Comments on Diversity in Bird Watching article
This report summarises comments received on the article Are all birdwatchers white and middle-aged or older? published on the Dorset Bird Club website on 19 August 2020, which prompted much discussion. 46 comments were received, through email and social media, with the overwhelming majority of respondents expressing strong support for the sentiments expressed and many also making constructive suggestions for a way forward. These suggestions are grouped at the end of this report.
Of the 46 comments, 16 were from women and 29 from men. Only 2 respondents identified themselves as young people (both in their 20s) and none identified as non-white. 41 respondents were supportive, 5 less obviously so. 18 responses came through the Club’s ‘Out and About in Dorset’ (O&A) email discussion group, 4 through direct email, 20 through Twitter and 3 through Twitter Direct Messages. All the O&A respondents live in Dorset, or visit regularly, whereas Twitter respondents could live anywhere; all were UK-based apart from one in Holland.
Diversity, inclusiveness and discrimination
There were a large number of comments supporting the general principle of avoiding discrimination in general and tolerating others:
I have at times been repelled personally by a lack of tolerance from birders and indeed other wildlife 'experts'….. I think the one thing that every one of us can do is to try to be tolerant of people who are different, whether in level of expertise, background, experience, education, income, age, disability or whatever and to try to see things from their perspective. This would apply in designing visitor centres, hides, trails, interpretation, communications, everything.
Important to see the open discussion for addressing barriers to birding. We need diversity as well as more people appreciating the wildlife we have….
I think engaging with audiences that are under-represented is a great idea, after all, if we can’t see, or don’t understand, the barriers, how can we remove them. To me, inclusivity is not about positive discrimination, but, by understanding the needs of others, creating an open and barrier free environment…. Being open, welcoming and inclusive is something we all need to work at all the time.
Inclusiveness is a state of mind. Cooperation, sharing, support, and respect are all necessary. It is not a crime to be male or white but it is a crime to be unwelcoming or unhelpful to others. If we share our enthusiasm openly with others they might come to share it too.
I think it is very easy to continue to carry on ‘as normal’, especially if you don’t realise what you have said or done has been hurtful or upsetting to someone, so I think we, all of us, need to be braver at (gently, quietly and with care not to offend) calling out discrimination or language/actions that could offend when we see it in others and, if challenged ourselves, take it in good grace.
In terms of diversity and inclusivity, birding is nothing like as bad as it used to be, but nowhere near as good as it should be... So let's keep trying to make things better for all.
It’s a good article and shows that … really “gets it”. What would be good to see next is more about DBC’s plans in response - there’s a great opportunity for you to show sector leadership here as you do in other aspects of what you do.
Several respondents said that the article had made them reflect on their own behaviour, for example:
I think it is very timely as well and has….. made me think about how I act ….. with people…. I am sure that I have, in the past, been guilty of discrimination, even though I had not meant to and might not even have realised I had been.
….got me thinking about my own attitude towards beginners, and towards those who enjoy their birds via a different approach to my own, whatever race or gender.
I have to admit that I might have been guilty of that sort of attitude in the past but sincerely hope I'm not now.
Although racial diversity was at the core of the article, there were few comments regarding race, and none from people who identified themselves as being from an ethnic minority, but the comments received were interesting:
Why are birders predominantly 'white'? - Demographics. I'd like to see a study that seeks to obtain the background to birders, how they were brought up, and where they were brought up. Most ethnic minorities in the UK are centred in cities and large towns, places devoid of wildlife. Is the lack of contact the reason? Certainly, many people who live in the city rarely visit the countryside. I remember a friend of mine who took teenagers (of all ethnicities) from the city on trips to the countryside. He pointed out their sheer amazement (with associated expletives) at seeing cattle in fields for the first time, and a castle... ...well, that just blew their minds! No contact, no interest. Also, peer pressure.
The vast majority of BAME people in the UK live in urban centres, which means they are practically less likely to have the means to get to sites of nature. Most inner-city parks don’t really do the job, and many would need access to a car to get somewhere... and even if somewhere were accessible by affordable public transport, many people simply wouldn’t know about it – you have to be told where is good from someone who is already interested! ….Many BAME people face poverty/financial deprivation, meaning again that they are less likely to have the resources to access nature, or to have the leisure time to pursue it. If BAME people do make it to a white-dominated wildlife space, they may feel unsafe/uneasy/less than welcome, as you write about….. BAME people’s disenfranchisement from nature has serious, material disadvantages …. Part of the reason for this has been the twinned lack of access to the health-giving properties of being in and around nature, and the health-destroying properties of inner-city stressors (pollution, poverty, overcrowding, dangerous work, and a deficiency of access to parks and open spaces).
I think David Lindo (who has Jamaican roots) summed it up well - BAME people are unwilling to take part in "white" activities in case their BAME friends make fun of them for trying to be white.
Something that does need to be born in mind is the danger of over-compensating and causing ill feeling elsewhere. An interesting point is also whether some groups of people are actually interested as a whole. Some years ago a ….. mountain rescue group applied to the Lottery for funding and were turned down on the basis that they weren’t diverse enough. But when research was done it was found that the mostly Asian minority in question just weren’t interested in walking and hill climbing etc…... So whilst it is important to extend diversity in all its forms, it is also important not to get tangled up in trying to achieve something that is not necessarily in some people’s radar.
Although the local demography is different from the rest of the country - 4.4% non-white in Dorset and 6.1% in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole compared to 19.5% in the UK – BAME people are clearly under-represented within the membership of the Club and the local birding community.
Two respondents said they were young people, and several others had a strong interest:
I agree ….. about the increase in encouragement for younger people to get out and try birding …., particularly over the past couple of years, but I feel a lot of the encouragement has been in the wrong places. I’ve found that environmental organisations have a tendency to only promote their work to the people following them, who of course are going to be interested, but lack the greater outreach into communities that wouldn’t be aware of who they are or what they do. It seems to be the smaller organisations and charities that have the awareness to reach out into a variety of areas / communities / backgrounds. There needs to be change with the top organisations, which will hopefully engage a variety of people, and then filter down into local areas. I think a lot more younger people are out birding these days, but that is spoken from someone who is a birder, so most of my friends have a similar interest and therefore I’m fairly surrounded by it. I will however say that I think there is a disparity between groups, with the younger generation and older generation not having much overlap. I rarely see a mixture of ages (apart from families) out together, so maybe this is an area to work on. I’ve luckily never come across any discrimination to myself (I am a 25year old white male).
… my main interest is in involving children…once the hormones kick in for most teenagers it’s a waste of time….My hobbyhorse is how can we get teachers particularly in the primary sector interested? …. At a young age teachers’ enthusiasm rubs off extensively to their young pupils.
…. schools are potentially the best route in. …. The Birdboats are a brilliant initiative. But I'd love to know if there is any data about how many participants become engaged beyond the day.
Schools are certainly a key route in. When I worked at the visitor centre at ….. we got ten schools involved building nest boxes, then put them up in the grounds, the schools used the boxes ……for classes. Sadly we were not able to continue/follow up the project, as we did not have the funding and that, I believe, is the key. Once these things are started they must continue, in the long term, so that such involvement becomes the norm!
…I note that the Cameron Bespolka Young Ambassador…. urges us to 'invite young people to join you', mentioning WeBS counts as an example activity. ….. But first the safeguarding aspect would need to be carefully addressed. Also, in practical terms, it would be easier to entertain a small group of young people (and parents) in some sectors than other less accessible sites. However, all is possible if the will is there.
People had plenty to say on this subject:
I am fortunate in that I have not been aware of sexual discrimination by other birders, including at a BOU conference where I might have expected it. However I have in the past experienced the barrier of being nervous about going into the field alone, especially in wild places and/or at night. I no longer worry about this (maybe I should!) but I do know …. that it is a factor for others. Group, guided events or just buddying up with others is one way to help with this.
I feel I've had a 60-year battle to be taken seriously as a birder simply because I'm female - it's always assumed that any companion is the "real birder"….. Twitchers aren't (inclusive) in the least.
The birders I regularly see are lovely, encouraging …. Several times in the field (I am) approached with “where’s your boyfriend” or even less subtle.
My love of birds was sparked in my 20s. Many 'birders' were supportive, & I've met brilliant people, but many did not want to share knowledge. Hoped to train in bird ringing, but as the mentor only talked to my chest, I dropped out & missed learning vital skills!
…have witnessed (discrimination) when out birding with women of a similar age. A hello or any conversation will pretty much always get aimed at me first, until the other party realise the women I’m with is also there to birdwatch. I think there is a fairly deep set subconscious discrimination towards women in nature still.
I’m a member of a women’s birding/wildlife group which got going years ago - because there’s only so much mansplaining and male/male one-upmanship exchanges you want to put up with in a hide. Apologies to the majority of men who don’t do this.
Speaking as a white middle-aged man who often frequents hides let's change this!
On the whole I found being female is not a problem so much now; in the early days of course it was assumed being just a young woman you couldn’t possibly know your bird ID. Thankfully this is mostly put to bed, however when leading groups other birders would stop one of the guys in the group to ask what was about ignoring me, that just made me smile.
As an 80 year old female I'm happy to go (to)..… my local patch, where over the years I've got to know many of the birders who have always been very helpful. My particular bête noire are those in camouflage, toting cameras …., who look down their noses at a mere woman. This was a normal situation when I volunteered in the visitor centre at ….. White, middle aged men would peer through the door and seeing just me, would slide in carefully avoiding eye contact. If the manager appeared from his office they would pounce on him wanting help with identification. To give him his due he usually referred them to me.
Why are birders predominantly male? I've heard reasons ranging from 'a greater hunting instinct' in males than females, to females at large have no interest in birding (birds yes, but not birding). I have no idea if any of these are true…. There are plenty of women involved in natural history at large. I think most professional ecologists are now women (ratio of 3 to 2, as an informed guess based on my own knowledge of local professional ecologists). Why the disparity with birding? Don’t know, but I can't say it's lack of opportunity.
Twitch crowds in Holland seem to be much younger than in UK but, like in UK, are mostly male. Possibly, female and old birders are more inclined to just wait for pics and sounds to appear on the internet?
Not really had any problems. I am 20+++. But do agree that sometimes I am the only female.
Of the 25 members (of a local ringing group) six are female, which is a long way from 50% but far better than it was a couple of decades ago when it was all male.
I can't help thinking we have something to learn from the US. There about 50% of birders seem to be women. Here, despite making up 50% of the population, women seem to represent only about 10-20% of birders. At the risk of sounding stereotypic there does appear to be some evidence that the competitive/I've got more twitter followers than you approach is more appealing to many men than many women. So heavy duty listing and hundreds of photographers posting the same pics of a rarity as a kind of selfie by proxy is very male dominated.
Disability and health
This topic also provoked a strong reaction, including the need to recognise mental health issues:
…. to access (a Dorset nature reserve) …. I have to use crutches and there is nowhere for me to sit to watch the birds, though leaning on the fencing helps. A bench would be help enormously. I can hire “trampers” (all-terrain vehicles) at various sites …which is brilliant. However some sites just have wheelchairs that someone else has to push, no good at all for me…… I would love to buy my own tramper but we are talking several thousand pounds and then you need a vehicle to put it into….benches along the way would help and has to be fairly flat, preferably no sand or uneven surfaces. …. also for people to remember that if they stand in front of me I can’t see, I do become invisible it seems or sometimes I think not considered a “real” birder….Even if we can’t change things overnight benches is surely a starting point. Standing still on crutches is a killer for me!
Access for physically disabled: All well and good and I agree in principle. However, … we must remember that nature reserves were designated to protect/conserve the biodiversity and wildlife populations in these areas. …... Sadly, I have seen …. paths have been gravelled covering up the nesting sites …... On nature reserves which protect largely untouched natural or semi-natural habitat, these should remain untouched and undisturbed. …. In short, there needs to be a balancing act, but the wildlife should NEVER lose out.
…I have direct personal experience of … accessibility for sufferers from dementia. Here I did experience discrimination at several Dorset birding sites and I was shocked by it. ….I do hope some progress has been made in training staff and volunteers but there is certainly room for more understanding and tolerance from other birders.…. access to nature for all ages and the chance to discover or continue and interest in birding can have huge benefits for mental and physical health so barriers to all should be considered and addressed.
The idea of connecting with nature as a way of improving wellbeing has never been so widely discussed as it has been during Covid.
There were strong feelings about the attitudes of some experienced birders towards those with less expertise, or even those new to the area:
I wonder if some birders realise how unhelpful it is to novices when they don’t call birds by their proper names (gropper, blackwit, sprawk, etc.). I think I’d feel more included & less stupid if they used birds’ proper names.
One gripe I have is seeing people who are starting out ask questions and be met with gruff answers of "no", "yes, of course it is" from people who are very knowledgeable and a few seconds of "you can tell because..." would be incredibly helpful for the other person.
I travelled on bird tours a couple of times with a somewhat elderly English lady who spoke with a 'home county' accent. She had lived for many years in America and started birding there and was very competent both in the USA and around the world with a substantial life-list. She said that she was fed up of the dismissive attitudes from British birders when she returned to the UK just because she didn't know British birds as well as she knew American ones.
I definitely experienced the grumpy old man syndrome in hides when I was a young birder…
As a young birder, my records were generally disbelieved…. I was never involved in some of the discussions. …. I was very rarely invited onto birding trips. I suspect it was because I was young. Ridicule…. was common as a young birder, less common nowadays (but it still happens), and generally put me off other birders, but not birding.
When I moved down 11 years ago I was amazing at the level of cliqueiness in the …. area. Everything I said and reported was I felt being scrutinised and judged by local birders and I really had to try hard to be accepted as it wasn't automatic by any means. I received online abuse from locals and also was subject to abuse behind my back. …. It took years and finding a few good birds that eventually got me accepted but it was a very unpleasant experience thanks to local birders. I think the ….area still has a long way to go with some birders still refusing to share bird news.
Cliques...... should be avoided at all costs. They exist whether they know it or not. Cliques can destroy a person's interest.
Elitism, snobbery and cilcqueyness. Sadly birding can suffer from these as much as many other niche interests.
There were relatively few comments that took issue with the main message of the piece, or argued against any part of it. One person commented on a statement in the article that ‘although few people who responded to Sorrel Lyall’s survey had experienced direct discrimination, most said that feeling unsafe, unwelcome or different has stopped them accessing nature or engaging with birding groups’:
Feeling unsafe, unwelcome or different IS direct discrimination
The sentiment that anyone can suffer from discrimination, regardless of age, sex, race or disability, was expressed by some, for example:
… being a white male doesn't exclude one from being abused. People who call 'white males' privileged are ignoring such abuse…. while some birders’ attitudes towards other birders can be questioned, society's attitude towards birders (and other interest groups) should also be questioned just as much, and is likely to have more of an effect on potential future birders, not to detract from the former.
However, although the article did not mention sexuality or transgender – another of the protected groups under the Equalities Act – it gained support from this sector:
A good read …and thanks for sharing. @GayBirders offers a great place for Rainbow flag birders to share time together in the field and online & provide support and encouragement, whether expert or new to birding.
Suggestions and offers
Although suggestions for the way forward were not specifically sought, a number of constructive suggestions were made:
I would suggest DBC thinks seriously about setting up several small dedicated groups to look at ways of better engaging/gaining a. more young members, b. more women members, and c. more members from minority groups. …And a publicity officer with a brief to connect with ANY people who are NOT members.
More ‘non middle aged white male’ speakers at events and talks could be a goal. People may get more involved if they can see a role model that looks like them.
Something for DBC to consider is a youth officer(s), with a brief to promote the free Young Dorset Birder membership, liaise with schools and find ways of promoting Family Birding reserve visits/outings. We organise members' meetings so why not try the same for people who aren't members. Schools and social media would surely be good ways of connecting with them.
(Regarding women’s nervousness about going into the field alone, or parent’s worries for their children) Group, guided events or just buddying up with others is one way to help with this.
Set up introductory outdoor events -- aimed at people who are not members. Generally I think DBC needs to be MUCH better at promoting what it stands for …. to a wider audience.. If you haven't got a publicity officer you need one.
…attract wildlife people from other areas into birding…..there opportunities to try encouraging members of Dorset Wildlife Trust, Butterfly Conservation, as well as other wildlife groups …. maybe joint talks with BC/DWT etc in the future might be fun to try.
Why would an RSPB/DWT member/volunteer want to join DBC? … there needs to be a cultural shift towards creating more communal/social and focussed activities. And promote the idea that birding(and joining DBC) is actually good for you.
There were also a couple of offers of help:
I’ve recently become the ‘A Focus in Nature’ regional rep for the South West, so will be looking to work with environmental groups down here to help get young people engaged with nature! I’d love to hear from any organisations or any ideas that people have which I could incorporate into the group, so please feel free to drop me an email.
Help’s available if you need it. (describes self on Twitter as ‘aggressive gay activist’)
The responses to this article probably reflect a cross-section of Dorset Bird Club members and of the wider birding community. It is very encouraging that the response has in general been very positive and the article seems to have prompted serious thought and discussion. It is hoped that they will help the Club and the Dorset birding community to move towards becoming more inclusive and welcoming in the future.