Hurricanes Irma and Maria recently caused devastating damage to the U.S. territories in the Caribbean: Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Most residents are still without electricity and there was extensive damage to homes, buildings, and public infrastructure. Recovery and rebuilding will be long, difficult, and expensive. The human toll has been and continues to be staggering.

Residents of both territories are U.S. citizens (a fact is not widely known) and each territory has a (non-voting) delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives. The American flag has flown over Puerto Rico since 1898 and over the Virgin Islands since 1917.

Both territories were declared disaster areas by the president and numerous agencies of the federal government eventually lurched into action. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is managing the response. The Department of Defense and Coast Guard are supporting the efforts with ships, helicopters, personnel, and supplies. The National Guard has sent thousands of soldiers to help with security and other support missions. The Department of Transportation has helped to reopen airports and the Department of Energy has assisted with getting power plants back online.

This is all appropriate and necessary, as Puerto Ricans and U.S. Virgin Islanders are Americans, just like the Texans and Floridians who were also impacted by hurricanes this season.

Now that some of the immediate danger has passed and preliminary recovery is finally underway, it may be worth asking a comparatively trivial question: Why are Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands not part of the American Birding Association’s ABA Area?

Both territories are part of the United States and the residents are American citizens, which appears to be the key criteria for inclusion. The addition of Hawaii eliminated any notion that the ABA Area is defined by geography or ecology and the inclusion of the territories of Washington D.C. and Midway Atoll means statehood cannot be a prerequisite. Moreover, Canadian provinces and territories are included in the ABA Area.

To the extent there is one, the primary animating principle appears to be that the ABA Area includes all of the United States and Canada. This makes sense: why should political subdivisions within a nation apply to a national birding organization?

After all, a birder living on the mainland can travel to the territories without a passport to go birding at a National Park (e.g., Virgin Islands NP) or National Wildlife Refuge (e.g., Cabo Rojo NWR) or a National Forest (e.g., El Yunque NF) to see an endemic bird listed under the Endangered Species Act (e.g., Yellow-shouldered Blackbird). This all happens without setting foot outside the U.S. because it is birding in the United States.

Perhaps Puerto Rico and the U.S Virgin Islands should be within the ABA Area. Maybe this tragedy is a good time to revisit boundaries of the ABA Area.

UPDATE: I make the case for adding Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to the ABA Area here.

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Photos:  Flags over San Juan by Jason Crotty; Assessing Damage by National Guard; Damage from Hurricane Irma to Virgin Islands NP by Eastern IMT.

Written by Jason Crotty
Jason Crotty is a birder, lawyer, and occasional writer currently living in Portland, Oregon with his wife and daughter. A Bay Area native, he started birding while working at a large law firm in San Francisco, but birds less frequently now that there's a kid around, so he writes instead. Jason started at 10,000 Birds with a few guest posts and signed on as a beat writer in March 2017. He is particularly interested in the intersection of law and birding (especially the Endangered Species Act), other bird-related federal litigation, and federal public lands. Jason's writing has also appeared in BirdWatching, Birding, and Birder's Guide, both online and in print.