Are all birdwatchers white and middle-aged or older?

When there is a large gathering of birders – at a bird reserve, a rare bird twitch, or an indoor meeting – overwhelmingly yes, that description is true in most places I’ve been, and you can add that the vast majority are men. What impression does that give to people who don’t fit that demographic? Does a young or BAME person feel they can fit in to a bird club where no-one looks like them? Do female birders feel comfortable in a hide or at a twitch? Does everyone get help and encouragement to carry on pursuing an interest in wildlife, or do some give up because they are ostracised, or feel out of place?

There are a great many young people with a genuine, often passionate, interest in wildlife. Recognising that this can lead to a career as well as a hobby, there are now 16 universities in the UK - including Bournemouth - offering degrees in Wildlife Conservation, and 36 in Ecology (www.whatuni.com). We may not realise it, but the birding scene is changing. There are brilliant young people coming to the fore as bird observatory wardens, field birders, photographers, authors, TV presenters, bloggers, opinion-leaders and campaigners. A Guardian article last year focussed on five of these, ranging from ages 9 to 17, and could easily have named many more (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/eyes-on-the-skies-young-birdwatchers-take-flight). One of the people profiled, an 18-year old British Bangladeshi, was awarded an honorary doctorate by Bristol University in February 2020 for her achievements in ornithology and equal rights for minority ethnic children and teenagers - the youngest British person to receive such an award (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mya-Rose_Craig). Also featured was a 15-year old from Northern Ireland, whose 2020 book Diary of a Young Naturalist has been widely acclaimed. It is about his intense connection to the natural world, and his perspective as an autistic teenager juggling exams and friendships alongside a life of campaigning (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/may/16/dara-mcanulty-nature-writing-diary-of-a-young-naturalist).

These and other influential young birders and naturalists use social media to share their views and interests. These two alone have 40,000 followers on Twitter between them, and there is no shortage of other young birders on Twitter, many of whom are neither white nor male.  So why don’t we very often see young people out in the field with binoculars round their necks? And why are we birdwatchers – not just in Dorset but across the UK – so lacking in diversity?

In June 2020 an international ‘black birders week’ was organised following the incident in Central Park in which a white female dog-walker called the police saying that an African-American man was threatening her. Christian Cooper, the birder concerned, had recorded the incident on his phone, showing that he politely asked her to put a lead on her dog and nothing more (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9TXkh9jihUU). By coincidence, this happened the same day that George Floyd was killed. Black and other non-white birders around the world shared their stories on social media. Like Christian Cooper, they often had to overcome prejudice and ignorance by fellow birders while out birding. In a June 2020 article Birding in the UK: Where Are the People Like Me? Edinburgh birder Sorrel Lyall remembers how different and ‘looked at’ she felt when walking into a conference room as the only young, female, non-white birder. She gives some quotes from a survey she undertook to gain the opinions of other minority group birders:

“I felt my background makes me not British enough for British birds.”

“People took photos of me and called me a ‘rarity’ and used my photo on social media without my permission.” [On attending a birding event as the only minority ethnic person]

“When it comes to joining nature groups there is a subconscious tension due to my gender and sexuality.”

“Homophobic remarks on a few occasions, mostly from older male birders.”

 “I didn't have access to a car, didn't feel confident walking alone outside away from people, and I couldn't afford binoculars or a scope, and nor could my parents. And it delayed my birding skills development.”

“Any rare birds I find and report I get told I didn't see them by being judged on my age and being a girl.”

“Hides are intimidating to enter.”

She says sexism is another barrier affecting access to birding: women are often discriminated against, ignored and subjected to sexist comments. Many women do not feel valued in birding groups or feel safe birding alone:

“My skills and time are not equally valued or appreciated. I had to be twice as good and ring twice as long as my male peers to get my ringing licence.”

“Everywhere I've been to enjoy nature, whether that be in the local park or on a branded reserve, I've always been approached by men wanting to talk to me… You feel as though you can't sit back and enjoy things because you have to be on your guard all the time.”

Physically disabled people were included in the survey. One commented:

“I can walk short distances but need a wheelchair for more than 1/4 mile. So most nature reserves or outdoor spaces are not accessible.”

Lyall’s conclusions are wide-ranging and ambitious, calling for change across the whole sector. One key message is that nature organisations and reserves need to be accessible and welcoming (https://www.rarebirdalert.co.uk/v2/Content/Birding_in_the_UK_Where_Are_the_PeopleLikeMe.aspx?s_id=558059018).

When I started birding as a teenager I never had to ask ‘where are the people like me?’ At birding sites or on twitches most people were around the same age, and that is still more or the less the case – same people, just a lot older. For ‘millennials’ and ‘Generation Z’ it’s entirely different: much less likely to have birding friends of the same age living nearby, social media enables them to connect with like-minded enthusiasts from much further afield. Young birders today use blogs, Twitter, Instagram and eBird as a convenient and safe space for social networking, opinion-sharing and friendship. Getting out in the field, however, is not so easy. I used to get around on my bike or hitch-hiking, but I lived near some good bird places, and in a time when hitch-hiking felt safer than it does now. The BTO recently published results of a youth survey conducted by its Youth Advisory Panel. Almost 70% of the 230 respondents (49% male and 48% female) cited travel as a barrier to birding, followed by time, money and confidence (https://twitter.com/_BTO/status/1290638651559378951?s=03).  There are particular disincentives for young women, as discussed by Mya Bambrick in a recent BTO blog (https://www.bto.org/community/blog/where-are-young-women-birding). All these barriers are heightened for BAME people, the vast majority of whom live in urban centres, therefore less likely to have the means to get to sites of nature. Most inner-city parks don’t really do the job, and even if a good site 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!

Nor have I often needed to question whether an organisation or reserve is ‘accessible and welcoming’, although that is becoming a factor for many older birders. Writing in 2018 on behalf of Wildlife for All, which represents birders and naturalists with disabilities, Bo Beolens (aka ‘fatbirder’) says “Not long after the idea was voiced that leisure facilities should be made available to the ‘disabled’, the phrase ‘wheelchair user’ became a de facto synonym. So, while making things accessible to people in wheelchairs has been a great leap forward, doing so actually caters for a very small proportion of those with mobility issues, let alone the wider world of infirmity. For example, seven million Britons have significant hearing loss, yet how often are loop systems installed at nature reserves and country parks, even in the main visitor centres?” His recommendations for nature reserves are: “add benches, build boardwalks, remove barriers, design hides for better viewing, provide mobility scooters, and change attitudes.”  (https://www.discoverwildlife.com/people/wildlife-for-all/).

So how can the birding community make itself more accessible, welcoming and inclusive? At national level, this issue is being given serious attention. The BOU recognises that “ecological sciences have a lower representation of minority groups (of all ethnicities) and nationalities than elsewhere in the sciences. As a result, we see few people from minority groups taking up ecology courses …Ornithology must be welcoming to all ethnicities”. The BOU has an Equality and Diversity Working Group with the aim of increasing equality, diversity and inclusion across all activities (https://www.bou.org.uk/blog-black-lives-matter/), and the BTO has had a similar working group since December 2019. The RSPB has stated their intention to have “Equality, Diversity and Inclusion as a top priority, fully integrated and institutionalized in our culture, is a way to future proof the RSPB and help us achieve our mission of saving nature”. They have set clear targets for their recruitment of staff and volunteers; these include “Employees and volunteers from different backgrounds are readily accepted and made to feel welcome at the RSPB” and “At work/ whilst volunteering, I feel able to express my identity and to act in a way that is true to myself” (https://www.rspb.org.uk/globalassets/downloads/documents/abouttherspb/edi-position-statement-2019.pdf).

Since the Equality Act 2010, which legally protects people from discrimination both in the workplace and in wider society, nature organisations everywhere have had to ensure that everyone can access their services, whatever their age, disability, race, sex or sexual orientation. This has at least led to improved access for physically disabled people at some nature reserves.  The RSPB publishes online accessibility assessments for all its reserves. 

Real progress is being made on these issues by national bodies, especially for young people.  The BTO has a major focus on youth engagement, for example joining up with Spurn Bird Observatory to provide a residential course for young leaders in the environmental sector (https://www.bto.org/community/events/201908-young-leaders), establishing a Young Bird Obs Volunteer Fund and working with the Cameron Bespolka Trust to run an annual bird camp (https://www.cameronbespolka.com/young-birders-blog/bto-bird-camp-2019). Rare Bird Alert started a Young Ornithologists Fellowship in 2019, British Birds has a Young Birders’ Grants scheme and BirdGuides, the RSPB, and The Wildlife Trusts all have programmes to support and encourage young enthusiasts. The Cameron Bespolka Trust does fantastic work in this area, including sponsoring outstanding young people to join Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s annual Bird Event in New York State. Enthused by his experience at Cornell, one young Dorset birder joined the Dorset Bird Club committee after attending this event, thanks to the Trust. Another national body, A Focus on Nature, aims to ‘connect, inspire and support young people across the UK with an interest in nature and conservation, and provide a voice for the youth conservation movement’. Their work includes holding events and providing mentorship from experienced professionals.

How does this national effort translate into action locally in Dorset? Dorset Wildlife Trust has teamed up with neighbouring Wildlife Trusts to give people from diverse backgrounds the chance to apply for nine-month long training placements in practical conservation and engagement skills, helped by funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Skills for the Future.  Initiatives by birding organisations have started to make a difference for young people: Birds of Poole Harbour have run regular School Bird Boats since 2002 at no cost to parents, in order to get children into this habitat whilst in a safe and controlled environment. RSPB have recently completed a four-year schools outreach programme in the Bournemouth area, enthusing and educating children about nature and wildlife. Arne RSPB has a residential volunteer scheme, most often accessed by young people, providing accommodation and training in conservation work and visitor engagement as a step on the career ladder into conservation. And Dorset Bird Club offers free membership to anyone under 21 in full-time education. A multi-agency conference scheduled for June 2020 with a programme entirely presented by young birders had to be cancelled but will be re-run when the pandemic restrictions allow. So far three young people have taken advantage of the free Bird Club membership, and we hope they will spread the word!

Many birders and birding organisations now use Twitter as one of their main means of communication, ensuring that their messages are accessible to everyone at all times. Birds of Poole Harbour, Portland Bird Observatory, RSPB Arne and RSPB Weymouth Wetlands each have more than 5,000 followers on Twitter and Dorset Wildlife Trust more than 31,000. Dorset Bird Club is trying to increase its presence on Twitter and now has over 3,600 followers.   

Arne RSPB and Radipole Lake RSPB get a ‘thumbs up’ from Wildlife for All for their accessibility, particularly Arne which offers Tramper mobility scooters for hire. And Bo Beolens’ 2018 article includes a photo of the wheelchair friendly viewing platform at the DWT Chesil Beach Centre. But, as he says, accessibility is about more than just wheelchairs.

But clearly, more is needed of the birding community than specialised programmes, good communications and better physical access. 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. As a physically able white male in my 60s I’m fortunate enough never to have felt like this. However, from what we have read and heard recently through Black Lives Matter, there is still a major problem in society at large with prejudice and discrimination. In the nature-loving community we like to see ourselves as liberal, socially responsible and fair-minded. We like to think that our only prejudices are against owners of grouse-shooting estates and those whose political opinions we don’t share. We don’t stop to wonder why so few people who aren’t like ourselves are drawn into our community. We haven’t noticed when someone who is different from us is feeling uncomfortable, unwelcome or unsafe.

Whatever the barriers to taking up or continuing birding there is a strong message that making people feel welcome is essential. Final message from Amy Hall, an Exeter University student and Cameron Bespolka Young Ambassador:

 “There’s something I think we could all do: reach out to young people. If you are a bird ringer, invite young people to join you; if you do WeBS counts, invite young people to join you; if you are planning to do a public survey, INVITE YOUNG PEOPLE TO JOIN YOU! Do it in a way that is safe, of course, by engaging parents following safeguarding rules, but most importantly create an environment in which a young person or group of young people can join in and have fun.” – Amy Hall (https://www.bto.org/community/blog/gen-z-and-bto).

Geoff Upton (with thanks to Alex Chapman, George Green, Samantha Lloyd, Sorrel Lyall, Peter Robertson and Shaun Robson for their comments and to Alex Cagan for permission to use artwork)

 Artwork by Alex Cagan to illustrate barriers identified in Sorrel Lyall’s survey

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