Open letter: Does Audubon Society advocate for birds or birders?

Our family was a member of the Audubon Society for decades because we love birds and birding all over the world is our primary hobby.  So, it was painful to give up that membership a few years ago when we were unable to convince the Bay Area chapter of Audubon (Golden Gate Audubon Society (GGAS)) that its support for the projects that are destroying hundreds of thousands of trees, are harmful to birds.  We didn’t give up easily.  We tried for many years to convince GGAS that their policy is harmful to birds.  Since leaving Audubon, the GGAS has become progressively more aggressive in its support for these projects.  Here are a few recent examples of policy decisions they have made:

  • GGAS signed a letter of support for the planned project that proposes to aerial bomb 1.3 metric tons of rodenticide on the Farallon Islands to kill mice.  You can read about that horrible project HERE.
  • GGAS is also supporting the US Fish & Wildlife project that is shooting barred owls based on the belief that another native bird will benefit.  Read about that project HERE.
  • Recently they sent a letter to University of California, San Francisco, asking them to proceed with their original plans to destroy approximately 30,000 trees on Mount Sutro.  These plans are presently on hold in response to the objections of the public.

Today, we are going to take a closer look at Audubon’s support for the destruction of most trees on Mount Sutro.  Jack Dumbacher, member of the GGAS Board of Directors and Chairman of the GGAS “Conservation” Committee, has written an article for the GGAS blog about that project, which gives us this opportunity.

Who are “WE?”

Mr. Dumbacher’s article begins with a litany of “what WE want:”

  •  “We understand that just seeing birds is not enough – we want diversity. It is not enough to have a life list of one species that you’ve seen really well.
  • We want a long life list with many species. We want to count as many species as we can on each field trip.
  • We want to see birds doing a variety of interesting things.
  • We want reasons to visit a variety of habitats and regions. And we love seeing that occasional rare, out-of-place species.”

Many birders and Audubon members have tried unsuccessfully to engage Mr. Dumbacher in a dialogue, so we are resorting to this “open letter” venue to ask these questions:

  • Who are “WE” in this list of what Mr. Dumbacher claims “WE want?”  Does he speak for you?  Does he speak for the birds?  If not, is he speaking for himself?  Is he speaking for all Audubon members?  If you are an Audubon member, is he speaking for you?
  • If this isn’t a list that speaks for you, what do YOU want?  Do you want to be able to walk in a forest in which many birds live now?  Or do you prefer grassland and dune scrub, which is what the forest in San Francisco is being converted to by native plant advocates?
  • If Mr. Dumbacher’s wish list doesn’t speak for the birds, what do you think the birds want?  Where do you think the owls and raptors will nest if all the tall trees are destroyed?  Where do you think the bats will live if the tall trees are destroyed?  What do you think the hummingbirds will eat in the winter if all the eucalypts that flower in the winter are destroyed?
Red-tailed hawk nesting in eucalyptus.  Courtesy
Red-tailed hawk nesting in eucalyptus. Courtesy

We are too ignorant to understand what THEY want

Mr. Dumbacher wonders how those who share his opinions regarding nature can convince us to want what they want:  “…how do we make the case for diversity?”  Then he proceeds to try to make the case, by looking back on his childhood experiences in nature and passing judgment on them: 

“My father spent much of his spare time in open green spaces. Sometimes I would go with him, and we heard birds and saw squirrels and geese, and we believed that we loved and understood nature. After spending many more years of my life studying biology, I realized that we were just golfers on a relatively impoverished golf course landscape.”

It struck us as unspeakably sad that he would look back on his childhood experience in nature with such condescension.  It seems that each of us should have the right to enter nature with whatever level of knowledge we can bring to that experience.  Mr. Dumbacher has a Ph.D. degree.  Does he think a Ph.D. degree is required to appreciate nature?  Such a prerequisite would leave most of us out.  Don’t we have a right to enjoy nature too?

Burdened with too much knowledge

Trilium in Virginia
Trilium in Virginia

We will use our personal experience to present a contrarian viewpoint.  A few years ago we had the opportunity to drive the length of the Blue Ridge Highway from the Shenandoah Valley in northern Virginia to the heart of Tennessee.  Of course, we had many walks in the woods.  It was early spring.  The dogwoods were blooming.  The birds were actively starting their nesting season.  As much as we enjoy a walk in the woods here in California, there was even greater pleasure in those walks in the eastern woods because we have almost no knowledge of what is native or non-native there.  It was a great relief to be able to walk without passing judgment, as we have been taught to do in California.  There was no need to point fingers and declare that something “doesn’t belong there.”  We could accept the beauty of everything we saw on equal terms.  Ignorance was bliss.

Dogwood, Virginia
Dogwood, Virginia
Monarch caterpillar on milkweed.  Tilden Botanical Garden
Monarch caterpillar on milkweed. Tilden Botanical Garden

We will contrast that experience with a more recent experience in the East Bay Regional Park District Botanical Garden in Tilden Park.  We were taking a course in which several participants in the class were members of the California Native Plant Society.  You might think that a botanical garden in which solely natives are planted, would be a pleasant place for them to walk.  It wasn’t.  They were outraged by the few non-native “weeds” we saw.  They crawled over the plantings to pull the uninvited plants from their roots.  One was a lovely scarlet pimpernel, blooming in its bright coral amongst native plants in their dormant, brown phase.   Their destructive attitude detracted from our enjoyment of the garden.

The “tiny minority” myth

As the “restoration” projects in the Bay Area have become progressively more destructive, the public has become progressively more opposed to them.   Mr. Dumbacher calls us a “vocal minority” in his article.  He is mistaken.  We consistently outnumber native plant advocates (sometimes ten to one) whenever we have an opportunity to express our opinion in a public venue:  in public hearings, on petitions, during written public comment periods.  We are not a minority.

Mr. Dumbacher is also mistaken in his description of the project which he is defending in his article.  He says, “…a Sutro Management Plan was formed that balanced incremental thinning with incremental planting of native species, in order to increase diversity and reduce the fire threat.”  We will give Mr. Dumbacher the benefit of the doubt by assuming that he has not read the Environmental Impact Report of February 2013, in which the project was described in detail.  Within a year five years, that project would have destroyed 90% of the trees (about 30,000 trees) and understory on 75% of the acres of Mount Sutro.  It proposed no planting of native plants, with the exception of a few small areas if money became available to pay for them.   The word “thinning” is used by native plant advocates to describe their plans to destroy the forest because it sounds less destructive.  However, it is not a word that accurately describes the destruction of 90% of the forest.

What happens to the birds that are there now?

Blackberries in the Sutro forest.  Courtesy Save Sutro Forest
Blackberries in the Sutro forest. Courtesy Save Sutro Forest

Unfortunately, we can’t share with our readers the lovely pictures in Mr. Dumbacher’s article because we don’t have permission, although you can visit the article to see for yourself.  You will see beautiful birds sitting on plants that exist now on Mount Sutro and Mount Davidson.  They are native plants that thrive in the understory of the forest and are unlikely to survive the devastation of the destruction of the trees and understory.  There are also non-native plants in the understory.  Many of them, such as blackberry, are valuable sources of food for birds.  There is no evidence, and no reason to believe, that destroying the Sutro forest will increase the number of bird species in San Francisco. 

Native red elderberry on Mount Sutro.  Courtesy Save Sutro Forest
Native red elderberry on Mount Sutro. Courtesy Save Sutro Forest

One wonders if Mr. Dumbacher isn’t aware of this obvious contradiction:  he illustrates his article with birds that live in the forest now while trying to make the case that the forest must be destroyed so he can see more birds.  Perhaps the answer is that he doesn’t really want more birds, he is only interested in certain birds:  “But If you want migrants to visit your city, if you want rare birds to breed in your local parks, and if you want a county list that exceeds 200 species, then please get involved in local habitat management and restoration, and be ready to speak up for nature in your city.”

The "managed" portion of the Sutro forest:  orange flags and weeds
The “managed” portion of the Sutro forest: orange flags and weeds

Here is another contradiction in Mr. Dumbacher’s appeal for your support for destroying most of the Sutro forest:  “we should try to manage a more natural forest.” In what sense is a “managed” forest also a “more natural” forest?  The Sutro forest is natural now, wild and unmanaged, a delightful mess.  We see no benefit in “managing” it.  Our experience with the managed summit of Mount Sutro is herbicide use (in the past), irrigation, wood chips, and dry weeds populated with colored flags where someone has apparently planted something that didn’t emerge from the wood chips.

Does Mr. Dumbacher speak for you?  Do you share his view of “nature?”

Postscript:  Mr. Dumbacher’s viewpoint is particularly troubling because he is Chair of the Department of Ornithology and Mammalogy at California Academy of Sciences, the Bay Area’s leading institution of science education.    It seems that there is little science in Mr. Dumbacher’s viewpoint as expressed in his article.

7 thoughts on “Open letter: Does Audubon Society advocate for birds or birders?”

    1. That’s reassuring to hear it from someone who knows as much about birds as you do. Some birders feel so strongly about destroying our non-native trees, I often wonder if I’m missing something.

  1. The local Audubon chapter like many other area “environmental” groups has become complacent waging battle in places where the war was won decades ago. They like to make noise in parks and open space that are protected from development instead of fighting the real fight against polluters and builders. If they truly wanted to take a stand why not insist UC declare Mt. Sutro a permanent preserve? That would be speaking in the best interest of birds and the people who care about them.

  2. horrifying to know that Audubon is now synonymous with all that death, when they started out to educate people about nature. how did such people come to lead this once-fine organization?

    i agree with garden walk and dave…no trees, no birds. and take a stand where it’s actually meaningful!

    and speaking of the academy of scineces…a couple of years ago i saw several owls being stuffed, and wondered how they got so many owls at one time, unless someone killed them?

  3. Thank you so much for another brilliant post.

    I’ve never gotten over my attempt to be a volunteer with Audubon to try to protect the few Burrowing Owls at Cesar Chavez park in Berkeley. Some of us had been visiting the wintering little owls for years. Then Audubon got involved and cut down all the plants in the owls’ area, making them more vulnerable than ever. Audubon’s people seemed like idiots when I would talk with them. They knew nothing about the owls and relied on a UC Berkeley degreed “expert” who gave them the wrong information about the owls. (The owls arrived in winter to stand forlornly behind the stumps where their shrubs had been.)

    The Audubon person was raging against the non-native plants, but had no idea which they were. They also didn’t know that the marina has multi-million dollar plantings of non-native trees, shrubs, grass, etc. Once again, it was a vulnerable animal species who was to bear the brunt of the nativists’ kill-everything-exotic, while the businesses and cities, etc. keep planting more non-natives.

    Audubon next focused on eliminating the native California Ground Squirrels who provide the burrows for the owls. No squirrels, no owls. (We recently won a city of Berkeley fight to stop them from poisoning all the squirrels, but someone must be killing them because hardly any are there now.) How can Audubon know and care so little about the birds they pretend to protect?

    The one meeting I went to was horrific, run by two young men, even though one was only a volunteer, while the Audubon woman was ignored, as were the majority of the volunteers who were older women. It seemed to just be a job for the Audubon people who were letting the owls disappear.

    Finally, two owls were behind the inadequate fence in the tiny habitat. One of the burrows was paved over, with no excuse for this whatsoever. The other burrow had a “art exhibit” bench put on top of it. That was the end of the owls, that I could see. And why? Did Audubon really have no power to stop this? I wrote them and no reply, of course. (I’d had to quit volunteering since it was so painful and upsetting.) One owl remained outside the fenced area, but the last I saw of that one was three large dogs running into the leashed area, off-leash, with no owner in sight. (Another owl had been killed by a dog the previous year.)

    Audubon’s record is worse than abysmal. When I asked, could they really not stop water birds from being shot by the Oakland airport, they ignored me.

    So now they are killing raptors by poisoning rodents? Killing native birds and other native animals by advocating the cutting down of our beautiful forests, that also help prevent fires?

    The killing of the rare Barred Owls is criminal also. Some of us suspect that those owls are increasing because they do better with the constant human population increase, while the Spotted Owls are more vulnerable. It’s not the Barred Owls’ fault. We are lucky to have them.

    Thank you for stopping helping to fund Audubon’s campaign against plants and animals…..

  4. I forgot to answer your question! Neither. Audubon as an organization seems to not care about birds OR birders. I’m sure some do of course, but not the organization who would make the situation worse for the darling, beleagured Burrowing Owls. Their Berkeley project was/is high status, benefitting them, but they betrayed the owls.

    The Burrowing Owls are particularly adorable in their fearlessness and how they let humans get very close and how, if you know where they winter, you are guaranteed to see them

    It’s illegal to drive Burrowing Owls from their California Ground Squirrel burrows, so where the real estate developers are destroying many animals’ habit in far eastern Contra Costa county, they rig a door to close on the owls when they step outside, depriving them of their home and safety. I’ve read that these little owls once were one of our most numerous birds, and now, most have never seen them. I believe the causes are the same. Greed.

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