Colorful World of Birding Has Conspicuous Lack of People of Color

Martha Hamilton, National Geographic, September 23, 2014

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, theĀ 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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