The history of wildlife conservation reveals a strong collaboration between hunters and birders from the very beginning.
The neon-blue little bird lit on my friend Jacob’s shotgun barrel. He and I sat side-by-side, decked-out in camouflage head-to-toe. We were turkey hunting together, hoping to call a gobbler within shotgun range in the edge of a strip of mixed hardwoods between a pine plantation and a beautiful creek bottom.
Neither of us moved a hair when the stunningly blue, two-inch bird lit. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the look of astonishment on Jacob’s face.
"Indigo bunting," I muttered under my breath.
The bird perched on the vent rib of the Mossy Oak-finished gun barrel for probably 20 seconds, and flittered away.
Wide-eyed and incredulous, Jacob said, "I can’t believe he did that."
Often, people think of hunters and bird watchers as totally different people. Sometimes they are, but, more often than not, these two types of wildlife enthusiasts are very much alike. In fact, sometimes we are one and the same.
The famous birder and artist John James Audubon was first a hunter. The Audubon Society, a long-standing organization of birdwatchers, is named for Audubon. Many of today’s birdwatchers probably don’t know that Audubon shot and killed the specimens he painted the likenesses of.
The common thread that binds hunters and birdwatchers is a fascination with nature, especially the feathered denizens of fields and forests. Some of us want to simply observe these fascinating creatures with their brilliant colors, beautiful calls and constant motion.
Others of us want to kill those that are legal game, take them home and eat them.
While many birdwatchers are not hunters, some are. Almost all hunters are birdwatchers. Think how many of us have bluebird boxes on green fields or bird feeders back at the house.
According to the most-recentNational Survey of Hunting, Fishing and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, there are 535,000 people over the age of 16 who hunt each year in Alabama. The same document reveals that there are 1,079,000 people over the age of 16 who engage in wildlife-watching annually in our state.
What the Survey does not yield is what sort of overlap there is between the two recreational activities. In the same way that many of us are both hunters and fishermen, many of us are also wildlife watchers.
The Survey captures a statically valid snapshot of participation in all three wildlife-associated activities. The wildlife-watching activity is categorized into "Residential" and "Non-Residential." Residential activity is defined as engaging in watching wildlife around one’s home, for example the hummingbirds buzzing around the feeder on the patio. Non-Residential is defined as travelling 10 or more miles from home to engage in wildlife watching such as going to Guntersville State Park to view the eagles on Eagle Awareness Weekend.
The stereotypical caricature of a birdwatcher as a not-very-macho individual, as contrasted to the stereotypical-macho hunter, is highly misleading. President Teddy Roosevelt, the "Rough Rider," was both an avid hunter and consummate, lifelong birdwatcher. If the truth be known, even the toughest of hunters are fascinated with birds encountered afield.
Turkey hunters in particular are acutely aware of birds. The call of the barred owl is the most commonly used locator call when after a gobbler. The best turkey hunters have mastered the "Who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all?" owl call as a way to stimulate a gobble from a roosted turkey before daylight.
Crow calls are an old standby to get a turkey to gobble later in the day, and even the bizarre cry of the pileated woodpecker has grown in popularity as a locator call. But most turkey hunters just enjoy watching birds. Maybe it’s the springtime, in-the-woods-at-daybreak awakening that begins with the call of a cardinal that leads to this affinity.
Tom Kelly has written extensively about turkey behavior based on a lifetime of observation. Perhaps his most revealing observations came, not as a result of watching turkeys in the woods but, rather, as a result of watching birds around a feeder out the kitchen window.
The most revealing observations deal with how flocks of birds remain in constant motion until something suspicious appears within view of one or more members of the flock. At that point, the bird or birds that see the potential threat stand erect and motionless. If the object of suspicion lingers, eventually all members of the flock will stand in such a way.
The same behavior occurs in wild turkeys in fields that occurs in songbirds on the patio. This provides food for thought about the unpredictable responses of turkeys to decoys, especially those with an upright posture.
The history of wildlife conservation in Alabama and across the nation reveals a strong collaboration between hunters and birders from the very beginning. In the early 1900s, the hunters who led the conservation movement enlisted the support of birdwatchers and all nature-lovers in a massive campaign to save wildlife populations from extinction.
Remember there were practically no deer or turkeys to rally people around. So songbirds were at the heart of the campaign. Alabama was on the forefront of this educational effort with such innovative approaches as the publication of Bird Day Books to be used in the schools of the state for a course of study about wildlife conservation on a particular day each year designated as "Bird Day" by the State Superintendent of Education.
This early collaboration came as a result of John Wallace, the first Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Game and Fisheries (now Department of Conservation and Natural Resources), reaching out to the Superintendent of Education with the offer of furnishing the books. Wallace spent the bulk of the Department’s meager budget for printing the books. But Wallace wisely knew that,"a conservation ethic must be inculcated in the hearts and minds of the people."
Wallace died after a few years in office, but thankfully the cause of conservation in Alabama was carried forward by Commissioner I. T. Quinn, who continued the Bird Day Book initiative for years. At the state and national level, the growing wildlife conservation movement evolved into a massive collaborative effort between wildlife enthusiasts of all walks, even the Lady’s Garden Clubs.
During the fight for passage of the Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, responsibility for guiding the bill through committee fell to Congressman Scott Lucas (Ill,), who reportedly did not push the bill aggressively. Carl Shoemaker, dubbed the "father of the Pittman-Robertson Act," sent telegrams to all the garden clubs and women’s groups in Illinois, urging them to contact Lucas on the matter. A few days later, Shoemaker happened to meet Lucas in the hall outside the congressman’s office. Shoemaker wrote of the meeting, "He (Lucas) threw up his hands and exclaimed, ‘For God’s sake, Carl, take the women off my back and I’ll report the bill at once.’"
History holds a valuable lesson for us. Anti-hunters and other misguided preservationists who don’t understand the wise-use conservation ethic are quick to seek out wildlife-watchers as allies. Thankfully, most birders are grounded enough in nature to see through efforts to co-opt them into a campaign to do away with hunting. As hunters, we should embrace birders.
Corky Pugh is the executive director of the Hunting Heritage Foundation.