When people were ordered to shelter-in-place in March last year, millions turned to bird-watching for pleasure and emotional reassurance. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology noted that registration for eBird Yard Lists rose 900 percent, and 150,000 people downloaded the lab’s app for bird identification. Most encouraging, there was an 80 percent increase in uploaded audio recordings of bird songs, indicating that people activated nuanced senses and were paying deeper attention to the world around them.
We have long known that experiencing nature is good for our health, and this dramatic increase in bird watching indirectly corroborates that. For SAVE International — which works to protect the critically endangered black-faced spoonbill (Platalea minor) — this is more than good news in an otherwise upsetting time. Spring is the season that marks the results of a yearly international census for our beloved and imperiled feathered friend. And in April last year, the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society shared some very encouraging data: The January 2020 count revealed a total of 4,864 individuals in a total of 120 sites, a 9 percent increase from the 2019 count of 4,463 birds. Promising statistics for a year that seemed to provide no respite from disruption.
This census employs local birdwatchers, conservationists, researchers, ornithologists, and nature reserve staff — all volunteers. The data is compiled and summarized regionally but the international coordinator analyzes the results and writes the final report later in the year. The first count on record for the black-faced spoonbill, conducted in 1989-1990, tallied only 288 individuals. Back then, it was mostly ornithologists and birders who knew about these rare birds that live and migrate along a portion of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, in North and South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, coastal China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and northeastern Russia. By the end of the 1990s, however, the black-faced spoonbill had become a conservation success story in eastern Asia.
What accounts for the dramatic increase in the birds’ numbers over the past 30 years? Part of the story is habitat conservation. In Taiwan, the black-faced spoonbill’s population reached a new high of 2,785 individuals last year. No doubt the successful fight to stop the Binnan petrochemical plant in the 1990s and early 2000s created the context for this to happen. The Southwest Coast National Scenic Area was designated in 2003, and the Taijiang National Park in 2009, both with mandates to protect bird habitat.
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The Covid-19 pandemic has provided unexpected conservation opportunities (though at a tragically steep cost to human life). People stuck at home are paying more attention to common wild species around them, especially birds. In the US some states had three times as many reported sightings of suburban birds after the pandemic hit. Many seem to be wishing, as one Japanese observer mused, for “places near my house where I could spend hours searching for birds.” If such sentiment leads to policy changes, cities may be transformed to provide wildlands accessible from every neighborhood. Local ecotourism would then make staycations commonplace, opening new jobs and improving health.
How much of the surge in bird-watching comes from new people? Can this surge be sustained and turned into political action? Can it be directed to widespread support for habitat expansion near home and worldwide? SAVE International remains hopeful that this newfound interest will provide unique benefit to the black-faced spoonbill and the broad array of colorful avian species across the map.
By strategically seizing these opportunities we can export this the world over. Local awareness often leads to global empathy and actions, both at home and afar. SAVE International must now plan how to turn the tragedy of Covid-19 into a vision that serves biological and cultural diversity through a combination of time-tested methods and fresh political support for bold action.
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