For the Birds Radio Program: Focus on Diversity in Birding

Original Air Date: Nov. 9, 2011

“Diversity equals stability” is true, whether we’re talking about animal populations or human ones.

Duration: 4′56″
  • William Brewster
  • John Robinson
  • American Academy of Natural Sciences
  • Lewis and Clark
  • Focus on Diversity
  • Theodore Roosevelt
  • Robert Gilbert
  • John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge


Last month I attended a conference in the City of Brotherly Love titled Focus on Diversity: Changing the Face of American Birding. Most of the conference was held at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, a splendid urban wildlife preserve right near the Philadelphia airport, with an evening reception at the American Academy of Natural Sciences. I’m originally from one of Chicago’s blue-collar suburbs. Despite attending all-white elementary and high schools, I took public transportation to the city a lot, and had enough personal experiences to know for certain that people of color are just as nice and trustworthy as anyone else. I remember a story in my Catholic school reader about a little boy named Danny whose sister was upset when he invited a lot of children from other neighborhoods to his birthday party. Their parents explained to her that an exclusive party—one that excludes anyone for superficial reasons—is a bad thing, and I took that story to heart. By the time I went to college, I simply expected to find a diversity of people around me. Pressing for civil rights and women’s rights back then, I found myself growing increasingly uncomfortable in settings that seemed to exclude anyone. But oddly enough, birding seems to be one field that is as exclusive as the worst country clubs ever were. John Robinson, the author of Birding for Everyone, began birding in 1979, and from the start found other birders saying they’d never met a Black birdwatcher before.” When he realized how widespread this seemed, he started researching what was going on. In partnership with the American Birding Association and Audubon, he sent questionnaires out to hundreds of birders. He got responses from 322 birders who had been birding for an average of 20 years. About a third had never met an African American birdwatcher, and the average number met by these respondents was only about 2. The statistics indicated that the average birder encountered one African American birder once every 22 years. John presented the statistics about what people in America are birders. My personal income is way below average, but otherwise I’m pretty representative: white and female. I’m a decade older than the average 50 years, another way the birding community is not representative of America as a whole. The conference was called to discuss ways we birders could make the birding community more welcoming to people of all ages, incomes, and colors. In the 1800s, educated people were expected to know about the birds and other natural resources around them. Lewis and Clark took extensive notes on birds during their expedition, and after that, a lot of military officers and ship captains or doctors collected for science many birds in the American West and on the seas. Theodore Roosevelt, an active member of the American Ornithologists Union, took great pleasure in birds. One of the founders of the American Ornithologists Union, William Brewster, was the curator of birds at Harvard’s zoology museum. His assistant, who may actually have taken most of the photographs credited to Brewster, and who was an excellent bird spotter who may have pointed out a majority of the birds Brewster collected was an African American named Robert Gilbert. Gilbert also did a lot of the work at the Harvard museum, but until his life was researched by John Hanson Mitchell in putting together an excellent book, Looking for Mr. Gilbert, virtually no one, including many people working at that same Harvard museum, had heard of him. Finding ways to introduce nature to people of all ages, incomes, and colors could vastly improve the decision-making process with regard to natural resources. Diversity equals stability, whether we’re talking about natural populations or the birding community.