Wildlife Watching

Interview: Jimmy Carter

10-01-2004 // NWF Staff

An avid sportsman, the former president is also an active birder with a long life list and some serious concerns about global warming and other environmental problems

For all of his worldly accomplishments, President Jimmy Carter has never strayed far from his roots in rural Georgia, where he grew up hunting, fishing and watching wildlife—activities he continues to pursue. Recently, he spoke with National Wildlife Editorial Director Mark Wexler about one of his favorite outdoor pastimes: birding.

When did you and Mrs. Carter begin keeping a record of the bird species you observe?

We started during a family trip to Tanzania in 1988. After climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, we visited a game reserve where we had a driver who was a trained ornithologist. He taught us a lot about birds and other wildlife, and we began keeping track of the species we saw. We went on to visit several other parks in Tanzania and by the end of the trip, Rosalynn and I had listed about 130 bird species.

How long is your birding life list today?

So far, we’ve observed more than 1,100 species. We don’t like to just add a name to our list. We also like to learn something about each species’ habits. After our trip to Tanzania, we discovered that one of the study trails for the annual U.S. Breeding Bird Survey is located near our home in Plains, Georgia. Ever since, we have joined the survey experts during the first week of June and we’ve learned a lot about the local species and their calls. Now, wherever we travel, we try to set aside time for bird-watching with an experienced local birder.

Is there a destination in this country that you would particularly recommend for birding?

Our most productive outing was a trip we actually took earlier this year in the Lower Rio Grande River area in Texas. For the first time in our lives, Rosalynn and I decided to set aside three and a half days exclusively for birding and we couldn’t have chosen a better place. We saw 151 species on that trip, including 57 we had never seen before in the United States. Several of them were species that are rarely observed north of the Mexican border.

There is mounting evidence that some bird ranges and behaviors are changing in North America as a result of global warming. Have you witnessed this in your travels?

Actually, I’ve experienced those kind of changes where I live in Georgia. The Breeding Bird Survey has found that the identity and prevalence of the birds has changed dramatically in the 25 years the trail near Plains has been part of the survey. As far as I’m concerned, the evidence that global warming is occurring is obvious, despite the claims of some people that it is not taking place.

Have you become pessimistic about the future outlook for solving global warming and other serious environmental problems?

I wouldn’t say that I’m pessimistic, but I am very concerned. In the past four years, almost every attempt to improve the nation’s environment has been opposed by the current administration, which seems intent on undoing many of the critical environmental and wildlife protections created over the years by Republicans and Democrats working together. I think what NWF and other groups are doing to publicize and emphasize these problems is extremely important. But it requires constant vigilance by hunters, anglers, birders and other conservationists.

For more about President Carter’s current work, see www.cartercenter.org.

Flashback Monumental Moment

A quarter century ago, President Carter signed into law the Alaska Lands Act, which immediately added a whopping 104.3 million acres to the country’s national park, wilderness and national wildlife refuge systems.

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