“Birding is for everybody!” Right?
It’s easy to think that everybody feels welcome and included in the birding community and the outdoors just because we say things like that. But sometimes it’s not enough to assume folks know they’re welcome; we must be intentional about it, too. There are concrete actions we can take—as individual birders, members of birding groups, and organizations—to ensure that everybody feels that they belong in the birding community.
By being intentionally welcoming and inclusive, we’ll create environments that others will want to join and avoid inadvertently contributing to ones that feel exclusive. And that’s the first step to ensuring that birding truly is for everybody.
Tips for Individuals
Check your assumptions: Do people need binoculars to go birding? Do they need to see birds at all to enjoy them? Consider your unconscious understanding of “birding” or “birders” and check if your personal definitions are based on assumptions or stereotypes (which can often be exclusionary). Then, work to expand your internal definitions. (See It’s Time to Redefine ‘Birding’ for more on this.) And if someone without optics or with hearing loss asks what you’ve seen or heard on the trail, imagine what you might spark if your response is enthusiastic and encouraging!
Be kind online: The birding community exists in digital spaces, too, so it is important to be as mindful in internet forums as it is in real life. Blunt, hastily written comments can cause miscommunication, so take it upon yourself to set a positive and inclusive tone for everyone. For example, if someone shares a photo in a birding Facebook group and requests ID help, kindly, with encouragement, explain what the bird is or suggest ID tips. It can take courage to ask for help, and the replies someone receives in online birding forums may impact whether they want to engage with the community in the future.
Respect others: Some people enjoy being social outdoors, while others may have gone to nature to get away from social interaction. Accepting the different ways people interact with each other and with the outdoors without judgment is part of fostering inclusive environments. Learn to read people’s body language and tone for boundaries they might be trying to express. Be mindful of your own manners—for example, don’t stare at a person with a visible difference.
Educate yourself: Spend time learning how to be anti-racist, how to be a good ally, and some basic disability etiquette. Learn about intersectionality, too. But don’t expect other birders to educate you on these topics. (Google them instead.) Take concrete actions to make everyone welcome, such as sharing your pronouns when you introduce yourself in person or online (this can signal to trans and non-binary folks that it’s safe for them to share their pronouns, too). Online, you can include image descriptions in your social media posts, so that folks who use screen reader software can access the otherwise visual information you’re sharing. There are lots of resources online, and the more you learn, the less uncomfortable you’ll be when you meet someone new.
Tips for Leaders of Outings
Smile and say "hi!": This must be the easiest way of welcoming people! Verbally greet participants is important in case someone is blind or has low vision—they may not realize you smiled at them. Introduce yourself and wear a name tag with good contrast and large print so folks who forget can refer back to it later. It may seem straightforward, but trust us: Don’t skip this step!
Hold an orientation: Before you head off, help participants get situated by introducing yourself, the location (you can even include a land acknowledgement), the birds you’re hoping to see or hear, and behavior expectations. Consider your tone and approach if you share how long you or anyone else has been birding, as this can feel intimidating to beginners. Take an inclusive approach: For example, you might point out that no one knows everything about birds, so anyone is welcome to ask anyone else questions. (It’s amazing how friendly this feels amongst strangers!) Invite participants to share their names and pronouns with the group, too, and any access needs they have if they think it will be helpful for others to know.
Be sensitive: Being a thoughtful leader requires attention and tact. If someone in your group has a disability or other health concern, you don’t have to do everything possible to avoid mentioning their access need, but find ways to accommodate them without making a fuss. For example, if someone is using a wheelchair, lead the entire group up the ramp instead of taking the stairs; or invite wheelchair users to the front of the group so they can see past standing people. Build in sit-down breaks so a birder with chronic fatigue can have rest.
Believe your participants: Believing someone when they first identify a bird is a surprisingly common way to help folks feel welcomed—or not. Since many birding outings involve identification, it is important to be mindful as you help a group or an individual ID birds, as it can be incredibly discouraging when someone immediately assumes someone else has it wrong. A small attitude shift of “trust but verify” can make an enormous impact on someone feeling welcome. If someone has misidentified the bird, certainly educate gently and encouragingly, but don’t talk down to anyone. After all, both new and experienced birders are bound to make mistakes.
Promote accountability: If you hear someone say something racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, or otherwise unwelcoming or mean, address it. “Hey, we don’t say things like that here,” in a calm, firm tone establishes behavioral expectations and signals to others in the group that you won’t tolerate it again. Be willing to draw a line: If the offending party says something similar again, firmly and politely ask them to leave. Your discomfort at having to do this is much less significant than the harm the offender may cause someone else.
Foster widespread change: As you practice inclusivity as a group leader, consider ways that you can encourage this work at organizations you are connected to. For example, you might incorporate or advocate for inclusive online practices, such as image descriptions on social media posts, alt text on websites, and closed captions during virtual meetings and presentations. All of these small steps help folks opt into participation. Encourage groups to commit to regular programming, such as monthly accessible bird outings instead of more sporadic ones; budgeting for presenters’ honorariums; and high-quality diversity, equity, and inclusion training for staff and volunteers.
Remember: Keep being intentionally inclusive to ensure everyone—no matter their skin color, disability or health status, experience level, sexual orientation, gender identity and presentation, country of origin or anything else that may make them seem different than you—knows that they are, truly, welcome. Sometimes this takes more time and energy, and sometimes it takes money. But being intentionally inclusive is one way of being kind. And it always feels good to give—and to receive—kindness.
Freya McGregor, OTR/L, CIG is the Birdability Coordinator and an occupational therapist. Birding since childhood, her ‘dodgy’ knee often creates an accessibility challenge for her, and she is passionate about breaking down the barriers that birders – and potential future birders – face when trying to go birding, especially for those who experience accessibility challenges as a result of a disability or other health concern. You can follow her on Instagram @the.ot.birder and learn more about Birdability at birdability.org