Updated: Mar 26
Bird club prez says birds are a gateway drug and a sanctuary from stress by Matthew Liptak
Some researchers have proposed the idea that Americans, and modern civilization in general, have become removed from the natural world so much that it has become unhealthy—both for people and for the environment. The Anne Arundel Bird Club (AABC) offers residents a potential prescription, a “gateway drug” back into nature.
The “drug”--bird-watching--gets human residents more familiar with their high-flying neighbors, Many of us may only be familiar with birds in the periphery of our lives, flying away when we go out to the car in the morning for a daily commute, or occasionally spotting a flock migrating in the fall or spring. But there’s much more to the lives of our local birds than the brief glimpses we often get, and, according to AABC President Chris Eberly, once someone gets a close-up look of a birds life, they’ll want more. Eberly is also executive director of the Maryland Bird Conservation Partnership, which is a collaborative coalition of groups working to conserve Maryland birds and their habitat.
He said bird-watching, particularly in times of stress, like the current virus emergency may prove beneficial. Taking social distancing into account which means the separation of individuals by at least six feet or more for as long as possible, he encouraged people to encounter nature. It just needs to be as individuals or couples. People shouldn’t go out as groups, he advised.
“I have yet to meet somebody and show them a bird, let them see (them) through my binoculars that doesn't just have a jaw-drop moment,” Eberly said. “Then when you're out in nature, you start looking for birds. I call them, and other people call them, a gateway drug to nature. People have lost a connection with nature. it's good for the human soul and health to be in nature.”
People could even take time to bird-watch with a bird feeder.
“I think a lot of people are doing that,” he said. “You don't have to get out of your house. So wherever you can, you know, just even walking out in your backyard or you know, from inside, watch your feeders. Anything to help you connect in some way with the natural world and take your mind off what we're bombarded with in the news every day.”
Since Spring is migration season, this may be a particularly good time to pick up the habit.
“For some species, you know, they are already migrating. We're getting reports of Eastern Phoebe's already getting back. Ospreys are starting to nest. Certain other species, the early migrants, are here. Most of the warblers and tanagers and thrushes we'll probably start to see in another two to three weeks, maybe four weeks. So they're on their way from their wintering grounds. It's generally into April, when we really start see the bulk of migration coming in.”
The scientist also advised to keep an ear out. Birds that winter here and will soon be heading north will be ramping up their bird calls. That might provide a cheerful antidote to the news of the day when you step outside.
It may be intuitive to feel that since human beings evolved with the natural world, being removed from it may not be particularly healthy, but Eberly also cites the wonders of the bird world to show what is missed out on when we ignore the outdoors.
One bird in particular came to mind when he talked about his passion for birds.
The Blackpoll Warbler is a small bird, about four inches long and weighing less than half an ounce. Yet it migrates 12,000 miles each year and sometimes can be found locally. According to a naturalist Scott Weidensaul it makes such good use of the fat it stores that an equivalent car engine would get 720,000 miles to the gallon of gas. Yes, that’s not a typo. If that figure is accurate it is the same as going to the moon and back, and back again to the moon on one gallon of gas. Of course, creating a tiny space suit for such a creature might be problematic, and there’s no air in space to fly through—buy you get the picture.
“Little bird like that,” Eberly reflected. “No GPS No math, no nothing. It's just all encoded. somehow in their DNA, that they know where to go. So you think okay, this is just this little fragile thing that performs this feat that we can we can only dream about.”
Achievements like that are just part of the draw of bird-watching. There is potential opportunity to socialize with other humans at programs and events when things improve. There is also the chance to learn about how the avian world is fairing both near and far.
Although they are now shut down at least until the end of April, the club normally has weekly walks and monthly meetings. The club has also started a Community Lecture Series. In January, Donna Cole, from radio station 1430 WNAV, spoke to the club about her investigative reporting regarding the carbofuran poisoning of Bald Eagles on the Eastern Shore. In February, the club hosted former Maryland State Senator Gerald Winegrad who presented an entertaining travelogue of a trip with his wife to the Svalbard Archipelago in the Arctic of Norway.
“We get people from other bird clubs, not just our bird club, and sometimes the general public,” Eberly said before the emergency hit. “We wanted to do something that might appeal to a larger segment of the community, and hopefully get them interested in birds if they aren’t already.”
Recent studies have indicated bird populations haven’t been faring too well and Eberly sees no sign that that also isn’t the case locally. As a professional in the bird research community, Eberly said some of his personal colleagues were involved in the groundbreaking study produced last year by eight research institutions, both public and private,. It found that the overall North American bird population has lost 3 billion birds in the last 50 years. That’s a decline of 29 percent of what the bird population was estimated at in 1970.
Since nobody can actually go out and count billions of flittering and flying birds, Eberly took some time to explain how his colleagues came to their conclusion.
“It's the number of birds that are given during a nesting season in any given year, (that) has declined by 3 billion,” he said. “You factor in the total number of birds that they started with, and then you have the additions with the young that's fledged, and then you take away the mortality in a given year. So stable population means if we have 10 billion birds in 1970, we have 10 billion now. So the number of births would equal the number of deaths over that period. Well, we're losing more birds then are being born in to the population. It's estimated that free ranging cats kill...somewhere between two (to) three billion, collisions with buildings and windows kill up to a billion birds every year. So there are about you know, three to 5 billion birds killed from human causes.”
Birds that dwell in the interior forest have been perhaps the biggest victims locally, Eberly noted. These species, like the wood thrush, can require blocks of forest of 250 acres. Due to the high rate of residential and commercial development in Maryland, areas like that have become more rare. The iconic song of the wood thrush in the deep woods may not be something that outdoor lovers are able to enjoy locally, or even regionally.
“Wood thrush is is one...the song is just beautiful,” Eberly said.” That's a very iconic bird. It's actually the district bird (of) Washington, D.C.. Their populations have declined quite a bit. So we're losing habitat, which forces the birds to look elsewhere. Yeah. And the situation's the same elsewhere. Throughout the Mid Atlantic, we're just losing that large contiguous forest area. So those species are starting to notice a decline.”
Along with the landscape, the tools used for bird watching have changed too. App technology has been introduced. Some birdwatchers are fans because of its accuracy and ability to consolidate data, while others are against incorporating the very thing they are trying to getting away from in their escapes in to nature.
“You go birding to get away from your phone,” Eberly said,” but now I'm having my phone with me all the time when birding, because you can actually start a checklist as you're starting to go birding, and every bird I see, I'll put it in there.”
But he said some of the top birders in the county and state have declined to add apps to their bird-watching practices. He seemed a little conflicted himself.
“So I guess that gets back to that,” Eberly said. “Is it a distraction? Is it a help?”
Whatever your preference, Eberly said all those interested in getting into the outdoors and hecking out some avian action are encouraged to come to one of their meetings or outings when they resume. They are social events as well as being a way to encounter wild Maryland.
“We'd love to have you know, anybody who's interested at all in nature and birds,” he said. “Come out to a meeting. Join us on bird walk. Everything's informal. We don't have expectations of how good a birder you are or not. It's just a great way to meet maybe some like-minded people who love to get out in nature.”
Until then perhaps, Eberly encourages individuals to practice by themselves. Perhaps you will already be a true bird nerd when the club meets again.