On November 17th, The New York Times published a poorly researched article by Lisa M. Collins, where David Barrett and Bob DeCandido proclaimed a Barred Owl currently in Central Park, the next Mandarin Duck. The Manhattan birding community was appalled at the exploitation of a nocturnal owl, which will now be disturbed daily by crowds and exploited during the night by tours using a search light and recordings.
(A few years ago, I expressed my displeasure with David and Bob, when a Great Horned Owl was harassed. My opinions are still the same.)
The general consensus about owls is not to talk about their locations. This rule sensibly puts the welfare of the owl before the desire of the general public to see a bird. The reason is simple. Owls are nocturnal and need their rest but are also irresistible to humans, who without any regard for their welfare, will flock to their roosts to see them.
One messaging group I belong to has a sensible rule, you can’t share a location of an owl to the group, but you can share the park where the owl is located and then communicate one-on-one via private messaging to discuss the specifics. This way, the person reporting the owl takes responsibility for the welfare of the owl they found, and in many cases actually monitors the behavior of the people he/she shared the owl location with.
On the surface this may seem elitist, but it isn't. It is simply the only way to put the welfare of the owl before the public's desire to see one in the wild.
(By the way, I’m not perfect on this subject. I don’t publish pictures of owls whose locations aren’t common knowledge until after they leave the area or until their young are safely off a nest. But I do publish photos and video of owls whose locations are commonly known, which I did with this now highly publicized Barred Owl, and may have contributed to its getting celebrity status.)
The New York Times article was basically an ad for Bob DeCandido's walks and David Barrett's Twitter feed, without much fact checking. Dennis Hrehowsik's counter arguments were on target, but Ms. Collins presented dishonest rebuttals. Ms. Collins should also have also contacted either the Audubon Society, the American Birding Association or a Cornell Ornithologist to see if the exploitation of owls for fame or income was appropriate. Birding responsibly requires following ethical guidelines, with the gold standard being the American Biding Association's Code of Birding Ethics.
Circular logic was used in the article and it needs to be challenged. One of the quotes was "...Mr. DeCandido said. “Now there is E-Bird and Manhattan Bird Alert, where bird sightings are reported almost immediately.” But this distorts reality.
Ethical birders who post their owl sightings on eBird (not E-Bird, another typo which shows the sloppy fact checking of Ms. Collins), go to great pains to obfuscate the location of the owl they are reporting. For example, with two of the three Northern Saw-whet Owl seen in the park this month, the birders delayed reporting them to protect the owl from stress. They wisely puts the welfare of the owls over people's desire to see them.
And the Manhattan Bird Alert, which is managed and fully curated by David Barrett, is the direct cause of the Barred Owl's location being reported and then harassed daily. For Bob DeCandido and David Barrett to proclaim its OK to watch this owl because it is reported so quickly, while knowing full well that the reports are so quick only because of a Twitter system Mr. Barrett designed (where he adds owl location maps) is outrageous. I know of no other bird alert system in the US, that allows the reporting of owl locations.
The impact of humans on owls is well documented in Brooklyn and Queens. Green-Wood Cemetery had a pair of Great Horned Owls abandon a nest due to human disturbance. And Snowy Owls are regularly woken up and chased by photographers wanting flight shots on the beaches and grasslands of Brooklyn and Queens during the winter.
In the article, Mr. Barrett said "'This is the information age. People can report what they see,' Mr. Barrett said. 'You don’t get owls every day in Manhattan. In the middle of a city like this, it’s a reminder that there is mystery and beauty in nature, and we need to go see it.'" On the surface this sounds logical but puts people before the welfare of the birds they watch. But it is Mr. Barrett who is allowing owls to be reported. Mr. Barrett has chosen to encourage owl reporting, and permits it. He edits and monitors all relayed posts, so he could filter them if he wanted to. There are plenty of beautiful birds he could be promoting, that won't be disturbed by humans watching them. And without the system David built, if someone shared information about an owl it would go to at most a hundred people. With the Manhattan Bird Alert it goes to now over 25,000.
Also, his statement, "...You don’t get owls every day in Manhattan..." fails to address why they might be in the city. The owls we see in Central Park are usually young birds or migrating birds. Both are already under a great deal of stress, and have randomly ended up in a noisy city park. This may be the hardest time in their lives and we should be extra careful to protect them.
Both David Barrett and Bob DeCandido are quick to say, prove that having folks go see these birds is harmful. I believe the on onus is on them to prove it doesn't harm the owl, as both of them are going against the long term ethical rules of birding.
David Barrett is a competitive lister, who holds the record for the most birds seen in Manhattan for the last few years. He built an alert system that puts him at the center of Manhattan bird reporting and has carefully mixed soft news, photographs from photographers happy to have an audience, and rare bird alerts. He carefully filters out any critical comments about his ethics, actively promotes "a report everything" philosophy, and makes it seem that reporting owls is the right thing to do with new birders.
If David Barrett cared about the Barred Owl, and wasn't using it to just to increase his subscribers, he would have at least published guidelines about how to watch it. Watching an owl wake up from a safe distance at dusk can be a great experience and something David Barrett could have promoted rather than having people watch it all day long. Rather than publishing the current location of the owl in the morning, David Barrett could wait until the late afternoon, so it could get some sleep before fly out. He could remind people to not get closer than about 50 feet, ask people not to bring their dogs, talk to their children about the need to be quiet, have folks actually bring binoculars, etc. That he hasn't, clearly telegraphs that this is about gaining followers and not about sharing a beautiful bird, while still promoting ethical birding.
If you think David Barrett is really providing a service for birds in New York, ask yourself why he doesn't use his Twitter following to raise funds for NYC birding organizations? It seems really odd to me that he doesn't use his following of more than 25,000 subscribers to raise some real money for the birds of New York.
The article continues, "Mr. DeCandido said the Brooklyn Bird Club [BBC] is wonderful in the work it does, but it guards the location of birds jealously. 'They’re like the Mafia,' he said. 'They keep things really secret.'" To me, it sounds like the BBC is doing its job of limiting the impact people have on owls. And for those thinking the BBC is an exclusive "mafia" club, membership is $25/year, everyone is welcome to join, and their trips are open to the public. It just sounds like Birding Bob is just unhappy he can't make $10/head shinning flashlights at owls in Brooklyn.
Bob DeCandido (who has a Ph.D. but not in Ornithology, and for some reason was referred to as Mr. DeCandido by Ms. Collins), is to my knowledge the only professional bird tour leader in Manhattan, who operates independently. He is a great bird leader but unlike other tour leaders in the city, who are volunteers or work for organizations like the American Museum of Nature History or NYC Audubon, he isn't sponsored by any naturalist organization. Unsupervised, he tends to cut corners and flaunt the rules of the city parks in which he gives walks. He collects cash on park property, often has groups larger than 20 (which requires a permit), and plays audio recording, all in violation of park rules. He puts on great walks, but does so flaunting birding ethics. His use of almost constant playback infuriates birders who are not on his walk. Good birders use sound as well as sight to locate birds. On days Dr. DeCandido plays tapes in Central Park's Ramble, no expert birder can effectively bird until his group leaves.
The article promoted Dr. DeCandido's owls walks. These walks use audio playback for over 60 minutes to lure the owl in and then Dr. DeCandido shines a bright searchlight on the owl. The calls that are played are territorial calls, and cause the bird to engage in aggressive behavior. I don't understand why, given how easy it is to watch an owl fly out at dusk, anyone would pay to go on a tour in the dark for an hour, to see an agitated owl lit up with a high powered beam of light.
So, there were lots of flaws in the article, which skirted all ethical considerations with a "data must be free" and a "people must be allowed to see this owl" argument. This owl isn't a celebrity, should be respected, and doesn't need a crazy "Beatlemania" type fan base. I would have expected more from The New York Times.
If you're interested in seeing owls in Manhattan, proceed with caution. If you truly love owls and must see one, I'm sure you won't want to cause one stress or harm. You might want to skip this Barred Owl for now and let it have some rest. But if you must see it, be careful and respectful. Find an experienced Central Park birder for advice on how to watch an owl. And if you do decide you have to go, wait until just before dusk as any owl doesn't need to be bothered all day. And when it moves to a new roost, give the owl a break and keep the location to yourself.
And remember, anytime someone names a wild animal, question the motivation of whomever is naming it!
I’ve been thinking about a solution to this ongoing problem for some time. Especially, now that social media and the eBird reporting system do make it so easy to report birds. How do we protect sensitive species from being disturbed and exploited? The rules for protecting owls from exploitation work in suburban or rural areas, but how can they work in Manhattan, now that we have Twitter, and in Manhattan a weaponized form of Twitter, David Barrett’s Manhattan Bird Alert?
I have some thoughts…
Mentorship We need to acknowledge that the Manhattan birding community is partially to blame for this problem. There are very few opportunities for a new birder to learn the basics of birding, including birding ethics in Manhattan. Mentoring beginners has never been part of the core mission of any Manhattan birding organization. There are a few programs for beginners, but they are generally oversubscribed. By not creating these programs, we have created a vacuum which David Barrett and Bob DeCandido have exploited. We need to stop being just frustrated and angry with these two individuals, but also work to remove the void they exploit.
(The issue of mentoring new birders, not only applies to this situation, but to solving the lack of diversity in birding. We will only have a more diverse birding community, if we provide programing targeted at helping diverse communities discover the joys of birding.)
New birders and bird photographers can evolve into experienced birders, who bird ethically (and also support conservation issues, such as bird safe glass, habitat conservation, native plant gardens, etc., as well as providing support for local birding organizations, including rehabilitators) or into birders who don’t worry about their impact on the birds they watch. It is the birding community’s responsibility to make sure this happens and is done wonderfully by many local bird clubs (great examples are the Brooklyn Bird Club (BBC), and most local Audubon chapters across the country) but isn’t being done well in Manhattan.
When discussing owl ethics, we often use sections of the American Birding Associations’ Code of Birding Ethics. We quote sections 1b, “Avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger. Be particularly cautious around active nests and nesting colonies, roosts, display sites, and feeding sites. Limit the use of recordings and other audio methods of attracting birds, particularly in heavily birded areas, for species that are rare in the area, and for species that are threatened or endangered. Always exercise caution and restraint when photographing, recording, or otherwise approaching birds.” and 2c, “Share bird observations freely, provided such reporting would not violate other sections of this Code, as birders, ornithologists, and conservationists derive considerable benefit from publicly available bird sightings.”
But there are other sections of the code, we don’t usually discuss, 2b “…Freely share your knowledge and experience and be especially helpful to beginning birders.”, 2d “Approach instances of perceived unethical birding behavior with sensitivity and respect; try to resolve the matter in a positive manner, keeping in mind that perspectives vary. Use the situation as an opportunity to teach by example and to introduce more people to this Code.” and 2e “In group birding situations, promote knowledge by everyone in the group of the practices in this Code and ensure that the group does not unduly interfere with others using the same area.”
So, it’s clear that the American Birding Associations’ Code of Birding Ethics requires us to nurture new birders and discuss ethics, but are we? The answer is poorly in Manhattan. This vacuum allows innocent neophytes to become disciples of David Barrett and Bob DeCandido, who both flaunt standard birding ethics.
The Manhattan birding community is responsible for this problem and we should face up to it rather than being sanctimonious. We need to have better outreach to new birders. This don't have to be anything fancy. Just having more walks for beginners, in more locations, including informal "leaderless" walks along with a few Zoom lectures about binoculars, ethics, field guides, how to use eBird, Manhattan birding locations, etc. could help get hundreds of folks introduced to birding in the right way. Even if we all we did was just introduced ourselves to new birders, we could make a huge difference. In Manhattan, maybe because we have so many birders who came to the city already knowing how to bird, we've forgotten our need to mentor new birders.
If you need proof that this is a problem, just look at the differences between Manhattan and Brooklyn. In Brooklyn, due to the numerous walks of the BBC, birders have been nurtured and mentored, and the reporting of owls is rare. So, lets follow their example in Manhattan.
Birding by Twitter Social Media has changed birding. In the past, you had to do lots of legwork and do your homework to find rare birds. Now you can follow a few twitter accounts, run after birds, and have a great year list, but not really know anything about birds or have worked too hard. This causes odd things to happen. I can be quietly watching a bird, have an new birder come up to me who I help get on the bird, have them share the sighting on Twitter, and then 8 to 20 birders show up. On a recent walk, we found an owl (via crows, jays and a Cooper's Hawk) and a new birder without asking tweeted the location. In five minutes, 10 birders showed up and what had been a peaceful encounter became a scrum.
As with politics and other walks of life, Twitter has become a difficult place to have a discussion. In response, many birders including myself communicate on more private forums. In Manhattan, this has left Twitter and Instagram without many senior birders to keep up the discussion about ethics, etiquette and the finer points of I.D., so the divide between the beginners and experienced birders has grown wider.
I'm not sure how we regain control of Twitter, or if we can, but we should not just abandon it. And we need to be careful. It's very easy to just fall into a pattern of just shaming folks, rather than patiently explaining how to do better. Having civil discourse on social media takes a lot of effort!
I'm nostalgic for the long discussions that used to go on, message after message, on the old listservs about the finer details of identifying a specific flycatcher or gull.
Photographers Photographers have had an odd relationship with birders. Bird photographers range from beginners to experts, and can be respectful birders or arrogant jerks with expensive toys. I saw a lot of the later up with Barred Owl over the last few weeks. But I also saw lots of respectful photographers.
Taking excellent photographs can be difficult. It requires the technical knowledge of how to use a camera, artistic skills, post-processing skills with tools like Adobe Photoshop and then internet skills to publish one's work. Photographing birds adds the need to know bird behavior, locations and I.D.s, so it gets even tougher.
I would love to see a mentoring program that helps turn novice bird photographers into great photographers who are also respectful birders. I don't think you can be an excellent bird photographer without being an excellent birder.
In addition, birders need to give up their bias against photographers. They see the awful behavior of a few photographers (flash, using bait, destroying habitat, etc.) and classify them as not worthy of mentoring. That bias prevents many experienced birders from taking the time to mentor photographers.
The Barred Owl is a great example. I saw lots of folks, taking lots of what I call yearbook portrait shots of the owl for a full afternoon. While you can patiently wait for hours for the right light, and get the perfect shot, it doesn't tell a story. To tell a real story about a bird, you need to study the bird and then capture the field marks, behavior and its environment. For a Barred Owl, I love to photograph the wonderful "eyelashes", the cat paw like talons covered in warming feathers (unlike a hawk), catch a pellet being cast, capture it preening, get pictures of the owl stretching, take video of it triangulating on prey, etc. You need to know your subject well to express it well in an image.
It's a fun time for birding photography. With less expensive telephone bridge cameras (semi-professional fixed lens cameras) and new mirrorless cameras matched with lighter telephoto lenses, we're now seeing what used to be an "expensive 'boy with toys' club", become a diverse group of individuals producing great work.
Most photographers are amateurs. It would be great if rather than competing with each other on Twitter and Instagram, we helped document rare bird sightings, document bird behavior and helped advance conservation. And if photographers could police each other's behavior, they wouldn't have such a bad name!
Government We've got to get the Urban Park Rangers and the Park Enforcement Patrol to enforce regulations and we've got to get them to have an action plan for each time the Manhattan Bird Alerts turns an owl into a celebrity. It would be easy to just tape off a 25 foot area around an owl each day, and then provide educational programs onsite. (For those counting, there was a Saw-whet Owl, then a Great Horned Owl and now a Barred Owl promoted on the Manhattan Bird Alert.)
These are just some initial thoughts. I'm happy to have a civil discussion about this with anyone.
One last thing. We're in the middle of a pandemic with a rapidly rising infection rate. We have two or three owls species in the Central Park and at two roost location, I saw folks crowding together for hours. Even with masks, this is risky behavior. An owl isn't worth dying for. Using social distancing, along with masks is a much better way to stay healthy.