Excerpt: Welcome to Subirdia

Writer John Marzluff explains how golf courses can be bird-friendly, as well as birdie-friendly. 

Excerpted from WELCOME TO SUBIRDIA: Sharing Our Neighborhood with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife. Published September 2014 by Yale University Press with illustrations by Jack DeLap. Copyright (c) 2014 by John M. Marzluff. All rights reserved.

Substantial and significant open space exists within a city’s workplaces, but this is not the only green area in the city that can serve double duty as a place for people and birds. Soccer pitches, football fields, and baseball diamonds provide loafing areas, and if the turf is natural, feeding areas, for some birds. But by far and away the recreational site within a city that has the greatest potential to double as bird habitat is the golf course.

Golf courses are one of the most plentiful vegetated spaces within subirdia. Worldwide there are more than 31,500 courses, and their numbers are increasing rapidly. In the United States alone 300 courses were built annually over the past three decades. From a humble beginning in Scotland, golf courses now cover nearly 1 percent of the United Kingdom. Courses also dominate recreational space in Australia, Japan, Southeast Asia, and, increasingly, China.

The typical eighteen-hole golf course occupies 133 acres of land, only half of which is manicured greens, fairways, and tee boxes. The remaining out-of-play area includes rough grass, shrubs, water features, forests, and other places of possible use to birds. These areas have the potential to replace some of the natural habitats lost from urban areas. For example, since the 1700s half of all U.S. wetlands have been drained and filled, then plowed or paved. Could the water hazards that challenge golfers mitigate some of the lost wetlands that are so important to birds? Many researchers are trying to answer such questions.


The first hole on Balmoral Golf Course in Battle Lake, Minnesota, is a straightaway, four-hundred-yard-long par four. I waited for the twosome on the tee to hit their drives so I could lag behind and bird without disrupting their play. I stuck to the rough, which included patches of oak and aspen savannah, marshes, and pinewoods. I got the birdie I sought just short of the green on my first hole. The muffled waamp, waaaaamp, waahhhmp led me to a thirty-foot-tall, broken-top, scraggly aspen. On the tree’s northeast side I could see an anxious velvet head poking out of a small hole. A female red-headed woodpecker, her headdress glowing in an early ray of sun, cried out in hunger. Her mate soon arrived and fed her. I watched him hawk insects in the rough and ferry his catch back to his incubating partner as she sat tightly in the dark nest cavity they drilled deep into the soft heart of the old aspen tree. His uniform was British—deep red, black, and white. But this bird is uniquely American, one of our more sensitive species that has declined substantially throughout its midwestern range.

Red-headed woodpeckers are often found on golf courses because these settings imitate the oak savannahs that the species naturally lived in. Open, moderately disturbed habitats have declined as oak, hickory, and beech for- ests matured without the diversifying effects of natural fire. Other places this species used were lost as borders with trees around row crops were plowed and orchards were cut. Golf courses have taken up some of the slack. Where some dead trees and limbs remain, woodpeckers nest as successfully on courses as off of them. In Ohio, three of four woodpecker pairs fledged at least one young, regardless of being in the company of golfers. The pair I found in Minnesota was well along the same path.

The red-headed woodpecker was only the start of a great round of birding at Balmoral. In the nearby conifers bordering the sixth fairway I got an eagle. A bald eagle, no less! From only a few feet above me a majestic adult, its white head and tail stunning against the green landscape, flew down the adjacent fairway. Play stopped as all the golfers marveled at the national bird with whom they shared space. As I headed to the clubhouse, I racked up chipping sparrows, American goldfinches, American robins, and mourning doves from the grassy understory and red-bellied, pileated, and downy woodpeckers from the trees. Associated with the many woodpeckers were those that lived on the results of the woodpeckers’ industrious lifestyles—secondary cavity nesters, including eastern bluebirds, tree swallows, eastern pewees, and white-breasted nuthatches. When finally a scissor-tailed flycatcher floated overhead, its ten-inch-long tail plumes dancing in the air, I figured it was time to sign my scorecard and call it a day. The golf pro wasn’t impressed with my score, but he was tolerant and pleased to have indulged my strange request to bird his course.

I asked the pro whether he did anything to promote birds at Balmoral, and he answered no. He knew some birds needed dead trees, but that was not permitted. He wanted aesthetically pleasing, live trees. Weeds, even the dandelions so favored by the goldfinches, were constantly fought and eliminated. Fortunately for the birds, and the players who clearly enjoyed sharing the course with them, this requirement seemed not to matter. Although the pro focused on the fairways and greens, the birds thrived in the rough. Here there was room for people and birds and their mutual interaction.

Balmoral is not alone in simultaneously providing recreational and bird habitat. Nearly everywhere, golf courses increase the local diversity of birds. In southeast Queensland, Australia, golf links support an average of 450 individual birds of more than one hundred species, especially waterbirds. Parrots, such as the ubiquitous rainbow lorikeet and abundant sulfur-crested cockatoo and crimson rosella, are also common there. In Quebec, Canada, courses equal the local diversity found in nearby natural parks. British, South African, and Italian courses all support bird diversity exceeding nearby suburban and agricultural settings. Throughout the United States, courses support forty to eighty bird species, including many of my favorites, such as the anhinga, little blue heron, and brown thrasher. Waterbirds thrive on the many ponds that challenge golfers; in Florida more than ten thousand individuals of forty-two species live on a typical course. 

Though golf courses offer some mitigation for the global loss of natural lands, they foster mostly common urban exploiters and adapters. Few birds of conservation concern thrive on the typical course. Local rarities, such as the brown-headed nuthatch, cerulean warbler, blue grosbeak, alder flycatcher, winter wren, and blue-winged warbler, are lost from most courses. But where native vegetation is maintained, forests are conserved, and natural buffers around courses are developed, rare species coexist with golfers. Red-headed woodpeckers exist if large, decadent and native, mast-producing nut trees are retained. Natural grass and shrublands support loggerhead shrikes, American kestrels, upland sandpipers, and burrowing owls. Ponds and streams connected to functional watersheds and surrounded by shallows rich in native aquatic and emergent plants provide foraging, loafing, and nesting habitat for native moorhens, ducks, waders, and kingfishers. In arid regions courses offer an exceptional ability to provide diverse riparian areas. In New Mexico, for example, courses rich in streamside vegetation attracted sixty-five species of birds not found in the surrounding desert scrub, while excluding only seven dry-land species. 

In contrast to the diversifying effects of golf courses built in already developed areas, the opposite often occurs where rich native lands are cleared. When a few hundred acres of native coastal “Strandveld” in South Africa were converted to a golf course, for example, an estimated eighty-five hundred individual birds were displaced, and four species—the grey-winged francolin, black-shouldered kite, Cape grassbird, and pied crow—were driven locally extinct. Though the combination of converted land and remnant patches of Strandveld, roughly in a mix of three to one, actually held a higher number of species than occurred before development, the resulting mix of birds was dominated by a few common species and many rare ones. On the estate, pigeons and doves became common, as did a few wetland and open-field species, such as the cape wagtail, blacksmith lapwing, spotted thick-knee, and the beautiful pin-tailed whydah. Their local gain came at a regional expense of the four lost Strandveld specialists.

The birds of St. Lucia paid an even higher price. Only around fifteen hundred white-breasted thrashers exist in the world, all of them on the two tiny Caribbean Islands of St. Lucia and Martinique. Travel and tourism drive these island economies, so the pace of resort construction is furious. As a result, nine of every ten bits of native bird habitat have been cleared from St. Lucia. Native bird populations are reduced to small, endangered capsules crowded into the few remaining fragments of nature that survive. Each successive resort chips away at the tenuous existence of the birds. Le Paradis resort was built in 2006 on top of the largest remaining thrasher population. It took a quarter of the birds’ remaining habitat and cut the world’s population by 15 to 20 percent. Large developments on small, biologically rich islands are incompatible with nature conservation. Even the best attempts to limit destruction and mitigate effects are destined to fail—there is quite simply not enough room for the inevitable miscalculation of humans and randomness of nature. The greens fees of island golf are priced beyond what nature can afford to pay.

A beloved electric blue, rust, and white songbird was recovered from the brink of extinction in part because of nest boxes installed on golf courses and in other moderately disturbed, deciduous forests. The eastern bluebird population in the United States and Canada declined from the 1930s to 1970s, eventually being reduced by an estimated 90 percent. Clearing of nesting habitat, overzealous use of pesticides, and a series of very cold winters transformed a favorite and common bird into a species of conservation concern.

Cavities in dead trees and branches drilled by woodpeckers or forged by natural decay required by bluebirds and other secondary cavity nesters disappeared during this time as hedgerows were cleared for agriculture and forests were eliminated or neatened for housing developments. Suppression of fire allowed remaining forests to thicken and crowd out the open glades where bluebirds hawk and pounce on their insect prey. At the nadir of the bluebird population, in the late 1970s, concerned citizens established “bluebird trails” by placing thousands of nest boxes along fence lines, roadways, and golf fairways where open forests remained. The birds responded quickly, increasing steadily by about 3 percent on standard survey routes from 1980 to 2011. Boxes on golf courses were readily used; in most cases the number of eggs laid and hatched, the condition of chicks, the number of fledglings reared, and the survival of fledglings equaled that at boxes elsewhere. A critical ingredient in successful nesting is the presence of nearby cover, which allows young fledglings to hide from predators, such as sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks. By emu- lating the naturally disturbed settings that bluebirds prefer, golf courses augmented with nest boxes are making important contributions to the restoration of a desired bird to the woodlands exploited by people.

If the bluebird is a sign of happy coexistence between golfer and bird, the goose is just the opposite. Geese flock to courses, nesting and swimming in ponds and grazing the grassy fairways and greens. Where geese graze, they crap in prodigious amounts. Their waste fertilizes the soil, but before the poop degrades, it is messy green goo that clogs a golfer’s spikes and infuriates most players and residents of golf developments. Geese are also quite aggressive and stand their ground as golfers come near; some birds chase and bite people or bash them with their stout wings.

In South Africa, Egyptian geese are on the rise and frequently live on golf courses, such as Cape Town’s Steenberg Golf Estate. More than eight of ten estate residents view geese as a problem, and most call for a severe culling of the flock. In a recent survey, one-quarter of all golfers felt that all of the geese, a native species, should be removed. But efforts to harass, cull, and relocate geese are expensive, unsettling to some geese, and must be ongoing to be even moderately effective. Most managers see these actions as being ineffective in the long run.

A more sustainable approach to reducing the use of golf courses by geese is to make the space less appealing to them. Increasing distances from open water to grass, reducing the turfed area, and employing border collies to chase geese are effective ways to reduce the environment’s attractiveness to grazing birds. The very nature of a golf course will always include some prime goose habitat and therefore will always attract some of these birds, but planting natural shrubs rather than turf where it is not necessary will benefit other species while also limiting geese. Such has been the experience of Scott Nelson, a course manager in the sandhills of south-central Kansas.

The natural links at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kansas, are a birder’s and golfer’s delight. The course is challenging and scenic, with fairways that undulate up and over sand dunes. A poorly hit ball is always in a tough lie, deep in the native grass and scrub rough. The native prairie birds and people of Hutchinson both win from the dunes’ development. The course has hosted many national championships, adding to the town’s economy. The natural vegetation of the course itself has lower maintenance costs than would be incurred on a well-watered, all-turf course. This benefits the owners’ pocketbooks and keeps geese at bay. Golfers rarely complain about geese, which are outnumbered by robins thirty to one. Many other birds thrive at Prairie Dunes as well. In a study that compared the diversity of the course with that of a nearby natural area, scientists recorded nearly equal diversity between the sites—fifty-seven species of birds on the course and sixty-three off. Nine species were found only on the dunes, and fifteen were found only in the reserve. Naturalistic golf courses such as this one complement other regional natural areas, including biological reserves, military reservations, greenbelts, farms, and backyards. Together they can provide a rich regional habitat mosaic.

In subirdia, augmenting natural lands by developing recreational areas, such as golf courses, on degraded land can increase biological diversity. When courses have substantial areas of native vegetation and productive wetlands that are not surrounded by dense homes but instead meld seamlessly into other less developed lands, they can become true urban oases. The resort in South Africa, for example, could have reduced isolation of existing natural lands if, instead of being situated in expansive Strandveld, it was built on existing, degraded agricultural or mine lands. Course construction could have included substantial restoration of native species. In these places young golfers become birders, and old golfers on the nineteenth hole talk of birdies on the green and in the trees.

Welcome to Subirdia, by John M. Marzluff, Yale University Press, 320 pages, $21.56. Buy it on Amazon.


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