With the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2) continuing to spread worldwide, anxiety is on the rise and the effects of this disease are being felt in all parts of society and life, from schools and workplaces to grocery stores, public meetings, theme parks, entertainment venues, sporting events, travel, and much more. And yes, even birding is impacted by a disease that has nothing to do with birds.
How Coronavirus Impacts Birds
First, it is clear that this virus – while it may have a zoonotic connection (transmission between some animals and humans) – is not believed to have any connections to birds. Birds cannot catch the disease and are not susceptible to the illness. Birds cannot carry the disease and do not transmit it to other species, including humans.
Yet because we interact with birds, there are ways that coronavirus is having a profound impact on birds – both good and bad. Some of the “better” results of this outbreak include…
- Dramatically lower pollution levels in areas where factory work and travel have been significantly slowed, which improves the quality of birds’ habitats.
- With travel halted in many areas, there may be less disturbance to sensitive species, particularly at critical spring mating sites and during delicate breeding periods.
- With other entertainment venues closed and events canceled, more people may venture into parks and preserves, discovering how enjoyable birding can be.
This is not to say that this outbreak is in any way a positive thing, only that there are silver linings in every dark cloud. We must also be acutely aware of the negative impact this outbreak is already having on birds, including…
- Cancellation of many spring birding festivals, tours, and events that would otherwise raise awareness of birds, including conservation fundraising events. (Check with BirdWatching for an updated list of such cancellations, or contact local festivals for details.)
- Possible diversion of conservation funds to support emergency measures, recovery efforts, accelerated medical research, and similar relief programs.
- Loss of revenue for visitor centers, gift shops, and other vendors associated with refuges and preserves, funds that could have supported those facilities and the birds they nurture.
It is unlikely that – other than the possibility of slowed conservation efforts and fewer funds needed to keep conservation programs in operation – the virus will have any far-reaching, long-lasting impact on the birds themselves. When this virus is under control and contained, when a vaccine is developed, and when the panic has subsided, the birds will still be there, doing what they do.
How Coronavirus Impacts Birders
Birders, on the other hand, can and likely will be dramatically impacted by coronavirus, even without contracting the illness. Due to cancellations, postponements, and travel disruptions, many birders may be missing highly anticipated opportunities for spectacular spring birding. With events being disrupted, there may be fewer options to attend lectures and workshops to learn more about birds, browse trade shows with the latest birding gear, or simply make new friends who share a passion in birding.
Yet, we don’t have to stop birding entirely. While some smaller parks and preserves may be completely closed in an effort to minimize crowds and congregating that could transmit the illness, most larger refuges remain open for visitors. Birders should be aware, however, that regular tours, guided walks, and other events are more easily being cancelled. Facilities – including visitor centers and restrooms – may be unavailable, and there will not be volunteers, rangers, or guides available in many areas to answer questions or offer guidance. The birds, however, are still there.
Stay Safe Birding During the Outbreak
First and foremost, we all must take whatever precautions work best for ourselves, our families, and our loved ones during these troubled times. We all have different risk factors and safety considerations in our lives, and for some birders, that may mean only enjoying what birds may be safely and comfortably seen from home at this time, or else enjoying armchair birding with a favorite birding book. For other birders who do feel at ease visiting a refuge, preserve, or favorite birding hotspot, there are a number of steps to take to stay safe while still enjoying every bird.
- Be mindful of surfaces – flaps on boxes of maps or checklists, entry gates, hand railings, etc. – and avoid contact when possible. There is no way to know when nor how surfaces may have been cleaned recently, particularly as refuges may not have volunteers or full staffing available at this time.
- Keep hand sanitizer or cleaning wipes in your field bag, and use them liberally before and after a birding trip.
- Keep a “social distance” from other birders – at least 6 feet – if possible, and don’t linger at the same viewing spots (there are always other views to be had).
- Don’t crowd parking areas and instead space out parking to maintain social distance as much as possible, or wait your turn in more crowded parking areas so distance can be maximized.
- Avoid carpooling as much as possible to minimize personal contact or congregating in groups. If carpooling is essential, thoroughly sanitize the vehicle’s surfaces (handles, seat belt buckles, window and lock switches, etc.) before and after each trip.
- Carefully consider any sharing or borrowing of field guides, spotting scopes, mobile devices, and other gear. If items must be shared, keep contact minimal and use wipes to clean them. If cleaning optics, use appropriate solutions that will not damage lenses, seals, and coatings (check with the manufacturer for recommendations).
- Follow all other sensible precautions as recommended by health officials – keeping away from larger groups, covering coughs, thoroughly washing hands, staying home completely if feeling ill, etc.
Above all, keep yourself and your family safe, in whatever ways are best for you. Try to minimize stress (being over-stressed can compromise your immune system), and rely on official resources such as the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health for updates and recommendations, rather than succumbing to sensationalist media headlines or social media furor. This is a distressing time, but just as we (and birds) have recovered from natural disasters, so too shall we recover from this outbreak. Stay safe, and stay healthy!