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It’s time to close public lands and bird from home

close public lands
Photo by pzAxe/Shutterstock

Countries around the world, including India, Italy, New Zealand, Colombia, the U.K., South Africa, and portions of China are under lockdowns of different kinds to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The virus can cause severe respiratory illness, has no cure, and has taken more than 19,000 lives since January.

In the U.S., about half of the states have issued various forms of “stay at home” orders, but we seem to be far from a national lockdown order, despite a New York Times editorial yesterday calling for just that.

In states with “stay at home” orders, many leaders are still permitting people to go outside, to take walks, bike, hike, or run. Here in Wisconsin, for example, birdwatching qualifies as such an activity. Visiting state or other parks is permitted, and in fact many states, as well as the National Parks Service and the National Wildlife Refuge System, have waived entrance fees.

Officials note that travel should be kept to a minimum and that people need to stay six feet apart from others to avoid spreading the virus.

Based on the experience of Italy and other countries hit hard by the pandemic, however, these policies are not adequate. As a birder, it’s hard for me to say this, but if we’re going to flatten the pandemic’s curve, all local, state, and national public lands need to be closed immediately. Italy and India, for example, have closed all parks in their lockdowns. This should happen everywhere because the more that people are permitted to interact with others, even outdoors, the longer the virus will persist.

My friend Kimberly Kaufman, executive director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Ohio, posted a similar opinion on Facebook on Sunday, March 22:

“As much as this pains my heart, I think they need to close wildlife areas and parks where people are gathering. Under normal circumstances, the number of people going in and out of Magee today wouldn’t even register. But seeing so many people going in and out of portable toilets, many that I observed NOT following any kind of hygiene protocol, is disturbing. The Refuge Wildlife Drive is open, but no bathrooms. I understand why, but the fact that these areas are a LONG way from restroom facilities means people are forced to use whatever facilities are open. I’ve also observed people gathered together, standing outside their cars, not following the six-foot social distancing protocol. These areas are bringing people together and I think that presents a real risk.”

The “Magee” she referred to, of course, is Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, one of America’s great spring birding destinations. Black Swamp Bird Observatory’s office sits at the entrance road into the marsh. At sundown on Monday, March 23, the state closed Magee Marsh until further notice. This includes the boardwalk, parking lots, roads, and walking trails. It’s the right call.

A few people have noted on Kaufman’s Facebook posts that they’ve seen birders grouped in clusters, not observing the six-foot social-distancing standard. This is particularly disturbing because when it comes to protecting birds, their habitats, and populations, most of us birders would absolutely advocate for following the best available science. Now, we must also listen to scientific advice for protecting public health. Here’s why, from a professor of medicine and the director of the Institute for Human Health and Performance at University College London:

Before anyone accuses me of saying we shouldn’t go birding right now, I would say: Watch the birds in your backyard, if you have one, or out your apartment window. Take short walks in your neighborhood. If you have a secret birding spot that no one else knows and preferably is within walking or biking distance, go there. It’s spring, and birds are on the move. Keep tabs every day on what species are passing through, and report them on eBird. But don’t go to parks or refuges, even if your local officials are leaving them open.

If you need more ideas for how to appreciate birds during a pandemic, see this post from Terry Townshend. He is the founder of the website Birding Beijing and lives in China’s capital city. His experience can light the way for those of us whose countries are far from the end of this worldwide emergency.

States such as Florida and Oregon have closed their state parks, and others have closed campgrounds, but many, many public lands around the U.S. remain open. So the responsibility falls on us as individual birders and others who utilize public lands to suck it up and stay home. It’s the only way to get through this.

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and BirdWatchingDaily.com. He joined the staff of BirdWatching (formerly Birder’s World) in 2000 and has worn many hats over the years: reporter, story wrangler, photo editor, managing editor, and now editor. Originally from Omaha, he lives with his wife and two daughters in Milwaukee and holds a Bachelor’s in journalism from Marquette University. You can reach Matt at (617) 706-9098 and [email protected].

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