Note: Golden Gate Audubon is delighted to reprint this blog post by Rue Mapp, founder of Outdoor Afro, an organization that reconnects African-Americans with natural spaces and one another through recreational activities such as camping, hiking, biking and birding. Rue lives in Oakland with her three children and worked as a Development Associate at GGAS in 2009-10.
By Rue Mapp
“I’m not really a birder.”
This is how I began my group introduction this weekend at a summit of leading bird and travel bloggers from around the United States in Tucson, Arizona. In this crowd, I considered labeling myself a birder risky, like I might be ousted as an imposter from the group of world-traveled birding experts with hundreds of species on their life lists.
But Sharon Stiteler — otherwise known as “Birdchick” — challenged me.
“Do you own a pair of binoculars?” she asked.
“Um, yeah,” I said.
“And how many bird books do you own?”
I stared at her blankly as I started running through my mind the bird guides I owned, and wondered if I should count the wildlife photography books too…
But before I could respond, Sharon said with a shrug, “You’re a birder.”
Our group came together to network and help Swarovski Optik (yes, the crystal folks) learn about the role of social media and bloggers to connect more people to the world of birding through their premium lenses. And over two days of focused bird searching and observing in the stunning mountains and valleys surrounding beautiful Tucson, we each had a chance to try out a variety of scopes and binoculars that put the bins I have been using at home these past two years to shame.
But there was something else about my birder disclaimer that nagged at me over the weekend, and I finally realized it had a lot to do with how the birding community is perceived beyond its traditional participants.
You see, many people I know have not even heard of the term “birding” as an activity to do, much less be.
For generations, African Americans have known and identified birds and other wildlife necessary for living in close contact with rural land and for pleasure. But in recent generations, as more of us have moved to busy cities that distract us from the natural world, there is an opportunity to re-engage the appetite for birding again, although it is critical to make the experience directly relevant to how people can expand their quality of life. This has to happen long before people might seriously contemplate the nuances of a binocular investment.
In the years since Outdoor Afro began, I am proud to have successfully led bird trips in my local urban area, where I feel pretty knowledgeable and comfortable as a leader, but initial reactions to the invitation for new participants to bird have been lukewarm at best, and at worse, with some trepidation. “That’s different,” I have often heard in response, with a slight tone of humor on the tongue.
But after each successful trip, participants clearly get that birding is pretty darn fun, and a chance to engage with the natural world in a creative way.
So, why bird?
With all the experience I have had birding in my local area and blogging about it with the help of my friends, this weekend brought the need for more people to experience birding into sharper focus. Unlike what some imagine, birding is not a solitary geek-out focused only on birds. The natural and built environment where birds can be found is the stage from which to observe and study other wildlife, flowers, trees, and to contemplate our human connections to the natural world.
Awareness of these connections has the potential power to heal individuals and communities. In nature, your cares and stress fall away, and you become aware of something so much bigger than your daily concerns.
Birding is also a perfect companion sport, linking famously with hiking, fishing, camping, kayaking, hunting, picnicking, and any other thing you can imagine doing in the outdoors – rural or urban. Birders can be of any physical ability; be wealthy or poor; travel to faraway places to catch a rare species, or gaze at city birds out of an apartment window. Birding meets people where they are.
While birding can be done alone, the company of others can greatly enhance the experience. People routinely gather for festivals, online, and even travel to exotic locations to observe local species together. Had it not been for the experienced birders in my midst, and the terrific company and laughs our group shared as we hiked, drove, and played, there is no way I would have been able to have so much fun, and see so many rare and amazing species not found where I live, like this Mexican Spotted Owl:
So yes, it’s true…I am a birder.