By Stephanie Beilke

If you’ve been a birder for a long time, or even a short time, you may have noticed that the predominating voices in the birding community are typically of the older, white male variety. Of course with some notable exceptions, the biggest names that draw crowds in the birding world often fit this description as well as many of our local birding superstars here in Chicago. But that doesn’t necessarily accurately reflect the birding community at large, locally or abroad. Birding has long been a hobby equally enjoyed across the spectrum of race, age and gender categories. For example, more than half of “wildlife watchers,” which most definitely included birders, in the U.S. identified as female in a poll by the U.S. Department of Interior.

With the success of events like Audubon’s “Let’s Go Birding Together” bird walks that welcome LGBT folks into the field and groups like the Young Birders Club and Feminist Bird Club which aim to make birding inclusive, we can see that birding can attract a diverse audience. Yet obstacles still stand in the way for women, minorities and young birders to feel welcome within the community. It shouldn’t be this way, because our shared love of birds should bring us together, no matter our circumstances. But elitism and “gatekeeping” (controlling who has access to a group and who doesn’t) remain prevalent since “top birders” receive more benefits and respect from reinforcing a hierarchical system within birding.

Again, it doesn’t have to be this way though, especially because of how rare it is to meet birders who don’t want more people to become invested in birds and the natural world in general. We can start by being more welcoming and inclusive in our birding activities while listening to and raising the voices of underrepresented people (birders as well as all matter of wildlife watchers, nature lovers, and conservationists) around us.

I highly recommend reading:
9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher by Dr. Drew Lanham

A Movement to Make Birding More Inclusive and Accessible by Tom Foster

The Field Glass Ceiling by Brooke McDonald

At Chicago Ornithological Society, we recognized the need to raise the voices of women and people of color, who are often underrepresented at local speaking events around the topics of birds and birding. If you’ve been paying attention to the demographics of bird-related lectures you’ve attended recently, you may have noticed a pattern. Therefore, last year COS collaborated with the Chicago Audubon Society and Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum to put together the Compelling Voices in Birding and Conservation speaking series. While putting together this series, our group assembled a list* of well-known women and people of color within the birding world. Our first three guest speakers for this series are Dr. Amanda Rodewald, Director of Conservation from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Dr. Bridget Stuchbury, Distinguished Research Professor from York University in Toronto and Lynn Barber, Author and “Extreme Birder.” Our first three guest talks will feature prominent female conservationists and birders who will speak on diverse topics from tropical forest management to big years.

You can read more about this free speaking series, including the dates, times and descriptions of talks at Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum’s website.

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We realize there is still so much room to grow and expand our series and our organization to be more inclusive. We are not patting ourselves on the back just yet for inviting a few women guest speakers. This is a small step, but we hope it leads to our organization and other local groups continuing to raise diverse voices of individuals who are making important strides in the birding world. Obviously, there is always more to do and all of us as a community are responsible for making real progress, one step at a time.

We hope you thoroughly enjoy the upcoming series! All are welcome to join us and stay tuned for more to come!

*Note: Our list of possible guest speakers has room to grow! If you’d like to make a speaker suggestion for our list, email me at stephanie.beilke@gmail.com.