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The Birdwatcher Menace


On the heels of the almanac uproar comes the binoculars uproar, as reported by a friend in Buffalo, New York:

“… Yesterday we went for a walk through the new park they’re working on near the Peace Bridge. It was warm and foggy……. As we’re driving in we notice that there are several border patrol cars parked near the entrance, but we think nothing of it … We walked for a few hours. On the 11 o’clock news we hear that down by the Peace Bridge a few guys were detained under suspicion of possible terrorist acts–they’d been carrying an almanac and binoculars. It turned out that they were bird watchers…”

Benign birdwatchers beset by border patrol? I checked with another Buffalo friend.

“Yes,” he reports, “it happened on Bird Island, out in the river …They were out there with binoculars and maybe cameras. And suddenly there appeared a bunch of cops, one of whom reportedly had a drawn gun…..”

Although the stories differ it happened at the Peace Bridge or on the island, it was cops or the border patrol, it was an almanac or Peterson’s Guide. “I have no doubt that the core story is true….This is a major border crossing, the Yellow alert was up which meant all the cops were pissing in their pants, and everybody around here knows there’s a lot of scrutiny at this border…”

Buffalo’s Channel Two TV suggested that in future bird watchers should ask authorities for advance clearance. A final comment from Buffalo: “The real story is that America is now a bunch of paranoids, scared of everything and everybody.” He’s right. If we’re expecting bird watchers to register with the police or the border patrol, it’s bad.

There was no report of birdwatcher harassment on the web page of the Buffalo Chapter of the Audubon Society. Nor was there advice about the dangers wearing binoculars in public. A query to the president of the Buffalo Chapter went unanswered, and the press agent for National Audubon said he’d heard nothing about it and couldn’t comment.

We think of bird watching as one of those harmless, older traditions of quiet enjoyment of the outdoors, like mushroom hunting and mountain climbing. Bird watching begets environmental concern, even activism. But sifting through the National Audubon web site I began to have an uneasy feeling. Maybe there are unnoticed connections between ornithology and national security. Certainly birders’ preoccupations mirror those of our experts in homeland vigilance, and the language they use is the same.

There’s data mining. Like our professional snoops, amateur ornithologists are enthusiastic collectors, categorizers and hoarders of facts about individuals and populations. Birders keep personal bird lists, and logs of birds seen over a lifetime (life lists), and observation diaries. They band birds and put them under surveillance for a lifetime. As a group, they aspire to collate all those individual observations, in a sophisticated stab at mastering the fluid and uncontrollable worldwide movements of birds.

The Buffalo border patrol may have been alarmed one of these popular fact-gathering projects. Every year around Christmas thousands of Audubon members conduct their annual bird count, surveying and noting all the bird species sighted in their local areas over a 24-hour period. The Christmas survey has built a famously deep database, with impressive time depth and geographic reach. It’s proven useful as a picture of the disappearance or recovery of species. You could see the Christmas activities of tens of thousands of birders as a worldwide project to trace population movements.

Then there’s the language. It’s not clear who’s borrowing from whom, but the vocabulary of public information available on Audubon’s web site echoes the wording of pronouncements issued by the National Security State. It’s heavy with the imagery of threat and protection. For example, the Audubon Society issues a watch list, “an early warning system for bird conservation,” “designed specifically to highlight those bird species that have the greatest conservation needs.”

Data mining, watch list, early warning system: it’s resonant. Change the words “bird conservation” in the paragraph above to “terrorists” and substitute “people posing the greatest threat” for “species with the greatest conservation needs” and what do you get? A press release from Tom Ridge.
Perhaps what birdwatchers and security bureaucrats share is formative experience, leading to a peculiar cognitive style. If we sorted through the autobiography of every well-known government snoop (William Colby, Louis Freeh, Robert Gates) maybe we’d find passages like this.

“I realize now that the skills I draw on to serve America were shaped very early by my love of birds. From my childhood, I found joy in patient waiting and watching. I had a high tolerance for solitude and cold feet. And I liked nothing better than to be outdoors, in the early morning darkness, listening for the rustle of the rare specimen one no one else had seen. Over the years, I became very good at seeing what others could not, at sorting pattern out of chaos and distinguishing the extraordinary from what seemed ordinary. There was pleasure in keeping detailed notes of my observations, and later there was pleasure in sharing the details with the few others who understood my passion. “

Come to think of it, serious birdwatchers, like other careful observers, could make excellent spies. A team sent to collect information on endangered Central American song-birds could, on the side, easily gather data on indigenous insurgencies. It may well be that the Audubon Society and the CIA have shared personnel.

Covert operations aside, birders are definitely into coding for risk. The Audubon Society categorizes North American birds according to a color scheme: green, yellow, red. Green means a bird is either not declining or “has unknown trends”, species-wise. There may be too many of them to count, or nobody’s counting. Yellow means slipping in environmental security. Yellows are species of national conservation concern, very similar to those shadowy “persons of interest” whose status we never seem clear on. As you can guess, red stands for high alert: let us know if you’ve seen one of these, because we’re worried. These are species of global conservation concern.

Veering over to the human flight path, we see that the Transportation Security Administration, formerly the National Transportation Safety Administration and now part of the Department of Homeland Security, confirms that it too will begin sorting all fliers into three color-coded groups. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II, and it requires every traveler to provide full name, phone numbers, home address and date of birth — that’s the link to the master key, the Social Security number — when booking a flight.

The personal information will then be fed into consolidated computer databases of financial, consumer and marketing information, legal and public records. Passengers will then be sifted: green means good to go after standard screening, yellow means investigate further, “including search and question”, and red means bar from boarding the flight. And you thought Admiral Poindexter’s wet dream of Total Information Awareness had dried up in the sunshine of public scrutiny.

Gentle amateurs with what are usually good intentions (but keep in mind that possible CIA-Audubon connection) and ungentle people with the creepiest of intentions are now using the same language of security, surveillance and threat. Fear has become our fall-back vocabulary for everything.

Over the January holidays, National Audubon’s web site featured the reddish egret (he also goes by Egretta rufescens) on its watch list sidebar. Rufescens is on the yellow list (search and investigate further), and as far as is known, he hangs out in Central America and on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas. Things have been tough: in the late 19th century, his ancestors were devastated by commercial hunting for the women’s hat industry. Possibly the reddish egret harbors some resentments toward consumer capitalism. He looks glum and hunched over in his mug shot, his beautiful trailing plumage notwithstanding. Just when he thought the big hats craze was over and his family and friends were on the rebound, his preferred coastal habitat is threatened by oil rigs and resort building. How did Rufe come under suspicion? Perhaps he wrote a letter to the Daily Owl, expressing outraged environmental sentiments or denouncing egret genocide. Or maybe there’s a bench warrant out on him for not sticking by his nest. In any case, he’s been categorized as definitely not good to go.

There’s one more bit of information: According to the National Audubon database, reddish egrets have a “tendency to wander north following the breeding season.” Wander north! Upgrade him to red and cancel his frequent-flier miles.

SUSAN DAVIS teaches at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She can be reached at

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