Colorful World of Birding Has Conspicuous Lack of People of Color

More diversity among bird-watchers is in everyone's best interest.
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A boy looks for birds from a lookout tower in Oregon, with Mount Hood in the distance.


If you're a black bird-watcher, "be prepared to be confused with the other black birder." That's what J. Drew Lanham, a wildlife ecology professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, wrote last year in his list of nine race-related "rules."

"Yes, there are only two of you at the bird festival," he wrote in the pages of Orion magazine. "Yes, you're wearing a name tag and are six inches taller than he is. Yes, you will be called by his name at least half a dozen times by supposedly observant people who can distinguish gull molts in a blizzard."

Lanham's sarcasm is warranted. Minorities have always seemed to be underrepresented in U.S. environmental groups. Now there's new data to support that old anecdotal observation.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in 2011, 93 percent of American birders were white, 5 percent were Hispanic (which includes both blacks and whites), 4 percent were black, 1 percent were Asian American, and 2 percent were "other."

Bird-watchers, of course, aren't the only environmentalists of a feather who flock together, or whose passion for protecting the environment could benefit from building more minority support.

Another study—released in August by the Green 2.0 Working Group, with support from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Argus Foundation, the Sierra Club, and Earth Justice—looked at 191 conservation and preservation organizations, 74 government environmental agencies, and 28 environmental grant-making organizations in the U.S., totaling 3.2 million people.

The study found that diversity has increased when it comes to gender—women now occupy more than half the leadership positions in the organizations studied—but ethnic minorities still occupy less than 12 percent of leadership positions. The working group concluded that it would take broader support—meaning greater diversity—for the environmental movement to continue its momentum.

But at a time when birds are facing unprecedented challenges to their existence from climate change and increased urbanization, developing more diversity among birders will broaden support for measures needed to protect birds—plus the nesting grounds, woodlands, meadows, wetlands, and other habitats in which they thrive, and in which birders delight—while also helping to create more citizen scientists, which would be a boon for everyone.

Feather Friends

In the past three years, a group of birders has pulled together to try to bring more minorities into their community, staging a series of conferences called Focus on Diversity: Changing the Face of American Birding.

The meetings have covered a range of reasons why minorities may find it hard to embrace birding, including concerns about how onlookers might react to seeing a black or Hispanic man with binoculars wandering the woods—or a suburban neighborhood—at dusk, dawn, or night. ("Nocturnal birding is a no-no" is Lanham's Rule 4.)

Conference speakers have also cited lingering fears about racism in the U.S.—like whether it's safe to go to areas where the Ku Klux Klan had been strong, or where militias still thrive—and, for some who grew up in cities or suburbs, a fear of the unfamiliar woods, full of critters.

Then there's the question of how welcoming and inclusive bird-watching groups currently are. Writer, editor, and former American Birding Association board member Paul Baicich, whose father is named Giuseppe and whose family background is Italian, says lack of inclusiveness is nothing new.

"About 120 years ago, birding organizations were anti-immigrant," he says. Today, "There is an ingrown quality to lots of the birding communities that they may not be aware of," which may appear to newcomers as exclusivity. Birders should realize there is no such thing as an "overdeveloped welcome mat," and take every opportunity to invite outsiders in.

The Focus on Diversity meetings began in November 2010 at the urging of Dave Magpiong, a New Jersey middle school teacher. That's when a heterogeneous group of seven birders gathered informally at a bird festival in southern Texas—where they bonded in a hotel room over pizza and beer—to express their diversity concerns.

Magpiong had previously started an organization called the Fledging Birders Institute, with the goal of nurturing an interest in birding and conservation among youth.

Back then he was a special-education teacher who became inspired after seeing positive reactions from students who followed him outside to watch birds. After the experience prompted an extremely quiet student to speak up more often, describing birds, the girl's mother thanked Magpiong for helping her daughter find her voice.

"A lot of people have been talking about [the need for more diversity] as a key issue," says Magpiong, who describes his own ethnicity as a mix of Filipino, Italian, Hungarian Jew, "and mutt." But efforts to increase the number of minorities, he says, are "still not [leading directly to] organizational change."

Taking Others Under Their Wings

Other birding organizations have also recognized the lack of diversity, and have begun reaching out to minorities.

Marissa Ortega-Welch, coordinator of eco-education for the Golden Gate Audubon Society in California, says her organization has a grant to increase environmental consciousness in schools with a high percentage of students from low-income families. The group's efforts include visits to local parks and bird-watching walks led by volunteers who provide binoculars, field scopes, and bird guides.

"We take them to wetlands, creeks, and beach habitats," says Ortega-Welch, whose ethnicity is part Mexican. "Taking them to the shoreline is the best," because kids can run around and shout and still spot big birds like the great egret and the black-necked stilt.

But more such efforts are needed, says Baicich—especially to attract adults. Connecting children and teens to birds is "wonderful," he says, "but relatively nonproductive," because other interests invariably take over when they enter their late teens, 20s, or 30s.

Baicich says the key is to recruit mentors who can bring in minority adults—for instance, a minister who may be able to share her own love of birds with the congregation.

Birder Brains

Jody Enck, a social scientist with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, has been studying how people come to think of themselves as birders. He's also looking at how nonprofits, including the Cornell lab, may be more attractive to some types of birders than others.

One group that gets a lot of attention—which Enck has nicknamed "Have Equipment, Will Travel"—wants "to explore birds close up but also are willing to travel. They'll go to the next county, the next state. They'll go all around the world. They like to identify every bird they see."

And, he added, "They spend a lot of money. They love the sense of accomplishment when they identify a new bird. They get birding information from lots of sources—birding friends, professional tour guides, even manufacturers of birding equipment."

At the other end of the spectrum, he says, are self-reliant birders.

"That includes people who feel like they are not well understood, in part because of the way they are talked to," says Enck. "They like to watch birds, even if they don't know what [species] they are. They love being connected with nature. They want to learn about birds, but on their own terms. They don't want to be viewed as needing to be educated, 'fixed,' or deficient in skills or knowledge about birds."

Members of the "Have Equipment, Will Travel" group tend to think about joining nonprofits as a transactional relationship: They're willing to exchange membership fees or donations for something of equal value, like information, a service, or a product.

Members of the self-reliant group, on the other hand, think about joining nonprofits as more of an interpersonal relationship: They're more likely to join if they feel a sense of belonging. And they don't want to feel like they're being marketed to.

The Long Flight Ahead

When Anita Guris joined the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club in 1988, she was one of only two black members. But she found the club welcoming, and eventually became the membership chair. In that job, she brought in four new black members and two new members of Japanese descent.

Still, she says of the effort to increase diversity, "It's a struggle."

After all, she's had her own experience with Lanham's first rule for black birders. At a major event last fall—a birding weekend in Cape May, New Jersey—she and her husband, who is white, were one of two interracial couples.

"There was an interracial couple from New York," says Guris, "and we were confused with them."

At the time, she adds, "I was looking for my 400th bird, and I told a lot of people about it. Then someone asked the other black woman if she had found it. She said she wanted to say: 'I'm the other one.'"

As Guris says, "There are not that many of us, and birding is all about identification. You'd think if they could identify thousands of birds, they could recognize us. There were only two black birders [that weekend in Cape May], and we didn't even look alike. They were only seeing the similarities."

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