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Inclusive Birding through the Library

by on May 6, 2022

In May 2020 Black birder Christian Cooper had the police called on him in Central Park in New York City. One result of the media frenzy that followed was that it brought attention to the long history of bigotry and exclusiveness in the birding world. I had only been birding for a few years but Cooper’s experience was not the first time I’d heard about the struggles of BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and women birders.

How can public libraries help make birding more equitable? To answer this question, we need to know what we are up against. Here are some “fun” facts and quotes I dug up:

  • Bird naming has traditionally honored “people with connections to slavery and supremacy” (including James Audubon who bought and sold slaves). [1]
  • At the National Audubon Society “the membership is 72 percent female, but the executive staff is 75 percent male—and the organization has never had a female president in its 114 years.” [2]
  • Ornithologist Drew Lanham has written nine rules for Black birders, including: “Don’t bird in a hoodie. Ever.” [3]
  • “Nature reserves and wildlife refuges tend to be located in remote areas that lack diversity.” [4]
  • “Birding trips with straight men have been very difficult,” says Chase Mendenhall, a cisgender gay man and curator of birds at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Straight spaces often feel hyper-competitive and masculinized, he says, which can suck the fun out of birding and “make more queer people left out of the team.” [4]
  • “Information on how accessible parks, hiking trails, and birding locations are is frequently incomplete or non-existent, making it difficult for people who experience accessibility challenges to find places to go birding.” [5]
  • People give you that weird look when you say that you are a birder. People still think that it is a hobby for retirees, ornithologists, naturalists, professional photographers etc.” [6]

As community spaces, public libraries have the potential to reach birders (and all people) that do not feel welcome in other spaces. My library, the Hillsboro (OR) Public Library (HPL), has two branches next to ADA-accessible parks, one wooded and the other with ponds. Because of these natural areas, experienced and novice birders are already drawn to the area. Our task, then, is to engage those who might be excluded elsewhere.

One passive programming idea we used to engage young people and families was to put out bird feeders that can be viewed from the juvenile and young adult area with bird identification posters on display nearby. We also put up a white board for anyone to add their latest bird and mammal viewings as they enter the library.

That all sounds easy but most libraries are not next to parks and many may not be able to add an easily viewable bird feeder. What are some other inclusive options?

  • Create a display for #BlackBirdersWeek (book recommendations below).
  • Reach out to local BIPOC and LGBTQ+ birding groups and offer to put up their flyers on the community board.
  • Find out if your local Parks and Rec department offers birding programs for youth and minorities and help advertise.
  • Offer a neighborhood Walk with a (Birding) librarian program to your local senior or community center.

If none of those are available and your library has the resources, start your own inclusive birding group or take patrons on virtual birding trips using social media. In 2020 when our branches closed due to the pandemic, myself and another HPL staffer started BiblioBirders in which we took videos while birding locally and explained the identification process.

In addition to feeling excluded because of appearance, people are also left out due to cost and accessibility. Making birding kits (with binoculars and identification books) available for check-out are a great way to reach those with financial barriers to birding. Philadelphia public libraries started offering birding backpacks in 2017. “You can certainly spend a lot of money on birding if you buy expensive objects and go on lavish trips, but you can also go to the library and take out a backpack, and walk or take the bus to a local park,” says BirdPhilly founder Tony Croasdale. [7]

As always, include materials written in the languages of your community and in large print as much as possible. There are also a number of audio or braille options available through The National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled.[8] For maps of outdoor spaces with ADA-accessible paths go to https://birdability.org. Birdability also offers inclusivity guidance documents, including language and planning tips.

Title Recommendations for Your Library

  • Birding for Everyone: Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers, by John C. Robinson (Wings-on-disk)
  • Represent! 2020 by Nadira, Regine L. Sawyer, Jesse J. Holland, Christian Cooper (DC Comics)
  • Bird Boy (An Inclusive Children’s Book) by Matthew Burgess (Knopf Books for Young Readers)
  • Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors by Carolyn Finney (The University of North Carolina Press)
  • The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature by J. Drew Lanham, Ph.D. (Milkweed Editions)

Further Reading and Resources

References

[1] Fears, Daryl. “The racist legacy many birds carry.” The Washington Post, June 3, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/interactive/2021/bird-names-racism-audubon/

[2] Saha, Purbita, et al. (2019, May 3). When women run the bird world [News Post]. Retrieved from https://www.audubon.org/news/when-women-run-bird-world

[3] Scott, Jacqueline L. (2020, June 2). What you should know about black birders [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/what-you-should-know-about-black-birders-139812

[4] Jones, Benji. (2018, June 29). For the LGBTQ Community, Birding Can Be a Relief—and a Source of Anxiety [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.audubon.org/news/for-lgbtq-community-birding-can-be-relief-and-source-anxiety

[5] (2022, April 14) https://gis.audubon.org/Birdability/

[6] (2022, April 14) https://www.birdingiscool.com/

[7] Johns, Alaina. “Philadelphians Let Their Inner Birder Fly with Birding Backpacks at the Free Library.” City Wide Stories, September 30, 2019. Retrieved from https://citywidestories.com/2019/09/30/philadelphians-let-their-inner-birder-fly-with-birding-backpacks-at-the-free-library/

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