With states issuing stay-at-home orders and closing public parks in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, birders aren't flocking to spring migration season hotspots like they would in any normal year. But social distancing hasn’t stopped people from birding. During this time of stress and worry, backyard birding has brought many a sense of comfort or a welcome distraction. Plenty of organizations—Audubon included—are encouraging old hats, newbies, and students searching for screenless education to bird nearby.
But the pandemic has also made it clear that not everyone has access to outdoor space at or near home—and backyard birding isn’t an equal opportunity activity. While some marvel at warblers flitting through their yard or hawks nesting in a nearby tree, others only observe a smaller, more uniform slice of avian diversity at home or in their communities. And whether you live in a bird oasis or bird desert, in turn, tends to be determined by your wealth.
The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare existing socioeconomic and racial inequities in our society from availability of healthcare to job security. Access to green space—and by extension, to birds—is no exception. Ecologists have dubbed the disparity the “luxury effect”—the richest neighborhoods tend to harbor the most biodiversity of plants and animals, studies have shown. Researchers have found this effect for birds, bats, and insects in many cities across North America and Europe, according to a 2018 review in Biology Letters.
The reasons for this are complex, and it’s also far from a hard-and-fast rule, says Madhusudan Katti, an urban ecologist at North Carolina State University. A multi-million-dollar condo in a tower in Midtown Manhattan comes with relatively few bird watching opportunities. But, in general, he says, “you tend to find it.” For example, in Phoenix, Arizona, native desert bird diversity was lower in less affluent and predominantly Hispanic communities, according to a 2011 study. In 2004, researchers found similar effects in Vancouver, Canada, where native bird diversity increased with socioeconomic status—and indigenous people had the least access to birds, it found.
“What really drives where you're going to find bird diversity is going to be the distribution of habitat,” Katti says.
Yards and street greenery in a neighborhood, especially yards that people can afford to landscape, garden, and maintain, account for many of the differences. In Lubbock, Texas, for example, a 2011 study found that properties that are visited by a “less ubiquitous” bird species, such as Blue Jays or Western Kingbirds, are valued at about $32,000 more than other homes—a correlation that probably stems from the extent of landscaping in the immediate area, the authors concluded. In this region, landscaping often focuses on playas, which are small lakes lined with plants that favor seed-eating birds in wet years and shorebirds during migration. In drought-prone states like California, a household’s ability to afford irrigation may also play a role in the attractiveness of yards to diverse wildlife.
Beyond private yards, low-income households also generally have much less access to public green spaces in cities, and not all parks are equal. In a Phoenix, Arizona, study researchers showed that parks in high-income neighborhoods had more bird species—including more native birds—than parks in low-income neighborhoods. In general, the size and maintenance of parks may depend on the community’s income, as well as other factors that affect their power, such as race, Katti says.
Even if a bird enthusiast does pour resources into landscaping and bird feeders, it might not be enough in a poorer area. Neighborhoods tend to be segregated by wealth, and one bird-friendly house on a street without much other foliage isn't going to do much to attract birds. “You can't be an island of one-eighth-of-an-acre and expect to get a result,” says Michael Farmer, a natural resource economist at Texas Tech University.
Though anyone can take individual actions to make their yards bird-friendly—such as by planting native plants—systemic change to bridge these gaps requires group effort. Where local governments neglect parks in low-income, predominantly African American neighborhoods, for example, residents may not have the power to convince public officials to clean them up, Katti says.
That’s not only an issue for birds or birding, of course, but for a community’s health: Green spaces in cities soak up air pollution, offer spaces to get exercise, and boost our mental wellness. A growing park equity movement is working to convince governments to invest more money in green spaces in communities that need it most. You can get involved, and in the meantime, also take an extra moment to appreciate the birds you do get to see from your home, yard, or block.