In April 2016, I was invited to say a few words to birders gathered to celebrate Victor Emanuel Nature Tours’ 40 years of operation. Of course, I wanted to come up with something poignant to match the significance of the occasion. Luckily, it occurred to me that no words of mine could possibly be more profound than the mere presence of those hundred or so tour participants and 20 VENT staff members assembled in Beaumont, Texas, near the Louisiana border.
I know what you’re thinking: Why would birders gather on the Texas coast in the month of April?
Consider that 41 years ago, a foreign birding tour meant a trip down to the Everglades. Now it means traveling everywhere. The global bird-tour infrastructure is thriving, and VENT is a key component of it. Thousands of North American birders have earned the title “Birders Without Borders.”
Consider also that 200 years ago, when Audubon walked the earth, no single member of our species had seen a Grey Crowned Crane, a Lesser Prairie-Chicken, and any penguin species. A show of hands at the VENT banquet proved that more than 20 people in the room could make this boast — that is, they had first-hand experience with three birds found only on separate continents thousands of miles apart.
Such Birders Without Borders promote conservation and world peace and have an unquenchable desire to expand our worldview ever wider. Who knows, maybe we should add Asia’s Brown Hawk-Owl (Brown Boobook) or Australia’s Tawny Frogmouth to their world list.
Two earth-embracing, opinion-changing movements marked the 20th century: the Conservation Movement, which was a reaction against the excesses of the Victorian Age, and the Environmental Movement, which was a reaction against the consequences of biocides such as DDT. Birds played a central role in both campaigns. The slaughter of plume-bearing birds catalyzed the Audubon movement, and the frightening specter of a “silent spring” galvanized resistance to the use of DDT.
The Ecotourist Movement
But my participation in the VENT celebration brought me to the realization that there were actually three, not two, major earth-spanning opinion shifts in the century. The overlooked endeavor is the mobilization of birders driven to expand their worldview.
With millions of proponents across the globe and no small number of key architects, ecotourism’s impact has been profound — economically, environmentally, and in fostering a broad worldview — yet its importance to wildlife and habitat conservation, while not overlooked, remains unsanctified by a defining name. Let’s give it one: the Ecotourist Movement. I submit that at no time in human history have more people enjoyed more intimacy with the planet’s birds, all thanks to the Ecotourist Movement.
Let’s also agree that, while the Conservation Movement had Teddy Roosevelt and the Environmental Movement had Rachel Carson, the Ecotourist Movement had Victor Emanuel and his band of tour leaders and office staff.
Victor would be the first to tell you that he was not alone in this earth-changing endeavor. Almost every key figure in birding, including my friends David Sibley and Kenn Kaufman, owe at least part of their considerable skills to on-the-job training gleaned during their years as bird-tour leaders.
Where does the Ecotourist Movement go from here? Roger Tory Peterson supplied that answer in my book The Feather Quest: A North American Birder’s Year: “Everywhere,” said the world’s most celebrated birder. “Birding is going Everywhere” — that is, everywhere birds are found. This excludes precious few locations on planet earth.
So congratulations, Victor, and thank you for your vision and leadership.
And you, dear reader, in case you have not yet joined the ranks of the Birders Without Borders, there will never be a better time than the present. In fact, given the ecological turmoil that climate change will precipitate, to wait may be to travel too late. It’s sad to say it, but there are species thriving today that will not see the 22nd century. My advice is to go now, while birding enjoys its golden age.
You say your budget can’t accommodate a trip to East Africa? Start a Birders Without Borders Fund. Forgo one Starbucks latte a day and put that money in a coffee can — a shade-grown coffee can, of course. Your worldview begins at home, but, like Roger said, it extends everywhere. Enjoy the journey.
The morning you wake up in a tented camp on the plains of East Africa and inhale the cold, flinty air of the Serengeti and harken to the cry of a Grey Crowned Crane will rank among the greatest moments of your life. Your ancestors breathed this air and harkened to that cry, knowing that it meant that they, like the crane, had survived the perils of the night.
I promise you: You will never feel more alive than you will at that moment, warm beneath the covers and anticipating the marvels that await you, a whole new continent filled with birds and the invigorating environment that sustains them.
Or you can just get up tomorrow and race to your daily latte. It’s your life. Set your priorities however you please.
Several years ago, I wrote an article expressing my disappointment at seeing an Ivory Gull in Cape May Harbor after missing the species twice in the Arctic. A reader chastised me for my jaded view, pointing out that many people were not as lucky as my wife, Linda, and I, who have had the good fortune to travel in search of rare birds. Yes, luck plays a part in it, but the truth is, at the beginning of our relationship, Linda and I determined that travel was our highest priority. It trumped a vacation home, a luxury sedan in the driveway, and closets filled with clothes.
There are 10,000 bird species on the planet. See them all and you win a lifetime of travel.
A version of this column appeared in the September/October 2016 issue of BirdWatching.
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