During the hard months of the 2020-2021 Covid-19 pandemic, something remarkable happened between birds and humans in many parts of the world. The news accounts were full of people saying that they thought there were more birds in their area. However, one study in Spain demonstrated that there actually weren’t more birds in urban areas; the birds had simply shifted their activity and apparently were more detectable by people. Some thought that the birds were louder, but another study showed that in San Francisco white-crowned sparrows had actually decreased their calls by decibels. Researchers theorized that birds didn’t need to call as loud as before to be heard over human traffic and other noise, which had decreased significantly during the shutdown. Humans thought the birds were being more vocal, but instead, people were just quieter.
Time has slowed down for many, and without the many daily distractions and choices about where one might go or what one might do, suddenly the birds became more visible and more audible. We saw them, even though they had always been there. And perhaps we wanted to and needed to see them more. Sales of binoculars, bird books, bird food, feeders, and baths have skyrocketed during the pandemic. Humans started to pay more attention.
Though the ongoing pandemic has created great harm, there are some silver linings. By focusing and noticing, we take the first steps on our way to understanding those different than us, which is followed by empathy, compassion, and even love. In this way, noticing birds is like so many other mindful practices that can result in greater connection to life in its various forms. This in turn results in more open curiosity and acceptance, and ultimately more peace, joy, and a corresponding behavioral adaption to care for oneself and others.
The songs of birds has always been there, but we have not stilled our inner chatter enough to understand what they are saying to us. Or perhaps it’s because we don’t have the infrastructure to support birding as a mindfulness practice that would yield more prominent results. Indeed, there are many birdwatching and conservation organizations, not to mention equipment, books, online resources, designated birding areas, and movies. I once heard a comic quip, “If you want to sell something, slap an image of a bird on it.” An estimated $41 billion is spent each year from birdwatching activities in the USA and this doesn’t include the many items that “have a bird slapped on them,” including feather images. Birds and feathers attract consumers of all kinds who purchase art, clothes, dishes and coffee cups, jewelry, and publications. Even if books aren’t about birds, many have birds in their title or use birds for cover art. Revenue increased for the pet industry during the pandemic from the sale of birds, as did the numbers of households with birds in them.
There are a multitude of ways that humans benefit from birds – as pets, icons, metaphors, entertainment, religious symbols, inspiration, art or research subjects, food, and sources of jobs and income. Perhaps more than any other benefit, birding as an intentional mindful practice provides people with greater health, well-being, awareness, and presence, and also helps us move into modes of being that result in better care for life on this planet. As such, birds are excellent subjects for mindfulness practice, because in most environments they are easily observable. They can show up in the most human-packed or degraded environments. When they are present, birds are often up in the air instead of buried in the ground, such as some small mammals, and many are quite vocal. They grab our attention, which is a first step in any focused or mindful practice.
Beyond these reasons, we need to focus on birds because so many are at great risk of disappearing. In North America, between 1970-2020, there were 3 billion less birds in the world, with 50 million less of those present from only 19 species. That’s a quarter of all birds gone. According to a 2018 report, there are 1,469 bird species globally threatened with extinction, which equals one out of eight species. The threats are many, and are mostly caused by humans. The causes include habit degradation and destruction -- largely due to agricultural expansion, deforestation, and invasive species -- as well as hunting and trapping. These same threats are also impacting other species, and overall ecosystem health, with one report in 2019 suggesting that 1 million species of all types are endangered. There is a catastrophic decline in biodiversity that endangers a broad swath of individual species and communities of species.
The evidence is strong that birds, people, and life in general on the planet are in trouble. As in all mindful practices, birdwatching helps us to grow our awareness and understanding of this, while also not being debilitated by the destruction we see around us (although, on most days as there is no denying that mindfulness does not result in perfect presence, but in seeing how each and every moment is perfect just as it is).
In the movie the “Thin Red Line,” the soldier hero is musing about the beauty of the world while engaged in combat on a Pacific island. The bombing tears his surroundings apart and he comes across an injured parrot chick that was blasted from their home. He muses, “One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there's nothing but unanswered pain, that death's got the final word, it's laughing at him. Another man sees that same bird, feels the glory, feels something smiling through it.”
I do not share this quote lightly, for the disappearance of bird species and their individual suffering, especially that of parrots, has been a great burden and motivator in my life. As a wildlife veterinarian working on front line parrot conservation in the Americas for close to four decades, I know what it is like to hold dying birds in one’s hand and see species’ existence slip from human imagination and communities. Each loss feels to me as if I have been kicked in the gut. Dwelling on that reaction has not proven advantageous for me, except to share it with others, so that humans may be awakened and life might be guarded. I wish to collect the needed community around me, so that we may mourn together. But, I believe that birds are asking more of me, and of you, including having a stronger, more joyful, and more resilient response to their plight.
Do not doubt that I struggle to accept a bird’s life and death as part of the beautiful whole. Yet I know, more and more deeply, that by being present with birds, all that is before me in my days of parrot conservation is perfection. Despite this ever-present perfection, one does not retreat from attempting to end the suffering.
One Earth Conservation will be leading two “Birding for Life” walks in the New York area in September (on the 4th and 18th in Westchester's Marshlands Conservancy and Manhattan's Central Park, respectively), so that together we can see the perfection before us, while doing all we can to end suffering. The spiritual journey's paradox of acceptance while also taking radical risks to change the way we live is no easy path. By “we” I don’t mean “you alone,” but all of us together.
Let us bird together, for each other, for the children of the future, for birds, and for all life. If you’d like to join us, or find out more, please click here for more information.