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A spate of articles published recently by the New York Times and on the National Audubon Society’s website suggests that the birding community is becoming younger and more diverse — developments that we couldn’t be happier about.
A Times article, published on June 23 with the print headline “Tweeting Together IRL” (that’s texting short-hand for “In Real Life”), profiles birders in New York City, most of whom are in their 20s and 30s. Among them: Molly Adams, 28, the founder of the Feminist Bird Club, a group with chapters in New York, Boston, and Chicago. It describes itself as “an inclusive bird watching club dedicated to providing a safe opportunity to connect with the natural world in urban environments and having an ongoing conversation about intersectionality, activism, and the rights of all womxn, non-binary folks, and members of the L.G.B.T.Q.+ community.”
The Times writes: “Younger urban birders — yubbies? — like those led by Ms. Adams are the new faces in the birding world. They use social media to track their ornithological marks, with digital assists from apps like iBird or Merlin and websites like eBird — the data collection site run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology — which have replaced old-fashioned Sibley guides to aid in identification (though Sibley has an app, too). They are drawn in by the visual seductions of Instagram, as well as a desire for community inflected by environmentalism.”
Let’s set aside the curious (absurd?) claim that the Sibley Guide is old-fashioned. The article notes that this new crop of birders stays up to date with local bird alerts on Twitter, and it points out that documentaries such as The Messenger and Birders: The Central Park Effect have been “minting new birders, and making environmentalists out of them.”
David Ringer, 34, chief network officer at Audubon, tells the Times that Audubon’s market research has identified 9 million people between the ages of 18 and 35 “who share that blend of an interest in birds and environmental activism. Twenty-five percent are Hispanic, 18 percent are African-American and 10 percent are Asian-American. It’s an amazing representation of the demographics of the country.”
“I think it’s a short path from the joy and wonder of birds to the recognition of what they’re telling us about the environment, and what that compels us to do,” he said.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Audubon itself has been shining a light recently on typically marginalized people and efforts to enhance their interest in birds and nature. Here are three recent examples:
• Wild Indigo Nature Explorations, a community engagement program that seeks to build lasting relationships between urban communities of color and their local natural areas, recently expanded from Chicago’s South Side to Detroit. According to Audubon, the first Wild Indigo event in the Motor City taught middle-schoolers a lesson in ecology and culture. “It was the culmination of months of effort to launch the free, hands-on program, which was created by Detroit Audubon Society and Audubon Great Lakes, in partnership with The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Greening of Detroit, and the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge… The group’s goal is to work with local organizations to immerse and provide local families and children with interesting, culturally resonant experiences that induce a deeper connection with nature.”
• In Austin, Texas, Virginia Rose, a board member of Travis Audubon, has started Birdability, a “new initiative to get mobility-impaired people out in the parks and enjoying nature, by way of birding — and in turn, to make birding more accessible,” Audubon writes. “Birdability is one of the only efforts of its kind in the nation. Rose’s first step has been to compile a list of bird-heavy parks in the Austin metro area whose trails are wheelchair-friendly.” So far, the list includes 34 sites, and Travis Audubon plans to turn the list into a publication with “annotated maps explaining which species can be seen where.”
Rose, who uses a wheelchair due to a horse-riding accident when she was 14, wants to see the program expand to cities all around the country. “I have benefited so much from being outside in parks,” she says. “It has fed my soul. It has given me a confidence that I did not have before. I feel like it is getting me as close to my potential as I have ever been.”
• Finally, an article by Audubon science reporter Benji Jones reports that, “For the LGBTQ Community, Birding Can Be a Relief—and a Source of Anxiety.” Jones traces the history of birding groups for queer birders over the last 25 years, including Queer Nature, a project dedicated to increasing ecological literacy in the LGBTQ community.
Attitudes have improved, Jones reports, but “for those who are nonbinary, gender-nonconforming, or persons of color — identities clearly visible to others — the outdoors can occasionally feel unsafe.”
The article challenges birders — including leaders of bird walks and other birding events — to be more welcoming: “Avoiding birding hotspots for fear of real or perceived discrimination sacrifices one of the universal joys of the hobby: heading to where the birds are. And as groups such as Audubon have come to learn, passively welcoming people to field trips and nature reserves does not meaningfully expand the tent of bird enthusiasts and advocates.
“‘People who are historically accustomed to being excluded (or worse) must hear and know, explicitly, that we are welcoming, that we want to learn from them, and that they will be safe with us,’ said Deeohn Ferris, vice president for equity, diversity and inclusion at Audubon, in an email to Audubon staff last week. ‘It’s important to act on our intentions and to speak them out loud.’”
We’re delighted to see the widening appeal of birding and fully support the work of making the hobby more accessible and inclusive.