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Should spring birding festivals be canceled due to coronavirus?

birding festivals
Birders, including Kimberly and Kenn Kaufman (far left), watch for birds during the Biggest Week in American Birding a few years ago. Photo courtesy Black Swamp Bird Observatory

UPDATE: Festivals are now being canceled. 

News about the cancelations of large gatherings of people due to the COVID-19 pandemic seem to be coming in by the hour. In the last several days, concerts and music festivals, political rallies for Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, industry and academic conferences, parades, and a growing list of in-person classes at colleges and universities have all been called off in hopes of slowing the spread of the disease.

On Tuesday, the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Ohio, which runs the Biggest Week in American Birding festival every May, said the show will go on, at least for now.

“At present, we are planning to hold the Biggest Week, as planned,” according to a statement shared on social media and via an email to Biggest Week attendees. “As this is clearly a developing situation, we will continue monitoring federal and regional warnings and make decisions based on the most recent information. We will make a final decision no later than April 10 to allow registrants to adjust travel plans. We will communicate openly and transparently with registrants and the public through the Biggest Week website, via email messages, and on social media.

“If you feel it is not in your best interest to travel and attend the festival, we provide a refund — no questions asked. Our refund policy can be found here.


“Public health and safety is our number one priority. We are closely monitoring this situation and should the festival take place, we will, as always, do everything in our power to ensure the safety of all of our speakers, attendees, volunteers, and staff.”

This strikes me as a reasonable approach for a festival that is still two months away. Many other spring festivals are scheduled in the next few weeks, and while I hate to say it, their organizers should give serious thought to canceling this year’s events or amending schedules so large numbers of attendees aren’t gathered in one room. The goal, quite simply, is to protect public health. Of course, state or local governments may encourage or require the closures of certain events, but for those that don’t, it’s incumbent upon organizers to decide thoughtfully how to proceed. 

A lot of time and energy, often by volunteers, has been put into these festivals, making any decision to cancel especially difficult. Excitement builds for the fun event to come, and attendees solidify their plans. And it’s not easy for me to suggest canceling or changing festival programing because I have many great memories from the birding festivals I’ve attended. Cancelations would also cost hotels, restaurants, and other businesses significant revenue, often in small communities that don’t attract lots of tourism dollars.

Concerns for older adults

But, this virus is no joke. People age 60 and older are most at risk from developing serious illness from the coronavirus — and as you probably know, the birding community is largely made up of people over age 60. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that people over 60 or with underlying medical conditions “stock up on medications, household items, and groceries to stay at home ‘for a period of time.’”


Without a doubt, the notion that those of us who take the freedom of movement and assembly essentially for granted must stay home for the collective good is a shock to the system. Will we do it? Do we have a choice?

Nevertheless, if you’re an organizer of a birding event or if you’re planning to attend one soon, I’d suggest reading this article, published Tuesday by The Atlantic: Cancel Everything: Social distancing is the only way to stop the coronavirus. We must start immediately.

Do you know of a birding event that is being canceled due to COVID-19? Let us know and we’ll spread the word.

Read more

World Health Organization Coronavirus Updates


Johns Hopkins University Interactive Case Map

Birding tours in China, Israel canceled, postponed due to coronavirus travel constraints

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and You can reach him at [email protected].

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