A Movement to Make Birding More Inclusive and Accessible

Virginia Rose found her passion for birds—and a new purpose in life—from the seat of her wheelchair. With Birdability, she's working to bring birding's benefits to others like her.

Virginia Rose had just turned 14 when the horse she was riding, in Evergreen, Colorado, spooked and ran under some guide wire, which swept her violently to the ground. “I broke ribs and punctured lungs and all of that,” she says. “But they really think it was the way in which I fell that broke my back, as opposed to the wires.”

That was 45 years ago, and she tells the story cheerfully, in a sing-song voice that sounds not unlike the bird chatter surrounding us. It’s a sunny late afternoon on Lake Creek Trail in suburban Austin, where Rose lives, and she has been birding in her wheelchair since 7:30 this morning, as part of a self-imposed challenge to log as many birds as she could from dawn to dusk. The purpose: to raise awareness for Birdability, her new initiative to get mobility-impaired people out in the parks and enjoying nature, by way of birding—and in turn, to make birding more accessible.

Birdability is one of the only efforts of its kind in the nation. Rose’s first step has been to compile a list of bird-heavy parks in the Austin metro area whose trails are wheelchair-friendly. There are currently 34, from Barkley Meadows to Windermere, a list that spans flat, manicured city parks and rugged, hilly nature preserves. Today’s birdathon hit five of them. Nicole Netherton, the executive director of Travis Audubon, a chapter of the National Audubon Society, says the organization is in the process of making the list an official publication, with annotated maps explaining which species can be seen where.

Rose’s ambitions for Birdability are much larger. “Austin is like my pilot program,” she says. “I know where all the accessible parks are here. Now I want to find all the physically challenged people who don’t know yet that they can be out in the parks. And once I find them and build a birding team, I want to set up the same thing in Dallas, or Arlington, or another state.” She envisions a network of organizers like her in cities around the country. “So that the Austin group can fly to Seattle, where someone has done the legwork to find all the places, and we can stay with them and bird there, and then we can reciprocate and they can come here and see our birds.”

Travis Audubon is stepping in to help on this count, too, forging connections between Virginia and various accessibility groups around town. “I have a good friend in the autism community, and she’s excited about introducing autistic kids to birding,” says Netherton. “That’s a group with a different set of challenges, and no less potential.”  

Rose found her passion for birding around 15 years ago, after her sister in Tucson took up the hobby. One night, on the way home from her job teaching Advanced Placement high-school English (she’s now retired), Rose heard a radio segment about a lecture at Travis Audubon, and found herself inexorably drawn to it. She quickly got hooked—not just by the birds, which she began to study obsessively in a now heavily marked-up National Geographic guide—but by the freedom that birding gave her. She’s now on the board of Travis Audubon.

“I have benefited so much from being outside in parks,” she says. “It has fed my soul. It has given me a confidence that I did not have before. I feel like it is getting me as close to my potential as I have ever been.” It’s also simply made her physically stronger. She twists her torso around to grab a notebook from the pack strapped to the rear of her chair. She leans back to train her binoculars to the sky. She pops wheelies to descend steep grades. “Look at how much I’m moving my core and shoulders and back,” she says. “It’s all therapy, and I don’t feel like I’m exercising.”

It’s all of those benefits—as well as the independence that comes from exploring nature on one’s own, and the sense of community that comes from bonding with other birders—that has Rose convinced she’s on to something powerful for other physically challenged people. “People in wheelchairs need to try to do things they are not sure they can do,” she says. “If you don’t, you never get that wonderful feeling of, 'I didn’t think I could do that and I did.’ As soon as you reframe it, you don’t focus on what’s difficult about something but on what you can gain from it.”

She interrupts herself, as she often does. “Barn Swallow! Look at that color, the violet and orange!” That’s her 45th bird of the day, and she starts recounting some of the highlights so far: an Indigo Bunting, a Yellow Warbler, a Summer Tanager — “perfect blue, perfect yellow, perfect red.” There was a Great Blue Heron, a Cooper’s Hawk, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.

And now we’re off again, and she’s talking about how she’s never met another wheelchair birder, how she hopes to partner with local rehab facilities to introduce patients to birding, how she’s preparing to give a presentation to the board of one of those facilities in two weeks. Birdability is her full-time occupation now, and she says for the first time in her life she feels she has a true purpose. “My dad told me I’d know when I found it because it wouldn’t feel like work,” she says.

She spots five more additions to her list before we finish our two-and-a-half mile round trip and emerge back at the trailhead. She’s wheeled about 10 miles today, and just last week spent five days in East Texas with an Audubon group birding 12 hours per day. She rolls herself into her minivan and heads for the next park on her agenda.

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