Saturday, October 15, 2011

What does a birder look like?

There's been a recurring theme lately in the birding world, and this post has been slowly and steadily building in me.  It's about birders and how the world sees us, if we even care about their opinion, and where we are going as a group.
It's been a mission of mine, at least informally, to wipe out the classic stereotype of "birder" or "birdwatcher".  Just look at the header of my blog. I've never ever been considered "uncool" or a "nerd".  And frankly, I hate labels anyway.  But to make things easier for all of us, we do tend to lump people together.
So for the sake of argument, let's just accept the fact that there are labels.

A non-birder, or anyone who has seen a movie or TV show depicting birders, knows the stereotype.
Nerdy, nooby, contemptible and socially awkward people who wear silly pants and/or hats, wear binoculars around their necks and spout the Latin names of birds.  That sounds familiar, right?

What part of that description is accurate for EVERY birder you know?
"wears binoculars around their necks"

I won't get into the psycho-social aspect of labeling and stereotyping, but I've learned that even if a stereotype is a positive one, it can still be harmful in the fact that it lessens the individual it pertains to.  It limits your ability to see the whole person.

The Big Year came out yesterday, and it kind of felt like birders came out, too.  I enjoyed it immensely and didn't care that they got a few things wrong.  It's a work of fiction.  But I liked the story pulse behind each main character.  Crazy about birds?  They sure were.  Prissy, Latin-spouting noobs? They sure weren't.
Lots of birders were in a froth about using it as a springboard to bring in more birders, and I think that's valid. But I stayed out of the discussions that quickly degenerated into nit picking about bird IDs.  It's a MOVIE.

What about the ABA?  An organization that is supposed to be for us, by us?  Have they represented us well in the past?  It seems not.  I was ignorant of the ABA until Jeff Gordon took the helm, and most of what I have heard has been the same...."I feel that it isn't an organization for ME.  I don't do hardcore listing or get into fights about wear on a gull's tertials."  I hope that birders will see the ABA in a different light, to forget about the stereotype that seems to be following the organization.  I'm a member of the ABA.  Does that make me a hardcore lister or rude know-it-all?
There was a little kerfuffle on Facebook a few weeks ago...I was talking about a certain bird we all saw at Ottawa NWR, and someone wanted to see photos.  I chose not to post them, because they did not capture what we SAW through our binoculars.  It rapidly spiraled into a war of doctrine and flat-out rudeness, from someone I don't know personally.  When I said that this kind of thread was what was wrong with birding, all Hell broke loose.  There was even a threat made by this pompous birder to use the thread in an article.  This seems to be a facet of the ABA that lots of people recognize.  The snooty, uptight and belligerent tone that some "old school" birders affect just rubs me the wrong way.  Isn't this supposed to be fun?  Sure, there needs to be record committees and people who keep track of stuff.  But what about the joy of it all?

(This next part has to do with race.  Please spare me any gripes about my verbage or labels.  I'm the most non-racist person in the world and I am using typical terms for people of colors and creeds different than me, so just don't go there.)

Another aspect of this theme is diversity.  Okay, birders.  Count on your hands ten birders you know.  Now, put down a finger for each non-Caucasian birder you named.  How many fingers went down?
I know lots of different people.  All colors and nationalities.  But I know zero non-white birders.  No African Americans, no Latinos, no Asians...everyone is very much like me.  I've seen black and Latino birders, so I know they exist.  But they are so few and far between they are noticeable.  I think most birders, or even just decent people in general, would be highly offended to think that their hobby is all-inclusive, snobby and white-elitist.  But it's a fact that we tend to be white, middle to upper class folks.  "Tend" to be....and that's the problem with stereotypes.  None of us "tend" to be anything. We are what we are.
I'm attending the diversity conference in Philadelphia next week and I am excited to learn about what can be done about the disparity.  To understand it more, to change it, to bring more people of all sorts to the wonderment of birding.

I leave you to think on this, but in closing, I am including photos of birders.  First, think of the stereotype. Then look at the people.  Then put the stereotype down and never pick it up again.

rain crows

kathi lynne drinking

Beth and Bus




Jeff G.  Farmhouse chillin'

Laura the stinker


Delia and Hooper

OYBC banding

Paco the Cabana Boy


Taking nets down

Do not throw things over overlook

The Flock 2011



Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

Brava, my Susan!
You make me proud.

Erik said...

Hi, my name is Erik. I'm a birder / bird watcher / bird feeder / guy who likes birds. If you want to label me or call me a name, go for it. I don't care. I ceased caring what strangers, or most people for that matter, thought about me a long time ago. I enjoy birds. You should to. They’re cool.

Some of the coolest people I've met, Susan included, also enjoy birds. We like watching them. We like talking about them. We like learning more about them. And we like sharing what we know with others. It makes us really happy to see the reaction on someones face when they see something they’ve never seen before. Call us geeks, nerds, or kooks. Just don't call us one-dimensional. I've met birders who write, paint, create music, teach, dance, litigate, build, demolish, invent, embalm, and feed homeless. Some vocationally. Some avocationally. If you want to label us before you know us, it's your loss.

I do have a bit of the problem with a subset of the birding experts. They may mean well but they come across as self-righteous douchebags. I'm not specifically talking about the person Susan referenced. I've never met the person Susan referenced. But I can name at least a half dozen other people who make newbies/less confident birders feel like crap. They suck. I ran into some of them when I was a newbie. I didn’t like them because of how they made me feel. Now that I'm way past new/inexperienced stage, I like to remind them when they are being a douchebag. They don't like that. I don't care. It makes you really appreciate people like Jim, Kenn, Kim, Jen, Julie, Bill, Mark, Louise, Connie, or anyone who is willing to a help another birder, or even listen to their ridiculous story and address it non-judgmentally.

I have a finger up (besides the one I’m giving Susan). I’m lucky to know a family of minority birders. They’re not hard core, but they love their feeder. They live in a fairly segregated minority enclave. They convinced their neighbors to put up feeders as well. You’ll never see them at a bird club or Audubon meeting but they are part of the fraternity because they also enjoy birds. I love getting email from them reporting on their newest yard bird.

Looking at the photos I realized that I knew most of those people. They’re fun and interesting. You can call them geeks but you’d be missing out on meeting some neat people. They’d be fun to hang out with even if we didn’t have birds in common.

One request. Lay off my hat. I burn easily and my Tilley is awesome.

dguzman said...

Hey, don't I qualify as a Latina birder?

Susan Gets Native said...

You're right, Delia. Okay, that's ONE.
I miss you, by the way. You big poopy head.

kayakbirder said...

As someone who has spent the better part of his adult life "bridging the gap" between "backyard birdFEEDER and birder" (which became the preferred term I don't know when), I have to add my two cents.
Erik is right, partially. When someone who can spout Latin names of birds, and explain tertial wear uses that knowledge to elevate themselves or denegrate the "newbie", he's right, they suck and they do the people who REALLY know (you know who you are) a dis-service. Some of the finest birders on EARTH are some of the kindest, most thoughtful and BEST teachers I have ever met. We ALL had crappy binoculars and couldn't tell House from Purple Finch at one time. WE WERE ALL NEWBIES ONCE! For crying out loud....birding is fun. Discovery is fun. Learning, in it's purest and BEST form is FUN. It's the difference between the Algebra teacher who flunked me in 9th grade and the history teacher who told me the Hessians lost part of the Revolutionary war because they were too busy drinking beer! I have since passed the Algebra course, never think about that teacher until now, but, I will NEVER forget the laughter in that classroom when the beer reference was made.
One thing I will note here, the "tool of engagement" for bird observers are binoculars, and especially in today's economy, the optics companies have lost their collective minds. They have put their products so far out of reach of the amateur (from the Latin "lover of....") that some who might want to 'watch' simply cannot afford to. In this day and age, you'd think that Alpha optics would come down in price, due to advances in technology,etc. They haven't. A pair of what qualifies as a birding optic is now beyond the level of a mortgage payment.
Susan, thank you for posting this. I too, look forward to seeing what putting birding's collective heads together can do to increase it's diversity and it's appeal. I hope and pray that you take solace in the fact that what YOU do certainly does cross all divides and furthers the education and connection for a lot of people, regardless of background.

KGMom said...

I would love to be a birder--for these reasons:
--you all have fun
--you drink
--you have kick-ass ... lens for your cameras
--you drink
--you laugh
--you travel in flocks

I probably WON'T be a birder because:
--you have to get up early--after all, if the early bird gets the worm, the early birder sees the early bird getting the worm

That's it.

Bill Webb said...

I'm afraid that as far as appearance goes I'm pretty stereotypical, but so what? It's my hobby, after all. I wear a big floppy hat because that's what sensible people wear in the sun, especially in Florida. I wear cargo pants (all the time) because I carry a lot of junk around with me. I carry a camera because my other hobby is photography and, yeah, I have a pair of impressive-looking binoculars, because I've found them more practical than stalking the little suckers.

On the other hand, I don't try to remember Latin names (although a few stick) and don't fall all over myself trying to ID everything I see. I haven't kept a list in years, and I can't even remember the number when I quit. I bird to get outdoors, meet new friends and enjoy looking at some of Earth's most beautiful creatures.

My reaction to birder politics is to simply walk away from it. I belong to ABA because I think they need the support, just as I belong to Cornell. I've met one guy with a life list well over 700 for North America (he's a jerk), and I hang out with my granddaughter, whose life list is about forty. If they're nice people and fun, I'm there. If they take themselves too seriously, I get bored quickly. I plan to drive 800 miles to New River because I like some of the people who will be there, but I won't drive four miles to spend time with the aforementioned super-birder, who's practically my neighbor.

Bottom line, if it isn't relaxing and fun, fahgeddaboudit. I'm 67 years old and have two jobs. Who needs another one?

RuthieJ said...

what? no photos of biker birders? (Note to self: begin work on that stereotype-buster ASAP!)

BTW, that was a great post Susan. Thanks for saying what I've never been able to.

Beth in NYC said...

You said it, Susan. Yay, us! Great photos, too.

dAwN said...

Bravo! Great post and comments..I am verklempt

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