PRBO Conservation Science
Quarterly Journal of PRBO Conservation Science, Number 131, Winter 2003: Human Disturbance


Minimizing impacts on wildlife

Human Disturbance

Melissa Pitkin

Human Disturbance
Executive Director's Column
Vulnerable Coastal Habitats
Invasive Plants
Responsible Science
Birding Ethics
Focus on Feeders
Planned Giving to PRBO
Spain Oil Spill

When you go out for a day at the beach or a hike in the woods, what do you take with you? Probably a daypack, water bottle, perhaps binoculars and a camera, some food, and a few other essentials, right? I would like to add to your list of essentials one more item, a big one, perhaps the most important: awareness. By this I mean awareness of the surrounding ecosystem and the effects your actions may be having on it.

This Observer is devoted to the topic of human-caused disturbance in ecosystems. Through our daily routines, recreational and occupational activities we humans impact wildlife and their habitats in a variety of ways. Let's face it, we are part of the ecosystem: our actions result in reactions, from negligible to severe. So what defines human-caused disturbance? Human-caused disturbance occurs when our actions result in behavioral or physical changes to wildlife or their habitats.

Human-caused disturbance can be direct or indirect. Imagine two people walking on the beach in mid-June, for example, enjoying the waves, the sand, and the fresh air. They're talking and don't notice a small, sand-colored shorebird flush from its hidden nest, or the soft sound of its three tiny Snowy Plover eggs crushed underneath a shoe. Their actions directly caused the nest to fail. Or, imagine that your neighbor plants Scotch Broom (Cytisus scoparius) in her backyard. The next spring its seeds are spread to nearby parks and open spaces. When these invasive plants grow, they displace native plants, reducing available native habitat for many songbird species. In this case, disturbance is indirect: planting the non-native shrub in a yard results in broader consequences on a large scale.

Whether direct or indirect, disturbance often results from situations where individuals are unaware of the impact of their actions. With awareness, beachgoers may decide to walk on the wet sand away from nesting habitat, and a backyard landscaper may choose to plant a native shrub that will provide bird habitat while helping to keep neighboring parks and open spaces as functioning wildlife habitat.

At PRBO, we develop recommendations to minimize the negative effects of human-caused disturbance on birds and other wildlife populations. And our research protocols are designed to limit our effects on the wildlife we are attempting to protect. For our land management partners we provide recommendations on how they can alter their operational activities to avoid disturbance to birds. For homeowners we develop recommendations on appropriate landscaping practices. For scientists we develop protocols emphasizing nonintrusive study methods. For wildlife and outdoor enthusiasts we produce informational handouts with tips on limiting recreational disturbance. There are simple things we all can do to minimize our negative impacts on wildlife—and awareness is the first step.

In this Observer, the stories you will read demonstrate both that humans are part of the ecosystem and that greater human awareness can help us be responsible members of healthy ecosystems.

[back to top] [printable page]