GOB 112 Diversity
This article first appeared in Birdwatching Magazine January 2019
I have lately been revising all the US State pages of my fatbirder.com website. This means checking out every link there including all those Audubon societies, some states having a great number. These are the equivalent, I guess, of local branches of the RSPB although some are completely independent of the national society. In many ways they are warm and friendly organisations which invite all and sundry to meetings and outings to enjoy birds. Most of their websites will show groups of members out birding. I must have looked over at least a couple of hundred club websites so far and it struck me hard between the eyes that, while there seems a pretty even gender distribution this could not be said for ethnicity.
In all cases almost all members depicted are white. I can count those who were not on the fingers of one hand… and that includes a couple of obviously Asiatic visiting birders. North to south and east to west it is the same, very few members of colour. OK, just like this side of the pond many birders are older and better off than average, because being retired with a decent pension allows one to indulge in travel and expensive optics and it’s a sad fact that there, like here, ethnicity often affects how well off you are.
But isn’t the beauty of our hobby that all you need is a pair of cheap binoculars and the wherewithal to get to the places where the birds are? In my experience there are plenty of ordinary people in less well-paid jobs who enjoy birding. Maybe birding is a bit more ‘middle class’ than fishing, but like that hobby, there are so many levels and varieties to our pastime that each of us can find a niche.
Around the world I have met plenty of people passionate about birds and birding coming from all walks of life across the whole cultural and ethnic spectrum. I know lords and ladies who bird and guys who are unwaged or slogging away on the factory floor. I even know blokes who do permanent warehouse night shifts because it frees up their days to go birding.
However, here at home, and obviously in the US I know few black or Asian birders. I hope that the increasing number of black media role models will help this change. Having engaging black, female zoologists and nature programme presenters on our TVs inspiring young people is certainly a plus, but it’s nowhere near enough.
See multicultural groups of schoolchildren desperate to stop us turning our wild places into plastic cemeteries and its clear that ethnicity at that age has no bearing on conservation compassion. But take a look at young birding groups or the birders down at your local reserve and as soon as young adulthood arrives the black faces seem to disappear from the scene.
I don’t pretend to know all the reasons, but I have a few inklings based on my experience with fellow disabled birders. For every helpful encouraging fellow birder, there are a couple of starers, a lot of ignorers and an indifferent majority. Sadly, there are even a few intimidators – on a birding forum recently, I was told to stop whinging about able-bodied birders disregarding ‘disabled parking only’ signs.
Naively, I used to assume that we birders must all be lovely people who welcome our fellow enthusiasts with open arms only able to see the birder, not the colour of their face or the restriction to their mobility. I know better, but hope that this selfish and prejudiced attitude will pass, just as, in the last decade arrogant sexism among birders has become unacceptable.