By Laura Cremin and David Robinson
America’s birding community has always advocated for conservation policies. Low voter turnout, however, is a huge roadblock to success. Although Americans prioritize environmental policies and climate action more than ever before, many simply do not vote. For instance, over 15 million identifiable environmentalists did not vote in the 2018 midterms. This failure to make our voices heard at the ballot box has tremendous implications for the future survival of birds, their habitat, and the communities — natural and human — we love.
That’s why we formed Auk the Vote!, an entirely grassroots campaign to educate and mobilize birders to join volunteer Get Out The Vote efforts. The birders come from all over the U.S. (and beyond!), united in our love for birds and our understanding that we’re rapidly approaching a point of no return for fighting climate change, protecting endangered species, and conserving rapidly vanishing wildlife habitat.
As widely reported last year, the Western Hemisphere has lost almost a quarter of its avian population over the past 50 years — a loss of 3 billion birds! And now, with climate change accelerating at an alarming pace, two-thirds of North American birds will be driven much closer to extinction — and many pushed over the edge, lost forever — if we don’t do all we can to keep our planet from heating up more than a couple of degrees.
Birders, bird and wildlife organizations, conservation organizations, and environmental-justice organizations are working on numerous fronts to confront the challenges we’re facing. We need leaders who will support and strengthen such work. Unfortunately, as we document in our Bird’s Eye View of the 2020 Elections, foundational environmental policies, critical for long-term planning, are at risk — and in some cases (such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act) under outright attack.
But all hope is not lost — far from it! A unique confluence of events has pushed birdwatching to the forefront of our national consciousness. With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing millions of Americans to stay home or close to home for weeks and months, birdwatching has spread far beyond the self-identified birding community. People who never paid much attention to birds are now discovering their beauty and fascination, which can connect us to nature almost anywhere — in the countryside, of course, but also in the parks and on the streets of every town and city in our country.
Additionally, last May’s now infamous Central Park racism-and-birdwatching incident brought to light the fundamental interconnections between birdwatching (and the enjoyment of nature more broadly) with social justice. For many birders who hadn’t considered such interconnections before, that incident powerfully demonstrated that we can’t take anything for granted, whether it be the continued existence of the birds we love or the freedom to seek them out and enjoy them in safety. Widespread coverage of that deeply disturbing encounter, as well as widespread coverage of the groundbreaking, joyous, first-ever Black Birders Week, demonstrate that the fight to protect the environment and the fight to end racism can be mutually reinforcing, greatly increasing our ability to protect the creatures, habitats, and communities we love.
Recognizing the enormous potential of the current moment, through Auk the Vote! we are doing all we can to empower birdwatchers to take collective, strategic action to get pro-environment voters to the polls.
That’s why we are magnifying, rather than duplicating, the work of existing voter-turnout organizations by helping our volunteers join Get Out The Vote efforts of groups such as the League of Conservation Voters, Environmental Voter Project, Sierra Club Independent Action, and 350 Bay Area, organizations that use the best available data and research to identify pro-environment voters in states and districts where voter turnout matters most — or of voting-rights groups such as Reclaim Our Vote, which partners with organizations around the country to reach the communities of color most heavily affected by voter-list purging and other forms of disenfranchisement. From these partners we have learned that there’s no shortage of urgent GOTV work to be done, whether it be writing letters and postcards, sending texts, or making phone calls (“phone-banking”), reaching out to people who share our values about the environment, environmental justice, and climate change, but whose voting records show they may need extra encouragement to ensure they cast their ballots.
We hope you’ll visit our website, read our Bird’s Eye View of the 2020 Elections, check out our calendar of GOTV opportunities, and commit to taking part in one (or more!) this September and October. And if you fill out our Get Involved form, we can help match you with the GOTV volunteering opportunities that are right for you, and help you recruit other birders to get involved, too.
Together, we can mobilize thousands of birders — plus our friends, families, coworkers, and neighbors — to vote like birds’ lives depend on us — because they do! Visit aukthevote.org to find out more, and join us!
A personal note: Why we created Auk the Vote!
Gradually, over the past several years, I came to realize that birdwatching is my form of spirituality. When I’m out watching and listening to birds, especially (though not only) away from cities and towns, and if I’m being receptive to whatever birds I encounter, rather than hunting for something new or uncommon (exciting as that may be), I often slip into a state of calm, quiet focus, feeling connected to the natural world around me, alive to its patterns and details, its mystery and beauty. When I’m in that state, the sights I see, the sounds I hear, the behaviors I witness fill me with wonder, delight, and joy.
And yet, increasingly, that state is shattered by the incontrovertible knowledge that these places and creatures I love are being destroyed. Climate change, habitat destruction, mass extinction… How can I connect to the natural world while denying what’s actually happening to it? That painful knowledge doesn’t just come second-hand, in what I’ve read and heard from scientists, journalists, and activists. I’m fifty-five years old and have been birdwatching since late childhood. I’ve seen for myself the enormous decline in bird populations over the past several decades.
I’m also a gay man who lived through the height of the AIDS epidemic, and who, as an AIDS activist, helped make possible the world we live in today where AIDS is no longer a death sentence. I know firsthand that we have to fight for what we believe in and what we love — and that if we work with others who share our beliefs and our loves, we can make a huge difference.
And so, through Auk the Vote!, I’m trying to make a difference again. Not because I want to — I would much rather not mix politics or activism with birdwatching — but because I have to. In reaching out to other birders — people like me, for whom connecting with birds is one of life’s greatest joys — I’m posing a question that can’t be ignored: Are we content to reap the benefits of connecting with birds — our continent’s birds, our hemisphere’s birds, our planet’s birds — marveling at their astounding beauty and mesmerizing diversity, yet sit quietly by and allow them to be decimated? We who love birds must fight to protect them. If we don’t, who will? And if we don’t act now, when will we act? As with the COVID-19 pandemic, so too with climate change, habitat destruction, and the loss of our world’s birds: denial and delay only make things worse. We’ve got to heed the science and take effective action — now.
Besides, the work needed most urgently in the next two months isn’t difficult: writing letters or postcards, sending texts or making phone calls. Auk the Vote!’s partner organizations have done all the research and provide all the training. And Auk the Vote! can match you with the GOTV opportunities that work best for you. Do you want to make calls with fellow birders, taking breaks for some bird trivia to keep things exciting? Are you an introvert who needs voter-turnout tasks designed with you in mind? Are you a young person who’d prefer to reach out to young voters of color? Maybe you can volunteer only in the evening, or afternoon, or morning, or on weekends. We at Auk the Vote! will do our best to find an opportunity to meet your needs and preferences. All you have to do is give some time and energy in these next several weeks.
With all my heart — all my passion for birds and for the natural world — I urge you to do so.
A full day’s work at a restoration site never fails to give me an upwelling sense of agency. Each bag of trash removed at the mouth of a creek leaves behind a visibly improved space. I gather fragments of Styrofoam coolers, faded yellow gym shorts, decaying teddy bears, intact straws, and plastic bottle after plastic bottle, while picturing an American Avocet’s scythe-like bill swinging through the water unimpeded by the trash. But at some point, shouldn’t I reserve some energy to look further upstream? To stop the trash where it starts?
If only a simple, direct impact like trash was all that was at stake for birds. Ultimately, the source of many of our most pressing environmental issues stem from policy decisions. That’s why I’m pivoting from my routine until November 3rd and joining efforts to Get Out the Vote. Voting is just one component of building for a healthy world, but having our voices represented is a necessary precondition to make downstream work tenable.
And it has actually been more fun and a lot easier than picking up trash! I’ve especially enjoyed connecting with others while co-developing Auk the Vote! at a time when social isolation is the buzzword.
About Laura: Laura Cremin’s favorite thing about GGAS is the spirit of generous teaching – there is always an experienced birder to learn something new from, and a welcome to anyone who expresses interest. She is currently serving as GGAS Vice President and East Bay Conservation Committee Chair. She studied Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior and now works in the field of environmental compliance. She learned to bird in the boreal forests, and is grateful to be able to continue birding in a place as special as the SF Bay.
About David: David Robinson is the unofficial Chief Bird Nerd at The College Preparatory School in Oakland, where his official job is teaching high-school English. He started birdwatching in New Jersey in his early teens, back in the 1970’s, and has gradually become increasingly passionate about everything bird-related in the ensuing decades. Since last February he has been a student in the year-long Master Birding Program co-run by the California Academy of Sciences and Golden Gate Audubon. A convert to birding by ear, he is literally gearing up (having recently bought a shotgun mic and a portable audio recorder) to start making his own bird-vocalization recordings — that is, once the elections are over. Til November 3rd, David is doing all he can, through Auk the Vote!, to try to elect leaders who will protect birds, their habitats, at-risk human communities, and the planet.