June 16, 2006
Northern Bobwhite
Northern Bobwhite
Unless you were living under a rock this past winter, you know the Dick Cheney shooting incident occurred on a private game ranch in Texas.  Some birding wags are gloating and chalking one up for the quail, but this begs the larger question about the disconnect between birding and hunting.  Many birders are apoplectic at the very concept of "game ranch," but may have forgotten that John James Audubon, proud of his hunting prowess, executed his paintings by studying the skins of birds he himself had shot.

Two things led to the split and subsequent estrangement between birders and hunters--binoculars and demographics.  The first gave intimate access to the world of birds without need of a gun.  The second replaced field, marsh, and woodlot with suburbia.  Hunters can no longer hunt along the margins of nature and suburbanites, who now live there with wildlife they have come to know and love, have forgotten that death used to be an everyday element of life along those margins.

A deep appreciation for nature (sure, I'm eliminating the "slob hunters" and the "list tickers," the fringes of both groups) places hunters and birders on common ground.  And both are losing ground in the battle to preserve and protect the natural areas they need.  Their real need is to come together and work together.  Black and white is no longer a viable option in saving our planet.  I've seen gray at work.  I have friends who own and operate a game ranch in south Texas.

Ray and Monica Burdette have two business cards.  The one they give to birders says "El Canelo Ranch, home of the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl."  They have a different one for those who come to hunt deer, exotic game, and northern bobwhite, the quail species that was the intended target of Dick Cheney's errant buckshot.  The Burdettes moved onto El Canelo in 1990 with a vision of how they could combine their love for their Texas brushland and its native wildlife with a lifestyle that would support it and them.  A decade of hard physical labor and careful financial planning later, El Canelo has 7 wildlife feeding stations, 17 waterholes, and 64 permanent wetlands.

In addition to their hunting clientele, Burdettes welcome 1000 paying birders per year to look for Lower Rio Grande Valley bird specialties, particularly the owl that has been extirpated here in Arizona by development.  Find out what beef cattle is selling for, per pound, then go have a steak at Ruth's Chris and do the math.  Someone in the cattle industry is cashing in, but it's not the ranchers.  Ranchers can sell to developers or they can maintain their land and lifestyle by becoming, like the wildlife they sustain, opportunists.

If you're a birder and you can't picture hunters and birders on common ground, visit El Canelo (www.elcaneloranch.com) and stay at the Inn.  On a lush and vibrant parcel of the Texas bush you'll see how gray works in this era of urban sprawl, dwindling open space, and disappearing family farms.  Ray and Monica Burdette represent the new breed of land stewards.