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Birder Diversity--A Crisis?

Birding Politics

As I was looking for ideas for a column a couple of weeks ago, I found some websites that truly surprised me. They weren’t about birds, however. They were about birders.

There seems to be concern in the birding movement that birders were not “diverse” enough--meaning that they were almost all white people. While I don’t doubt that, I was surprised at the level of worry this raised among some birders.

One birder named Corey wrote that birders are “as white as a klan rally.” He was also “embarrassed” by that fact.

He went to a birder diversity conference in Philadephia, where birders of color shared some apparently negative experiences.

The attendees of the conference (which I was not one of), eventually decided that steps should be taken to introduce more non-white people to the hobby of birding, according to Corey.

The organization sponsoring the conference, the Fledging Birders Institute, has taken some positive steps in that regard. They have various resources for teachers and parents to help young children of all races to learn about birds and birding. They sponsor various clubs and contests for young birders. It sounds like a great organization and as a birder for twenty years, I’m surprised I never heard of it before now.

I agree that it’s a great idea to turn “inner city” kids on to birding. As a teacher in an urban area, I’m familiar with the lack of nature knowledge that kids have. They usually think cities are even more foul and polluted than they really are, and that almost all animals carry horrible diseases. It’s important to show them that, pigeons are not rats with wings, for example, and that many other birds migrate through even built up areas. It’s also important to expose them to the outdoors. Urban youth, for economic or cultural reasons, don’t hike, hunt, fish or camp like rural youth. Probably most birders began their hobby doing one of those other outdoor hobbies. I began birding when I noticed the different species of ducks at a pond when I walked my dog. A kid with no dog and no hiking or fishing relatives has maybe a 1% chance of becoming a birder. Maybe with the good works of this organization, the odds can be raised.

So while I applaud this part of the birding diversity movement, and I support their efforts to show multicultural faces in publications, for example, I must say that I am a bit put off by some of the rhetoric.

First and foremost, birding is a HOBBY. It’s one thing to try to encourage minority youth to study engineering, for example. There would be a positive economic outcome based on that decision, for the minority teen him or herself. You would not get the same results as a birder that you would as an engineer.

Second, there is a condescending attitude that I find troubling. Not all hobbies are equally diverse. All people should be welcomed into the hobby of birding, of course, but we have to assume that if African-American or Hispanic adults have chosen to do something else productive with their free time, that they made that decision wisely and rationally.

But what I think really bothers me is some of the anti-white rhetoric. Birders are not like “the klan.” The Ku Klux Klan, or KKK, is or at least was, an evil organization that lynched people. Birders are kind people dedicated to nature. Law abiding Caucasian birders have nothing in common with that group except that our ancestors came from the same continent.

Imagine if there was a salsa dancing club that was primarily Latino. If someone wrote that it was like the Latin Kings gang convention, that person would be accused of racism. And rightly so. There is nothing inherently evil about a hobby that doesn’t have the exact same demographics of the United States.

Those interested in birding diversity feel that the sport will disappear if it more minorities don’t take an interest, due to changing demographics. I personally think that this niche interest is probably not going anywhere, but I applaud their efforts to make the hobby more accessible. But I hope their motivations are really to help others and not assuage some weird guilt.

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