Be a birding ambassador

birding
Birds as familiar as the Common Grackle may spark an interest in birding. Photo by The Old Major/Shutterstock

I have been in the environmental trenches for 42 years now, striving like so many other ardent defenders of nature to move the agenda forward.

The question is always the same: How do we engage Society’s Rank and File, make them advocates of this verdant world?

I’ve come to realize that the solution has been under our noses the whole time: Simply make everyone a birder.

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Birds are nature’s most obvious envoys. They are everywhere. They enjoy universal acclaim. They link people to nature.

The trick is not selling birds. I have unbridled faith that birds sell themselves. You are a case in point. I am a case in point. All we need to do is help our environmentally estranged brethren engage them. That is where you come in.

What we need is not a campaign but a revitalized grassroots movement, like the one that was the foundation of the popularity birds enjoy today, the Conservation Movement. In a very real way, the widespread popularity birds enjoy today is little more than the forward momentum of concern anchored in the waning days of the 19th century, when bird populations were on the ropes and concerned citizens stood up, took notice, and took steps to redress the excesses of the Victorian Age that were destroying our natural endowment.

Birds were then, as they are now, our ambassadors to the natural world.

Once you become conscious of them, you naturally become protective of the environment that sustains them (and us).

So, let’s reboot. There has never been a better time to recruit new birders into our ranks than right now.

Because bird populations are for the most part high.

Because suburbia and green urban planning have brought more people to intimacy with birds than at any time in human history.

Because climate change is the catalytic threat we’ve been waiting for.

Consider: Parents are crying for some way to wean their kids off of social media. I know from firsthand experience that birds have the power to captivate. I was hooked at the age of 7. The fastest-growing division in New Jersey Audubon’s World Series of Birding is the Youth Division.

At the other end of the spectrum, millions of retiring baby boomers are casting about, searching for some way to occupy their newfound freedom.

Be the one to introduce your neighbors, relatives, and friends into a world of discovery. Don’t wait for your local bird club to mobilize; you are the natural world’s best advocate.

Become a Birding Ambassador yourself. You need not be an accomplished birder. All you need is to know where to go to get good looks at engaging birds.

Ducks make good subjects. They stay in the open. They are colorful and animate, and they allow comparisons with other waterbirds — herons, cormorants, grebes, who are likewise accommodating.

If you have a spotting scope, birds of prey are universal crowd pleasers.

Bear in mind that your novice friends don’t have the detection skills you possess. A vibrating twig does not register as anything significant in their minds. Finding birds in dense woodlands will frustrate them. It’s not what you want to do with newbies.

So be selective and be mindful of your friend’s limited attention span.

You may want to go, go, go all day. Your tyro friends need time to assimilate and process. Don’t overlook opportunities for photo ops. Your friends will want to share their exciting new experience on social media. And don’t forget the snacks. Birders travel on their tummies.

Ask anyone who has ever done a Christmas Bird Count.

So, start a revolution. Be the birding guru who galvanizes your friends. Every revolution starts with a single engagement. Make yours the next one.

You don’t need to be an expert. Your enthusiasm and knowledge of local birds and their haunts will suffice.

Years ago, wife Linda and I were visiting a coastal Florida community. Stopping in a local diner, apprising the owner of our interest in birds, she encouraged us to come back on Thursday to meet the (local) “bird lady,” who held court over morning coffee.

We did and were greeted by a retiree with bird-like features who was expounding upon the wonder of birds to a host of eager local acolytes.

Half of what she said was only half true, but she made no impeachable utterances and I was enthralled by the rapt attention listeners directed her way.

The avian landscape is replete with local gurus. They have ushered thousands into our ranks, as have columnists for local tabloids and radio-station bird show hosts.

Two decades ago, I was invited to make an appearance on one such broadcast, a weekly program entitled, predictably, “Our Feathered Friends,” that just as predictably used the song “Yellow Bird” as the program’s theme song.

The affable host expounded convincingly about local birds, then recalling my presence asked me about my feelings concerning “crackles.”

“Excuse me,” I said, “I don’t understand the question.”

“Crackles,” he repeated, somewhat exasperated, “Purple Crackles.”

“Oh,” I intoned, “you mean grackles.”

“Yes,” he agreed, somewhat miffed.

Now known as Common Grackles, these are large iridescent blackbirds. Indeed, many years ago, they were divided into two subsets: “purple” and “bronzed.” My host’s roots in bird study, while deep, were also, apparently, not particularly contemporary, not that it mattered. His willingness to export his bird knowledge to others was all that really mattered.

So, don’t worry about what you may or may not know. Concentrate on what you can share.

Somewhere, out there, is a person who would love to know what all those blackbirds are that festoon their suburban yard every October.

If you are east of the Rockies, the answer is “grackle,” or “crackle,” if you like. How splendid of them to have noticed and how fortunate that you can supply the answer.

Grackle as spark bird? Why not?

Next question, please?

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Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne is the author of over a dozen books about birds and birding and the founder of the World Series of Birding. In 2001, in recognition of a lifetime of achievements in promoting the cause of birding, he received the Roger Tory Peterson Award from the American Birding Association. Until 2013, he served as director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and vice president for natural history for New Jersey Audubon. He is now New Jersey Audubon’s birding ambassador at-large. His column “Birder at Large” appears in every issue of BirdWatching.

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