On a crisp late summer night last September, lawn chairs and blankets dotted the lawn of Cherokee Heights Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin. As the sun sank, a crowd of nearly 40 picnickers watched through binoculars as hundreds of swifts began swirling above them before tunneling into one of the school’s chimneys to roost. People clapped and shouted with the energy of sports fans.
The group had been gathered by local chapters of the Feminist Bird Club and the BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin, two newer birding clubs in the area. Founded in 2019 and 2021 respectively, they focus on holding fun, no-fuss, and low-barrier events aimed at making birding more diverse and inclusive in their city.
In June 2021, Jeff Galligan, co-founder of the BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin, emailed Dexter Patterson to start a birding group for people of color. They went birding the following Saturday, which happened to be Juneteenth. “We met and made the decision to go ahead and do it, " Galligan says. "We had our first event a month later at the same spot and haven’t looked back since."
Galligan’s aim is to expose his community to the hobby he loves, and he's not alone. In the Midwest, a region with some of the starkest racial disparities in the country, a number of new local groups, networks, and chapters are working to create safe and welcoming spaces for underrepresented communities in the birding world. They not only want to fill gaps in opportunities but to reimagine what the experience of birding can be like.
“A lot of times people of color get pigeon-holed into what they can and cannot do. We wanted to create opportunities and a community for people of color in something they might not normally be exposed to,” Galligan says. “We also wanted to promote and discuss the mental health benefits of being outdoors, especially among men of color. We’re less likely to talk about those things because [we’re conditioned to be] strong and show no weakness, but it can be very lonely and isolating.”
Such efforts reflect a birding movement spreading across the United States and Europe. The Feminist Bird Club was first launched in New York City by Molly Adams in 2016 and has since spawned many chapters elsewhere. Black Birders Weeks have taken place across the Northern Hemisphere during the first week of June in 2020, 2021, and 2022, spurred initially by the Black Lives Matter movement and the Christian Cooper incident in New York's Central Park. Flock Together, a group that Ollie Olanipekun and Nadeem Perera started in London in 2020, has spread to Toronto and New York City.
“There’s not a lot of diversity in the birding community,” says Rita Flores Wiskowski, founder of the BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin's Milwaukee group, which also launched in 2021. “People from diverse communities—Black, Latino, or whoever—don’t feel like they fit in or even see [birding] as an option. It’s the last thing they think about because they don’t know anybody in their communities or their families who are birding.”
In Minnesota’s Twin Cities, Monica Bryand began the Urban Bird Collective in 2018 to create a community and space for LGBTQIA+ and birders of color to feel safer and more included outdoors. Last year, the group held a winter bird survey with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, in which a number of tribal birders participated. It was a milestone as the first Christmas Bird Count on a tribal reservation in the community science event’s 121-year history.
“We called it ‘Seeing Birds’,” Bryand says. “It ended up being the coldest day of the year, but about 15 people came, because it’s about more than just birding.” Recently an attendee, an older man, told Bryand that through the collective’s events he had finally found his people. “That’s why this space is needed,” she says.
While some group founders have ties and collaborations with long-established birding and conservation organizations, their energies aren’t generally aimed at diversifying what already exists. “I wanted to start a space where we could grow together and that we could call our own—that was by us and for us—rather than having someone else create programming for our community,” says Forrest Cortes, who founded the Chicago group Out In Nature with his fiancé, Costen King, in 2019 as a space meant exclusively for self-identifying LGBTQIA+ people.
Designed to be easily accessible and marked by a lack of formality, events that require zero birding experience or knowledge are a hallmark of these groups. Leaders generally encourage attendees to come as they are and be themselves—even if that means breaking typical norms. “If you haven’t birded before, it’s easy to get discouraged and feel intimidated, so our [events] are pretty casual,” says Caitlyn Schuchardt, a leader of the Madison chapter of the Feminist Bird Club. “It’s ok to make mistakes and squeal with excitement. If a Golden-crowned Kinglet gets in our face, yes, we’re going to jump around with glee because they’re adorable and it’s exciting,” she says.
Groups also work to make their already diverse clubs even more inclusive by hosting, for example, walks that take place along paved paths so that birders with different abilities can more easily join. “It’s less about a narrow lens of one way to experience nature and more about how our community members want to get outside,” Cortes says.
In addition to physical access, gear is also a common barrier to birding. With the help of local Audubon chapters in St. Paul, Minnesota, and in Madison, groups in these cities start their events by providing binoculars to their members and attendees. Next, they continue with inclusive introductions that might include names and pronouns, land acknowledgements, or sharing their favorite thing about nature.
Safety and a sense of belonging are also driving factors. In the Midwest, a lot of birding happens in rural areas, which can quickly feel unwelcoming for queer people and people of color. “When you go to these places where there’s certain yard signs and flags, it makes you a little afraid,” Flores Wiskowski says. Not only is there safety in numbers, but there’s community in them, too—and that's key for all these groups. “Community is every bit as important as a species list or identifying new birds," says Galligan.