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Open Mic: The Field Glass Ceiling

At the Mic: Brooke McDonald

Brooke McDonald is a technical editor for an environmental consulting firm in Northern California. In her free time she birds, gardens, plays with her dogs, and researches an obscure Calvinist sect.      


Most birders are women. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2007 report, “Birding in the United States: A Demographic and Economic Analysis,” 54% of birders are women. At the Space Coast Birding Festival in 2011, 69% of attendees were women; at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in 2010, 60-65% of attendees were women; and at The Biggest Week in American Birding, around 60% of attendees have been women. Tropical Birding estimates that two-thirds of their American clients are women, VENT estimates that 60% of their clients are women, and another leading tour company said that 54.6% of their clients booked for upcoming trips are women.

However, by any measure, women are poorly represented in the upper ranks of birding.

  • Women have 11.2% of the to ten eBird state lists for each U.S. state.
  • Women are 9.3% of all state bird records committee members—a number that drops to 7.8% if the committee secretaries are excluded.
  • There are eight women out of the American Birding Association’s top 100 ABA-area listers.
  • Women are 3.6% of California county big day record holders.
  • Finally, there has been only one woman out of the 35 current and former members of the American Birding Association’s Checklist Committee.

    This disparity was explored in a paper by Caren Cooper and Jennifer Smith titled “Gender Patterns in Bird-related Recreation in the USA and UK” published in 2010 in Ecology and Society. Cooper and Smith classified birding into four categories of increasing difficulty: Supportive,
Participatory, Competitive, and Authoritative. They found that women’s participation decreased at each successive level. For example,  membership in the National Audubon Society, a Supportive activity, was 63% female; Project FeederWatch and the Christmas Bird Count, Participatory activities, were, respectively, 66% and 37% female; inclusion in the ABA Big Day and ABA List Report, a Competitive activity, was 20% female; and service as an eBird state editor, an Authoritative activity, was 7% female.

Unlike the challenge of bringing people of different races and ethnicities into the birding community, this is not an issue that can be resolved by simply introducing more women to birding. Women are already here, but they are not attaining high status in the community.

Authority in the birding community is a function not only of one’s skills but of confidence in one’s skills. According to Cooper and Smith, men are more likely to be overconfident in rating their own birding skills while women are more likely to be under confident. But what factors are responsible for this difference in confidence levels?

“A lot of women tell me that they’re glad to see a woman taking the lead in the birding world.” — Debi Shearwater 

Most of the women I spoke with said that some male birders either ignore women entirely or are crushingly dismissive, patronizing, or condescending towards them.

“A lot of men just won’t take a woman seriously,” said Susan Myers. “I get it all the time—people walk right past me. I’m the only one carrying a scope and I’m standing out front calling the birds and I’m magically invisible.”

One woman who wished to remain anonymous told me about a female friend of hers who had rediscovered a bird that had been presumed extinct. A meeting was held to discuss the status and conservation of the bird, and during this meeting, the woman in question was totally ignored—until one of the men asked her to make coffee.

Sheri Williamson said that some men have displayed outright incredulity at the fact that she wrote a field guide. She went on to say, “It’s hard to get into a position of influence if you’re not accorded the respect you deserve.”

Cathering Hamilton and Starr Safire

“It’s so much harder when you’re dating a birder to get taken seriously.” — Catherine Hamilton (left, here with Starr Saphir) / photo from The Central Park Effect

Many women in the birding  community are treated as the lesser half of a couple, coasting on their partner’s superior ability and only faintly reflecting their partner’s superior skills. Even women who were serious birders before they met their partners are often treated as if any birding ability they have was gained just by exposure to the rarefied air surrounding their partners. Women who actually were introduced to birding by their partners are treated as though this somehow cheapens and invalidates their interest in birds. If a younger woman is single, she’s often treated as a groupie and a follower, and not a serious birder in her own right.

For example, the new film A Birder’s Guide to Everything is about three young birders who take off birding for the weekend… and a girl who goes along for the ride. As Next Magazine put it, “the group sets out for Connecticut with Ellen, a fetching photography lover from school, in tow,” while Variety said, “Pretty young shutterbug Ellen tags along to record their finds.”

Donna Dittmann said that when she was 19 or 20, a top ABA-area lister told her that she had a large California list only because she “hung with the big boys,” an accusation that never would have been leveled at a young man with her skills and experience.

Sheridan Coffey said, “If we are together, most people will talk to my partner first, asking him questions and ignoring me.” She went on to say, “I am sometimes treated like his secretary, getting emails asking me to ask him if he will lead a group, or go to a festival, while not inviting me.”

Catherine Hamilton, in a blog entry in 2011, wrote that she was called a harlot at an AOU meeting just for having the audacity to date another birder. “I stand here, with a small army of presumed Hester Prynnes behind me, wearing their binoculars in lieu of a letter, and I call you out, in the names of sexism, chauvinism, and tawdry pettiness. You know who you are. You know it is not just about one comment, one reputation. Is there really any question why there are so few young and youngish women in the birding world?”

Sheri Williamson

“If you play down your own knowledge and skills consistently enough, you can’t blame people for buying into it.” — Sheri Williamson / photo by Laura Kammermeier

Women are often afraid to bird in some areas, but strong field skills are developed in part by birding in a variety of places. Debi Shearwater brought up the fact that women venturing into secluded areas do face real threats. Phoebe Snetsinger was gang-raped in Papua New Guinea, and many excellent birding spots have a reputation for being unsafe. These fears can keep women from birding alone, and bolster the stereotype that women view birding primarily as a social activity.

Women are less likely to assert themselves in the field, more likely to admit mistakes, more likely to take their cues from other birders, more likely to use a querying tone when “calling” a bird, and more likely to discuss birds after they have been identified, all of which may be interpreted as evidence of poor birding effort and weak field skills. Women are less likely to report suspected rarities and are more likely to qualify their sightings, probably for fear of being publicly eviscerated by other birders, but bird reports that don’t sound confident are unlikely to be accepted.

One of the women that I spoke with even qualified her own excellent birding skills, weakly stating, “I feel like I know my stuff.” As Susan Myers observed, “We are taught right from the start to qualify everything.” Julie Zickefoose said, “I think that as women we are
trained from an early age to always defer to men. I’m trying to turn that ship around in my own mind.” Lynn Barber said, “I think
many new women birders are hesitant to ask questions, especially of males, and may have difficulty in getting a mentor.”

Shawneen Finegan

“It is hard for men to mentor women.” — Shawneen Finnegan / photo by Dave Irons

Lack of mentorship is a serious problem that holds female birders back. Birding with elite birders is how most people develop elite skills themselves, and men may simply have access to a larger pool of potential mentors. Mentors also introduce people to birding culture, teach field etiquette, and prevent new birders from making blunders that undermine their credibility. Women are major community builders and organizers in the birding world, but as far as field experience goes, Jennifer Rycenga said, “Women don’t get a lot of mentoring, but give a lot of it.”

“I enjoy helping others learn,” Julie Zickefoose said. “In fact, I’d rather go birding with a newcomer, because it’s fun to be able to impart information and watch someone grow in confidence and ability.”

“Mentorship is an area where I think women have an edge,” Sheri Williamson said. “We just need to connect more young female birders with
female mentors. Giving special encouragement to young women in birding can only help birding, birds, and society at large.”

If there were more women in mentorship roles in the birding community, women’s confidence in their own field skills would be improved and there would be more women inspired to ascend to the upper ranks. As it stands, however, most of the strong mentors in the birding community are men, and there are social factors that keep men and women apart, especially men and women of differing ages and relationship status. Some men who would otherwise be mentors can thoughtlessly destroy the confidence of less skilled birders.

“Being a phenomenal birder doesn’t give you the right to be a complete asshole,” Catherine Hamilton said.


“Generational links between women are missing.” — Jennifer Rycenga / photo by Bob Droege

The age structure of the birding community may also partially explain the absence of high-profile women. Older women are often dismissed as “kitchen window” birders. Shawneen Finnegan said that while becoming a top-notch birder is far easier when one begins watching birds at a  young age, many women begin birding later in life. Jen Brumfield observed that men were the default leaders in previous generations, and Jennifer Rycenga pointed out that girls have historically been discouraged from cultivating interests in a single-minded manner, pursuing the sciences, and playing outside.

Will a change in generational attitudes naturally result in more women gaining leadership roles in the community? Another hobby that is nerdy, intense, and male-dominated—but young—is video gaming, and gamers have had a great deal of productive discussion recently about how some  men not only insist that women demonstrate extensive gaming credentials before they’re grudgingly accepted as fellow gamers, but also see some women as “imposters” who are only feigning interest in gaming. Within the last few weeks, I observed an exchange on Facebook where several young male leaders in the birding community made harassing comments in response to a picture of a young woman wearing binoculars, indicating that even though more overt forms of sexism may vanish, there are still ongoing subtle forms that need to be addressed.

“I doubt any of us are totally innocent, having grown up in a culture where women are still struggling to be taken as seriously as their male
counterparts in virtually all aspects of life,” Sheri Williamson said.

Julie guide NR.JPG copy

“I think anyone, male or female, is capable of developing extreme field skills.” — Julie Zickefoose / photo by Nina Harfman

Birding can be a fraternity in the best or the worst sense of the word. One woman I spoke with seemed to accept as the natural order of things that there’s a “pecking order” in birding that men suffer under too, but most of the women I talked to maintained that women birders get the worst of it. There is a lot of cliquishness in birding, and while men who get into birding are often quickly accepted into the group, many women are treated as outsiders even after years of birding.

There may be excellent women birders out there who have become so frustrated with the hazing and casual sexism that they have rejected the birding community entirely, and there may be many women who are overlooked in a birding culture that considers the size of one’s list as an
important measure of one’s worth.

“Some of the top listers are not necessarily the most skilled birders in the state,” Jen Brumfield said. Shawneen Finnegan concurred, saying, “A big list doesn’t equal a high level of birding expertise.”

Susan Myers

“I think a lot of birding is a boys’ club and women may feel excluded.” — Susan Myers / photo from Oriental Bird Images

While several women that I spoke with alleged that women just aren’t as motivated as men are to make a name for themselves in the birding
world, this comes uncomfortably close to the specious argument that there are few women CEOs and corporate managers because women just aren’t interested in corporate advancement. That said, men and women may well seek different things from birding, although whether those differences are innate or a product of culture is impossible to determine.

Gender Patterns in Bird-related Recreation in the USA and UK qualified it thus: “…Our results suggest that males are more likely to be achievement-oriented in their motivation, seeking to meet some standard of performance, whereas females might be more likely to be appreciation-motivated, participating to reduce stress or gain a sense of connection with nature.”

“I probably have a pretty huge life list, because I seek new birds avidly wherever I go, and I go to a lot of cool places,” Julie Zickefoose said. “But what lights my fire is having a good close encounter with a bird—any bird—that teaches me something about how it lives, thinks,
reproduces, feeds.”

“I think it’s the nature of women to have a more holistic approach to things,” Susan Myers said. “There is nothing less like hunting than keeping a list. A lot of these hardcore listers have no interest in the behavior of the birds. They want to see it, tick it and get the hell out of there. It’s the women who behave more like hunters. They want to understand the birds, know the behavior, know the environment.”

Ultimately, women in the birding world need to have more confidence in themselves.

“We should learn to trust ourselves and not always go running off to find an ‘expert’ to confirm what we probably already have figured out
for ourselves,” Julie Zickefoose concluded. “If female birders frustrate me, it’s because so many of them never allow themselves to arrive.”





(Special thanks go to Lynn Barber, Jen Brumfield, Sheridan Coffey, Donna Dittmann, Shawneen Finnegan, Catherine Hamilton, Laura Kammermeier, Susan Myers, Jennifer Rycenga, Debi Love Shearwater, Sharon Stiteler, Sheri Williamson, and Julie Zickefoose. I had additional discussions with Jennifer Schramm Cutillo, Liz Deluna Gordon, Noah Gaines, Jeff Gordon, Clay Kempf, and Clayton Tschudy. Some numbers and details were provided by Iain Campbell, Victor Emanuel, Marci Madsen Fuller, Kenn Kaufman, and Kim Kaufman. Finally, Dave Irons, Dave Moseley, and Rick Wright provided feedback on various iterations of this piece.)


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The ABA Blog's Open Mics offer an opportunity for members of the birding community to share their voice with the ABA audience. We accept all and any submissions. If you have something you'd like to share, please contact blog editor Nate Swick at [email protected]
  • Some Lady

    Excellent post. I would like to add the “some lady” phenomenon that I’ve noticed.

    Last fall I met someone who was doing a Big Year in my county. He’s an excellent birder – in top 100 in the ABA, and seemed like a nice enough person, friendly, not condescending – actually spoke to me, which, as you’ve noted, is quite rare. We got to talking and he mentioned a bird that he was missing and had no hopes to find for his big year, and that there had only been one report for it in the county by “some lady”. He rolled his eyes as if to say it couldn’t have been legit.

    I had to turn away so he wouldn’t see me cracking up laughing. I was that “lady”!!!

    This seems to be a common dismissal of women birders. I had another gentleman, very nice person, refer to one of the leading ornithologists in our area as “some lady”.

    These guys are so clueless.

  • Wonderful article, Brooke.

  • I suppose all of the points are well taken in this piece, most of which are symptoms of a sexist North American culture generally (and not really any worse in birding than other pastimes), but what does not sit well with me is the concept that a large list is equivalent with “high status” in the birding community. I don’t accept that. A person who enjoys birds in the backyard in my mind is not fundamentally less a birder, or a less valuable birder, than a person who sits on a records committee, whatever the gender. Their investments in birding’s many facets might differ in fundamental ways, but to attach higher “status” to one activity or aspect versus another is problematic. I was not raised to respect such a hierarchical ordering of the birding community. About half of my mentors were women, half men, and all respected one another deeply, though their interests and emphases were not identical by any means. I went chasing after rarities with both men and women, for sure, in the 1970s and 1980s, but men seemed more likely to do that, whereas women commanded more knowledge of botany and other subjects, on average. But it was all okay. One of my mentors, though more by example than field companionship, Claudia Wilds, was mentor to hundreds or thousands of birders, and it’s hard for me to think of many male birders in the mid-Atlantic who would have nearly as much “status” as Claudia. Nevertheless, Claudia didn’t seek status – just understanding – and the same could be said of most people I encountered out in the field birding in the twentieth century. It’s true that some people, men and women, do seek status and recognition in many parts of their lives (including birding), but I think that that behavior should be considered in itself, clearly and separately from an interest in birds. And we as people who think about such things should not confuse status-seeking with “high status”. If such people make disparaging comments about others (whether women or not), we should note that. I don’t mean to say that we should in some way “demote” people who use birding as a stage for the aggrandizement of ego (that would be simply to invoke a new hierarchy), but I don’t think it’s in anyone’s best interest to assume that a big number or big list translates into some sort of superior position in what is, after all, a most imaginary “community” at the continental level. The heroes of birding to me are the ones who get out and thoroughly enjoy the natural world and report what they see, learning from errors, enjoying habitats and other creatures, enjoying life generally and learning new things often. I think that if women are underrepresented in listing or in records committees, it might well be because they are leading the way toward a more modern, more evolved engagement with the natural world – not because they are excluded or marginalized or discouraged. At least, that has never been my experience or my interpretation. I respect that others, especially in urban areas, will have had many experiences that are unlike mine.

  • Paul Riss

    Great posting. One of the best I’ve read on this blog.

  • I live in Texas. I have done a fair bit of posting on the state listserver, even compiling the state RBA for a number of years. I purposely write in a dry, rather terse manner, as I don’t want to be perceived as a “lady birder”, a term I despise. When meeting birders in the field for the first time, someone almost always drops their jaw and says “But, I thought you were a man!” I have a name that is sexually ambiguous. In fact, there was an old time male birder in the state with the same name, with a slightly different spelling. I am a serious birder. I am a competitive lister. I want to be taken seriously. I have attributed men’s attitudes here in Texas to it being a “good old boys” kind of place, even in birding, but it seems this attitude is rampant. I can’t tell you how many times people ignore me, while talking to my spouse, or interrupt me, talk over me, or look at me like I am some kind of babbling idiot. I know I am sometimes seen as a “bitch”, as assertive women often are. If that is the case, so be it.

  • I would be careful stereotyping all men as egotistical jerks who “ignore” women in birding…

  • I have noticed that young male birders are the worst practitioners of exclusionary, clique-ish behavior, at least in my experience. Like gamers, these young men have been birding since they were boys and have very little experience with girls or women. And, so we become the “other”. The “old boys club” of the older birders can be pretty brutal too, but I’ve been fortunate in experiencing this less than the “young boys club” of chasers and listers.

  • Madeleine McDonald

    Very well written post, and on a topic that has crossed my head recently. Being a young female birder myself, it most definitely has its challenges. If we really want to make our mark in the birding world we will have to be brave and “come out of our shell,” so to speak. It’s all about believing in yourself and your own abilities.

  • Dotty Robbins

    Yeah, that’s what I’m talkin’ about!

  • I think this is a great, ballsy post. I’m glad we’re having a tough conversation.

    Particularly difficult is the fine (unknowable?) line between gender and skill discrimination. Elite birders are be dismissive of less-elite birders all the time, regardless of who the person is. I am proud of birding and the birding community. I interact with a variety of people most of my peers do not (though we’re all mostly white – but that’s another post), and I like that birding’s culture is far more open to inclusion that what it feels like in normal society. I am not discounting very real experiences of gender discrimination, but I don’t want to jump to the conclusion that birding is particularly mysogynist when some experiences may be attributed to elitism (which isn’t any better, but makes me feel like less of a jerk).

  • Excellent post Brooke. As an older woman birder, I can’t tell you how often I have been treated as a nonentity by men birders, old and young. (They often live to regret it when they miss out on one of my famous dinners!) The really good birders, of course, are mostly kind and generous, and there is a lovely community of women birders whom I’ve found to be almost uniformly generous and supportive. I think that young, attractive women birders often are treated dismissively by men birders, and that’s a shame as many are very skilled and very generous with assistance and advice. Thank you for bringing an important issue to the table for discussion.

  • Michael Retter

    Not having been privy to the nuanced of this conversation, it seems to me he might just as easily have said “Some guy.” It it dismissive? Yes. Inherently sexist? I’m not so sure.

  • Christina

    I’m also a young female birder. I recently convinced my local public radio station to work with me to do a short spot on birding, and I waver daily between excitement to do it and misguided regret that I ever suggested it. I meet lots of birders on the trails, the vast majority of them much older and more experienced than I. Many are happy to see me and are game to chat about the day’s birding. Some are not. I am terrified to make any small mistake in the project at the risk of being dismissed as a birder. (It doesn’t help that on my first day at a new job just last week, an older male colleague said to me, “Good girl,” when he saw me cleaning up from my welcome meet and great.)

    I will go forward with the radio project as it’s a great opportunity to promote birding, come out of my shell, and show confidence in my abilities, but I do so with a sense of dread for how it will be recieved coming from a young woman like me. Hopefully the elite birders in my city will have read this well written blog post and considered it by the time it airs.

  • I cringe as well when I see “competitive” as a criterion for measuring birder ranking. We cannot judge a birder by the size of his/her list (and willingness to crow about it) any more than we can the cost of his/her spotting scope. The desire to compare the size of mine to the size of yours is a sign of testosterone poisoning, not competence. We should not be using male-centric tools to evaluate the state of women in birding. Competitive and to some extent authoritative (the “complete asshole” part of authoritative) are not necessarily attributes to strive for. They often get in the way of good data collection and good science. Defining any birder’s competence this way makes us part of the problem.

    When I teaching bird-watching classes (and I call them bird-watching classes) the majority of participants are women, women over 40, in fact. I find women in the field to be (on average) more collaborative, more careful and more likely to see the bigger ecological picture. They’re willing to spend time, stop and identify a flower or watch bees without all the fidgety, “let’s get on with it, we’re here to see birds” linearity. And I try to nurture those qualities. The goal of my classes is to create observers, not collectors, thus bird-watchers, folks who are unlikely to spend a lot of time on “lister central”.

    I prefer to invoke the spirit of Margaret Nice who was an avocational, “kitchen window” bird-watcher and an authority on Song Sparrow behavior. If you don’t know who Margaret Nice is, Google her. Ersnt Mayr wrote of Margaret Nice,”[she] almost single-handedly initiated a new era in American ornithology and the only effective counter movement against the list-chasing movement.”

    I am not troubled by the lack of women on “top whatever lists”. I celebrate it. And the dearth of women on checklist committees is troubling until you realize that most checklists committee work is an arm of the scientifically dubious obsession with rarity as it relates to listing. Maybe the fact that the demographic majority of birders are not measuring up to the subjective criteria “not top listers” tells more about our measurement tools than the actual place women hold in the birding community.

  • Clay Kempf

    Donna, I have to disagree with laying the blame on young male birders. In coastal California, I often see the “young turks” going out into the field with young women, or dragging them along on boat trips, hoping their passion becomes contagious (perhaps in more areas than just birding). And I’m pleased to say it often does. On the other hand, many of the old school, “big names” are quick to put down or dismiss up-and-coming or mid-level birders, ESPECIALLY women birders. But we might be talking about different groups. As Ned Brinkley states, chasers and listers are not necessarily elite birders, on many levels, and the need for ego gratification from those playing “my list is bigger” is often disproportionate to the lister’s skill level.

    I hope each future generation is more tolerant of gender, race, and lifestyle differences than the previous one, and I especially want that to be true of birders, so maybe my perception of young male birders is slanted by this hope. In any event, Donna is spot on in bringing attention to the need of every generation being aware of the influence they have on their peers, and the responsibility they have to become leaders themselves, and mentors that pave the way to a better future for our appreciation of the avian world.

  • Kenn Kaufman

    Hey Brooke, Great pun in the title! And I agree with most of your points. Of course, as Ned Brinkley mentioned, this is partly symptomatic of a sexist North American culture generally, but it’s still worth talking about. People are celebrating the fact that women in the US Congress now are up to a whopping 18 percent, but I’ve been saying for years that the USA would run more smoothly if women made up at least 50 percent of congress, and if we had a 50 percent chance that the next President would be a woman. We obviously have a long way to go.

    And we have a long way to go in the birding community, too, but there are regional differences in how bad the problem is, and I’m proud to say that we’re making progress here in Ohio. The president of the Ohio Ornithological Society is Jen Sauter. The president of the Toledo Naturalists’ Association is Jan Dixon, and their “naturalist of the year” last year was Becky Cullen. The two biggest Audubon Centers in Ohio are run by Charity Krueger and Christie Vargo. When there’s an ID question anywhere in Ohio, Jen Brumfield is usually the first expert consulted. The two people making headlines for amazing county year listing exploits here are Jen Brumfield and Sherrie Duris. Ohio birder / writer / public speaker Julie Zickefoose is internationally revered. And the executive director of Black Swamp Bird Observatory is my amazing wife, Kimberly Kaufman – and she’s the main person in charge of the Biggest Week In American Birding, one of the biggest and most influential bird festivals on the continent. Apropos of one of Brooke’s early paragraphs, I never miss an opportunity to clarify that Kimberly was an expert birder and bird-bander before I met her for the first time. People here recognize what she’s accomplished, and it has been a long time since any idiot suggested that Kim was “riding my coattails.” So, yeah, we still have a ways to go, but Ohio is heading in the right direction.

    One final point. It’s undeniably true that sexism in birding reflects a larger pattern of sexism in North American society, but I don’t see that as an excuse; I see it as an opportunity. We have the power to change THIS birding culture, THIS birding community, and we should. Rather than waiting for all of society to change, we can push for equality within our own birding community, and set up a dynamic that could have a ripple effect on society at large.

  • I started birding seriously as a kid. Many if not most of the most knowledgeable birders I know also started at a young age. There’s just something about young, pliable minds. They’re able to soak up more knowledge. So it’s no surprise to me that most of birding’s current leaders and sages (no reflection on their list size) start out this way.

    When I was a teenager, fewer than 10% of my peers were female. I knew only perhaps three really serious female birders. Two of them, Jessie Barry and Jen Brumfield, are now highly-regarded names in the wider birding community. If we accept that birding leaders are very likely to come from this “young birder” pool, and also accept that the other birders in this cohort in the late ’90s and early oughts were mostly male, it makes sense to me that the leaders of the birding community going forward the next couple decades will still be largely majority male.

    I’m not sure this is inherently a “problem” (I wonder if floral designers and hairdressers have diversity summits to try to see how they can address the “problem” of not having more lesbians and straight men in their ranks), but it seems to me that the best way to try to even out the gender gap is to nurture more young female birders *now*. But since most of the possible mentors are now male, this creates a potential social image problem, both for the mentor and the apprentice. A 55-year-old man may be reluctant to take on a teenaged girl as an apprentice, lest whispers swirl that he is taking advantage of the young girl. Not to mention the reaction by her parents. “You want to go with this older man to which secluded, backwoods location this weekend?!” And then there’s the flack the girl may get from her peers for spending time with an unrelated “older man”.

    A complicated issue for sure, but the simplest “solution” I see is fostering an interest and skill in birding in girls at a young age. Only good can come of it.

  • Just a word to correct this common (and slightly sinister) misconception about Margaret Morse Nice. Nice held an advanced degree in zoology and her work was widely published. Her obituary in The Auk calls her an “outstanding ornithologist.” This notion that she was “an avocational, ‘kitchen window’ bird-watcher” does the woman a great injustice.

  • On a positive note: of all the egregious “stringers” I have encountered, only one is a woman – a very small percentage indeed.

  • Jacob Socolar

    I completely agree, but maybe one take-home message is that we cannot use the phrase “some lady” as cavalierly as the phrase “some guy.”
    Not because WE are being misogynistic by saying it, but because the phrase risks reinforcing intentional and unintentional acts of genuine misogyny in our male-dominated birding culture.
    “Some guy” doesn’t do that, because there is no ‘misandry’ in birding culture for such a phrase to reinforce.

  • Manuel

    Ned, I agree with much of what you write, and I want to amplify the discussion of Claudia Wilds. I worked with Claudia in the early 80’s on the Spring Shorebird surveys she did on the Delmarva. I was too callow (and 16-18 at the time) to be aware of gender issues, but I never noticed any comments about her chromosome count. Looking back, I realize Claudia was likely one of those women who was perceived by the men around her as an equal because she was twice as good. Another leader in the DC area at that time was Margaret Donnald, the doyenne of bird-banding in the DC area.

  • Some Lady

    Good point, Jacob. It is especially true when the term “some lady” is accompanied by eye rolls. Who would ever say “some guy” reported a bird, while rolling their eyes? What would that even mean?

    Of course he could have also meant it in a very positive way, as in “soooome lady!” Yeah, no, I don’t think so. lol.

  • Mary DeLia

    There are a lot of barriers to field birding for women. Sexism is the least of them. With eBird and other on-line tools we no longer need to be privy to those old boys’ cliques. The real barriers are safety and cultural sensibilities. Being alone in secluded areas presents quite a big risk for young women. A teen boy is much more apt to go off alone in the woods than a teen girl who will be strongly discouraged from that activity from pretty much everyone in her life. There really are crazy people out there.

    As for cultural sensibilities, it is not only touchy for young girls to go out with older male birders who may or may not have the best intentions, but also married women. My husband and I devote a lot of time to our daughter and rarely get to spend time alone together. I don’t have to ask him how he feels about me spending five hours enjoying a recreational activity with another man.

    The other point about this being a recreational activity is that it’s hard to rationalize putting off certain obligations for something that does not generate an income.

    I like spending time with my family, and I need to come back home in one piece . If that makes me less of a birder, so be it.

  • Chief Potluck Organizer

    I’ve seen these problems on planning committees for local birding groups/festivals. Some of the older men on the committees act as if the women, especially younger women, in the group are there solely to provide refreshments, set up and take down at events, and listen/nod. They’re dismissive of women’s ideas for speakers, workshops, field trips, etc. And they consistently interrupt. I try to tell myself that it’s a reflection of the era the men grew up in, but it can be infuriating.

    That leads me to another issue I see, at least in my area. These same volunteer planning committees are made up of women and a few retired men. Of course women playing a role in local birding groups is a good thing. But I look around at meetings and wonder: Where are all the young and middle-aged men who I meet in the field, and see posting on eBird and local listservs? They’re spending their free time connecting with each other and honing their skills. Meanwhile, we’re planning potlucks and fundraisers. I’m very happy to play my part, but I would love to see more young men volunteer in the time-consuming administrative roles that help foster the birding community.

  • Mary

    Claudia Wilds was “perceived by the men around her as an equal because she was twice as good”

    We hear this in many areas of our society where women and minorities have to be “twice as good” to be “perceived … as an equal”.

  • Mary DeLia

    I think we also have to be careful with labeling women as the observers and the true appreciators of birds and nature. I know plenty of men, even some of the top listers in my state, who are deeply and profoundly in love with their natural world.

  • Mary

    Christina, I wish you the best of luck with your radio program.

  • Liz Deluna


  • Shawneen Finnegan

    The topic of birding and women has long been a conversation item so am glad to see it brought to the fore. Thanks, Brooke. And thanks to all the thoughtful comments posted thus far.

    To Michael Retter and Mary DeLia, your comments about birding safety, people of opposite sex birding with one another or those of disparate ages, is dead on. It was what I was referring to in my comment about how hard it can be for women, particularly younger ones, to have older male mentors or even be regular birding companions, unless a group is involved. As for American sexism in birding, be glad we live in the USA, and not abroad, where we numbers far outstrip the percentage of female European birders. We have it easy compared to them.

    LIke Ned Brinkley, one of my most cherished mentors was Claudia Wilds. What was so interesting about Claudia is that she didn’t start birding until she was older. She told me how she was asked to lead field trips in the DC area where she lived and soon realized her field skills weren’t good enough for “dicky birding.” She decided to concentrate on larger birds that held still like gulls, terns, and shorebirds. She traveled to museums including ones abroad to do research. Along the way she gained a great deal of respect from the European birding community which is saying more than you can imagine. She was inspirational for many reasons, including the fact she overcame both age and gender barriers.

  • “This notion that she was “an avocational, ‘kitchen window’ bird-watcher” does the woman a great injustice.” Only if one considers avocational and “kitchen window” pejorative and “advanced degree” more important, which I certainly do not. She received her degrees after she had become known for her work (including published research) on Song Sparrows and much of her work was done more or less in her back yard while raising her children.

  • Johanna Lentz

    This was a great blog post and topic. I have enjoyed reading the comments and discussion that follows. Keep it up!

  • As a birder who married a birder and still fall into the ‘young-ish’ category, it baffles me when people assume I’m tagging along; I showed up for a (new) CBC alone and the folks were sad because he couldn’t make it and I was there as a consolation or something. Funny. He HATES to do CBCs (rookie birders make him glad he’s a recluse) and I’ve done 40+ in 10 years… 15+ in one season *was* a bit of a stretch, but I’ve been birding ~15 years and he’s been at it ~8. We have very different backgrounds; his looks more glamorous on paper but we’re roughly peers. Yet he is the one taken seriously.

    We’re a team. And I’m the feisty one. But he generally gets the credit. Do I get taken seriously without him? Sometimes. But occasionally because of him. What a weird tradeoff.

  • Jen

    I hear this piece of advice from others in my field of fishes. I’m also a bird-watcher but it’s less dominating in my life than my work with fishes. I’ve been told that to be perceived as equal as a woman, you have to know your sh*t way better than the guys. There are few women in the ranks of authority when it comes to aquariums or ichthyology, too, though, there are certainly exceptions!

    I’d like to make another point with regards to young women spending time with men as mentors. It can be very challenging and I have missed opportunities in my life because it would be viewed as inappropriate for me to travel somewhere alone with a man, when it would not even be an issue if I were a fellow. I guess I’d like to say that this is one reason why I am so very grateful for gay men! It just takes that component right out of it.

  • “The heroes of birding to me are the ones who get out and thoroughly enjoy the natural world and report what they see, learning from errors, enjoying habitats and other creatures, enjoying life generally and learning new things often.”

    Spot on!

  • Magill Weber

    Great article. Michael Retter’s comment is dead on, and hits at the crux of the issue. If you don’t start birding as a kid, it’s really tough to become a decent birder, let alone a great one. It’s not impossible, but all the exceptional birders I know started off as kid birders. Until birding isn’t seen as unspeakably, embarrassingly nerdy, you’ll never have lots of girls participating. The photos I see of “young birders” in Birding don’t convince me that birding has gotten any cooler for the teen set in recent years. This will sound incredibly judgmental and unkind, but ask any normal 15-year old girl and I can promise you she’s not dying to hang out with any of those Camp Chiricahua boys. And even more importantly, she doesnt want to be seen as a huge geek herself. I hid my birding all through middle school and high school, and even now in my 30s I get a lot of grief from my female friends about it. It’s not seen as cool at all.

    If you want more birders, regardless of age, gender, race, whatever, the hobby needs to lose its stigma. I’m not going to go so far as to suggest the ABA emmulate Scientology in the 80s, but just one young, attractive, A-list celebrity birder would do wonders for the image.

    By the way ladies, I have this dream of birding around the ABA with a posse of cool women, who are also great birders. I’m sick of being hit on, being told they can’t bird with me because their wives are threatened, and all the egos. You know who you are. Hit me up.

    • Geoff Rogers

      “… just one young, attractive, A-list celebrity birder would do wonders for the image.” and “….birding around the ABA with a posse of cool women, who are also great birders.”

      My, how far we’ve come from Kingbird Highway’s laundromat in Albania!

    • Michael Retter

      “Attractive A-list celebrity”, huh? Might be a good time to point out that Lili Taylor was just voted onto the ABA Board of directors. 🙂

    • Kashi

      I was a normal 15 yr old girl and 19 yrs later I married a Camp Chiricauhua boy who was/is quite adorable and that I am madly attracted too. I bet my teenage self would have been too, not every teenager thinks the quarterback is king 🙂

      On one level, I do agree that birding is not seen as “cool” the way other pastimes can be (esp sports) but I think we are going down the wrong road if the plan is to make birders and birding seem “cool” under the standards set by teenagers, which are notoriously fickle. I am also not a fan of a plan including involving hot celebrities, whose fame is equally fickle. I don’t feel that current celebrity culture is in line with the type of tenets important to many birders – a hard work ethic, a way to connect with nature, something real and true shared between actual people and not doctored shows/images that don’t reflect reality. “Wonders for the image” is not what I think we would get from a celebrity. If we want to change the “stigma” of birding (and I am not even sure we want to, bc I don’t get how being “cool” is a good thing in this case) I would instead suggest that we capitalize on the assets that we already have – super smart, super quirky, fun loving folks who just happen to dig looking at birds as their way to experience nature.

      I have had a different experience than you in that my non-birding friends don’t give me any grief about birding – instead they are often bemused, intrigued and interested. This is not to say that they suddenly want to become birders, but in general my experience has been that they enjoy the fact they know a birder, have someone to always send ID pics to and like to try and show us they know some birds themselves. I’m sorry that yours aren’t like that, maybe you need some new ones, lol. :p

  • About those young birders

    Sure, the young guys bring along the girls who put up with their antics. The few girls with the fortitude to stick around put up with a lot of crap. It’s easier to bird alone than deal with that. One-on-one, they’re a great bunch. As a group, they can be remarkably inappropriate.

  • Hang in there and rock on — the hardest part seems to be sticking with it when life catches up, but that’s often when you need birding the most. It’s a good balance to the rest of life!

  • I’m glad you didn’t mean to denigrate her accomplishments and qualifications. The song sparrow volumes were published starting in 1937. She received the M.A. in 1915.

  • These are the top women birders in the country.

    Can you imagine Kenn Kaufman, David Sibley, Steve Howell, Jon Dunn, or any of the other top male birders being treated like that?

    That’s how you know it’s sexism and not “just” elitism.

    Unless, of course, you’re assuming that there just aren’t any women birders on the same level as the top-ranked men.

  • LGBT birders…that’s a whole other topic I’d love to examine critically at some point. My impression could well be biased and incorrect, but I think LGBT birders are *overrepresented* in the birding community, compared to the public at large. I know a fair few LGBT tour leaders, and, heck, two of the ABA’s three magazine editors are gay men.

  • …but heaven help you if you try to get a female keynote speaker for a festival! Unless it’s a competitive birder (Lynn Barber), the keynote speaker apparently must be male. I’d like to see stats on speakers overall because I have a limited sample size.

    Then again, why bother trying to get a keynote speaker at all if you can get a life-sized cardboard cutout of Kenn Kauffman to prop in front of an audience! We need to get that cutout, it’ll save on speaker costs. And it would probably still be taken more seriously than the alternatives.

  • Very, very well said, Mary! What freedom I had was tempered with an excessive amount of ‘checking in’ with my parents; and how do you do that in a place with no cell service? And birding in sketchy places at dawn and dusk; self preservation trumps whatever good bird it is or was, if going alone.

  • Wonderful, important post. I agree with the previous comments who mentioned that there should be other ways to “judge” (gack) a birder than just by his/her life list, and that if we think in terms of love of nature there are a lot more “serious” woman birders out there. The probably is that there are a lot of birders who DO make judge someone’s birding ability based on how into listing they are. Personally, I love birding but am only a casual lister, partly because I hate the competitive asshole behavior that seems to come with it. Women are socialized from an early age to not be competitive, not be bossy, not rock the boat, or risk being called the b-word. It’s something some of spend our whole adult lives unlearning.

  • In turn, young male birders show up to the potlucks where it’s all middle-aged women and they determine that “real” birders are in the field. And so the vicious cycle continues.

  • Nina, I know some folks are uncomfortable with some organized trips because of situations similar to yours; it’s really no fun needing to ‘prove your worth’ when you are ON A TOUR… ridiculous.

  • Way to not post any contact info…!

  • Chief Potluck Organizer

    Great point!

  • Danielle

    Wonderful post. You make so many great points. I would just like to add one thing – although patterns have certainly been changing over the years, and of course every family is different, I do wonder if one of the reasons there aren’t more women birders is because they typically (again, not always) have more family/home/childcare responsibilities which could substantially decrease their time to be in the field.

  • Mary

    Yes, these really are the heroes. It’s unfortunate that most of the stories of birding are told through the eyes of those with the biggest lists.

  • Mary

    The whole safety thing and how men don’t have to think about it really hit me when I went birding with a local retired gentleman and mentioned that I didn’t feel safe birding at a certain lake. A look of total bewilderment came over his face as he said, “Why?!” I told him that recently someone had flashed a woman and her daughter. I bird with my young daughter very often, so I really needed to take that threat seriously. My friend’s response was, “Oh, I guess never think about things like that.” It was nice honest response. Men really don’t have to think about that, except in the most extreme places.

  • ncbirder

    I was considerably disturbed to read about Nina Hansen’s experience on a Gambel/Nome trip. To me this sounds like a significant failure by the guides &/or company policy in failing to take care of a client, with overtones of (unintentional, I hope) sexism. The trip company may not have any control over the other attendees attitudes about “winning acceptance” for birding skills, but the trip leader(s) should have done their best to maximize her birding experience – and keep her from cleaning the dishes anymore than any other participant.
    I’m a long-time serious birder (male), but not a serious lister. The possibility that I would go on a Gambel trip has now dropped way down.

  • Michael, in response to your comment, I pretty much agree completely—we need to encourage more young women and girls to become (or remain, probably more accurately) involved with birding. I agree that the representation of women (of any age) in the birding community, as defined in this blog post, is low. But a fair bit of this in the adult world, as far as I am concerned, all comes down to how you define a birder. If you are talking about people who lead trips or have a life list or any of the measures that have previously been suggested in the post (and in comment threads about this post on Facebook), yes: there are not nearly as many women. But for me, the definition of ‘birder’ has always been a bit broader. I can think of a number of young women, now in the 20-35 age group, who I’d put in that category (Lauren Harter, Heidi Trudell, Leigh Lindstrom, Lena Senko, Hope Batcheller, and Alyssa Rosemartin all immediately spring to mind). I am surrounded daily by women doing important bird conservation work (in addition to the excellent women mentioned in the blog post or elsewhere in the various comments, I’ll put forth, in no particular order, Melissa Pitkin, Ellie Cohen, Ashley Dayer, Tammy VerCauteren, Kacie Miller, Lacrecia Johnson, Jennie MacFarland, Kirsten Lindquist, Beth Huning, Sandra Scoggin, Catherine Rideout, Mary Gustafson, Carol Beardmore, Carol Beidelman, Joni Ellis, Sue Bonfield, Barb Pardo, EJ Williams, Trish Edwards, Ali Duvall, Christina Sloop, Deanna Dixon, Bridgitte Collins, Sharon Kahara, Ruth Ostroff, and Betty Petersen, just to name a few—I could keep on going). There are plenty of women out there doing important bird conservation work—many in leadership positions—most of whom are also active in the birding community. So for me the question is really more about the metrics used to determine who is a “good” birder.

    That said, there are definitely way more male young birders than female young birders, and I think that adults have a responsibility to do what we can to change this because, as you say, the young birders of today are the leaders of the birding (and conservation) community of tomorrow.

    The way I see it there are really two issues at play. The first is that there are just more boys interested in birds/birding than girls. We need to figure out how to bring more girls into the fold. As various people stated in this article, having a mentor is usually a very key part to the way that most young people become involved in birding. I have to say that I think the argument that there are predominantly only male mentors is a bit of a copout. Would it be good to have more female mentors? Absolutely. Should we do more to promote and encourage this? Without a doubt. But we, as adults, regardless of our gender, can create programs and opportunities for youth that introduce and engage them to the world of birds and birding (and conservation, and natural history, etc., etc.) and that provide them with the opportunity to meet diverse adults doing all kinds of important and interesting things. It doesn’t have to be a one-on-one relationship. Invite young people out on your field trips. Provide transportation (this is probably the young birder’s biggest obstacle to getting out and going birding). Organize a monthly outing for young birders in your neighborhood. Build a relationship with the parents and let them know that their child is in good hands. And if you can’t do any of this? Then support the programs that can—the ABA, of course, has a long history of providing opportunities to young birders (disclaimer—I have been involved in some way with ABA young birder programs since about 1998), but there are opportunities all over the country. There are the big ticket things like the various summer camps and programs (make a donation to their scholarship fund or work with your local bird club to provide a scholarship to a local young birder), but by working with your local nature clubs, birding clubs, Audubon Societies, etc., you can organize some sort of regular opportunity to connect young people with birds and nature, to help build the community and the diversity that we would like to see in the future of the birding world.

    The second issue is that, based on my experience, girls tend to drop out of birding as they reach high school or college. We need to think about why they drop out in the first place, and how we can keep them engaged. I’ve been watching the commentary here with interest, and while certainly girls tend to become more image conscious with age, I know that boys also deal with being in a minority and getting picked on for having a nerdy hobby (yes, there are more male young birders than female young birders, but compared to the entire world of young men? They are still a very, very small proportion of the total population.) As for those who blame the male young birders, I respectfully disagree with you completely. There are jerks anywhere you look, and male young birders have undoubtedly made inappropriate comments at one time or another. (Unfortunately, as has been evidenced by this post and the subsequent comments, this happens in the adult world, too.) But to generalize and say that male young birders are the reason that there aren’t more young women in the field is just not fair, any more so than saying that a handful of jerks in the male birding world make all male birders jerks. I have never seen any of the boys and young men with whom I’ve had the pleasure of birding over the years be anything but respectful, both to girls/young woman and to each other. Yes, there is teasing. Yes, occasionally people go over the line and feelings get hurt, but in my opinion, this is more about being a teenager than being male (or female—come on, girls can say mean things, too.) And frankly, most male young birders are thrilled at the prospect of getting to hang out with girls that are also interested in birds. (Sorry, Michael, for the heterosexual bent of this line of reasoning, but you get my point, I hope!)

    So how to we make sure girls don’t drop out? I don’t completely know, but a good start would be to ensure that we encourage and provide opportunities for young birders, especially girls, and particularly as they enter high school and college, those years when we are most likely to lose them.

    One last thought: the last two ABA Young Birder of the Year winners (age 14-18 category)? Both girls. The last two recipients of the Western Field Ornithologist’s scholarship to attend their annual conference? Both girls.

    This comment is getting long enough now that it should probably be its own blog post. I’m not trying to say that sexism doesn’t exist in the world of birding; clearly it does, as it does most everywhere. I’m just trying to point out that it isn’t quite as clear cut as this blog post seems to make it. Don’t shortchange women and girls. We’re out there, and we’re doing good stuff, right alongside the boys.

  • Nina, as a tour leader myself, I found your comment rather disturbing. I hope the trip leader attempted to make you feel welcome. But I also help that you informed her or him of your situation. If (s)he didn’t know there was a problem, it’s hard to try to remedy. Please feel free to contact me backchannel if you would like to hash this out ( [email protected] ).

  • I’ve enjoyed lurking and reading comments, though I haven’t had anything to say. I do find it interesting that the world’s top lister was a female. Listing isn’t exactly a laid back sport, especially the way she did it! I know listing isn’t always the same as birding, but she was really out there.

    As a personal example, last year I was at a wildlife camp (about waterfowl conservation, though kinda geared toward hunting, which I have nothing against at all). One of the instructors who knew me from another similar camp, pointed me out as a birder, “Little Miss Audubon”. It was a little embarrassing, but proved to be a great tool for teaching other youth about birding in the end. Anyways, I was talking to this one guy about birds and birding as he wanted to know what we’d seen that day. Right afterwards, another guy standing there went “You know too much.” in this tone that clearly implied “You’re a girl and how dare you know so much!” It really surprised me, as nobody’s ever put it that way to me. They say I know a lot, or my best friend tells me I’m too smart in jesting, but never such a putdown. My response was “I don’t know half enough!”

    I’ve never been normal, or girly (ask my mom), nor will I ever be (that’s why I love birding so much!). So, I don’t care (too much anyways) if I look like a geek or a nerd or whatever you care to call it. In fact, sometimes it’s nice to be different!

  • Kenn Kaufman

    Heidi, for what it’s worth, three of the keynote speakers at The Biggest Week this year were women. That’s still fewer than half, but it’s better than nothing. Let me know if you’re looking for women who give great keynote presentations, because I can suggest quite a few outstanding individuals.

  • Nina Hansen

    Hi, Magill, — About beginning to bird whilst young: Spot on. But many of us come to birding later in life. (I dabbled at it until my husband died in 2008, and became much more interested when I moved to Green Valley, AZ a year later).

    I don’t think it’s so much a stigma against girls birding — at least it wasn’t for me. In my case, I just wasn’t exposed/interested in birds until, gradually, over the years, they became more and more important. And now, at 70, they are very important indeed.

    But, I’ll never be more than an intermediate birder because I have had so many other things on my plate: college, raising kids, working full-time, church work, gardening, crafts, and so forth. I think birding is like many other things: You become great at it when you give it all you have. (I think of the Masters in the Arts, for example.

    Here in SE Arizona, we have some great women birders. Melody Kehl, yourself, Sheri Williamson, just to name a few. Karen Hochgraf used to live here and was a great birder, too. But, there are indeed levels of acceptance in the birding world, just as there are in every profession or sport. (see Clifford Cathers’s recent post at the ListServ!) And gradually, over the years, it’s been leveling out a bit. Think how this article would have been received had it been published 75 years ago! “We’ve come a long way, Baby!”

    Hope to see you in the field one of these days!

  • Wow! This is an awesome blog post and thread. Thanks for starting this ball rolling, Brooke! This is incredibly thought-provoking.

    I am one of those women who has always had more male friends than female, so a male birding mentor was not an issue for me (thanks, Alan MacLeod!). In work and social settings, I was often one of the “boys”. (For the record, I am straight.) Perhaps because of having a large group of male friends, I have often been oblivious to gender discrimination. Of course, I HAVE seen, and sometime experienced, examples, inside and outside of birding.

    I really relate to the comments about women taking on more organizational roles than spending time in the field. I thought it was just me! Regrettably, I have been known to refer to myself as more of an administrative birder than a field birder. I didn’t think of it as a gender issue, though, and have never had the sense that I was pushed into it as a result of my genes–rather, a result of my skills in administration.

    I came to the birding game late (40+), but I have been making up for lost time. I am not offended when people refer to me as the local “bird lady” when they phone me or meet me on the street. I’ve been moving towards “bird evangelist”, though.

    I might not have the longest list, nor may I be able to “call” a bird as quickly as other people, but I’m getting better all the time. What I have been able to do is advocate for birds, make birding exciting for others, and learn, teach, learn. There’s something special about a non-birding friend telling me they saw a Varied Thrush (or Steller’s Jay, or Pileated Woodpecker) in their yard, or asking me what bird makes a particular kind of sound they heard.

    There are some very keen younger birders in our community, and while I’ve been delighted to encourage them all (and will continue to do so), your article has moved me to consider offering some personal mentorship to the girls. It will be a wonderful excuse to get away from the computer and actually spend more time in the field myself!

  • Nina Hansen

    NC Birder — please, please, please!!! Go on the Gambell/Nome trip. The biggest problem truly was ME — not others. And I didn’t want to go stand on the Sea Watch in the freezing wind. Nor did I want to keep bouncing around on the back of an ATV. My fault, not that of the leaders! I washed dishes because I WANTED to!

  • I was introduced to birding by my father-in-law while visiting him in Idaho, but when I returned to Idaho I began pursuing my addiction alone. Then I tapped into the AZ-NM listserv and heard about what people were seeing at the Gilbert Water Ranch. While looking up information about that blessed location I happened upon a listing mentioning guided bird walks on Saturday mornings. There I met Kathe Anderson, our guide. She was amazing! She knew the birds very well. She was a great mentor in allowing the participants to figure out the bird identities rather than shouting out the names of the birds. She was very encouraging, patient and supportive of my developing skills.
    When I moved to Idaho, lady birders were abundant and were leading trips. Women like Cheryl Huizinga and Heidi Ware were and still are birding idols to me. Idaho women birders appear to me to be the bird club leaders and heavy lifters. For the short while I lived in Utah they were women birders I’d see on the twitches. They were women birders I heard competitively discussing their Utah state bird lists. It seems that lady birders dominate the birding social networks and ladies like Dawn Fine, Sharon Stiteler, and Julie Zickefoose have unknowingly been my bird blogging mentors. I’ve been birding with some great women birders whose skills and experiences far surpass my own.
    What I’m getting at is that my birding reality has been shaped so differently that I have remained blissfully ignorant of sexism in birding. Perhaps my ignorance has allowed me to convey or perpetuate sexism. I hope not.
    This blog post was was for me a revelation. I had never compared the number of women versus men contributors on my blog. If you would have asked me an hour ago I would have said I had more women contributors than men, but I just counted…gulp…I have 10 women to 21 men contributors. I think the women’s posts generally get more attention and because their influence is greater in my mind I thought there were more of them. I’m shocked and embarrassed that I host a 2:1 ratio. Am I unintentionally or subconsciously sexist? Oh geez, I sure hope I am not and I hope I am not perceived in that way.
    So what am I going to do about this newly acquired understanding that sexism in birding is a reality? What am I going to do to prevent it within my circle of influence?
    I will make a point of asking women birders for I.D. assistance in person and online.
    I will be more aware of my own and other’s comments that may be sexist and will respectfully redirect when appropriate.
    I will continue to encourage and promote the women birders in my life in their pursuit of birds in whichever ways they choose to enjoy birding, especially when they seek leadership service roles within our niche community.

  • Nina Hansen

    Right on: “The first is that there are just more boys interested in birds/birding than girls. We need to figure out how to bring more girls into the fold.” Children are heavily influenced by their peers, and when I was a youngster, birding was the last thing on my mind. So now, I do my best to encourage children of all ages to come birding with me. And by doing this, I think I have turned at least two girls on to birding.

  • Nina Hansen

    Michael, thanks for your offer. But I truly think it doesn’t need hashing out. What is needed is for me to just delete my post if I can. I didn’t realize when I spoke out that it would generate such negative response about the wonderful leaders of the group I was with. They were and are superlative — skilled, knowledgeable, and kind!

    It’s rather like the situation of a teacher with a class of gifted children having one Special Ed kid in the class. The teacher MUST teach to the group. And on a trip of this kind, that’s what the other participants paid for. That I felt uncomfortable was MY problem, not that of the leaders! I’ve always been defensive and have struggled with low self-esteem. That I felt I had to earn my place was not because of them! If we need to blame anyone, let’s blame my deceased mother. She’s not here to defend herself!

  • Nina Hansen

    I guess the whole purpose of my post was simply to thank Ned for saying that Backyard Birders have a place in the birding community, too. It was in no way intended to slam the group I was with nor the leaders of the group. All of the leaders were wonderful. I very much liked the other birders and was totally blown away by the fabulous birds! And yes, I would recommend this trip to everyone who can scrape up the money to do it.

  • Matt Brady

    Jennie summed up a lot of things that I wanted to write, but couldn’t articulate well enough to actually post here, particularly in regard to some of the things Michael said above. The issue of young women birders dropping out of birding in high school or college, exactly when most of the younger birders I know were kicking their own skill set way past high gear, is, I believe, a big reason why there are so few women in the “most-skilled” birder echelon (note I didn’t say good birder; being a good birder and a skilled birder are two very different things). Women who can discuss the subtleties of Catharus Thrush ID, or know exactly how to separate Common and Spotted Sandpipers in flight, or know, at a glance, that the Empid is a Dusky and not a Hammond’s, are few and far between. I don’t know why this is.

  • Johanna Lentz

    Great response Jennie, thank you!

  • Hi Matt,

    One of the things that writing this blog highlighted for me was the poor treatment of people who are still learning.

    As a new birder, a person is expected to know everything immediately, and if someone doesn’t know, for example, exactly how to separate Common and Spotted Sandpipers in flight, elite birders like you look down on that person.

    I’ve seen several comments in the last day in response to this blog that effectively said that it’s impossible to tell in some cases if it’s really sexism or if the person is just not a very good birder, as if people who do not have elite skills deserve whatever rude treatment they get.

    Back in the day when I was at Humboldt, I was really enthusiastic and really naive. I thought that being enthusiastic about birds should be enough, but it wasn’t.

    Over the space of about a year I got the following comments from my friends and mentors:

    “Wow, you’re really into it!” (I got this one several times from the same man.)

    “Have you seen 200 yet?” (I also got this one several times, even after I told the man that I was over 500.)

    “At some point I’m going to get a girlfriend, and when I do then we can’t bird together any more.”

    “Are you a FEMINIST?”

    Complete evisceration of my birding skills that boiled down to “Your birding skills are terrible because you’re just not trying hard enough.”

    “I don’t think she likes men.” (Said about me.)

    My boss saying that he hires women in order to get more men working for him, essentially stating that I was hired to hang out and look cute and not for any actual skills I had, while it was the men who were the good biologists.

    “No girls allowed!”

    “Why don’t you quit birding and focus on something you’re good at?”

    These comments, ranging in tone from patronizing to grossly offensive, came from six different men, all of whom were leaders in the birding community then and are still leaders today. Most of these men aren’t really sexists, they were just being thoughtless.

    At the time I believed that I had invited these comments upon myself due to my poor birding skills. I even profusely apologized to one of the men in question saying that I would try harder to be a better birder in the future. But knowing now that the best women in the country are also treated terribly, I wish that I could go back and tell myself that I didn’t deserve it.

    Yes, my birding skills weren’t great, but I was LEARNING.

    But back to your post, you seem to be confused about why there are so few young women in the “most-skilled” category.

    Maybe you became an expert overnight so you don’t understand what it’s like to struggle to develop your skills, but most of us actually have to work at birding, and if young women are not given the space to learn, then they will drop out of birding.

    When I saw you comment on someone’s Facebook page saying, “I’ve seen [her] birdwatch. I’ve even seen her correctly identify a bird,” then my heart broke for that young woman. That is exactly kind of lack of respect that says to young women, “Nobody takes you seriously and nobody will ever take you seriously.”

    You are a leader in the birding community, and you need to act like it.

    It’s true that most young women will never be elite birders, but unless you treat women with a little more respect, there aren’t going to be any young women at any level at all.

  • ::high five::

  • This bugged me at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival for 2013 – I get that for ‘celebrity squares’ or whatever that was, you can only have 9 people, but of them, only 2.5 squares had women. Louise had to share a square with Michael (which is funny, because 2 brains are better than one but they didn’t get many questions…) but it still smacked of the numbers Brooke quoted.

  • Great article, Brooke. I am one of the few women with my name as an author on a field guide to birds. I got my start in birding as a young adult. I got interested in birds by myself, especially from a behavior point of view as I had a Master’s degree in the social sciences. I was fascinated by why birds did what they did. I had no binos or field guide and started to learn about birds anyway I could. I looked around for role models. Roger Tory Peterson as a role model just didn’t do it for me. I discovered the work of Margaret Morse Nice, a successful women making a valuable contribution to ornithology, and decided she was my role model. I then discovered hawk watching and my mentor was Paul Roberts who put Mt. Wachusett in MA on the map as a premier hawk-watching site. I went up on the mountain and discovered a Bald Eagle and got hooked. I wanted to go to graduate school and become an ornithologist. I met Don Stokes, we fell in love, and together decided to make a life and career teaching others about birds. I introduced Don to hawk watching. I started taking photographs of birds and was at first teased, then later accepted (as the only women) into the core group of older guy photographers on Sanibel Island at that time and particularly mentored by Clarence Postmus. Here I am (over 30 years and 35 books later) as one of the few women with my name on field guides to birds, and the only woman with my name as co-author on a national field guide to all the birds of North America (I am also a major contributor of the photographs in that guide). I have been fortunate to have a supportive and loving husband and partner and together we bring out the best in each other. I continue to teach and inspire others to connect to birds and to encourage younger people who are involved in the NH birding community. I mentor people to connect to birds through photography, including using the new superzoom point-and-shoot cameras.

    Though we are still in a male dominated society I see women becoming more powerful and moving into positions of leadership. We do need role models and mentors for young women in birding. It would be nice to see a woman as president of ABA and a women as author of a national illustrated field guide (are you listening Jen Brumfield?). In the long run it is not about how people choose to connect to birds, it is about acknowledging that none of those ways is inherently more valuable than the others. The real value is that people connect to birds at all, because then and only then will people have a vested interest in conserving those birds now and in the future in these challenging times. 

  • Mary

    “Women who can discuss the subtleties of Catharus Thrush ID, or know exactly how to separate Common and Spotted Sandpipers in flight, or know, at a glance, that the Empid is a Dusky and not a Hammond’s, are few and far between. I don’t know why this is.”

    Matt, it’s because those of us who can are avoiding you 😉

  • Michael Retter

    Just so long as they’re not in binders, Kenn. 😉

  • Michael Retter

    Thanks for the clarification, Nina. Good birding.

  • Thanks for sharing your perspective, Lilian.

    Now a tangent, if you’ll permit me. No one to my knowledge–female or male–has ever authored a field guide to all of the [extant] birds of North America, which extends from Alaska all the way down to Panama. I’ll be dancing in the street when and if all of the “North American” field guides are finally properly titled as field guides to “the US and Canada”. I think erroneous field guide titles are 90% of the reason ABA Area birders are confused about what “North America” means.

  • Thanks for the input MIchael.

  • Very, very, very true. Men don’t seem to have, on average, a hard time ‘getting out’ even when they are parents.

  • I’m not sure girls ARE less interested: I think it just less ‘approved’ and thus the interest remains passive and eventually gets overshadowed by soccer practice or whatever.

  • Well said. Leading bird walks in south TX, I was on the receiving end of a lot of long pauses, followed by “I just thought the leader would be more… experienced.” Life experience, perhaps? Heck if I know, none of them were within 5 years in guessing my age. At that point list numbers were decent, travel resume was decent, work experience was pretty feeble but practical bird work had been underway for years. Maybe in my next life I’ll look the part.

  • Way to dismiss the rest of her post, Michael.

    Meanwhile, how DO we talk Jen into illustrating a guide??

  • After reading some of these comments, I see that sexism is as rampant as it was over 10 yrs ago when I mostly got out of birding.

    Why is Margaret Morse Nice supposed to be asso. w/ a *kitchen* window of all windows in a house? MMN was a world-class ornithologist who wrote nearly 250 papers on birds, 3,000 *book* reviews and several books including an autobiography. I don’t know, but I suspect that she wasn’t that into cooking, cleaning, decorating, or entertaining. Given her obvious academic inclinations, I suspect she spent *way* more time in an office/study/library than in any kitchen.

    The question ‘why’ sexism persists in birding an important one. I think it may primarily have to do with the fact that birding or listing (as opposed to ornithology) is grounded in reputation. Birders come back from a day in the field and report the list of spp. seen. Other birders, who have all seen 1000s of such lists, judge each incoming new list based on its length and the number of rarities. If the list is long with lots of rarities and the observer was a female, then a touch of doubt probably creeps in, but if the observer was a male, then reverence may be the overriding response. Without a photo or a spmn, is all we have to go on is the street (field?) cred of the birder as to the authenticity of their list.

    Again, the fundamental question is ‘why?’ I’m not a psychologist, but I find that children’s views on gender are *deeply* ingrained and a shockingly young age. It’s like, from the time they are five yrs old until they die, people only seem to accept evidence that supports their preconceived ideas! Boy v. girl expectations are initiated from birth when announcements are sent out color coded (blue/pink) based on gender.

    And of course, birding is cursed with classism as well. If a guy birder sporting elite optics meets a gal birder in the field and she has a modest pair of binos around her neck, well I’ll let all the female birders here who have been there explain what’s likely to happen next if you can’t figure it out. One of the main reasons I wasn’t terribly impressed with long life lists was that the length of one’s life list is strongly correlated with the depth of one’s pocket.

    Anyway, that’s my 2 cents of thought on this topic.

    Mike Quinn, Austin

    PS: My favorite birder was, and always will be, Martha Conger Neblett Hagar. I doubt she would have ever incorrectly reported seeing an ivory-billed woodpecker.

  • Sam

    I’m surprised by the number of comments thus far from both men and women who appear to be in disbelief that sexism in birding is a real problem. It is fantastic to hear of advancements in some regions of the US, however, in my neck of the woods the birding situation for women is comparable to what Sheridan Coffey has described.

    I’ve been birding since I was a kid and I grew up in a supportive community. A few decades later, tons more birding and after a lot of moving around I have been witness to a great diversity of reactions to a young woman birder.
    Where I currently live, the birding community is very male-dominated. My first (and last) outings with the local bird club involved a male group leader (local bird ‘expert’) who disregarded everything I tried to contribute and made disturbing sexual innuendos toward the young women present. The experience hasn’t stopped me from birding, but it left me wondering: what influence has the group leader had over the years on new young birders, male and female?

    My partner is also a birder and, as others have described, I’m assumed to be his supportive shadow birding companion despite having birded for +30 years. He has been teased mercilessly by male birders if I appear to be more knowledgeable about something than him, if my lists are larger than his, if I identify something before him or, worse, we disagree and he is wrong.

    Mentoring young women to be skilled birders is only part of the solution. We also need to teach male birders that it is ok for women to be experts, too.

  • I guess we have different definitions of “dismiss”. You’d have to ask Jen that. I’ve tried. 😉

  • You raise an interesting point, Mike, about the cost (and make) of optics slung around one’s neck. Many times, someone with whom I was birding would comment on someone else’s binoculars. Sometimes it was along the lines of “Well, they had Swarovskis, so I bet they know what they’re talking about.” My response was always “Oh, I didn’t notice, and what does that matter?” It’s just not something I’ve ever noticed, or thought about needing to pay attention to. I think optics are like big lists: they mostly show you have money to burn, and tell you very little about the person to whom they’re attached.

  • I suppose for me it all boils down to the question of “community” and what we expect of it. That’s a very ABA question. ABA offers a big, big tent, and it has activities that range from aesthetic/artistic appreciation, conservation, outreach, kids’ events, ‘sport’ birding and listing, ethics of birding, and just about anything else that falls under its broad mission statement. No one activity or emphasis excludes another, but there is the Code of Ethics, which is a mixture of common sense and common courtesy. So in that sense it very much mirrors the birding community I grew up in – diverse, with room for just about everyone. It is very sad to hear that women birders are devalued in so many parts of the country. I must say that when I dedicated my field guide, there was no hesitation – it was dedicated to Susan Hubbard, Gisela Grimm, Becky White, YuLee Larner, and Floy Burford. I had many male mentors, for sure, but these women were, and are, venerated by generations of local birders, from the coast to the mountains, not just because of their competence but because of their great affection for birds and birding and their willingness to share their knowledge, their homes, their lunch. In the end, my feeling is that each of us, within the birding community, needs to locate people of good will and common interests and go birding with those people. If some cranky person yells at you or condescends, that person probably isn’t the best person to go birding with. I think anyone who birds in a popular birding area for a while will end up having an unpleasant encounter with a fellow birder eventually; that is a shame. But we are diverse, and some of us are unpleasant too often. I can remember times when I was not Miss Mary Sunshine, for sure. Most of those moments were regrettable. Nevertheless, as with the Code of Ethics, I think the coin of the realm – if a birder would like to have companionship in the field – should be a relatively pleasant demeanor. Cruelty and birding are not a very good mix. Most of us are looking for a refuge from negativity, a connection with what’s real, what’s fascinating, and what’s beautiful in the world. So whether a caustic comment is sexist, racist, homophobic or just plain mean, I think the best course of action is to look the poor soul in the eye, smile, and depart. That might help the offender realize that the consequence of such attacks is self-exile.

  • What an awesome post and subsequent conversation! My two cents for what they’re worth is that a “good birder” is in some folks minds synonymous with “ornithologist”. I don’t *want* to “discuss the subtleties of Catharus Thrush ID, or know exactly how to separate Common and Spotted Sandpipers in flight” as my friend Matt put it. I am content to include birding in my daily hikes, and in my discussions with visitors as a Park Ranger, and to occasionally contribute my lists to eBird when I’m feeling industrious. I love the challenge that bird ID poses me, but I’ll never need or want to know how to tell birds apart based on the length of their rectrices. Maybe that will never qualify me as a skilled birder in some people’s minds, but I’m fine with that. I know I’m a birder. I always will be no matter how often a bog orchid distracts me from a bird I was trying to ID. Perhaps I’m better off identifying myself as a naturalist now, even if birds were the catalyst that got me looking in the first place. I respect anyone who takes the time to appreciate nature, in whatever form best suits them. What I love most about this discussion is how many birders, both male and female, that I know in this thread! For the sheer number of birders in the US, we are a small community after all!

  • Liz Deluna

    I do believe you are the First Lady of Birding for our generation!

  • Thank you so very much Liz! Thanks also to Brooke and all the women who responded to this blog post. By women supporting other women change will occur.

  • Mary DeLia

    Sam, I’m not so sure too many women or even the men here are in “disbelief” about sexism in birding. It is as real here as it is everywhere else in society. I, personally, chose to not let it be a problem for me. I never have needed any man’s permission to go birding or to see a bird. If I’m out there, I will see the birds, and there are plenty of great resources available to help me with any tricky identifications.

    The one exception to the permission rule is my husband, as in, “Honey, will you babysit while I go out?” That’s not really permission as much as logistics. Sometimes he can, sometimes not.

    As I mentioned earlier, the only real problems I face with birding are with regards to my own personal safety, and balancing family time with birding obsession. I’m lucky that my husband understands that I am totally and completely bird obsessed, and yet he loves me anyway …

    He even tries to do some birding – started his first list this year. But he happily defers all ID questions to me.

    His take on all of this? He says, “This is where academia was 30 years ago.” As a university professor, he was also appalled at a certain comment by a professor on this blog about females’ skill, or rather lack of it. It was blatant sexism. I remember college professors like that. Scary that they are still out there.

    His other interesting reaction to all of this was that he got a very big laugh out of the idea of birder dudes having groupies. “Really?! These guys think they have groupies!!” I thought that was funny, too.

    I used to be jealous of those husband and wife birder duos, but not after reading this blog and all of the subsequent comments. I love birding and I do have many male birder friends who are wonderful people, but I am so happy that my husband can be my escape hatch back to sanity when needed!

    Well, off to find some MIKIs!!!

    Good birding!

    PS – Thank you Brooke and ABA for hosting this blog. It has been very helpful and cathartic for me and probably many other women.

  • Interesting that a guy can find and ID dickie birds in a tree canopy but claims to have never noticed anyone’s binos, you know, those large objects mostly worn on a person’s chest standing right next to you. They are sort of the human equivalent of antlers except both genders have them. The male mind’s ability to compartmentalize is amazing so I guess this could be true, particularly if the the guy has just an average pair of binos himself. (Note, I’m not interested in a flame war, so this will likely be my last comment.)

  • Dennis Paulson

    This has been an absolutely great discussion, and one person or another has said just about anything I might have in response. The under-representation of women in positions of respect and authority in birding (as elsewhere) has been a concern of mine since the 70s, and this has been the best discussion of it I have seen. I suppose most ABA members read the blog, so there’s no need to print it all in Birding, but it might be good to have it printed up as a pdf that could be disseminated widely.

  • Great idea, Dennis. Glad I thought of it… 🙂

    No, seriously, we’re working on putting together a sorta Top 10 list of posts that have generated particularly intense commentary. We’ll publish that in Birding.

    Offhand, I don’t see the need to convert the content to PDF format. Folks can just go straight to the post, then see all the comments below. If you want a printout (but why?), you can press PRINT. And if you actually want a PDF, you can press “CONVERT TO PDF.”

    Which would be a bit like downloading the contents of your smartphone to the medium of 8-track casette… 🙂

    Thanks again, Dennis. You’ll see your suggestion in the pages of Birding, soon enough.

  • Sam

    Mary, I am glad that nothing has inhibited your passion for birding and that you have a supportive circle around you, but not all of us can simply ignore the negativity by walking away or choosing different birding buddies. Women professionally involved in birding, such as many of the women in Brooke’s article, are not able to so easily remove themselves from the negativity. I know many women in academia who have been and continue to be frustrated by the same issues.

  • Dennis Paulson

    I’m so 20th Century, Ted. I keep wanting to draw a line between my computer, over which I have some control, and the internet, over which I have none. Must be a control freak. 😉

  • Clay Kempf

    Best LOL of the thread, Mary; I love it (and I’m sure Matt did too).

  • Matt Brady

    Brooke, I’m sorry you’ve had lots of negative run-ins with male birders. That sucks. But I think you missed the point of my comments. My thoughts as to why there are so few “most-skilled” female birders weren’t that the women I birded with were incapable of becoming “most-skilled”, but they appeared (to me) to be disinterested in putting in the effort. Your comment that perhaps I just woke up one day and had the skill set I have today is actually really insulting. I worked for my skills. I birded my ass off, every day. I have accrued tens of thousands of hours of field time in the last 15 years. I’ve dedicated my life to becoming as skilled of a birder as I can. And it’s not just me; I surrounded myself with peers that were just as dedicated to the craft as I was. We birded every weekend. We missed class to see birds. When rare birds were found, we went and saw them, regardless of if we’d seen them before, just to gain experience with them, to hone our skills as close to razor-sharp as we could. This wasn’t listing, this was obsession. I surrounded myself with like-minded obsessive-compulsive birders because that’s what pushed my skill set to new frontiers. A chess player doesn’t become a master by playing against novices, they become a chess master by playing against chess masters. Birding is the same way. And, in the midst of this, it became my observation that again and again, the young women who were into birds, with a couple of shining exceptions, did not have the drive that I did. It wasn’t because they couldn’t, and it wasn’t because they were novices, it was because they didn’t want to dedicate themselves the way that I did.

    For your second point, don’t presume to know how I interact with my friends. You don’t know what the context for my comments are. They’re made to a very specific, narrow, audience comprised of my close circle of friends. As an outsider, it’s not fair for you to judge me for my interactions with my friends.

    Finally, I am not a leader in the birding community. I haven’t assumed any roles, no one has lauded me with laurels or whatever qualifies someone as a leader in the birding community. I bird for my own personal reasons, and I feel under no obligation to assume any roles.

  • Matt Brady

    I don’t think they’re akin to antlers at all. Like Michael said, make and model of binoculars mean absolutely nothing, aside from the fact that the birder has the money to spend on an expensive pair of binoculars. Some of the least-skilled birders I’ve ever met were sporting brand-new Swarovski ELs, while some of the absolute most-skilled birders I know prefer Nikon Monarchs or Bausch & Lombs.

  • Piping in a little late, but I just wanted to say that I don’t find anything offensive or sexist in Matt’s comments here. There is nothing repugnant in calling a spade a spade, especially if it is said within a context of “I don’t know why x is, but I have observed x.” I personally wouldn’t avoid Matt if I met him in the field, because if anything he has just validated that there is a noticeable discrepancy. I don’t read a tone of disrespect into what he has said here, either towards competitive female birders or to those who decide not to be as obsessive about it.

    Far more offensive to me are the comments on this post and on the FB forums, many of them made by women, that imply or outrightly state that if women simply stand up for themselves and demand respect, then said respect should (eventually?) be awarded. Now that is patent BS on an unbelievably insidious level.

  • What I am looking forward to are the comments from women of color and how they feel included or excluded in the upper ranks of birding.

  • Ted, we need to get more women of color involved. We need to get more PEOPLE of color involved. One of the differences here is that there are many women who are involved. Look at the statistics that Brooke quotes.

  • Luke Tiller

    Whilst I think I get your drift Ted, I doesn’t feel like it is other birders’ attitudes that are keeping minorities from getting more involved in the field – perhaps a key difference to the point you are trying to make?

    I can however imagine the uproar if a good number of minority birders complained that they spent half their time being studiously ignored or that other birders they met solely engaged their white birding companions, that they were often talked over, or generally had their birding skills dismissed or were told constantly that they liked birding in a completely different way to white birders.

  • Edge Wade

    As I read through these comments, I’ve been nodding my head so much the kinks from this spring’s warbler neck have disappeared.

    Some thoughts: There are more than eight women among the top 100 ABA area listers. True, names like “Edge” and “Tommie” are not obviously female to those who don’t know us. One can forgive the assumption that we are male—but that sorta underscores the whole point of the issue, doesn’t it?

    The calling up of names like Phoebe, Claudia and XXX is another indicator of the sinister aspect of the pervasiveness of the topic. Pointing out the exceptions (exceptional?) is just another way of “proving the rule.”

    I don’t know most of you as well as you seem to know one another, but I have been in your presence on as many occasions as I could afford. You probably didn’t notice me, or perhaps bid a courteous “hello” as you passed by, escorting your group or seeking that next bird.

    I’m the short of stature woman who “took up birding” at almost 50. I took a couple of adult ed classes from one of Missouri’s most accomplished birders, joined the local Audubon chapter and went on as many field trips as possible. I bought field guides and books about birding and birders and early American ornithologists. I read them all and wore out every field guide I didn’t lose off the top of the car.

    I went to the woods as often as possible, usually alone. I honed my skills, I learned about habitats and behavior and expected occurrence dates. I bought increasingly better optics. Yes, I now own Swarovski binoculars and scope. Their purchase meant the car must do for another three years and I must forgo that pricey ABA conference, and I can’t run to Florida for a couple of lifers.

    I began travelling with other women, mostly—although an occasional male would be along. I learned how to bird the RGV, southeast AZ ,and southern CA from other birders, then struck out on my own.

    I am not a “highly skilled” birder. I started late, after mental acuity peaked, I have severe hearing loss, my stamina is slipping away with the years. So, how did I get so many birds on that life list? Yup, many were on the coat tails of others. Some were on the few tours I’ve been able to take—Attu once before 500, a Hi Lonesome Alaska trip after 700. On group trips we’ve hired a local guide for a day or two—Rich, Rick, Melody and Steve

    But mostly, that list is due to preparation and perseverance. It took me three morning treks up Pine Canyon in Big Bend to see the Fan-tailed Warbler.

    Yet, with all that preparation and perseverance, on more than one occasion I’ve been called “a lucky birder”. That is not a compliment; it is a denial that one is “a good birder.” The “lucky birder” comments have almost always been by other women.

    Yes, the haughty, dismissive attitudes of some male birders are real, hurtful and counter-productive in a birder community. But, “fellow” women, please reflect, have you been guilty of putting down another woman birder in a public setting? I have, and I deeply regret it.

    Yes, there is a field glass ceiling, but it is most difficult to break through when it is a mirror.

  • Rob Fowler

    Brooke McDonald (aka RLkittiwake),

    Just a couple of points I have to make:

    If you are going to go after Matt like that or just post comments in your own blog comments section why can’t you use your own name instead of your anonymous Rlkittiwake? Most authors of blogs on here use their own name when commenting in the comments section of their own blog posts and I think you should do the same, right? Just own your comments like you owned your words in your excellent blog post above.

    I can’t even begin to get into your experience in the Humboldt birding scene while you were here and I’m sorry if you really had such a rough time if those quotes above were truly said to you. That would be pretty rude and condescending and paints some of the top male birders here in Humboldt as some serious condescending assholes. I do agree with your statement about the person you worked for for the most part, as I’m pretty sure I know who you are talking about, but I have a hard time believing every quote you wrote above. I wonder if any of the female birders that are currently students at HSU have also experienced such disparaging and disrespectful comments directed towards them? I don’t get the sense that they have.

    I really appreciated your article and think it was very timely and think it’s great it is generating so much discussion on this topic and I fully agree with most everything you wrote in it. Thanks.

  • Katrina

    This is such a big topic. There’s a lot I could say about it but I’ll try not to write a book here. I think that part of the problem is the standards used to measure the top ranks of birding. I think women, regardless of skill level, tend to be less competitive. Men tend to be more into the whole “mine is bigger than yours” thing, leading to them being more inclined to really competitive listing. I don’t care about competing with anyone. I’m not good at submitting listing numbers when I bother to add them up at all. The competitive spin that some local birders (all men I might add) have put on eBird has really turned me off of using eBird.

    If we measure the “top ranks” by who is involved in running local bird clubs, who is editing and writing for local and state publications, who is leading field trips locally, and who is teaching and mentoring new birders, I think we’d find a much higher percentage of women. The numbers might still be uneven but I think they’d be more representative. These are things that I find more important than who has enough money to run around getting the biggest list.

    I started birding as a teen in the mid-seventies. All of the people I can remember birding with until I finished high school were men. I can’t remember any of them ever being anything but welcoming to me. I do remember asking about local bird clubs and getting told that the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club was an old boys club that didn’t allow women. That’s the only discouragement I ever got and it was clear at the time that the men who told me about that didn’t approve. What I thought at the time was that birding was simply something that interested more men than women. Several of my interests are like that. It never bothered me.

    From a more experienced viewpoint, I think that part of the reason that girls weren’t more interested in birding is that little boys at the time got more encouragement to go out in the woods and play while little girls tended to be discouraged from getting dirty and running around in the woods. (Now kids don’t seem to be allowed to run off to play in the woods at all.) Plus there was the whole notion that watching birds wasn’t a respectable hobby at all. I remember the neighborhood kids making fun of my father for watching birds. I mostly tried to hide what I was doing from them.

    When I went away to college I found a couple of bird clubs to join and met plenty of women, some of whom taught me a lot. I always felt welcomed by pretty much everyone but part of that may be that I already had a lot of experience and knowledge before I got involved with the clubs.

    I think another part of the problem is that women tend to be more sensitive to a lack of support from people with more experience. When experienced birders belittle them or fail to be helpful, I suspect that women tend to feel more influenced to give up the hobby than men. Too often people who are just starting out or who’ve been interested for years but haven’t advanced very far in their knowledge get treated poorly by people who regard themselves as more knowledgeable. There may or may not be sexism involved in this. The people doing it may not even intend to do it. Simply ignoring beginners or talking over their heads makes them feel discouraged. A number of years ago someone said something to me that really made me take notice. I was helping to lead a tour in the Dry Tortugas. At the end of the trip, two of the women came up to me, gave me a tip, and thanked me for not having made them feel stupid. I was flabbergasted. To this day I wonder what had happened to them on tours they’d been on previously that they’d be so grateful that I hadn’t made them feel stupid.

  • Mary

    Very good point, Sam. But the study was done on “recreational” birding, and this blog references activities that are a blend of (mostly) recreational activities with a few professional ones. Even those in positions of authority are by and large volunteers.

    Defining “professionally” involved with birding in such a narrow way is a swipe of the hand towards the 100s and thousands of us who go out as volunteers and contribute vast amounts of time to defining the parameters of the status and distribution of birds in our areas, an activity that is vital to conservation efforts.

  • Mary DeLia

    The very first sentence of the blog is, “Most birders are women.” It’s not about getting more girls interested.

  • With all respect Mary, although 54% of people identified by the FWS survey may be women (and it is important to note that their definition of “birder” is NOT the same as the definition being put forth by the author in this blog post), I can say from my own years of experience working with young birders that the percentages are not the same for that age demographic. There are far, far fewer girls involved in birding than boys in the young birder world (and by young birder you could say 25 and under; I’d be willing to bet the same holds true for up to age 45 or so. At last year’s Camp Colorado we had three girl participants (out of about 17 total) and at Camp Chiricahua we had two (out of ~12 total). I have been doing young birder programs since the mid 1990s and the numbers have always been similar to this; the boys outnumber the girls. I very strongly believe that we DO need to get more girls interested, and work to keep them involved.

  • Mary

    Also, Sam, I want to clarify that my chosing not to let sexism be a barrier to my birding experience does not mean that I “can simply ignore the negativity” as if I’m off in my own little world of birding wonder never letting anything interfer.

    This is my 11th comment on this blog, when I have never posted a comment on any ABA blog before. Certainly it has struck a chord.

    Please re-read my reply to you. You will see how off the mark you are. Few people here are in “disbelief” as you stated. Sexism is the least of my worries when I leave the house at 5am – alone – to go off traipsing through some secluded area. Maybe you don’t relate because you have a *male* birding partner. My husband does not wish to get up very early to see birds. So should I only go birding with him, like a timid little creature from a Jane Austin novel? Hell no.

    Re-read my reply. I do not wish to restate all of it.

    Attention to detail is not just a great skill for birders to have. Though a lack of it could cause people to not seek out your advice in the field, regardless of how long you’ve been birding.

  • GemmaM

    In situations where women are perceived to be less competent, gender and skill discrimination go hand in hand. Imagine your typical “skill discriminator” — in any context, be it sports or science or whatever. He (or she) likes to be rude to people that he (or she) perceives to be less skilled. Now, does the skill discriminator always know how skilled the person they are dealing with is? Of course not. So how does the skill discriminator deal with the lack of certain knowledge? Does he (or she) treat everyone similarly until such time as he (or she) has amassed enough knowledge to be able to judge, without prejudice, whether this person is worthy of their rudeness? Of course not! Don’t make me laugh. No, I’m going to go right out there and say that skill discriminators are always prejudiced. If you’re spending that much time judging people on very little information, prejudice is going to creep into your judgements all the time.

    Relatedly, a (true) joke:

    Q: What’s the correct answer to the question “Is he sexist or is he just an asshole?”

    A: Well, it sounds like he’s definitely an asshole.

  • Jensen

    I don’t know birding, but I imagine the solution is the same here as everywhere else: If women spent less time complaining and more time working they might amount to something.

  • Sam

    Mary, I’m lost as to how my answer to you was interpreted as anything other than offering another point of view in the great discussion that has grown following Brooke’s blog post. The “disbelief” I have observed originated not only from comments on this blog but also from various conversations on FB (another site of great contributions thus far), I should have been more specific. I’m not sure how I narrowly defined anything by opening another avenue of thought and least of all do I understand how I took a massive swipe at volunteers. I’ve volunteered my whole life at countless bird projects, I wouldn’t dream of belittling the work volunteers do.

    As for the personal attacks, thanks, they don’t merit any further response.

  • If this comment is any indication, I imagine birding is hardly the end of things you don’t know, “Jensen”.

  • Ken Archambault

    A couple of things that could have been addressed in the article, but were not: 1. A very low percentage of professional birding guides are women; 2. Women’s purchasing power remains significantly lower than that of their male counterparts, which reduces their ability to travel, among other things; 3. Female birders tend to talk more than male birders while in the field, in my experience — something which is occasionally noticeable when a bird is vocalizing; 4. Women tend to be smaller in physical stature than their male counterparts, which triggers in some males an innate domination of the physical space (however, IMHO this makes shorter women preferable to tall men who get in the way); 5. Male birders tend to be more confrontational than female birders; 6. Male birders tend to be more aggressive when pursuing birds, especially when photographing birds. Just a few points as food for thought and to stir the pot. Thank you.

  • Ken, as a woman who has done some leading, I will say I have had to say something to a few men about talking. I think talking in the field, particularly in a group, may relate to whether the talkers are there more for social reasons than birding. This can happen with either sex.

  • The last post I am seeing is from 4 days ago: has this blog entry been terminated? has it hit some kind of system maximum? surely there are some replies to the last comment that I can see – the one by Ken Archambault on 6.20.13 – ?

  • Anya Auerbach

    Pretty much everything has already been said in some form or another, but I thought I’d offer my perspecitive as a 16 year old female birder.
    I’ve attended at total of 4 birding camps over the last three years, all of which are attended by a male majority. This is something the young birder community is well aware of; we’ve discussed it at camps and online. Personally, I’ve never been dismissed by other young birders, and I’ve never seen misogynistic comments on the young birders facebook group. Non-birding peers, however, are more dismissive of female birders, along with female scientists in general, than male. I don’t want to assume for the guys out there, but I think it’s more accepted for guys to have birding as their slightly quirky hobby than it is for girls, and so girls are less likely to stick with birding, or will get less “seriously” into it. I like studying odontids and nesting behavior when I’m out birding, and also chasing rarities several states away. It’s in the latter peer group that I find the dismissive adults, mostly older males who simply make the wrong assumptions. On my first CBC I arrived at a seawatch and had an experienced, respected birder begin to explain how to distinguish gannets from gulls, I guess assuming that I couldn’t possibly know this. Maybe it was the Nikon monarchs, maybe it was my being 14, but I don’t think this happens to teenage boys. I waited a few minutes, then called out some distant scoters in flight. The birder apologized for his assumption.
    The birding community can’t change how highschoolers treat each other, but I think if our more competitive side was more actively welcoming, especially to girls, we would see a rise in big name women, which seems to be where we’re still lacking. Since Starr Saphir died I’ve been looking for a new mentor, you could start there.

  • Alan Wormington

    Well I am totally confused by these references to “national” field guides for all North American bird species that need to be written buy women.

    What would be the guide title?

    Birds of the United States?

    Birds of Canada?

    Would Jen B. be the author of the “Birds of Canada” edition?

  • Alan Wormington

    “It is very sad to hear that women birders are devalued in so many parts of the country.”

    Ned, what country are you talking about?

  • Michael Retter

    You’ve got me. I didn’t use that term.

  • Alan Wormington

    I know, I was referring to that long post 5 posts up on the screen.

  • Gloria Nikolai

    Excellent point and well-stated! What a great article to heighten awareness of what many female birders have observed.

  • Gloria Nikolai

    While I appreciate and respect any personal concerns that women have about their safety while birding, this is simply not an area of concern for me. A male birder once asked me if I felt safe passing by a group of men who were congregated by a city lake in a park, I was a bit startled initially by the question. My answer was, “Not at all.” I often go out birding in a variety of locations in my state (Colorado) and other states by myself. I love the solitude, the chance to watch bird behavior extensively without needing to “move on” to the next bird and the peacefulness. It is also just frankly easier to work with my available schedule and not other people’s – and it helps me hone my own skills.

    I am also a sociologist in my paid work and appreciate all attention to gender-related issues as people are often blind to them. My concern is that we restrain women’s independence by teaching them from the earliest ages that they are at risk when we know women’s greatest risk is from people they know, not strangers. Teaching safety skills and defense skills may be helpful but also urging women to embrace all opportunities to grow and learn is necessary to break through these stereotypes and glass ceilings.

  • Gloria Nikolai

    Excellent points about how we categorize good birders or birders with high status – because field work and conservation work is extraordinarily important. I think we should keep an eye on both areas (authoritative and more) in basically assessing gender issues over time.

  • Gloria NIkolai

    Thank you for all that you have done and all that you continue to do!

  • Gloria Nikolai

    I am with you in never having participated in a blog comment line (and have done so several times now) but I am thrilled the conversation is happening. I too have a male partner who enjoys birding but isn’t as skilled in ID and bird behavior simply because he has many other pursuits that take up a lot of time. He clearly matches me for his appreciation of the beauty and variety of birds when we go on birding trips or go out birding together. I do not wait for him to have time to go, however, because then I wouldn’t be out nearly as often as I am!

  • Gloria Nikolai

    I loved your point about names that are assumed to be male- it completely confirms the assumptions people make about listers being male in the first place. And kudos to you for your life list full of grand experiences and dedicated efforts (not luck!). I keep a list of birds I have seen, work hard for some of them and dismiss opportunities for new lifers sometimes because I am entranced by a “common” species. I have no idea who else is on the “grand list” because I simply don’t care at this time of my life – birding is for me, my sanity and my purposes. Thanks for all you contributed to the discussion!

  • Checking to see if I’m a guy…nope, still female. I’ve been fortunate to give keynotes at many festivals across the country. It’s how I make my about half my living. And the Midwest Birding Symposium, which will be held again at Lakeside, Ohio in mid-September 2013, counts many female speakers among its keynotes. Huzzah!

  • Did Louise Zemaitis “have” to share a square with Michael O’Brien or was that their/her choice? The other two women were Sophie Webb and Julie Zickefoose, who didn’t share a square with her husband Bill Thompson III. I suspect that if Louise had wanted to have her own square, she could have. It would be hard to argue that birding is gender balanced, but there are many aspects to the equation that can’t be neatly explained by simple sexism. Assigning the blame for all aspects of this imbalance to sexism defeats the purpose of having a meaningful dialogue in my view, because over-simplified answers tend to end discussions or at the very least drive away those who prefer to think a bit more critically. I have started out with multiple attempts to respond to this article, but each time deleted what I’ve written because there are so many variables that have gone into producing the current dynamic.

  • Based on your first name, I’m going to guess that you are closer to my age (53) than the age of the “young boys club.” Donna was a common girl’s name when I was a kid, but like many of the popular names of my youth (Mary, Susan, Cheryl, Sally, Steve, Jim, Bill, and even Dave), it has fallen out of favor with young parents. I have three kids in their 20s and they tolerate doing things with me because I’m their dad. Otherwise, they do not share hobbies, outdoor activities, or general discretionary time with men or women who are old enough to be their parents. Of course these young people appear to be clique-ish and exclusionary to us. Why? Because that’s what late-teens and young adults do. I used to be one of those “young boys.” My birding contemporaries and I branded ourselves as the “young guard” in stark contrast to the “others” who made up the rival “old guard.” It should be noted that some in the old guard were no more than 7-10 years older than us. These young guns avoid hanging with us for one simple reason…we are OLD. It has nothing to do with our gender. I can assure you that me and my mates of yore would have gleefully welcomed some like-aged female birding compatriots back in the day. Oddly, we couldn’t find too many respectable young women who were clamoring to spend a long weekend bouncing down dusty backroads in a rank car full of 18-22 year-old guys who badly needed a shower. That said, it was precisely the competitiveness and synergy of those times that resulted in all of us in our core group (me, David Fix, Steve Heinl, Matt Hunter, Dennis Rogers and various others) honing our skills and becoming influential and leaders in our respective local birding communities. When I encounter today’s birding young guard I often see young men and women birding together and more importantly working side-by-side on bird-related research projects. Perhaps the paradigm shift is farther along than we think.

  • I am happy to say that I have never encountered this with the men of the State College Bird Club of Central PA. I guess these men are NOT threatened by women birders ans thus treat them with respect. Perhaps it may have something to do with being at an academic center as well as being a town where there are more transients, people coming and going. Beginners are also accepted and sincerely welcome on field trips.

  • Excellent, excellent article. Thank you for writing it!

    Yes indeed there are more women birders than men. Yes indeed many women, myself included, take a wholistic approach and enjoy watching bird behavior more than ticking them off a list, though I do keep a list on every outing. I think the ‘status’ thing is related to who’s in charge of determining status. Men are in charge so what they find important is what confers status.

    In all my walks of life I have encountered dismissive men. It hurt more when I was young because our culture was worse (remember Anita Hill?) and I was less self-confident and it mattered more to me. (No one will ever again ask me, “Aren’t you just going to get pregnant and leave this job?”) I have lived through some big changes but they’re not over yet. We need more. Birds, and the world, need a wholistic approach as the climate changes. Ultimately this will change who’s “the tops” and who’s in charge of birding status.

    p.s. Most of the time I bird and hike alone for the solitude, the ability to watch birds at my own pace, the ease of scheduling, and the silence — especially the silence. I was correctly afraid to do that when I was a young woman. Back then I experienced men making lewd comments on the street. No way was I going to hike alone.

  • Madeline

    I too started birding “late” and I have severe hearing loss. I now have Oticon hearing aids (Audigy group), which have 4 “programs”, 2 have been tailored for me by the audiologist. It took many visits (free) and birding every day for me to learn what to ask him to modify. Not cheap but definitely worth every penny. Run Run to the nearest audiologist that offers free weekly visits to tailor the programs and is willing to let you be a member of the team. Don’t settle for less!

  • Chukar

    Birders aren’t sexist, humans are sexist; birders aren’t ageist, humans are ageist; birders don’t form cliques, humans form cliques; birders don’t compete, act superior, preen, condescend, and suspect others of innate inferiority, it’s humans who do all those things.

    These are fundamental, and fundamentally annoying (or infuriating) human characteristics, particularly when you are on the receiving end. It’s good to point them out, as Ms. McDonald does: we need to remind ourselves and each other that we all possess these characteristics to one degree or another, and that our species will likely continue with them into the indefinite future. These human foibles and/or features aren’t merely a matter of bad upbringing, but are largely “built-in” aspects of human nature. If we “learn” such behaviors at all, it’s because we are predisposed to easily learn them, just as we are predisposed as young children to soak up a language or to get up on our hind legs and walk. So consciousness raising such as Ms. McDonald supplies is a necessary and unending task.

  • Really interesting. We shouldn’t be surprised that birding, or any part of a deeply sexist society, manifests sexism. I’m male and think the listing thing is akin to comparing you-know-what size, and I think a lot of woman recognize that and thus have no interest in the silly competition. Birding needs to be about birds and the habitats they live in, with all the treats therein, and not some pitiful egos. BTW, who wouldn’t rather bird with women than with boys-of-all-ages who parade their a-social a-holeness consciously or unconsciously?

  • Tristan

    I just now became aware of this blog, and although seven months have passed, there is still one outstanding issue that must be addressed. I love the birding community for its open arms. There are many women among my heroes, so I am truly dismayed that my own words were taken wildly out of context and used to support the premise of this blog in the author’s follow-up comments. What is most disturbing is that McDonald knows full well that I would have said exactly the same things to any man or woman, if they harassed me for days on end with negative birder gossip and loaded questions while I was trying to work. It seems to me that manipulating very specific, personal criticisms of one’s rude behavior into examples of sexism is a disservice to all genders. I do see rampant sexism in our society, and I can see that it trickles into the birding community, but approaching this issue with false premises only brings us a step further from fixing the problem.

  • Female birder

    I know my sh*t and I help everyone. Yet the men in my community are constantly trying to push me out, embarrass me, and otherwise just make me go away. Why? Isn’t that the kind of people you want around? Is being a woman such a great sin to these guys, such a threat? In any other field I would be considered a valuable asset. Seriously, what’s wrong with these people? This is not normal!

  • Narca

    Developing confidence may be a big key. Two examples: many years ago on my first pelagic trip, I asked Guy McCaskie for a lesson in storm petrels. He went over the species we were seeing, and then started quizzing me: “What is that one?” “Black…” “And that one?” “Ashy…” “Yes. Now SAY IT WITH CONFIDENCE!”

    Many years later, I was leading a tour and visited an elder birder, now dead, who said, “Was that a Peregrine or a Prairie falcon?” I had only had the briefest of glimpses that revealed no field marks, and responded “I don’t know.” He said, “Ask your husband. He can tell you how to distinguish them.” I had to laugh out loud. It might have been offensive, but in my book, the situation was so ridiculous that it couldn’t be taken seriously. I suppose that’s confidence.

  • Nancy Tikalsky

    Excellent and balanced article. If men understood the egoless nature of many women, they might appreciate our skills better. But, I believe we don’t need to be like competitive men to be respected birders. I have no desire to break a man-made glass ceiling and I dislike the reference as condescending to the women’s paradigm of success.

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