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Ornithological groups offer free memberships to Black ornithologists

Ornithological groups

Three leading ornithological societies have announced plans to offer free memberships for Black ornithologists. The moves follow the Memorial Day incident in Central Park between African American birdwatcher Christian Cooper and a white dog walker and the growing awareness that many Black researchers face barriers to entry to educational and career opportunities — in ornithology and the scientific profession more broadly.

The organizations are not asking for applicants to provide demographic details; instead they are offering the memberships based on the honor system, which is fitting given that the birding culture is based in large part on the honor system. 

Here are the details of the membership offers:

Through at least the end of 2020, the Wilson Ornithological Society is offering free two-year memberships to Black ornithologists. “Included in the WOS’s mission is mentorship for professional and amateur ornithologists across career stages, and as such we are dedicated to making ornithology a field where all colleagues feel welcome, included, and valued,” the organization says in a statement.

“The annual WOS council meeting will be held in July, where long-term planning for this campaign, along with other diversity and inclusion initiatives, will take place,” says spokesperson Jordan Rutter.


Membership in the WOS gives each person online access to the Wilson Journal of Ornithology, discounted publication page charges for accepted contributions to the journal, and other benefits. This blog post includes a link to an application form for the membership. 

The Association of Field Ornithologists is offering free memberships to Black students and early-career professionals — primarily undergrads, graduate students, and post-docs. “But we’re more than happy to discuss with anyone who reaches out to us,” says Matthew Shumar of the AFO Communications Committee.

This offer initially is available through the end of June, but it may be extended. The free membership program is similar to one the AFO offers to ornithologists in Latin America. Applications request a nomination letter from a faculty or mentor reference.


Dan Ardia, a professor of biology at Franklin & Marshall College and the president of the AFO, says the organization is working on being more inclusive and equitable and that it will soon post a pledge that “AFO will work actively to ensure opportunities and access to information are equitable, to be vigilant for implicit bias in all our decisions, and to question the broader societal context in which we do our work and live our lives.”

He adds that “all of our organizations would benefit by looking internally at how we operate, who participates, and what are the barriers to entry into the field. In addition, we could all do more to look historically at how the scientific profession has contributed to systemic inequality and hold ourselves accountable to a higher standard moving forward.”

“The free memberships we are currently offering is what we hope is a first step to extend membership benefits to underrepresented groups more broadly, including potentially the birding community,” he adds.


In addition, the American Ornithological Society will offer Black ornithologists free two-year membership for new members and a two-year extension of membership for existing members, says Sharon Gill, a biologist at Western Michigan University, and a co-chair of the society’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee.

AOS is working on the application form for the offer right now. Check the society’s website soon for more information.

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and You can reach him at [email protected].

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