Open Letter to Cornell Lab of Ornithology



May 28, 2013


Dear Folks at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Team Sapsucker:

First of all congratulations to Team Sapsucker for smashing the Big Day birding record in Texas. It was a very exciting day.

For roughly about a month and a half I have been receiving emails and mail solicitations to donate to Team Sapsucker’s Big Day. Many have come with the sentence, “Extreme birding—for an extremely good cause”. I have to tell you that for the last few years I have not participated in any “extreme” birding events. Why? Because you have convinced me not to. I actually read the reports you publish. I’ve read your, “The State of Birds 2010 Report on Climate Change”. I’ve taken note of Audubon’s Climate Change Campaign and I’ve read the American Bird Conservancy’s, “Threats to Birds – Global Warming”. You have all convinced me that global warming will have really bad effects on our bird populations and that the main cause of that warming is putting Carbon Dioxide into the air. When you use the term “extreme birding” I see “extreme carbon producing birding”. As a birder I take part in the citizen science (Ebird and Christmas Bird Counts) that let you produce the findings for your reports.

I know that Team Sapsucker’s Big Day did not move any birds a single millimeter north or a single bird higher in elevation. But what does it say to the birding community? If it’s alright for an organization with the reputation that you have, it must be alright for everyone. I feel that birding in the grand scheme of things puts only a very small percentage of carbon into the air but I also can’t think of a recreational hobby (maybe because of a lack of imagination) that encourages people to drive thousands of miles (on the spur of the moment) to chase one bird or to pursue a Big Day or Year over a county, state, or country. If people who are concerned for birds can’t break their carbon habits how do we expect others to reduce their carbon footprint?

In reading your Round Robin Blog about the record shattering Big Day I see hints of going for the big “300”. It’s probably on the minds of other teams who have now been shown the way. It is human nature to try for the record. A team in Illinois just broke that state’s record by driving 851 miles. In the blog I see some concern for habitat loss… “But the other question is will there still be areas for birds?” Housing developments are certainly cause for alarm but isn’t burned over forests, dried up lakes and flooded wetlands cause for concern too?

Louis Agassiz Fuertes Director, John W. Fitzpatrick states in your 2012 Annual Report that, “ Recently, I learned an important phrase that helps focus our work: “You don’t accomplish conservation by changing birds’ behavior, it’s the people that matter.” This must be our model—to use birds and other charismatic organisms to inform people and inspire changes in attitude and behavior, so that we learn to live side by side with a stable and fully functioning natural world”. I certainly agree with Director Fitzpatrick. We must change attitudes and behaviors.

What am I doing to change my birding habits? This year I am doing my birding by using the bus, my bike, and shoe leather. I have recorded 216 bird species and have saved over 1327 carbon producing car miles. The key here is that I’m competitive with other birders in Mendocino County, California where I bird. I do my section of the Fort Bragg, California, CBC mostly by bike and walking.

I know that the Texas Big Day is your most important fundraiser of the year. Money talks big. Maybe bigger than a single member. But an organization based on science should have a conversation with it’s members. Your organization should be leading the way when it comes to “clean” birding and you should be raising money based on it. The Anti-Petrels in the World Series of Birding (2012) saw 164 birds and won the Swarovski Carbon Footprint Challenge. They were sponsored by you. I only learned about them this year when I did the research. We need to change the competitive birding narrative. We need birders to be chasing low carbon birding records.

I have asked the American Birding Association to add a section to their “Code of Birding Ethics” which starts out with, “Promote the welfare of birds and their environment”. A section 1(e) would say something like, “All birding should be done in the most ecological manner possible.” The conversation has been one sided and the silence is deafening.

To Team Sapsucker: You are all younger then me. I’ve seen the 400ppm barrier for Carbon Dioxide in the air broken this month. I’ve seen the hottest year in the continental U.S. in 2012. I’ve seen the Arctic Sea ice at record lows. I’ve seen some really horrible weather. You are going to see much more. It’s already in motion. Time to start planning for it.

To the Ebird staff on Team Sapsucker: I know that you have been asked this by others but I will ask again. When I Ebird I would like to check a box that the miles I’ve Ebirded are low carbon miles. I would like to track that mileage for the year and I would like to see totals produced for all other low carbon birders across the county, state and country. By bringing attention to this you might influence a few birders to walk that extra mile.

Enclosed is my membership renewal. I hope it allows you to be part of the solution.




Richard Hubacek


Note: As of July 28th there has been no reply to this letter.


One thought on “Open Letter to Cornell Lab of Ornithology

  1. Birds and Climate Change – greenbirdingmendo

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