Peril of birding: Pointing binoculars in wrong direction

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Of all outdoor activities, birdwatching might seem to be the most innocuous. How can one possibly get into trouble watching birds?

Well, earlier this month, a Boston birder was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and assaulting a police officer.

The 46-year-old man was birding in a marsh adjacent to some houses. A homeowner called police to report a man looking at the houses with binoculars. Local police responded, questioned the man, and then arrested him.

Been there, kind of. The details of this specific case are unimportant, but it reminded me of a similar incident many years ago. I was birding along a rural road in central Oklahoma when a sheriff’s deputy pulled up and asked what I was doing. I pointed to my binoculars, notebook, and field guide, and explained that I was doing a breeding bird census.

He said a nearby farmer had reported a suspicious character (me), but he accepted my explanation and wished me good luck.

I’m sure it didn’t hurt that I had a faculty identification card from Oklahoma State University.

More recently, I was birding along a public highway near a power plant. Within minutes, a security guard arrived and wanted to know what I was doing. I explained and since I wasn’t trespassing, he told me to just keep my binoculars away from the plant’s direction.

Can’t blame them. Since Sept. 11, 2001, many industrial sites have ramped up security and are wary of people with binoculars and cameras.

Homeowners should not be criticized for reporting suspicious activity. Imagine seeing an unknown man or group of people with binoculars looking directly at your house. It could instill fear or even terror.

Birders should keep this in mind if they watch or count birds in or near residential neighborhoods. It can be easy to inadvertently point binoculars at a living room window while following a bird in a bush between the birder and a house.

Birders who frequent particular areas might want to be proactive and stop by the local police station and introduce themselves. Explain what birders do and even give dates for upcoming breeding and Christmas bird counts so authorities aren’t taken by surprise.

Common tale. It turns out that birder/police encounters are not uncommon. Most experienced birders can tell at least one such tale. Within 24 hours of the Boston incident appearing on the Pa. birds list serve, more than 30 people reported a personal encounter with the law while birding.

Many were easily resolved when the situation was explained. One report, however, described overzealous police who thought a couple of young men with expensive optical gear must be thieves. Another group of birders were suspected of being drug dealers.

And one guy, while scouting areas for the World Series of Birding in northern New Jersey, was detained because police thought he was dumping a body in the marsh.

Common sense. Common sense dictates some basic rules to minimize conflicts between birders and the law.

1) Birders should avoid residential areas. If a rare bird shows up and generates a lot of interest, visit nearby homes and explain the purpose of your presence. Offer to show residents the rare bird and explain its significance. And advise local police that there may be a spate of out-of-town visitors.

2) Communities near birding hot spots should educate the public about the benefits of having birders visit the area. They stimulate the local economy by patronizing restaurants, gas stations, convenience stores, and hotels. Birders return to hot spots year after year. Just ask communities that welcome birders such as Cape May, New Jersey; Erie, Pennsylvania; Leamington, Ontario; and Port Clinton, Ohio.

Finally, it pains me to write this, but it’s good to be suspicious of strangers where they seem out of place. A criminal could easily pose as a birder. If in doubt, call the police.

Birders must understand that their activities can sometimes appear suspicious, and they must be willing to explain themselves if asked. And homeowners and police must understand that not every person using binoculars is a “Peeping Tom,” a thief, drug dealer, or hired killer.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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