Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Social Distancing while Birding

Elderhostel Birding
Camaraderie and sharing spotting scopes are big attractions to birding with friends. We can get back to these joys soon enough. 
I’m hearing via Facebook and birding listservs that a lot of people are getting out into the woods for birding, which seems like an excellent plan for social distancing, but the devil is in the details. Many parks, wildlife refuges, and other wonderful places have closed their facilities, including their restrooms, for the duration. If the bathrooms are closed, it is very bad, in every hygienic sense, for multiple people to be "using" the woods. When even a small percentage of people have bathroom emergencies while enjoying a park with closed facilities, it can be a serious problem. That is a big, and valid, reason why many parks are closed altogether.

Some birders have expressed outrage that their favorite birding spots are closed, and some have even boasted about parking and getting around or under entrance gates on foot. But very few people have the knowledge and carry the supplies to deal with their waste hygienically under normal conditions, much less when we’re in the middle of a health emergency. Imagine being the employees who will return after weeks or months, to clean up after scofflaws. When our favorite birding spots are closed, we need to make the best of it.

Dr. Peter Crosson, a birder and a medical doctor, wrote an extremely valuable post to a Massachusetts birding listserv, and he’s generously given me permission to quote it. He wrote:
In my non-birding day job I'm a physician, bracing for the ramping up of COVID cases and the horrifying specter of lives lost to this disease.  
It's become abundantly clear that this is a disease that needs to be beaten on the public health front, not at the bedside. As a member of a wonderful, vibrant birding community, with many birders "of a certain age," I feel the need to speak up a bit about our responsibilities to each other and to the country as a whole. 
As we've all heard, social distancing is key, and birding can be a wonderful form of social distancing. However, it's not social distancing when you are riding in the car with other birders who don't live with you. It's not social distancing when you are clustering in groups, and certainly not when you are sharing optics such as scopes. 
Anyone of us can be exposed to the virus through asymptomatic friends, so to restrict yourself to hanging out with people who have no symptoms is not enough. Since this began, I have gone birding once with another person. We met at the site, having come in separate cars. We kept 6 feet distance between us at all times, and did not share any optics. If you are not following procedures like that, you're not social distancing. It's also obviously important at more popular sites to avoid touching handrails that other people could be touching, as the virus can live on surfaces for up to three to five days. Frequent handwashing and use of at least 60% alcohol-based hand sanitizer is also crucial.   
It discourages me when I look on eBird and see multiple people reporting the same group checklist from a site. Maybe I am wrong, and they are all arriving in separate cars and keeping distance between themselves, but I doubt that's the case. We are at a tipping point in this crisis, and as an educated and caring group we need to commit to doing everything we can to stop COVID-19. If we lose one member of our birding community because of this virus, it will be a tragedy. Make no mistake, if we do not change our behavior, that is near certain.
Dr. Peter Crosson
It’s so hard to be dealing with this sudden massive disruption in our daily lives. Those of us who love birding are of course disappointed to be cutting back our activities right during the most thrilling time of year—spring migration, when we see so many wonderful birds when we can visit lots of habitat. Backyard birding may not be anywhere near as thrilling, but this is a time to appreciate tiny joys as we can. And building up a yard list has plenty of joys of its own. The more seriously we take social distancing now, the more of us will be able to get back into our favorite old birding practices next spring.

Northern Cardinal
Northern Cardinal photographed in my backyard.