It’s happened to all of us: You’re at a party, or a work event, or talking to your cousin’s new girlfriend at a family gathering. When the conversation turns to hobbies and interests, someone’s eyes light up. “Oh, you’re a bird person? I have a question you might be able to answer!”
Almost everyone, whether they would identify as a birdwatcher or not, seems to have a question about what that weird bird they saw in their yard was doing or a story about the time a duck followed them to the bus stop.
“I’ve had a lot of random conversations about birds with my parents’ friends, rideshare drivers, my partner’s coworkers, and so on,” says Stephanie Beilke, conservation science manager for Audubon Great Lakes. “Once I think I may have really disturbed a person I just met by talking about how many birds are killed by colliding with buildings in downtown Chicago during migration.”
Maybe you find these conversations fun, or maybe at this point you’re cringing as you remember Uncle Alan’s attempt to describe the bird he saw outside his office (“it was sort of small and brownish”). Either way, it might be worth taking this phenomenon a little more seriously. These sorts of interactions highlight the fact that even though news from the Amazon Rainforest or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge can feel pretty far removed for many people, birds are a point of connection with wild nature no matter who you are or where you live.
Sometimes these small moments reverberate in big ways. Ten years ago Bridget Butler, a nature-oriented consultant who goes by Bird Diva, was working on getting Audubon Vermont’s Forest Bird Initiative off the ground when she found herself at an event seated at a table full of loggers and forestry people. “I was feeling pretty small and not convinced that I was going to be able to reach these folks with our message,” she says. Then, the man sitting next to her—"a classic Vermonter in his seventies wearing Carhartts”—started telling her about a bird he frequently came across on his jobs. He said he could never see it very well, and it was always down in the brush. “I asked, ‘well, what can you describe about it?’” she recalls. In response, he whistled the song of the White-throated Sparrow.
Butler’s heart filled. “It gave me an opening to talk about the White-throated Sparrow and what kind of habitat it likes and why he was finding it on his job sites,” she says. “I think that moment is when we really started to build the success of that program.” This winter, working a seasonal job as a ski instructor, she’s plotting with colleagues on how to use birds to connect skiers with the ecology of the slopes they recreate on.
Her experience highlights the value of these moments of connection: an opportunity to get more people engaged with conservation. Communication experts tell us that trying to persuade someone who’s dug in their heels on the opposing point of view (say, trying to convince a climate change denier to support climate legislation) by arguing over facts usually won't get you far. The more effective path is to turn passive allies—people with shared interests who aren't advocates—into active allies. Birds can be a great gateway drug for getting someone there. Whether they realize it, anyone who’s getting a kick out of watching the birds in their neighborhood has already taken their first steps toward becoming an advocate for wildlife.
So next time Aunt Marilyn corners you after dinner to convince you that the Bald Eagle she saw at the lake was some incredibly rare sighting, consider taking the opportunity to nudge her toward wildlife conservation. To help you along, consider these tips from the world of science communication:
Share your own stories. Emotional connections often work better than facts and figures for winning someone over. Do you have a story of your own about the species someone’s talking about? Do you know about threats to the bird or its habitats? Now’s the time to tell it (after they’ve said their piece).
Point them toward resources such as bird ID apps, like the free Audubon Bird Guide app, to help them start recognizing species on their own, or email lists that will help them get action alerts (ahem) about hot conservation issues.
Suggest easy actions they can take, like buying bird-friendly coffee or writing a letter to the editor. People are more motivated by the idea that they can make a difference than by despair at how big the problems are.
Follow up. Next time you see them, ask: Did that weird bird in your backyard ever come back? Would you like to tag along with me on a bird walk sometime?
It’s easy to chuckle at the recent transplant to the West Coast who asked why the Blue Jays in California are so ugly. But she noticed that something was off about those jays—not everyone would. Let’s open our arms and welcome the ones who notice into our “bird people” club.