Do No Harm - By Bet Zimmerman
(The link to this article is lincluded at Bet's request because she is always updating and adding new materials)
Bet is a Certified Environmental Professional. She maintains bluebird and native cavity nesting birds trails.
Do No Harm
Hippocrates was a Greek physician born around 460/470 B.C. He is associated with training, ethics and professional ideals. One of his Aphorisms was: "Life is short, and the Art long; the occasion fleeting; experience fallacious, and judgment difficult." He counseled those who wished to become competent in medicine to reflect and learn, and "bring to the task a love of labour and perseverance, so that the instruction taking root may bring forth proper and abundant fruits.... diligent study is like the cultivation of the fields, and it is time which imparts strength to all things and brings them to maturity."
These words are very relevant to to the Art of bluebirding. Often it is hard, if not impossible, to know what the "right thing to do" is. As a bluebird host, I confess I have made many mistakes. A few of these mistakes have resulted in abandoned nests, broken eggs, dead nestlings and dead adult native birds.
Some of my mistakes were a result of something I actively did, like dropping a Gilberston box during monitoring which resulted in eggs breaking. Others were a result of something I failed to do, like prevent paper wasps from causing parents to abandon a clutch of eggs about to hatch. Some of these losses were due to inexperience, some to experimentation, others to bad judgment.
Inexperience: I read as much as I can, and ask questions, hoping to learn from others. I also try to learn something from my own near misses or mistakes so I do not commit them again. As painful as it is, I try to share those lessons learned with others, so THEY do not have to find out the hard way.
Experimentation: When conducting experiments, we must make our best efforts, based on available information and good judgement, to first do no harm.
For example, somebody tried putting Plexiglas roofs on a nestbox, in an attempt to deter House Sparrows. The heat cooked the eggs. There is no need to repeat an experiment like that. This is why I encourage people to report not just on successful experiments, but failed ones also.
There are other occasions where well planned, responsible, ethical and legal experiments are conducted that result in losses - sometimes very painful ones. However, in the end, the work contributes considerably to our knowledge base. Thus, in the long run, it is beneficial and worthwhile in that, if the information is shared, it may improve nesting success in the future for many other native cavity nesters.
Bad Judgment/Carelessness/Ignorance: Sometimes in an attempt to help, despite our good intentions, we can end up doing more harm than good. This usually happens from micromanagement, interference, or carelessness. Examples include checking a box so often during nestbuilding so often that nervous Titmice abandon it, putting food on top of or inside of a nestbox which attracts predators/attacks by nestbox competitors, removing a nest you think is abandoned when it's not, rushing, or not keeping good track of nestling ages and causing premature fledging, or failure to monitor an inbox trap hourly resulting in the death of a native bird.
I understand that nature can be cruel. We can not prevent bad weather or rid the world of predators. I accept some losses as a result of natural processes. They may result in the evolution of a stronger breed or more experienced parents.
We also can not control what other people do (like letting House Sparrows breed). But we can try to educate them, so at least they will make informed choices.
If we do nothing, we probably won't make as many mistakes. We also won't learn, and probably won't help many birds.
I figure the world outside the nestbox is tough enough - if we can help the young of native birds make it that far, it may make a difference. What I find most difficult is forgiving myself when things go badly as a result of a fault of my own.
We put up nestboxes in the hopes of helping native birds procreate. I pray that the good we do as a bluebird monitors offsets our failures. Maybe they haunt us so we will do everything in our power to avoid repeating them, or feel compelled to help others.
One thing I THINK I know for sure - giving up when things go wrong is not the answer.
Advice for new bluebirders
Bluebirding Blues: The Downside
Why and How to Monitor Nestboxes
House Sparrow Advisory - neighbors | businesses
Migratory Bird Treaty Act
...make a habit of two things - to help, or at least do no harm
- attributed to Hippocrates (a Greek physician), The Epidemics, Bk1, Sec.XI