Does recreation impact birds?

ResearchBlogging.orgThe impacts of non-motorized recreation on wildlife is a topic that is grossly understudied in the field of recreation ecology. However, of all wildlife species that can be influenced by non-motorized recreational activities, the most studied group (which is not saying much as you’ll soon find out) is birds. In the latest issue of the Journal of Environmental Management, Rochelle Steven and colleagues review all of recreation ecology studies published since the 1970s that examined the impacts of activities such as hiking, wildlife viewing, running, and dog walking on bird species. Only 69 papers have been published in English language journals, which examine the influence that non-motorized recreation has on bird species from 1978 to 2010.

Steven et al. gathered all 69 articles and recorded various characteristics of the studies as a way to summarize the recreation ecology research on birds.  They categorized studies based on the recreation activity type, location of the study, climatic region of the study, the habitat type, details about the species examined (including guild), and the species response.  Responses were broken into individual, population level, and reproductive responses. Individual response includes any physiological response (such as change in heart rate) or behavioral change (such as flushing). Population level response examples would be changes in the density or abundance of the specie(s). Reproductive responses could be changes in clutch size, number of nests, and/or nest success. The last characteristic of the study examined was the findings of each article. Was the effect on the birds negative, positive, or was there no response at all?

Chickadees along the River Trail in Logan, Utah

An overwhelming majority of the studies summarized (88%) found that non-motorized recreation had a negative impact on birds. Only 1 studied showed a positive response and 7 studies showed no response at all.  Most of these studies examined low intensity recreation activities; walking or hiking.  The types of negative responses exhibited by the birds was wide ranging, with a relatively even split between individual, population, and reproductive responses appearing in the literature. Results also brought to light some obvious gaps in knowledge related to recreation ecology and birds. The specific regions studied was very limited with most studies occurring in cool to warm temperate climates either in shoreline habitat or wetland habitat in the US or Europe.  The fact that areas such as Asia, Africa, and Central America were not frequently studied is particularly of concern since these areas of the globe are hot spots for nature based tourism. Nectarivores and fruitivores were barely studied at all, with only 1 study each representing these guilds. Nectarivores and fruitivores serve essential ecosystem functions in the areas where these guilds exist and there it would be important to understand possible negative influences on these species.

Overall, Steven et al. concluded that there are negative impacts from non-motorized recreation impacting a wide range of bird species.  However, the significance of the disturbance is hard to pin down.  Human disturbances resulting from recreation vary greatly in time, space, and intensity. All of these characteristics of disturbance will influence the severity of the impact  (Figure 1 from Steven et al.).  Even short term responses (such as an increase in heart rate) can potentially have long term effects depending on the duration and timing of the impact.

So does non-motorized recreational activities impact bird species in a way that is significant?  Probably, yes. However, it is important to remember that the significance of the impact depends heavily on the characteristics of the recreational activity and it is hard to scale these impacts to population level changes. Overall – recreation is  impacting bird species.  The issue of recreation impacts on birds may become even more of a topic of concern in the coming year. Recent studies by Cordell (2008) examining the popularity of recreational activities indicate that bird watching is the fastest growing recreational activity in the United States. Bird lovers may not realize that their activities, even such low-key activities as walking, can have detrimental effects on the avian species they admire.

Dave and Joanna birding outside Moab, Utah


Cordell et al. (2008). Natured-based Outdoor Recreation Trends and Wilderness. International Journal of Wilderness. 14(2)

Steven, R., Pickering, C., & Guy Castley, J. (2011). A review of the impacts of nature based recreation on birds Journal of Environmental Management, 92 (10), 2287-2294 DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2011.05.005


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