How to Know the Birds: No. 53, The Situational Ethics of Seeing a Gadwall

  • What: Gadwall, Mareca strepera
  • When: Sunday, February 7, 2021
  • Where: Sawhill Ponds trailhead, Boulder County, Colorado

Scenario 1. On a breezy, blustery Sunday morning at a pond near my house, I saw a beautiful Gadwall, Mareca strepera, an adult male in breeding plumage (a “drake”). Two women, getting ready for a power walk, wondered what I was looking at. In ordinary times, I would have loaned them my binocs. But that’s not advisable during a global pandemic, and, more to the point, it was unnecessary. The Gadwall was close enough for the three of us to make out the main field marks: “gray duck with a black butt.” The light was decent, and we could even discern the buff–orange wing coverts and fine black bill. As we stood there, I offered a few remarks on waterfowl biology and wetland conservation. Join the Boulder Bird Club, I counseled, and check out the American Birding Association (“Ay Bee Ay dot org”) to connect with bird lovers everywhere.

That Ted Floyd. What a guy! Preaching the gospel of bird biology and bird conservation. Total legend!

Boulder County, Colorado; Feb. 7, 2021. Photo by © Ted Floyd.

Scenario 2. On a breezy, blustery Sunday morning at a pond near my house, I saw a beautiful Gadwall, Mareca strepera, an adult male in breeding plumage (a “drake”). The bird was reasonably close to shore, and the lighting was decent. I walked slowly toward the shoreline, and the bird swam farther out. So I backed off. After a minute or two, the drake gadwall was back near the shoreline. Good feeding close to shore perhaps? I approached the bird again, with the same result: The bird swam farther out. This time it stayed in the middle of the pond. I can’t definitively prove it, but I surmise that I had disturbed the gadwall, causing it to stop feeding on a raw and windy winter morning. Ah well. I’d gotten my photo. I promptly tweeted it out. Within hours it had earned several dozen likes.

That Ted Floyd. What a dork! Disturbing ducks for social media likes, poor bird probably got hypothermia and died of starvation. Cancel Ted Floyd!

Reality check. Both of the preceding scenarios happened. And birding scenarios like those play out hundreds, probably thousands, of times daily in the ABA Area. Education, like every other human undertaking, impacts the environment. Building and heating schools, publishing textbooks and making pencils, manufacturing and driving school buses, dressing and feeding kids, heck, having kids—especially having kids—all those things are proverbially “bad for the environment.”

On a gadwall-by-gadwall basis, the American educational establishment has to be so much worse than some dude at the pond causing a bird to swim away from the shoreline shallows for a little while. Except that that’s totally crazy. What we absolutely need more of, not less of, in this society of ours is kids—kids who will become adults—who learn about gadwalls: how to recognize them; how to understand them; ultimately, how to care about them. In my own, nearly forty-year-quest to see and appreciate gadwalls, I’ve driven cars, downloaded species accounts, donned hats and mittens, and done other things that are bad for the environment. The least amount of harm I’ve caused to M. strepera is the several times I’ve flushed or spooked a gadwall or even a whole flock of gadwalls.

Boulder County, Colorado; Feb. 7, 2021. Photo by © Ted Floyd.

There is a vast psychological literature on something called the “Preference for Indirect Harm.” In the notorious “Trolley Problem,” human subjects consistently choose an outcome that causes greater harm or harms more people, as long as the test subjects themselves aren’t the direct agents of the harm. Do we apply the same sort of situational ethics vis-à-vis birding?

Consider—oh, what the heck—a stray snowy owl in Central Park. Person 1 drives 250 miles round-trip in a well-apportioned luxury SUV kept in a heated garage larger than the living quarters of close to two billion people on this planet. Person 2 walks a couple miles from their little loft, shared with a roommate or two, and, in the process of trying to get a close view—because Person 2 doesn’t own the $10K lens that Person 1 owns—spooks the owl.

You know what’s going to happen next. Person 2 gets shamed to no end on birding social media. Probably by Person 1! Even though Person 1’s entire existence is an environmental catastrophe compared to Person 2’s.

I want to be clear that I’m not advocating flushing owls, or even workaday gadwalls, for no other reason than flushing owls and gadwalls. But I’m also calling for some amount of perspective here. Call it a “Trolley Problem” for birders. By far the most important things you can do for owls, gadwalls, and other birds, in ascending order of importance:

3. Live simply. The environmental impact of living space, all by itself, is immense. Same deal with what you eat. We disparage drivers of trolley-sized SUVs, but, actually, living in a large house and eating wastefully is a lot worse.

2. Vote green. I don’t mean capital-G Green. The political party. I simply mean, Vote for bird conservation and habitat protection, for clean air and water, for slowing the awful advance of anthropogenic climate change.

1. Educate others. Lead bird walks (wear a mask), give talks (Zoom works great), teach children (and not just your own). Talk honestly about the challenges of simple living. Be positive and prosocial. Tearing someone down doesn’t usually yield good outcomes.

Boulder County, Colorado; Feb. 7, 2021. Photo by © Ted Floyd.

And if after you’ve done all those things—moved into a smaller house, stopped eating meat, registered voters, canvassed your precinct, taught college and kindergarten—if after all those things, you still have any time and energy left over, then, sure, you’ve earned the right to get excited about people who flush ducks (and snowy owls).

Speaking for myself, I’m not there yet. I still need to work on simple living, civic engagement, and public outreach. Sorry about the gadwall. I hope he swam back to the shore and resumed feeding after I and the two women went our ways. In the meantime, I hope they and I and all of us get serious about the sorts of things that make a lasting difference for gadwalls everywhere.



Ted Floyd is the longtime Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives with the ABA. Ted has written 200+ magazine articles and 5 books, including How to Know the Birds (National Geographic, 2019). He is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and has served on several nonprofit boards. Join Ted here for his semimonthly spot, “How to Know the Birds,” celebrating common birds and the uncommonly interesting things they do.