Over the last few years there have been sightings of rare birds in Central Park in New York City. Birders were obviously excited to see the Mandarin Duck, Barred Owl, and recently, a Snowy Owl. Of course, the word gets out and avid birders of all types show up to look for these rarities. Perhaps the most prominent of the avian paparazzi is David Barrett, whose Manhattan Bird Alert account on Twitter, which has more than 42,000 followers. Now I understand that birders don’t want to miss out on such events but what happens, and here is the controversy, so many people show up that the birds might be disturbed or frightened away. Most people are going to behave properly and quietly, but there are always a few that become intrusive or rude trying to get photos or a closer look.
The word spreads fast. Many years ago during the first field trip with my first ornithology class as a young professor, we went to the local cemetery a few blocks from campus. A student, newly arrived from China, pointed into a tree and said “Look, a porcupine.” A highly unlikely sighting but I and the rest of the class looked and to our surprise, a Spotted Owl. An endangered species in a place where it should not have been – in the center of a small city in the northern California Valley. I told the students not to tell anyone so as not to disturb the bird but the word got out and people started calling me to tell me about it. It stayed a week before it left, hopefully unharmed.
Several years ago my neighbor had a tame American Kestrel land on his head. Someone had trained the bird and it apparently went astray. I asked my neighbor if I could release the bird somewhere safe. He said no, he wanted to keep it, even though he didn’t even know what kind of bird it was. He showed it to everybody. The very next day, a dog (a malamute) ate the bird. True. (I just happened upon this artwork by googling dog and kestrel.)
Then we had a flock of peacocks in the neighborhood. The local newspaper called me up and I gave them some interesting factoids about peacocks but I asked them not to give up their location. Well, the paper ignored me, told people where to find the birds, and two days later they were all dead by gunshot.
There’s a website NextDoor that serves as an online hub for neighborhood news. Handy in many ways, advertising lost dogs, garage sales, suspicious vehicles, etc., and people regularly post sightings of wildlife – hawks, owls, eagles, coyotes, and sometimes imagined sightings of wolves or cougars. Whenever someone says something like, “go see the Bald Eagle at the intersection of these roads”, I cringe and ask them to delete the location because I can almost guarantee some nefarious soul will harm or kill the bird.
The lesson of this story is to enjoy the birds but if you see something interesting, revel in the fact that you saw it and remember that not everyone respects them as we do. Brag about your sighting. Give others the who, what, when, and why, but omit the where.