Amy K. Hooper
Posted: April 17. 2013, 1:45 p.m. PDT
Just like nature, birding constantly experiences changes. The growth in knowledge, tools, identification techniques, and access to information offers seemingly endless possibilities for improving our skills and expanding the ways that we enjoy birds. For WildBird's 25th anniversary celebration, we asked long-term birders to imitate Nostradamus and offer predictions about the future of birding. You'll find 25 here; which ones surprise you, and which seem very plausible?
Kenn Kaufman, author of many field guides and birding reference books, predicts the development of a more systematic, online report of rare bird sightings. "Now, we hear about rare birds in other states from Facebook or listservs, but no one has tied it together to make an efficient delivery system. Somebody will do a subscription service like NARBA — North American Rare Bird Alert, which was cutting edge when it started.
Kenn Kaufman predicts more young people will begin birding in the future.
"Someone will organize a rare bird alert that takes into account everyone’s want list and then, for a minor subscription fee, organizes and routes the information to the people who want to know about these rarities,” Kaufman said. "There are several different avenues now, and the most efficient way of doing it might be different just a year from now with technology that we don’t have right now.”
Aside from technological changes that seem geared to birders who chase rare birds, Kaufman foresees a shift in all birders’ perspectives of nature. "In particular, those who are of the backyard realm are going to take more of a holistic view where they look at other living things in addition to birds,” he said. "It adds to the experience. In a backyard setting, that makes the experience more appealing. It can be as simple as leaving the back-porch light on and observing the moths that visit the light. An awful lot of the people I know will remain mainly birders, but they’re looking at more of the other life in their gardens and not seeing the bugs just as pests.”
While Kaufman predicts more participants at both ends of the age spectrum, he sees hope for the younger demographics. "At least here in Ohio, there are a lot of young people getting into birding,” he said. "Our Ohio Young Birders Club is going strong, and the kids who are into it are the best magnets or recruiting tools.”
Kaufman also sees young families — not just older birders — on Magee Marsh’s famed boardwalk during spring. "The demographic that I see out there doesn’t match the birding gloom-and-doom impression that we’re all in our 80s. What I see here includes a lot of young people.”
Pete Dunne, director of Cape May Bird Observatory and vice president of natural history for New Jersey Audubon Society, also foresees a boom in popularity during the next couple decades because of the retiring baby boomers. "We’ll find that many of them are approaching the subject through the side door, which is digital photography,” he said. "A lot of people are becoming fascinated through image capture.”
Cameras eventually will identify the birds, Dunne said. "There will be software programs to do it. The image capture program will measure the difference between the bird’s eyes and the bill and come up with an identification.”
That reliance on technology will make field identification skills less necessary, Dunne said. "Even skilled birders are shooting first and identifying later.” Most birders will revert to John James Audubon’s style of bird identification, he predicted. "We’re now back to collecting — collecting the bird in the field rather than identifying it in the field. Chances are very good that this art that we’ve taken 100 years to perfect will not die, but it will become a branch or offshoot.
"Most people will be blazing away with their cameras and then watching their images when they get home, but there will be still be the purists using the ‘ancient’ art of field identification,” Dunne said. "There’s a generation now where their avenue to the world is electronic; bird identification will be that way, too.”
Brian L. Sullivan, eBird project leader at Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York, predicted that bird identification will remain a largely human process assisted by — but not replaced by — machines. "I don’t see a device that we can point to a bird, and it identifies the bird,” he said. "There will certainly be devices that help you arrive at an identification — devices that tie into eBird that help you limit the range or color, little applications that help you narrow the choices from 60 species to two or three.”
The combination of growing data from birders’ reports to eBird, acoustic recordings of nocturnal night calls and radar data will help us learn much more about birds’ movements, Sullivan said. "I see being able to click on a website, click on Dickcissel, and — through a combination of weather data, ground observations of birds via eBird and sound recordings — pinpoint where you can see the bird,” he said. "The idea is to predict the movement of birds based on human observations and automated observations. We’re going to learn a tremendous amount in coming years about large-scale migration patterns.”
Dark-eyed Junco is one of the species for which Brian Small predicts changes.
As part of the ground observations provided to eBird, Sullivan foresees voice-activated checklist recording while birders are in the field. "For eBird data entry, for example, you’ll be in the field talking to a handheld device, saying something like ‘Begin checklist,’ telling your smartphone the numbers and species, and then saying ‘End checklist.’
"All you’ll have to do is verbally record what you see in the field,” Sullivan said. "Mobile technology is almost there now. Birds are a controlled vocabulary, so we ought to be able to have voice-activated data in the very near future. We’re going to be able to do a lot more with large-scale bird monitoring.”
Sullivan said satellite tracking — the use of transmitters that send signals to satellites that then share birds’ locational data with researchers — will play a larger role in learning about migration patterns. "I see that the incredibly complex and amazing world of bird migration is going to be revealed once the tracking devices are small enough to go on Neotropical species,” he said. "Soon we’ll be able to see it happening, like we are with Sooty Shearwaters
and bigger birds carrying these devices. That’s an exciting piece of the future — to learn what we can only speculate about now.”
Speculations about birding’s future aren’t always rosy, though. Photographer Arthur Morris foresees restrictions on access to birding sites. "More and more wildlife refuges will have drastically reduced hours and will require visitors to be restricted to trams,” he said. "Serious birders will stay away in droves, leaving the refuges to the tourists.”
More of those serious birders will begin to invest even more in their camera equipment, Morris predicted. "More birders will begin to carry lightweight 300mm and 400mm lenses and 1.5X or 1.6X multiplier-effect digital camera bodies on their shoulders so that they can create images of what they are seeing,” he said. "The big super-telephoto lenses will continue to get lighter and sharper — and more expensive.”
Despite those investments, though, birders will eventually consider them relics, Morris said. "In five decades, cameras and lenses will become obsolete,” he predicted. "Folks will carry around a small computerlike device that is able to translate what they see into high-resolution digital files. Simply look at a bird and push the capture button on your brain-scanner device, and you will be good to print.”
Do you find that fanciful? What about binoculars that record high-definition video? Author and photographer Kevin T. Karlson predicts that the video created by such binoculars could change birding tremendously. "It could be submitted to a birds records committee to verify a rare bird,” he said. "The average birder will be able to verify his sightings. "If these binoculars become perfected, can you imagine the potential?” he said. "On a personal level, if you had a crowning moment like a Harpy Eagle coming in with a monkey, you can save that digital file and have it for later years and to share with friends.”
Karlson foresees more birders studying the natural world in much finer detail. "Specialists are taking the knowledge base to new levels,” he said. "We’ve always had specialists, but now it’s more developed and will become more acute. That information specialization is happening now, particularly with birders who do it 24 hours a day.”
The study of birds includes research into DNA, which photographer Brian E. Small predicts will lead to "new birds” in the form of splitting current species into different species after review by American Ornithologists’ Union
committee on classification and nomenclature. "That’s the nature of science; it is always exploring and moving forward,” he said. "It used to be, when species were separated, it was based on morphology and range and vocalizations — and it’s all still used — but DNA seems to make some of the tougher things easier to separate.” Small said one species under consideration is Fox Sparrow
, with four distinct groups — red, thick-billed, sooty and slate-colored — possibly becoming full-fledged species.
Small also predicted changes in species status for the various Dark-eyed Junco subspecies including Oregon, slate-colored, gray-headed, pink-sided and white-winged. For instance, "The Clements Checklist of the Birds of the World, 6th edition” (Cornell University, 2007) lists 14 subspecies.
Marsh Wren provides another good example of a species that could be split soon, Small said. "As science improves and new studies are done, these names can change,” he said. "A fair number of species have pretty distinct eastern and western geographical differences, such as Marsh Wren. Morphologically, they’re pretty similar, but the big difference is vocal characteristics. The songs are so distinct from each other.”
Willet also could be split, Small said: "There’s eastern Willet and western Willet; they look pretty similar, but if you look close enough, the eastern is a little bigger, the bill sizes are a little different, the overall size and structure is a little different, the breeding and winter habitats are different.”
Eastern Meadowlark’s current status surprises Small, given the birds in Arizona and New Mexico known as Lillian’s (Eastern) Meadowlark. "I’ve heard discussion about that one for a long time, and it could be split soon,” he said. "The differences are subtle. Song has a lot to do with it, and the amount of white in the tail is distinctive in Lillian’s Meadowlark.”
Among larger species, Small said Great White Heron — now considered a color morph of Great Blue Heron — might revert to full species status. "It’s distinctive and restricted to southern Florida and the Florida Keys,” he said. "The white birds are larger than the standard Great Blues, they have heavier bills, and their head plumes are shorter.”
Small cites Yellow-rumped Warblers as another candidate for a split even though two species were lumped in the past. "We’ve got Myrtle and Audubon — roughly Myrtle is eastern, Audubon western,” he said. "A lot of study is going into them, and they may be split into individual species.”
Red Crossbills remain a fun conundrum and ripe for a split, Small said. "There’s almost definitely one species of Red Crossbill. There’s been talk of eight or nine species. It has to do with variations in flight calls, bill size and structure, food preferences, range. It almost requires having birds in the hand, so I don’t know if they’ll be separated.”
While many of us won’t hold birds in our hands, we can easily get a grip on something else. Peter Stangel, Ph.D., senior vice president for U.S Endowment for Forestry and Communities, foresees birders getting our hands on Duck Stamps — to the tune of 1 million stamps sold each year. He predicts that a young Latino man who birds with perhaps his grandfather in Denver suburbs will hear a presentation about habitat loss while attending a bird club meeting — and that talk catalyses him into becoming a Duck Stamp advocate within his club, his city and the online community.
On a personal level, Stangel predicts that birding will become the healthy link to fitness. In his futuristic scenario, he said, "Just months after the Surgeon General declared that time spent with nature reduced blood pressure, lowered the risk of heart attacks and seemingly slowed cancer rates, insurance companies scrambled to find outdoor pastimes that reaped these benefits in the urban settings where most of their clients lived.”25 Tips To Better Birding
Birding quickly gained favor because it was a family activity, didn’t require much of a financial investment and could be done close to home, Stagel predicted. "When the President’s husband and their two young children were filmed creating a birdfeeding station and hiking the Washington Mall in search of migrants, the formerly obscure pastime took off,” he said. "Insurers couldn’t reimburse clients fast enough for binoculars, field guides and birding classes. Public agencies, caught off guard, scrambled to accommodate the birders, who demanded more and better places to bird — and more birds!”
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Excerpt from WildBird Magazine, November/December 2011 issue, with permission from its publisher, I-5 Publishing LLC. To purchase digital back issues of WildBird Magazine, click here.