Mobilizing the Bird Watchers

By | February 28, 2006

It sounds more like the storyline for a movie, but this piece in the International Herald Tribune by Laurie Garrett, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Coming Plague”, highlights an area where technology might be able help stem the tide of bird flu:

One of the best untapped resources in this epic battle against influenza is bird-watchers, who are among the most fanatic hobbyists in the world. The major bird-watching organizations and safari clubs ought to work with the World Health Organization and OIE, the World Organization for Animal Health, to set up Web-based notification sites, where birders could report sightings of groups of dead birds, and the movements of key migrating species.

This information would then lead to issuing alerts, and, when “carrier species are sighted in a region, swift action should be taken to minimize contact between the wild birds and their domestic kin. In such a way, it might be possible to limit avian deaths to susceptible wild birds, such as the dying swans of Europe.” The picture Garrett paints is a scary one (her book title perhaps reveals her optimism, or lack of it, about what could happen.) So could the bird watcher brigade save the human race?

In some places it’s already happening. Organisations in the UK, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, have asked their members to report dead birds, but unless I’m not looking in the right place their websites don’t make much of it. The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust had one link to avian influenza but buried the contact number for the public at the bottom of the page (and no email link).

China, too, is mobilizing bird lovers, according to the China Daily but candidly admits its numbers aren’t enough:  “There are more than 100 frequent birdwatchers in Beijing, but the number proves to be far from enough when the people are scattered at wild bird habitats around the city,” [Li Haitao, a birdwatcher in the capital,] said.

It would seem to me that the Internet is perfectly suited to this kind of coordinated “citizen reporting” of migratory patterns and bird deaths. Why hasn’t it happened yet? Plus, it would make a great movie. Leonardo di Caprio as an anorak-wearing bird watcher saving the planet?

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5 thoughts on “Mobilizing the Bird Watchers

  1. Ed Bremson

    Yes, I read this article. She has some good suggestions, I’m just not sure how much good any of this would do. I mean bird flu has been circulating out there for years, unnoticed, unseen, spreading. All the nations of the earth need to mount a concerted effort to combat it, that is if all the nations of the earth would cooperate. Otherwise, I think the best we can do is just hope we dodge the bullet this time. Furthermore, just look at how fast the virus is spreading, appearing in a new country almost daily, sometimes several countries per day. And some people are saying today that a pandemic is inevitable. Bird watchers can provide a valuable service, but I don’t think their efforts will avert a pandemic. At this point I believe that only luck will avert a pandemic, but that’s just my opinion.

  2. Jeremy Wagstaff

    Ed, thanks for this. I agree birdwatchers alone are not going to save us. But it seems as if they are the best hope for an early warning system to ensure that those with domestic fowl can put them indoors.

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  5. Philippe

    Very interesting blog. We are having a house in the Algarve, Portugal withe a 300 squaremeter biotop lake which is attracting a diverse variety of wildlife and birds, our lake reflects the changing seasons and natural life cycles all year round.


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