A surprising thing happened at the Wild Bird Unlimited store in Raleigh, N.C., when the pandemic struck and shut down almost all of the retail stores that surrounded them.
Suddenly, their business started booming.
All kinds of new customers, stuck in their homes at the height of the spring migration, began tuning in to the nearby birds, often for the first time. Demand jumped for feeders, bird seed and the birding supplies that Wild Birds specializes in.
“We worked out a way to have curb-side service,’’ said Arlette Early, who helps operate the shop. “It was so busy.’’
The widespread embrace of birding is one part of an unexpected phenomenon unfolding in the midst of the pandemic. At a time when many species have been in decline for years, the slowed economy, reduction in human activity and the growing interest in birdwatching could end up helping birds in ways nothing else has.
The relief could be momentary, and some worry that the push to restart the economy now underway could run over wildlife protections and end up making conditions worse than before the virus.
But researchers say there are intriguing signs that birds are taking advantage of an altered world: Some species are nesting where they haven’t in years. They’re showing up in places they’ve long since left. Rates of successful fledglings are unusually high in places.
Along Florida’s west coast, American Oystercatchers that have struggled to find suitable nesting areas along the state’s densely developed waterfront were discovered raising full broods for the first time in years.
Up the coast from there, Black Skimmers took advantage of the vacant beaches to reclaim territories they’ve long since abandoned. Up along the waterfront north of Boston, Piping Plovers have been spotted nesting along the coast that’s rare for them. Birders along the North Carolina wetlands say wading birds are nesting for the first time in many places.
“I think that says a lot right there,’’ said Holley Short, project manager for bird stewardship and monitoring in Tampa Bay with Audubon Florida. She’s the biologist tracking the oystercatchers who’ve returned to nest on an island just off the coast that happened to be closed to visitors during the peak nesting season.
“It’s just one example of many we could come up with,’’ she said. “I think it really shows how we impact these birds.’’
A number of questions arise from what’s happening:
Will this surge in interest in birds go deeper than simply enjoying a migration season when birding is its best and easiest? Will the newcomers keep it up when life returns to normal? Will the gains that birds make in new territories and a strong nesting season be enough to offset the pressures on them? Will some of the lessons from the pandemic’s impact help strengthen conservation?
The answers might not be clear until a few more seasons have gone by because the landscape for birds is complicated.
In Florida, for instance, the nesting advances have been offset by a tropical storm that came through as many birds were ready to leave their nests. “The effects of the tropical storm are going to be mixed in with the effects of the beach closures,” said Erika Zambello, communications director for Audubon Florida. “We certainly don’t see a silver lining in the tragedy of the pandemic.”
“One good year is going to give birds a bit of a boost, but as it evens out over time, it’s not what we need,’’ said Michael Parr, president of the American Bird Conservancy, which has seen a significant rise in participation in its programs and webinars. “I wouldn’t say that the benefits to birds from a slowdown for this period of time is going to be enough to turn around the loss of three billion birds.’’
It’s hard to measure the overall impacts on birds, and that’s particularly true at a time when many researchers haven’t been able to spend time in the field. At the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where downloads of the lab’s birding apps have skyrocketed this spring, researchers are frequently asked how the lockdowns have impacted birds.
“We get this question a lot,’’ said Marshall Iliff, co-leader of the Cornell Lab’s eBird project that tracks bird populations and activities with the help of millions of checklists from birders. “A lot of these impacts are longer term and hard to measure.’’
A likely scenario is since the lockdown aligned with the nesting season for many birds, the boost in breeding could help at least some birds weather the many forces working against them.
“I tend to think it won’t be a lasting effect, but for some species right now, given the stress that’s out there, one good breeding season could make a difference,” said Susan Campbell, a researcher in North Carolina. “Some birds, having the benefit of a season without our presence, that in fact could be a very good thing.”
There is one impact that almost everyone agrees could come from the past four months:
A greater appreciation for how human activity can work against birds –- and that there are basic ways to remedy it.
In the case of the American Oystercatchers on Shell Key Island just south of St. Petersburg, the birds were able to nest for the first time when the ferry service that delivers people to the deserted island was halted. It has since started up again, and the birds have continued to thrive with guidance on how to give the oystercatchers their space.
“I think it’s a matter of education,’’ said biologist Holley Short. “I’m not saying we have to get people off the beaches. It’s just that we need to be more conscious of where we are on the beach, and where the birds are, and make sure we’re sharing the beach with the birds.’’
ABC’s Mike Parr said he thinks the pandemic has helped awaken people to the importance of respecting and following science.
“I think we’re starting to see a change,’’ he said. ‘’Climate change may not be happening as rapidly as COVID, but it’s going to be much worse. Maybe this is a time to rethink how we think about science and how we map out our response going forward.’’
Disclosure: I serve on the board of the American Bird Conservancy, and Beverly and I contribute to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society and the American Bird Conservancy.