Golf Courses Carry Promising Risks for Birds – Daily Press

The game of golf originated centuries ago, with courses briskly running through open terrain such as coastal highlands and natural sandy mountains. Today, the golf courses consist of approximately 100 acres of imported turf, built water features and paved cart paths atop prime farmland or native woodland. The approximately 40,000 courses around the world, half of which are in North America, cover more than 3 million acres of land, presenting both a threat and an opportunity for bird conservation.

For two decades, researchers have been examining golf courses to answer the seemingly simple question of whether they are good or bad for birds. Cases of large and notable bird deaths from exposure to golf course pesticides have been mitigated due to judicious use and banning of the worst offenders, such as chlordane. But the lack of mass mortality alone does not mean that golf courses are beautiful green oases for birds as they are for golfers and people who buy the many homes built around golf courses.

A small bird perches atop a pole at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego.  (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

After nearly 100 studies of birds on golf courses around the world, the results are in. Golf courses generally have many birds and one or more individual species from the natural habitat around them, which is a boon for the birds. But the high numbers are materialized because the golf courses, while retaining some of the existing native birds, also attract new ones by providing water, grass and woodland habitats for urban adaptable species that were absent from the previous habitat. These are the same species that thrive in suburban backyards everywhere and don’t need additional habitat to maintain a healthy population.

But there are bright spots, even for birds that need help keeping them. Populations of a few species, such as the red-headed woodpecker in this region, can thrive on golf courses if managed with birders in mind. Golf courses could also be designed or modified in ways that help more birds.

Obviously, reducing fertilizer and pesticide inputs by using more native plant species and reducing runway width is a huge start. But research around which parts of golf courses already host birds of conservation importance is telling — retaining or restoring more acres of intact native habitat is key. In this region, that means preserving larger tracts of forest, including oak, and leaving dead trees in their place. Fairways that meander tightly through thin strips of pine are useless to most native birds, while a path that retains a large mixed forest in the center, without cart paths or outbuildings, will support larger populations of birds, including some protection concerns. .

When I mention birds to a golfer, they proudly reply, “Well, my course is an Audubon Society-approved bird sanctuary.” This is a lie, as I will explain in my next article.

Dan Kristol teaches in the biology department at the College of William and Mary and can be contacted at To discover opportunities for local birding, visit

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