Masters 2022: Solving the mystery of Augusta National's missing (?) birds
"Also, there are no birds, squirrels, insects or any other living creature indigenous to planet earth at the Masters. Nowhere on the property. Well, OK, there must be some somewhere. But the Post’s Dave Sheinin and I made a multi-day quest for a single bird sighting. So far, none. Those bird calls that you sometimes hear on the Masters broadcast? The source remains undiscovered."
—Thomas Boswell, Washington Post, 2016
Among the various alleged and confirmed oddities of Augusta National—dyed ponds, iced azaleas, painted grass—one of the most dumbfounding is the alleged absence of birds. As Boswell noted in his piece, you can almost wrap your mind around fences keeping land animals away. But birds, to state the obvious, can fly. Beyond clearcutting every tree on the horizon—which Augusta clearly does not do—how can you keep a flying creature from invading your airspace? And even if you could, why would you want to?
In an attempt to solve this mystery the easy way, I sent two emails. The first was to the communications staff at Augusta National, asking them quite simply if the club had ever tried to keep the birds away. Unfortunately, I waited until the Monday of Masters week to ask, a time when they presumably have more important things to do, and have not heard back.
The second email was to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. I wanted to find out if it was even possible to keep birds away, and in the interest of seeking a faster response, I adopted a secret identity.
"Hello," I wrote. "I run a small farm halfway between Augusta and Athens, and lately the birds have become a nuisance, constantly chirping and 'doing their business' on my property and embarrassing me in front of purchasers. Plus, my wife has a bird phobia. I do not want to harm any birds, but I am interested in eliminating their presence in the airspace over my farm, or at least mitigating it. Are there any legal ways to decrease bird traffic, or get rid of it altogether?"
Shockingly, this too yielded no response. (In what might have been a critical error that hindered my cause, I accidentally omitted the word "not" in my initial email, so that my sentence read, "I do want to harm birds." I corrected this mistake in a follow-up, but by then, I may have lost them.)
These failures made it crystal clear that in order to solve this mystery, I'd have to do things the hard way.
It's interesting to note that CBS was indeed guilty of piping in fake birdsong, but the incident took place in Louisville, Ky., in 2000—some keen-eared birders caught them out at the PGA Championship—and the network has since insisted on multiple occasions that the birds you hear on Masters broadcasts are both indigenous to Georgia and not pre-recorded. Which would mean, of course, that there are birds on the property at Augusta National, and those birds can sing.
This should be relatively easy to prove or disprove. Thousands of people make the trek to Augusta National each year, some of them are journalists, and by now we should have plenty of data to answer the question definitively. The problem is, as Boswell and many others have noted, it actually is quite difficult to spot a bird on the grounds. In my maiden journey in 2014, I was encouraged by another writer to keep my eyes peeled for a bird, and even when I made a concerted effort, I couldn't do it. The same happened to Michael Bamberger of Golf.com, though when he raised the issue to Bob Costas on the course soon after, a bird defecated on him, putting the matter to rest in his mind. But even if the odd bird pokes its head out, it doesn't quite jive with the volume and clarity of the birdsong on TV.
Internet research only compounded my confusion. Was Augusta keeping birds off the course? Was it all nonsense, nothing more than a slanderous urban legend? And what to make of the odd contrast—the avian symphony on TV versus the real-life scarcity?
It was time to reach out to the bird people.
Dr. Bran Cromer is an associate professor of Biology at Augusta University, where he teaches a class on ornithology. He was exactly the person I needed, though of course I worried that Augusta National had reached him first to secure his silence. Over Zoom, though, he seemed entirely at ease, friendly and helpful, and though I never asked him directly, it was my impression that he was a man of integrity who had not been compromised.
"I've heard rumors that they would play calls during the broadcast," he said. "I haven't heard rumors that there weren't birds out there."
This jived with what a representative from the Augusta-Aiken Audubon Society wrote via email: "I've never heard there were no birds at the course."
"Our campus is just a couple of miles away from the course, and we have very similar vegetation," Cromer told me, "and our campus is loaded with birds. We have a pretty good diversity of birds, so I imagine the same birds are just right over there."
Augusta University is on spring break this week for the Masters, and while many of those associated with the university leave town for the week and rent out their homes, Cromer stayed, and said he's a fan of the Masters. He's even been to the course, though he was regrettably paying attention to the golf rather than the birds. When he listens to CBS, though, he can hear plenty of the local species.
Bryson DeChambeau plays the 11th hole during a practice round.
Patrons walk through the main entrance to Augusta National past the golf shop.
The flowers around Augusta National are in full bloom as Jordan Spieth practices before the tournament.
"Carolina wrens, northern mockingbirds, there's a lot of pines out there so pine warblers, bluejays, you hear a lot of cardinals on the broadcast, too," he said. "We're just getting a lot of the birds migrating up from the tropics, so you get a few of those, too, blue-gray gnatcatchers and yellow-throated warblers. The towhee would definitely be there; brown threshers, which is the Georgia state bird, they'd be really common in the azaleas."
Cromer also put a few other theories to rest. I'd heard that a pair of owls might be responsible for scaring off the birds, but Cromer said that even though owls eat birds, this doesn't scare them from an area, and in fact they'd likely fight back. And while Augusta National's location in the middle of the city might keep deep forest birds away, along with deer, it's close enough to Augusta Country Club and other tree-heavy neighborhoods that the backyard birds he listed would be common. (Cromer also disputed the idea that fencing could keep land animals like squirrels away, pointing out that even if a fence was a sufficient obstacle, which it's not, the animals could enter through Rae's Creek.) Finally, the removal of worms from the grounds—you can imagine Augusta National being fastidious about this—would only affect one or two species at most.
Cromer did have one idea about why there might be fewer birds, though, and it was an idea so simple that I was slightly embarrassed for not having thought of it.
"The other thing," he said, "is that when there are tens of thousands of people walking through, you're probably going to scare some birds off."
In 2019, Nick Paumgarten of The New Yorker wrote that, "it is by now hardly scandalous to note that Augusta National … is an environment of extreme artifice, an elaborate television soundstage, a fantasia of the fifties, a Disneyclub in the Georgia pines … I’d been told that birdsong—a lot of it, at any rate—is piped in through speakers hidden in the greenery."
In fact, in the course of his travels that year, one guard on the course told him there was a bird speaker in a nearby magnolia tree. At Berckmans Place, a VIP hospitality suite behind the fifth green, a security guard actually offered to turn down the birdsong for him.
Proof that birds do exist at Augusta came during Thursday's opening round as Sergio Garcia played this bunker shot.
This brand new "fake birdsong theory" would seem to indicate the opposite of the prevailing conspiracies; that Augusta National wants birds, that there aren't enough, and so they have to manufacture the music for TV.
Is it true? When I reached Paumgarten by email, he remembered hearing the rumor from other journalists, and remembered the security guards, but said it was never clear "if they were trolling me or repeating lore or whispering accepted fact." I don't like to throw the word "hero" around loosely, but Paumgarten dug deeper than anyone else in search of the truth, even going so far as to hang around some "conspicuously tweet-y spots" between the press center and the driving range. At one point, he thought he had discovered an artificial speaker. He thrust his head into a holly bush, and found … an actual bird.
At this point in my investigations, I had run out of energy to decipher what was real and what was not. All I could do now was turn to Augusta itself. I'm not on the grounds this week, but Golf Digest's Joel Beall is, and I asked him, in the midst of his more important jobs, to keep an eye out for birds. On Monday, he sent a message on Slack:
"SHANE. Big news. Bird sighting. I heard the sounds on 18 tee, looked up for 5 mins, said the hell with it ... and I was walking off the box and up the left side of the fairway, somewhat close to the bathrooms that are about 60 left of the tee box ... a bird flew out of the pines and darted by the bathroom."
He described the bird as having an orange underbelly like an American robin, and though my knowledge of birds is minimal, I had spent enough time at my backyard feeder in North Carolina to suggest one to him: The Eastern Towhee.
"Oh man," he wrote. "This was it."
"Just to be clear," I wrote back, "you were not paid off or threatened by ANGC to make a fake bird report to me, right?"
He wrote back immediately: "No. In fact, there's a good chance this is the last time you talk to me and this leads to my immediate expulsion from the property, if not country."
But I think Joel will be OK. Other colleagues later spotted an entire flock of small birds swirling in a formation of some sort, outside the media center. I think that when all is said and done, the truth is that there are birds at Augusta National, the club doesn't do anything to drive them away, and if they happen to be scarce during Masters week, it's because they don't like the patrons. There is always room for more evidence to emerge, and I suspect this case is not yet closed—I'm still curious about the hidden speakers—but for now, there is no other recourse but to declare the "missing birds" a conspiracy, and to exonerate the club, the city, the owls, the worms and all other entities for their alleged anti-avianism.
The birds are alright.
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