Birding a Little Closer to Home
April 18, 2023
A review by Rebecca Minardi
Low-carbon Birding, edited by Javier Caletrío
Pelagic Publishing, 2022
276 pages, hardcover
“Travel is inherently harmful,” he declared. It was 2017, and I was sitting in a lively graduate class in the Community Sustainability program at Michigan State when a classmate made this wild statement. The rest of us were flabbergasted. “What about our research trips?” my friend retorted. “Traveling is how we connect to other cultures,” said someone in the back.
I was thinking about my journeys to see vanishing species when another classmate reminded us that ecotourism could be a supporter of economies throughout the world. “Nope,” the first student said confidently. He crossed his arms. He continued: “The carbon emissions from flying are indefensible. We should donate to conservation efforts instead of traveling to eco-hotspots. We can and should strive to stay local for the good of the planet. Travel is privileged,” he finished. The rest of us in that class felt outraged; what kind of platform was this?!
“This kid is nuts,” I whispered to my friend. But I thought uneasily about my upcoming trip to Iceland, where my plan was to drive the island ring and see all the birds. A seed of doubt was planted in my mind, and over the six years since, I have thought often of that classroom debate. I wondered, what does it mean to be a birder in the age of extinction? What is a life list worth in the face of a climate crisis? Can conservation and travel coincide?
Enter Low-carbon Birding, edited by Javier Caletrío. This collection of over 30 essays by a slate of concerned writers bluntly, yet elegantly, answers these questions and provides a blueprint for how birding can evolve to protect the species we have left. As noted in the preface, this book is not about heroic actions to save the Earth. Instead, the essays give us examples from everyday people who are grappling with and reacting to our destruction of the planet. After the first two chapters written by the editor, the essays are grouped around four themes: patch birding, birding by train, what it means to be a low-carbon birder, and research on ways climate change has been impacting birds.
Caletrío’s first two chapters set the scene: we have colossally harmed our planet. The twin crises of climate change and extinction have catapulted us into a new human-dominated era, the Anthropocene. It’s difficult to wrap our heads around the enormity of what we’ve wrought, and if we’re not careful, our despair over planetary decline can push us surreptitiously into inaction. This is exactly what this book is trying to avoid. Caletrío argues, as do many other of the book’s essayists, that we have bought into the great myth that it is up to governments and corporations to right the course of humanity. Without widespread and robust action on the part of transnational companies and politicians, we are doomed. Any one of us individuals, the argument goes, cannot affect real change. A person forgoing plastic straws or refusing to drive a car does nothing in the face of global pollution. But this myth provides something convenient for each of us: it gives us permission to continue living without change, letting us slide into an apathy filled with grief, but also inaction.
Caletrío reminds us that our personal choices matter deeply: “The argument that a focus on lifestyle change is a distraction fails to acknowledge that system change is as much about demand as it is about supply, and that the actions of individuals can be connected to larger efforts for systemic change.” He goes on to discuss traveling by plane and argues that there is no such thing as sustainable commercial aviation, and we cannot compensate for our flight emissions by planting trees. Caletrío quotes the ecologist Bonnie Waring, who points out that even if we “absolutely maximized the amount of vegetation all land on Earth could hold, we would sequester enough carbon to offset about ten years of greenhouse gas emissions at current rates.” We need to conserve forest, reforest, and afforest in addition to drastically cutting our emissions.
Finally, Caletrío cautions birders to question the idea that all wildlife trips have conservation value. He argues that tourism as a conservation tool typically relies on high carbon emissions by international travelers and points out that places dependent on international tourists may be so because they are a product of historical structural adjustment programs for lower income countries. He says that these policies often reduce a local government’s ability to govern, which depletes its resources to conserve wild places in the first place. In these regions, ecotourism could now be a market approach to correct a historical wrong. After considering the problems of the fortress conservation approach (where wide swaths of land were preserved as tourist dependent national parks at the expense of the human communities who were evicted out of them), he adds that “other conservation paradigms are possible.” These include biodiversity conservation approaches “that are inspired by principles of equity and environmental justice.”
Without travel, rarity chasing, and Big Years, birders may wonder if there’s any excitement left in birding. The rest of the chapters in Low-carbon Birding share example after example of how much beauty, fun, fulfillment—and yes, excitement—there is in birding locally. Whether birding a designated patch, traveling throughout the area as sustainably as possible, or doing something really strange like rigging a backyard with mics to pick up every bird that migrates overhead during the night, this book’s authors provide us with an array of ideas to increase our skills and curiosity through observing the wider and wilder world. In his essay, “In Praise of Projects,” Mark Bannister reminds us of the joy and creativity of amateur research. This could entail monitoring bluebird boxes, documenting bird strikes before and after retrofitting a home’s windows, keeping a yearly calendar of when local migrants arrive and leave, or any number of ways we can dive into the lives of birds. Ben Sheldon highlights the benefits of “Long-term Local Science” which could include regularly contributing to eBird from a patch, participating in Project Feederwatch or NestWatch, or participating in your local Christmas Bird Count. This type of long-term citizen science connects us with a community of others who are monitoring the same birds we love over time. Both Siân Mercer (“My Patch and the Plastic Problem”) and José Ignacio Dies Jambrino (“The Long Rhythms of a Place”) detail how their restoration efforts have given them a new appreciation for the wild spaces around them.
A major theme throughout the book is reducing air travel; some authors went from flying abroad regularly to cutting out air travel entirely. Other authors worked to lessen how often they drive. The majority of the authors in Low-carbon Birding live in the U.K., and thus can travel by train through their country and to other countries within Europe. However, in the U.S., most of us live in car-dependent communities with little access to trains, let alone other forms of public transit. When I lived in Manhattan, I walked the seven blocks to my patch in Central Park. Here in central Illinois, though I live across the street from the city’s largest forest, I must drive the 0.8 miles to its entrance because a ring of private properties blocks the forest’s edge, and the steep road that leads to it has no berms to walk on. We can and should do better in the U.S. And though there have been improvements to walk- and bike-ability in many urban areas, many of us still rely on our cars far too often. Each minute we spend in the car to get to our birding destination is a minute we lose with the birds.
Birding locally and birding the same places over and over connect us with the wider rhythms of the changing seasons. In “From Angst to Tranquility,” Jonathan Dean, who spent years traveling to see birds, explores how his new habits of local birding have brought peace back to his passion. Many other essayists echoed Dean’s sentiments. After chasing vagrants, traveling widely, and building a life list, many found that their frenetic, stress-inducing, and competitive ways put them in the car and plane more than they were in the forest and field. Now they hear and see more birds. When we bird locally, we understand the habits and habitats of the species in our regions. We immediately notice when something exciting shows up. Though we won’t see every vagrant in the state, we may still find the species that are less common to us. We become experts on what surrounds us. By slowing down, we may see more. And we leave more room for the non-human species who are losing space. Low-carbon birding can help give those birds on the brink a little more time to hang on. What we do as individual birders matters, and it matters immensely.
In the essay “Bringing Birding Home,” Nick Acheson opines that if we continue to emit vast quantities of carbon for the sake of seeing all the birds, “We will facilitate the death of biodiversity.” He continues: “If ever there was a time of reckoning—a time to accept that the act of watching wildlife does not itself equate to doing good for wildlife—it is now. It is beyond time that we lovers of the wild became witnesses of the climate crisis and acted in accordance. And that we brought our birding home.”
Rebecca Minardi is the Book and Media Reviews Editor for Birding. She is a long-time board member of Detroit Audubon where she is now Vice President, and she also helps edit their magazine, The Flyway. She resides in Peoria, IL with her family where she is doing a backyard Big Year with her four- and two-year-old children.