How to avoid being arrested
Many birders move passed the beginner state, especially if they don’t get arrested because of accidentally pointing their binocs at the wrong residential house, become over whelmed by confusing fall warbler, think its mandatory to identify nonbreeding Empidonax flycatchers and many other pitfalls that might cause one to give the bird to birding. All the trials and tribulations of identifying difficult species, the agony of defeat from mistaken identifications and the prospect of being drummed out of the local bird club are minor when compared to being under arrest. Arrest does not mean some sort of impediment due to a rock in your shoe and you cannot take another step. It is not an arrested development, not even a heart murmur. The kind of arrest here means a legal suspension of activities. Stop birding. You have the right to remain silent, etc. You are possibly wearing embarrassing handcuffs and all of a sudden, you are in the same category as serial killers, kidnappers and rapist. A perp is a perp is a perp. Help! You do not want to go there.
Several ways of avoiding arrest are obvious. Some are not so obvious and excitement over a new or unusual bird may excite the emotions of others such as the police.
Pointing your optics
No matter how exciting some bird might be, pointing your optics at it may lead to an arrest. It is important always to keep in mind what is behind the bird in the binocs or scope. Learning beginners should especially avoid birding near houses and avoid authorities labeling you or a fellow birder a peeping Tom or since we supposedly live in an equal opportunity society, a peeping Teresa. We older birders, seasoned by years of optic pointing have learned how to avoid having potentially hazardous backgrounds while watching birds. Try to position yourself so that nothing but sky or thick vegetation is behind the bird. However, even that will not always work since a subject bird may appear to a bystander from a bedroom window that you are watching the room’s occupant. If it looks as if this is the case, immediately avert your optics and pretend to be reading a map. To avoid such optical illusions, know what angle you are from the bird and from a potentially irate resident. If the bird is in front of you, a resident should be close to 45 degrees to your right or left. Pool players and older birders will practice the method of having a good angle on their situation. When possible, don’t be a solo residential optics pointer. Residential birding is best, that is, you are less likely to be arrested, when in mixed sex pairs or groups. The groups might include younger and older individuals. Include children in your group since teaching is fun, young birders may teach the old birders new tricks and nonbirders looking on will not think the group is after their own kids. Such methods serve to confuse any would be observeree; they realize that a Tom and Teresa peeper team would be unlikely and a group of varying ages is safe and they, the nonbirds, can go on about their business. Then, you can go on with your business that is, checking out the thrasher on the lamppost.
A mixed sex birding group that is too large, maybe over five, may cause a different sort of alarm for the bedroom, kitchen or living room occupant. They may think there is a conspiracy brewing, that the observers are watching a criminal that crept into their neighborhood or they simply feel their privacy in invaded. Too many mixed sex birders may cause resident to think their neighborhood is under investigation for something dangerous, possibly poison gas or a strangely dressed agency is sweeping the area for undesirables pending a presidential visit. The exact number in a binocked group that causes the threshold for alarm is a situation needing scientific research. Who knows, but chances are, the perceived peepees will call the police. You don’t want to disturb their peace. If it looks as if the black and whites will be rolling in any second, leave as a group. Don’t leave a single individual who might end up profiled as the dirty old man.
Another pitfall with arresting ramifications is taking care of the used coffee department. That’s a euphemism for all liquid drinking humans. To avoid voiding, some are adept practitioners of kegel exercises. Technically, a Dr. Arnold Kegel came up with a scheme where one can voluntarily clench and unclench their pubococcygeus muscles. That is a muscle in their pelvic floor, the same neighborhood shared by our voiding mechanisms. Flexing those internal pelvic floor muscles, the pubococcygeus if you must, helps control a stretched bladder and has other benefits enjoyed among consenting birders. Nonetheless, sometimes it is just too difficult to avoid voiding. Nothing helps, especially rolling surf, a waterfall, whatever wets your appetite. Sometimes you have to go with the flow, but problem then becomes where. Where do I go? It’s especially a problem for females, and finding minimal exposure to unkegel might not be near. For the guys, discretion, pointing in the best direction and pretending to gaze through the binocs at the same time, may save a birder from accusation of something as deviant as public peeing. The method works well whether you are an apprentice or your field guide is almost as worn out as you are. It doesn’t work well for group birding. In fact, using the binocular ruse is usually best for solo birders or with another person acting a look out. They can say, “Get a grip on yourself, here comes a cop.” More than two bladder needy birders may create a kind of social stimuli, or as some call it, the theory of trickling down. You might have been able to kegel your way out of a potentially embarrassing and possibly legal problem, but just seeing the relaxing face of a fellow voider tipped what little will power you had into a tranquil pool of used water. Probably the American constitution did not have that in mind when addressing the right to assembly.
Sometimes concurrent trickling and peering through binocs actually produces a good bird sighting. If that happens, it is absolutely mandatory to first, stop voiding your issue, second, and do not walk forward and third, to put everything away. No matter what, do not make sudden turns, especially if you are birding with someone standing nearby. All these practices, rarely mentioned in how to bird books, have the potential of making birding easier. Everyone knows how hard it is to hold a pair of binocs immobile while nerves from a full bladder fires swarms of messages to the brain to either dance faster or get those binoculars and everything else pointed downwind. What might have been a difficult birding day becomes a relaxed and enjoyable experience. How easy can that be?
Suffice to say, if there are other people around, don’t even consider anything other than a definite bonafide restroom. If someone sees you, and you think they’re going to call the police, immediately pull your shirt through the flap of your pants and firmly pull up the zipper. The cop will then possibly believe you are a nerdy slob and not a flasher.
Why public restrooms are not called toilets is beyond me. Although it might be restful to eliminate what wants out, those public rooms are not a good place to rest. Taking shelter in a public restroom during extremely inclement weather might be OK, but the shelter cut only temporary. Why? For the young and naive, which by the way may not be one in the same, hanging out in a restroom may get you arrested. Why should one’s presence in a public restroom solicit trouble with the law? Explanations may be obtained elsewhere, perhaps from a smarter person behind a barn, but the key words here are solicit and public.
Because I pretty much know where the restrooms are in the various frequented stores and parks, and because of a bounty of water under the bridge, I regard myself as somewhat of a public restroom sophisticate. I’ve learned where to safely aim and not stay for rest. Here are some public restroom rules to follow that should help avoid being arrested. 1. If there are lots of people hanging out in and around the restroom, don’t make eye contact. In fact, don’t ever ever make eye contact in a restroom, definitely don’t initiate a conversation, try not to use a urinal next to one already and use, never smile and don’t hold the door open for anyone. Actually, it’s OK to be polite, just don’t be hallmark friendly. 2. If there is anyone present who are not actually using the facilities, do your business and get away from the building. 3. If the scene looks like a trouble, work those kegels and find another way to bladder nirvana. 4. Wash your hands but don’t touch anything on the way out.
A great many bird sightings come through the window of a moving vehicle. Often, it is possible to keep moving, but sometimes stopping is unavoidable. You have to stop. It’s a species new to your repertoire and you really want to look it over or it is something impossible to identify while moving. Frequently, you drive passed the suspicious bird, do a double take, slam on the brakes and back up. The latter is not something to do on a busy street or highway. Whether you back up, or stop immediately, where do you park? The shoulders of some highways are frequently narrow. Getting on the narrow shoulder requires parking in a zone somewhere between being stuck in a ditch or sliding there due to mud or snow, and not being sideswiped. Turn on your hazard lights and keep watching the rear view mirror. If a cop shows up, be honest and hope for understanding and leniency. You can also say one of your dash lights was flashing a warning to shut off the engine, but, what do you know, the lights say everything is OK now. This may not work. The cop may not buy the idiot dash light story.
Whenever it is possible, avoid parking along roadsides, especially those that are busy. Generally, it is illegal to park on the shoulders of interstate highways. It might nalso is very dangerous. Residential streets usually have some curbside parking. If you cannot find a place to park, keep moving.
Sometime it is best not to stop. Recently I had one of those situations, when valor did not win over virtue. I was a coward and kept on driving. Why? A Great-tailed Grackle had been reported near an elementary school. The grackle is an easy bird to find if you live in Oklahoma and Texas west to southern California, and, regardless of location, are easy to identify. The similar Boat-tailed Grackle is more of a salt-marsh kind of bird. Anyway, a Great-tailed Grackle is a rare thing to behold in Oregon, so I thought I should have a look. However, the fact that the grackle was seen on elementary school property worried me especially since I was driving alone. If I did see any children, I would avert my eyes, pretending not to notice them. Although I searched the roads around the school, I almost hoped I wouldn’t have to lift my binoculars for a better look at the grackle and accidentally catch a view of one of the little tykes in the same field.
The bottom line, be careful when children are around. Don’t bird around schools unless you are with more than two people who must be of different sexes. Don’t take pictures. Locally, a Barn Owl roosts in the rafters of a covered bleacher of a high school and another school of smaller subadults has a fenced pond on its property. Visiting those or other such sites, without the threat of being arrested, are possible by first obtaining permission to bird there.
Other vehicular situations
Has anyone ever been enticed to drive down a private driveway or lane? You cannot see a house and there is some terrific habitat along the way. If there is a sign proclaiming no trespassing, don’t go there. Respect the owner’s wishes. Someday you might live down a similar lane. If signs suggest a bullet between the oculars of your binocs is imminent or snarling dogs are at large, do not proceed. In the absence of life threatening signs, my wife and I pretend we are looking for real estate when we motor up private driveways. If confronted, we pretend we thought the property was for sale. Most of the time all this will works well, and sometimes great. Once or twice when meeting the owners we quickly apologize say that we are looking for property that has many birds, a true statement. Although our approach is a little dishonest, it does allow us a peek at an area that might have once been fair game for birders. Such situations also provide a chance for building a rapport that could lead to access or at least an opportunity that birders are not arrestable material. I can think of several local birding hotspots that 40 years ago were readily accessible but are greatly diminished or obliterated by private property owners who lack any appreciation of birds or birders. Of course, there is another side to the coin. Birders sometimes misbehave so badly that land owners are persuaded to keep birders at bay, not from lack of appreciation, but from being burned by thoughtless birders.
Entering someone’s private driveway, whether there is a sign or is not, is trespassing. If the property is posted with no trespassing signs, it is trespassing with a good chance of getting in trouble with the law. Be mindful where you are, be respectful and don’t get arrested.
Trespassing by foot or bike
Trespassing while remaining in your vehicle seems, for some unknown reason, to create less property owner ire than if an interloper is on foot or riding a bike. Perhaps being lost in a vehicle, allegedly or not, is a more forgiven transgression since it is so easy to make a wrong turn. Trespassing by foot or bike is slower. How could someone walking not see the keep out signs? When you are on foot, you are less visible and thus when noticed, may be perceived as sneaking onto the property. You might be mistaken for a poacher, a peeping Tom or Teresa or some other malcontent. Maybe the owner simply wants privacy and solitude. Respect that, and chances are there will be no arresting problems.
Sometimes access signs are missing. If they are, carte blanche is nonetheless not what non-posted fences imply. The fence may be there to keep the cattle in and perhaps to keep people out. Get permission or possibly get arrested. It can be frustrating. Years ago, before moving to the East Coast for my day job at the Division of Birds, I annually birded a mountain lake for the local Christmas Bird Count. The lake, on private property, was accessible since I had been given permission to visit there. Every winter I tallied waterfowl species and numbers unique to the count circle. Years later, a new owner decided to resend the access to the lake, and he’s in no mood to discuss anyone counting his birds annually or ever.
The point is to know where you are when birding on foot. You don’t want to wander onto property like the one shunning Christmas counters. If you do, there’s a good chance you will be arrested.
When on private property, with permission, respect the property as if it was yours. If there’s a fence, go around it, or, if you cross it, don’t abuse it. How? Since this is not a book on easy birding for idiots, the advice is to use common sense. There are too many stories of birders stampeding after a rare bird who have literally knocked fences to the ground. If they weren’t arrested, they should have been.
Leaving something behind
Most birders are reasonably clean and thoughtful people. Generally, they don’t litter. Of course, littering is a good way to be arrested. If there are too many birders in one area then something other than litter may be left behind. What might have been a grass knoll from which to view a bird could become a muddy hillock from too many birder boots. If there are designated trails and overlooks, whether on private or public property, use them. Defacing by boot is likely illegal. If there was a blade or two of grass before you came, it should be there upon leaving. Don’t litter, don’t stomp out existing vegetation and don’t leave a bad taste in the minds of resident, staffs of restaurants and motels and anyone watching.
Owling and Railing
Many owls are nocturnal. Keep in mind that unusual human activities at night are more suspect by law enforcement officials than diurnal birder behavior almost certainly perceived borderline crazy. The scene: a car parked on the shoulder or at the end of a dirt road. It doesn’t look abandoned. Strange. Check the plates. In the distance, the two faint beams of a flashlight appear to dance along with the gait of a stranger in the edge of the woods. Suddenly, a weird wailing sound screams near the dancing flashlight. What the hell?
It could happen. An officer, who might otherwise ignore the situation during daylight, is now suspicious and perhaps a little unnerved. What was thought to be foul play was really fowl play, but be ready to explain yourself. Be very careful approaching or being approached by police in the dark. Do exactly what you are told and you will, hopefully not be arrested. The only Miranda you want to hear would be Carmen’s.
Finding rails may require making a sudden noise. They often will respond by giving an identifying alarm call. My personal favorite is cupping my hands and clapping them together. The produced clapping sounds a little like a gun discharging. Another sound way of getting rails to reveal themselves is hitting a garbage can lid with a metal pipe. That worked well on a Florida Christmas Count, but the late Bill Robertson hurt his thumb and was worried he might be arrested. Tape playback also works well. Whatever the method of noise is employed, more than rails may be disturbed. The noise during dawn and dusk and especially anything between may be even more disturbing to the night of the unrails.
If people live near the habitat, avoid disturbing their peace. In my experience, make rail-baiting noises, listen until you see a porch light go on or before a baskervillian hound gets its master’s attention, then immediately leave. If done quickly, most residence will say to themselves, hmm, what was that noise and go back to their nonbirding behavior. If not careful, you could be fined for disturbing the peace. If confronted by the police, try to explain what you were doing and be apologetic and humbly polite. Do not rail on and on and hope the officer is a wise bird.
Resting the Case
It is true. While we are watching birds, some people are watching us, and as we judge what we are observing, they do the same. Always keep in mind that some fragile personalities might be more fragile than others, and whether correct or not, may not appreciate what they see. Climbing over the fence might be tolerated by some but not others. Some might be completely spooked by someone with binocs in their neighborhood while others may join in the search for the elusive bird. If you are caught wetting a bush, you might get a chuckle or be accused of sexual molestation. As a police sergeant on a favorite decades old TV show told his troops, “Be careful out there.”
If confronted by the police, definitely do not curse or point with anything other than your index finger. Don’t make any sudden moves, and say “yes sir,” “no sir,” or whichever might appear most appropriate. Use the term mam for female officers and hope they accept that salutation has nothing to do with spiciness, cultural background or a suggestion she is your mother. Properly, she should be addressed as madam, a more accurate title opposite of sir. However, it is best to keep to mam to avoid confusion among the ranks. No one likes a smart alack. If you are wearing sunglasses, take them off. Attempt to explain what you are doing. Don’t look angry or happy which might be construed as dopey or, perhaps, a smart alack. Try to appear confident but not too confident while remaining humble. The officer is the dominant person, not you, no matter what. Mostly, simply answer the questions. Keep it uncomplicated. Don’t go into a big elaboration that might confuse or irritate. Absolutely do not argue. You are not a customer and therefore you are not always right. Because there are more birders out there, police are thankfully more tolerant of what we do. Keep your fingers crossed that you aren’t arrested.