In Part 2 of our review of the 2010s, we’re looking at how the birding community has changed. I asked David Ringer, chief network officer at the National Audubon Society, and Devon Trotter, program associate of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at Audubon, to share their perspectives on the increasing interest in birding from young people and nontraditional audiences. Here’s what they had to say.
“Birdwatching and conservation were once seen as almost entirely pursuits of older white Americans, but Audubon has seen and cultivated a great widening in our audiences and membership over the last decade, particularly among younger people,” Ringer says. “It’s also because young Americans have embraced birdwatching and discussing birds online as a delightful pastime and social opportunity.
“‘Birdwatching is cool,’ Outside Magazine declared this month, promoting an in-depth article detailing a writer’s conversion to birding. Gizmodo published a similar piece in 2018, shortly after The New York Times crowed ‘Young Urban Birders, Open Your Hearts to the Treetops!,’ detailing the adventures of New York City’s Feminist Bird Club and other young birders. Jason Ward’s ‘Birds of North America’ web series and his ebullient Twitter presence have attracted significant attention, too.
“Back in 2013, USA Today wrote about birding attracting younger birders as smartphone apps and other tools proliferated. Even Esquire declared in 2014, ‘Uh-Oh. Birdwatching Is About to Become Cool,’ reviewing a film about teen birders. The Onion kept up a steady drumbeat of stories about birds and the people who love them, at one point earning a tweet from then-president Barack Obama himself. And ‘Bird Twitter’ – as it’s known – came into its own in the latter half of the decade, creating a raucous lekking ground for birders of every age, color, and experience level to appreciate, research, and even lovingly parody birds.
“Perhaps one of the strongest signs of the growing adoption of youth birding is the rapid growth and success of the Audubon on Campus student chapter program, which, in the span of about 18 months, has grown from 10 pilot programs to active on more than 100 college campuses across the country. (And for their part, older generations of birders are welcoming this surge of youth participation with open arms – they know the next generation is key.)”
Devon Trotter adds:
“In addition to young people, funders and organizations are finally beginning to realize and act on the value of the perspectives and skills of communities of color in the conservation movement and outdoor recreation, as these communities suffer the effects of climate change and environmental degradation at a disproportionately higher rate than other communities. In recent years, Audubon has received funding from the Hewlett Foundation in order to fortify our leadership around equity, diversity, and inclusion. The Fund II Foundation awarded Audubon a grant to create the organization’s first-ever apprenticeship program (building on several years of paid fellowships and internship programs), enabling Audubon to embed seven young conservationists of color throughout the organization and country, with the goal of having at least five hired by Audubon or a partner organization after their apprenticeships. This is part of a shift conservation organizations are recognizing between simply ‘educating’ young people through well-intentioned programs and actually investing in their career prospects through programs like this.
“Also, groups like Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, Outdoor Asian, and Queer Birders of North America have gained significant momentum over the last 10 years, and corporations and big green groups have taken note, partnering with these community-oriented organizations on events and conferences. Audubon’s Let’s Go Birding Together program for the LBGTQ+ community and allies, bilingual bird walks, and events during Black History Month and other heritage months provide ready examples.
“As a result, we will continue to see growth in interest, participation, and membership from young people and historically nontraditional groups in Audubon, as long as we continue to make the three-way link between birds, the health of our world, and the health of our communities and social fabric. In order for us to mitigate climate change, it will take all of us, and we are beginning to get there.
“In part, this is because younger people’s concerns around climate change continue to grow – knowing their future is at stake – and they increasingly see birds as a barometer for the health of our environment.”