Birding In The National Parks: Yes, Birding Is Suffering From The National Parks' Closure

Raptors, such as this golden eagle spotted at Bryce Canyon National, won't let the government shutdown interfere with their migratory plans, but how many will be seen? NPS photo.

There’s no doubt the United States currently faces more pressing concerns than the closure of all of its national parks. Likewise, the park closures are affecting many more people more gravely than the wildlife watchers whose hobby has been put on hold.

Still, this is a column where we discuss birding in the national parks, something that cannot legally be done for the foreseeable future, so let’s take a look at some consequences, be they grave or not.

This is an unfortunate time of year for a shutdown with respect to bird monitoring science. Raptor migration counts have been conducted continuously for years in Acadia and Grand Canyon National Parks. Thanks to this closure, those counts will have gaps in data. It’s not devastating to a continuing study, but frustrating given that NPS biologists and ecologists, as well as citizen volunteers, are ready and willing to conduct the work, but are now forbidden to do so. There are also school groups with plans to attend hawk watches that are missing out on that educational opportunity.

Owl banding and research will also be impacted, including the work of Project Owlnet at Assateague Island National Seashore. A prolonged shutdown could impact an entire season’s banding and data collection.

Breeding bird studies in Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area and eleven other parks in the northeast won’t suffer as much (yet) since spring and summer are the primary monitoring times for breeding birds.

Likewise, there isn’t much damage vandals, poachers, or careless hikers can do this time of year to directly impact birds. Notorious trail closings like the Precipice Trail in Acadia during Peregrine Falcon nesting are a spring and summer event. A shutdown in that period would remove rangers’ ability to patrol the trail closures and monitor the nests, but this time of year little enforcement is needed.

One potential threat that comes to mind is plant poaching, particularly of cacti in southwestern parks. In a desert, cacti are critical habitat for birds, and cactus poaching is always a concern, even when rangers are on the prowl.

While I’m personally a bit too law-abiding to jump over a closed gate at a park during this crisis, I do know more than one birder who has used a “backdoor” to do some birding in a national park this week. I can’t condone that behavior, as birders already have a reputation for sometimes being a bit too zealous to follow a bird past private property boundaries. Trespassing doesn’t usually win many converts to your cause. On the other hand, I imagine if Henry David Thoreau or Ed Abbey were around today, they’d be proudly hiking (and birding, as they both often did) in a closed park.

Whether you’re planning some civil disobedience or resigned to birding your state’s public lands this week, take some time to let your representatives in Washington know what you think about not being allowed to relax and watch some birds in your favorite national park. And when the parks reopen, thank a ranger for all they do to keep them open and safe. Then thank an NPS ecologist for the work they do, often on a shoestring budget, to study the all-too-fragile ecosystems of our parks. Sometimes you don’t learn to appreciate something until it’s taken away for a while.