho Fish and Game
    93. Wood Lake Nature Center
    94. George Mason School
    95. Montana Natural History Center
    96. Confederate Hall Education Center
    97. Saving Birds Through Habitat
    98. Western Kentucky University
    99. University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
    100. Michigan Technological University
    101. Central Lake Superior Land Conservancy
    102. Desert Botanical Garden
    103. Institute for Bird Populations
    105. El Cielo Biosphere Project
    106. Georgia Department of Natural Resources
    107. Iowa Department of Natural Resources
    108. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
    109. Alma College
    110. Colorado Division of Wildlife
    111. Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center
    112. Ballard Nature Center
    113. Pennsylvania State University
    114. Milwaukee Public Museum
    115. North Carolina Museum of natural Sciences
    116. California State University
    117. Institute for Wildlife Studies
    118. Historic Yates Mill County Park
    119. South Dakota State University
    120. University of Missouri
    121. Blaine School
    122. Argyle lake State Park
    123. Society for Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds
    124. Chicago Parks District
    125. Quincy High School
    126. Edgewood High School
    127. The Watershed Project
    128. Evergreen State College
    129. Texas A&M University


    Have a great weekend!


  10. Mike:

    I never asked you in any of my comments if your employer donates money to bird oprganization or places did I?

    Mike you are getting overly emotional about this thread and I thought we were done with it when I told everyone I respect your comments but now you are trolling for more reaction from me with this list you took time to create.

    I think Eagle Optics does a great service in what it does outside of selling optics and other products at various bird festivals.

    All in all I made a strong point that even Eagle Optics tosses thousands of money each year in traveling costs to get thier reps at these festivals. So its ok to spend thousands of dollars each year traveling to see birds as long as they give back thousands of dollars to various bird causes & organizations? So Eagle Optics is excused with thier traveling costs they spend each year but Joe Blow is not excused on how he/she spends his/her money on traveling each year to see birds? Come on Mike.. You can't have it both ways!!

    Again I applaud Eagle Optics and always been a fan of Eagle Optics.

  11. I used to work for an optics company. They donated money to the following birding and conservation organizations:


    (Oh, well.)

  12. Mike,

    You lost me. No where did I say people should stop driving to see birds. I said I am reducing my trips to see birds and provided my reasons.

    If anybody is getting emotional, it's you. You can't seem to let it go.


  13. I did let it go on September 28th at 1:30pm. but you seem to want to have the last word on this topic.

    Mike the floor is yours and I promise not to respond so we can let this topic die off.

    The only thing I am emotional about is that I have yet to find a Sabine's Gull this fall season and also the Yankees are only 1 game behind the Red Sox in the thier division. GO Yanks! That's about it. (-:

    Mike H.

  14. I really think that trying to compare recreational activities to what some of think is an illegal war (my son was there for 15 mos and I still think it is illegal)is like comparing apples to oranges. The fact is that a whole bunch of folks driving individually to see a rare bird is a waste of energy. Car pooling might be better.

  15. In a way you're right, Rick. But what prompted the essay was watching Ken Burns's The War and being struck with how very much Americans sacrificed for the greater good during World War II. Right now we're not only in an illegal war, we're also facing both an energy crisis and horrible consequences from global warming, many of which are already happening. We should be sacrificing for the greater good again. All of us. Even birders.

    Yes, carpooling is one way of saving energy. As is maintaining a car properly, driving at 55, driving more energy-efficient vehicles, and driving gently. My point is that we should be thinking about the future and acting accordingly, as we see fit, of course, but being mindful of the implications of our consumption of natural resources.