One of the best things about birding is the people. They're friendly, kind, funny and eager to share information. If my assessment of birders sounds almost too good to be true, it is. Every few years a story reminds us that every group of people has bad apples, and that includes birders. Yes, I'm sad to report, there are slob birders.
The term "slob" in an outdoors story usually refers to hunters who trespass, litter or don't close gates. Slob anglers are those who litter streams and lake shores with tangles of fishing line. Of course, every group has its slobs -- obnoxious parents at school events, drunks at football games and wildlife photographers who think it's their God-given right to cut in front of watchers for a great shot, to name a few.
A few weeks ago an immature purple gallinule was reported in eastern Pennsylvania, and the location was posted on the Internet. Though common in Florida, a purple gallinule in Pennsylvania is akin to an NFL player showing up at a high school football game -- everyone wants a peek.
In the Internet posting, birders were reminded not to trespass or harass the bird. Over the course of the next week the gallinule stayed in the area, and many birders got to see it. And most behaved admirably. But a few were seen traipsing around the pond trying to flush the bird for a better view. That is exactly what NOT to do, and several outraged birders vented their feelings on the PABIRDS list.
Among the suggestions that emerged from the discussion was that ethical birders should engage offenders and explain the harm of improper behavior. Some people may simply not know any better. Of course, unsolicited advice often falls on deaf ears. But it's worth a try.
Another suggestion was that, in this electronic age, anyone with a cell phone/camera should take pictures of the guilty parties and post them on statewide birding Web sites. Peer pressure and fear of exposure might be more effective than lectures from strangers.
Fortunately, slob birders are rare. But just as slob hunters give all hunters a bad name, slob birders can soil the reputations of all birders.
Since birders aren't subject to official regulations, we must police ourselves. Here are some guidelines for birders to follow when in the field. (It's good advice for hunters, anglers and photographers, too.)
Respect private property. Ask permission before entering a farmer's woodlot or someone's backyard. Offer identification, and give the landowner a card with your name, address, phone number and vehicle license number.
It may seem unnecessary to remind people to ask permission to enter a stranger's backyard, but when a "good" bird shows up, some birders shed their common sense. It may not seem a big deal to take a quick peek, but after word of a rare bird spreads, literally hundreds of people sometimes show up.
After getting permission, don't assume you're free to tell the world. Ask for permission to tell others of the special location. Explain that dozens or even hundreds more birders might arrive within hours when word gets out. If the landowner doesn't want to be bothered, respect his wishes.
On farms, leave gates as you find them, don't trample crops and don't disturb livestock.
Get your vehicle completely off the road; park safely and legally.
Be aware that a group of people with binoculars strolling through a residential neighborhood arouses suspicion. Neighbors may call police, and you may be questioned. Be prepared to explain your passion for birding.
Don't harass target birds. When birds show up in unexpected places, they are under stress to find food and cover. The last thing they need is a bunch of birders chasing them. Be patient. With time, most birds reveal themselves.
Tread lightly. Stay on trails. Even in parks and other public places, resist the urge to wander off trails. Ground cover is fragile and easily destroyed.
And if ever in doubt, keep it simple -- do no harm.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, R.D. 5, Cameron, W.Va. 26033 or via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org