The next era of birding will be ushered in by a new crop of great birders. Who will they be?
This post originally appeared in August of 2010 on my old Birds, Words, and Website blog, during a time of shifting and upheaval in the birding community. I revived it here on NTN as a guiding light for the future of birding.
In a January blogpost, I proposed the following:
“Birders and nature enthusiasts: I propose we collaborate on an important mission: spread the accessibility of nature. Make it knowable to someone who hasn’t yet discovered it. Vow to take as many of your uninitiated friends as possible into the out-of-doors this year. Show them what you see and hear, help mend that disconnect…”
This weekend I took a group of beginning birders out to watch birds. They were friends of mine, people with a curiosity of birds but who hadn’t ever received the benefit of an one-on-one introduction to local birds.
I enjoyed that weekend field trip. Besides collectively basking in the brilliance of a Blue-winged Warbler, I was able to give back in a way that so many friends and guides have done for me. And I didn’t have to wear, or pretend to wear, the mantle of “Expert.” I was just Laura, showing her peeps some birds.
I’m sympathetic to beginners, they were me not so long ago – they still ARE me every time I venture into new habitat! But much of what I know today, I owe to the instruction of patient bird guides over the years. I never take for granted the gracious help offered by someone more knowledgeable than me about birds. Anyone with curiosity deserves someone who will teach them.
Beginning birders—those with a thirst for knowledge but a world of birding yet to learn—have it tough.
First, we don’t know the possibilities yet – there is an overwhelming amount of information about birds to absorb and apply but it takes a long time to be confident in what we know.
Second, it takes a long time to earn a sense of our own limitations in bird identification. Ironically, it sometimes happens that once we DO feel a sense of confidence in something, our assumptions are premature and overreaching, and we make a bad call. That hurts.
Third, beginners enter the birding scene and are told there is a certain way to do things, from describing field marks to reporting trip lists. If we do it wrong, or do it in the wrong place, the error is revealed by awkward silence or direct reproach. While there’s a need for precision and accuracy when it comes to the scientific record, there’s a time and place for it. Rigid protocols in more casual settings (even listserves) can have a chilling effect on outsiders who aren’t in the know.
Beginners soon sense what really goes on in birding circles: the catty judgment about who knows what more than who and embarrassment over bad calls and misunderstandings of bird distribution. Some segments of birding operate like an exclusive country club where the cost of entry is not piles of cash, but loads of birding cachet. But who does that leave behind – and what is the cost?
Regrettably, we’ve all seen the enthusiasm of novice birders stamped out by the corrective whoop-di-doo of birding hotshots. We’ve seen dialogue on listserves squelched by those who assert that backyard sightings and tangential birding trivia has “no place on this list.” We’ve seen legions of birders too afraid to ask questions for fear of being wrong, stupid, clearly “not a REAL birder.”
Yet even if someone can’t identify every warbler in the forest or sandpiper on the shore, they can still contribute mightily to the world of birding. The growing field of citizen science—where every day birders collect bird data and submit it to scientists—is one example. The legions of volunteers who run small nature centers and birding clubs is another. Anyone with the curiosity, passion, and cooperation to get involved should be welcomed, their talents harvested.
Around every corner, we hear chatter of declining memberships in birding organizations. The old guard is making way for the new, but the new is nowhere to be found. Birding is as relevant today as it ever was—indeed more so due to the rapid pace of habitat destruction that threatens populations plus all the tools, gadgets, and electronic accoutrements that help us dive deeper into its fascinating minutia.
This burgeoning public interest is reflected in the media. Newspapers are supporting bird-watching columns in a number of states, best-selling books such as The Big Year by Mark Obmascik and Life List by Olivia Gentile chronicle the birding lives of our most rabid members. As I write, Hollywood crews in Vancouver, BC are filming scenes from a screenplay based on The Big Year, with the birding behavior of our own friends (e.g., Greg Miller, an Ohio birder and character in the book) being “studied” by actors Jack Black and Owen Wilson.
So now that Hollywood and Harcourt are hot on our trail, what are we going to do with the increased visibility?
By nurturing the spark of new birders, we create a win-win: either we have new birders coming up the ranks of birding clubs and conservation organizations, or at the very least, we help nurture an understanding and appreciation of the natural world–one that will inform a person’s decisions the rest of their life.
A nurturing birding ethic leads to a broader conservation ethic.
I would like to see each of us commit to being an ambassador for the birds—you do not need an official pulpit or loads of birding cachet to be am ambassador. Just realize the power that you have to spread the joy of birding.
Let’s create a birder’s welcome wagon of epic proportions and refine the hospitality of the sport. A number of small but important efforts will help:
- We commit to teaching nonbirders about birds. Teaching others is not only for the “experts,’ any birder can do it. You don’t need to know every bird in the forest; just take friends into the field and show them what you see and hear. The beauty of birds speaks for itself and you’re sure to impress. To reach new birders, link up with your local birding club’s “new birder” trips or organize your own—just do it.
- We talk to kids about birds. Offer to go into your local school(s), lead a field trip, teach a grandchild, or simply read a short bird book. The awareness you create will have a ripple effect.
- We offer to write an article for a local paper or website. If you have a gift for words, offer to write a short piece on seasonal migration, local birding hotspots, or anything to engage beginners in the sport.
- We make an effort to show nonbirders the view through our scopes. If we’re excited by what we see, they might be, too.
- We come up with a better name for “nonbirder.” The term is harsh and inaccurate. Even without a khaki vest and Tilley hat, most people watch birds to some degree. “Beginning birder” is fine, but it’s a mouthful and it implies too much. I like the ring of “early birder,” as in “early in your birding career” but it may not be spot on.
- Speaking of floppy hats: We stop dressing like geeks. A growing number of birders I know lament our choice of field dress as being so geeky as to be unapproachable. Others are on a mission to ban khaki across the sport! To each his own, but the idea is this: does anything about your dress make you seem unapproachable in the field?
- We stop being cliquish. Why do so many serious birders exclusively hang out with other serious birders? Too much exclusivity can hasten one’s irrelevance. We bring others, especially younger birders, into the fold. We talk to others on the boardwalk. We lean over and say “Did you see that?” to someone outside of our circle once in a while.
- We go out of our way to make new birders feel welcome–in the field, on the phone, in the backyard, on the listserv. We let them know it’s okay to ask questions. Rather than remain quiet, we reach out after they’ve shared something cool; we demonstrate that we relate to their enthusiasm.
- We moderate the moral melodrama about how humans are wrecking the environment and harming birds. New birders don’t want us to harsh their new-birding mellow.
- We freely admit our own mistakes and gracefully accept those of others. Beginning birders need to understand that the truth of an ID is to be held higher than all other truths, even that of a fragile ego, and all birders need to demonstrate gracious self-correction. I’ve seen many great examples of this in the field, but beginners are often stunted by the perception of quiet, unspoken judgement. So by sharing a story of our own fallibility, we make birding more human, more accessible, and start to change the world.
The next era of birding will be ushered in by a new crop of great birders. Whereas we commonly measure a Great Birder by his or her skills in bird identification and insights into changing bird populations, our assessment should broaden to include “softer” skills such as enthusiasm, approachability, and level of cooperation.
Many of us are fortunate to have brushed with such great birders – their imprints last a lifetime. While scholars will always hold a special place in birding, a broadened definition of “great birder” will help ensure a new generation of recruits is around to carry the baton.
In appreciation of Jane Goodall’s “feathers on the eagle” analogy, I’d like to pay special recognition to a number of individuals with whom I’ve held discussions on the future of birding: Mike Powers of Feather and Flower, Jeff Bouton of Leica, Richard Crossley, author of The Shorebird Guide, Bill Thompson, III of Bird Watcher’s Digest, the staff at Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Chip Clouse and Dick Ashford of American Birding Association, Iain Campbell of Tropical Birding, and Patty Kocinski of the Rochester Birding Association. Special thanks to the new birders in my life, too. What a great day of spring birding we had.
If you enjoyed the spirit of this piece, you may also want to read Inclusiveness by Kenn Kaufman.
Have a link to add? Post in the comments and I’ll add it here.