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Open Mic: Building Birder Diversity

At the Mic: Dave Magpiong

Voorhees Middle School teacher Dave Magpiong has volunteered his birding skills on many bird conservation projects with entities such as U.S. Department of Defense, NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife, and other organizations. As Founder and President of the Fledging Birders Institute, he developed the Schoolyard Birding Challenge which encourages teachers across the country to share the excitement and profound developmental benefits of bird watching with their students. Dave also serves on a national committee for the Bird Education Network. Even more than birding, he savors time spent with his family – often exploring someplace!

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American birders have over 800 species to satisfy our bird watching desires. From tiny Calliope Hummingbirds to California Condors, from the spectacular Painted Bunting to the Seaside Sparrow, the diversity of our North American birds is one of the most compelling factors that captivates birders from coast to coast.

Yet, does the birding community itself reflect a similar diversity?

Think back to any field trip, bird club meeting, or even birding festival that you’ve attended. How many African-American, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American birders were in the mix?  This conspicuous lack of diversity within the American birding community has been whispered about among concerned birders for a number of years.

You may now be asking yourself, “why is it important to have more black or Hispanic birders?”

One quick, easy, and selfless answer is that everyone should experience the pure joy and many benefits of birding for themselves. Common birds such as Northern Cardinals, American Goldfinches, and Blue Jays can put a smile on almost anyone’s face, even the most experienced of birders. In addition to being fun, the process of searching for, watching, and identifying birds actually pays significant cognitive, social, and other health dividends for its participants.

These are good reasons to share birding with new people but there are bigger implications to getting new audiences interested in birding.

As new people from new neighborhoods get involved with birding, it will also prove fruitful for veteran birders for a multitude of reasons. First of all, a growing circle of birders can have a Fibonacci-esque effect as these new recruits bring other friends and family into “the field” with them – whether it’s a nearby NWR, local park, or even their own backyard. Ultimately, birding clubs will see an increase in their participation rate, membership base, and, as a result, revenues.

Of course, more eyes out looking for birds will also translate into more birds being found – including rare birds. On November 20th, Philadelphia’s Cobbs Creek Environmental Center held its first Saturday bird walk in an urban neighborhood. A young lady called out, “I see a yellow bird.”  When trip leader Tony Croasdale saw the bird, it was not the expected American Goldfinch but Pennsylvania’s 3rd Townsend’s Warbler! How many rarities are never found because they end up in one of the countless under-birded urban parks or yet-to-be-discovered suburban migrant trap?

Yet, the most important reason for building a broader birding community is to protect the birds.  The general public NEEDS to get more familiar with their local birds and nature in general if there is to be any real conservation success in the future. In the Jan/Feb 2007 issue of Birding, Kenn Kaufman discussed the critical need for people to reconnect with nature as it could “profoundly change each person’s sense of values, each person’s sense of responsibility to the ecosystems that support all of our fellow creatures.”

We don’t want Cerulean Warblers, Piping Plovers, and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers to suffer the same fate as Bachman’s Warbler, Passenger Pigeons, and Carolina parakeets. Do we? Individ-ually we can not protect these birds from burgeoning threats however, as individuals, we can open people’s eyes and hearts to the splendor of these and other birds. Through the collective efforts of many thousands of concerned birders, we can spark an appreciation of birds in millions of people. That is how we affect change for the birds.

If every birder was to actively engage friends and family with birding activities, how many new birders would we have?

If every birder was to take a moment to share a bird with a stranger in a local park, how many new birders would we have?

If every birding organization would hold new “trips” in more urban parks, how many new birders would we have?

If we had all these new bird literate people, what else would we have? A broader societal conservation ethic.

The Focus on Diversity: Changing the Face of American Birding Conference at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge on October 22, 2011 aims to take major steps in building a broader birding community. This promises to be an important gathering that will prove beneficial for future birders, our own birding community, and the birds themselves.

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