When I heard that a small bird-watching club in Ontario had received a warning letter from the Canada Revenue Agency, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Why on Earth would the agency need to warn the Kitchener-Waterloo Field Naturalists “to refrain from undertaking partisan activities” and threaten them with future audits? Could it be that the shocking decline of birds locally and globally is finally forcing even Canada’s reticent and small-C conservative birdwatching community to speak out in defence of birds? In that case, the government must certainly have a problem. Let’s take a look at who these infamous birdwatchers are: they live among us!
Birdwatching, birding, or ornithology is a worldwide pastime. Interest in birds and their conservation is the rationale for the world’s largest nature conservation partnership: BirdLife International. This extraordinary global organization has more than 13 million members and supporters in 120 countries, from Andorra to Zimbabwe. BirdLife is economically vibrant, employing 7,400 staff with a budget of US$39 million, and its leaders are eminent: Queen Noor of Jordan is president emeritus; Princess Takamado of Japan is honorary president; and two of Canada’s most respected authors, Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson, are honorary presidents of the BirdLife Rare Bird Club. Furthermore, good science and sustainable economic solutions for human communities are key principles behind the partnerships’s actions. BirdLife strives to solve problems that are critical and global, such as the near extinction of India and Africa’s vultures, and the decimation of albatrosses by longline and trawl fishing. Clearly this is not a group the CRA should be worried about, yet the Ontario club is a grassroots part of BirdLife, as are most of Canada’s federated naturalist clubs.
But perhaps CRA was not thinking about that sort of birdwatcher. Perhaps they were nervous of “twitchers”. These are a subset of birdwatching enthusiasts, like those featured in the 2011 comedy movie, The Big Year, starring Owen Wilson, Jack Black, and Steve Martin, based on Mark Obmascik’s autobiographical book. Whereas many birdwatchers keep detailed records of the birds they have seen, hard-core twitchers take it a step further, focusing almost entirely on finding new birds for their life list. It is akin to a sport, with lists kept and compared, and many thousands of dollars spent in locating rare birds around the world. Dan Koeppel’s fascinating biography of his twitcher dad, To See Every Bird on Earth, is a window on this world of obsessive birding and the handful of champion twitchers who have seen upwards of 8,000 of the estimated 10,000 bird species in the world. While most birdwatchers are evenly split male and female, most twitchers are men, though women are becoming increasingly interested. The legendary cancer survivor and birdwatcher Phoebe Snetsinger had seen 8,450 species before she died in a car crash in Africa while looking for birds.
Twitchers are not generally too involved in conservation activities. In fact, even many regular birdwatchers are reluctant to become involved in campaigns, as nature observation is an escape and a relaxation, away from the cares of the world. Environmental groups have tried in vain to get birders, as a group, to be stronger advocates for habitat conservation. Will the CRA may succeed where Greenpeace has failed?
Watching birds can be both relaxation and muse. From Ovid and Aristotle to Leonardo da Vinci and James Watson, the Nobel prize-winning co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, scientists, artists, writers, and poets have drawn inspiration from watching birds. Ian Fleming named his famous spy, James Bond, after an ornithologist with that name. Jared Diamond was a bird-watcher before he wrote such ground-breaking books as Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse. American novelist, Jonathan Franzen, “confessed” to the hobby and later starred in the movie The Central Park Effect, about New York city’s subculture of birdwatchers. Comedian Bill Oddie and actors Cameron Diaz, Steve Martin, and Sean Bean watch birds. So, apparently, do former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and Laura Bush. It is not a partisan political activity!
Britain has been a hot-bed of bird-watching activity ever since clergyman Gilbert White wrote The Natural History of Selborne in the mid-1700s. The famous broadcaster and writer, Sir David Attenborough reinforced this love of the natural world over the last five decades, with programs like Life of Birds, Blue Planet, and Planet Earth. In America, the 19th century paintings of ornithologist John James Audubon opened the American public’s eyes to the beauty of birds. Illustrated guides appeared around the world in the 1930s, such as Roger Tory Peterson’s field guides to North America and Salim Ali’s The Book of Indian Birds, bringing the possibility of bird identification to the masses. This effectively ended the necessity of shooting a bird to identify it and led instead to the rise of the camera. Now bird photographers almost outnumber those using binoculars and the quality of spectacular photos has increased exponentially. Wildlife paintings are still much enjoyed by Canadians, however, as illustrated by the popularity of Robert Bateman’s beautiful artwork. Bateman was born in Ontario, and was at one time a director of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists; he is now an honorary life member.
For everyone who goes out searching for birds in the wild, dozens more bring birds to their yards by hanging up feeders full of nuts and seeds. Supplying the vast array of food is a multimillion dollar industry. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service surveys show that about 42 million Americans are backyard birders, surpassing almost every other recreational pursuit. Most birders are 35 or older, but there is a fair sprinkling of folks who catch the bug at a younger age too. Our federal government might take note of the fact that many U.S. states with active birding participation are those considered more conservative in nature: such as Montana, South Dakota, and Wyoming. In contrast, “liberal” states like California and New York have some of the lower participation rates.
Canada has no recent surveys of birdwatching activity. However, hundreds of bird-watchers participate in the annual Christmas Bird Count, begun in 1900, and many small towns have naturalist clubs. In B.C., the Federation of B.C. Naturalists (B.C. Nature) has over 50 clubs scattered around the province, and about 80 percent of the nearly 6,000 members are keen on birding. Birders buy equipment, such as binoculars, telescopes, cameras, and books, and often travel to enjoy their hobby. Point Pelee in Ontario, a migratory bird hot spot less than three hours drive from Kitchener, draws visitors from around the world who pour millions into the local economy.
The federal government has denied that the CRA’s warning to the Ontario birdwatchers is politically-motivated, although the club had recently written a letter expressing concern about the detrimental effect of pesticides on bird populations. To target birdwatchers for such a scrutiny might have an unexpected effect. It is not too difficult to imagine that those who most enjoy looking at birds might just fight harder to protect them, leading to greater conservation awareness and advocacy even by the twitchers!