UCLA Students Promote Inclusive Birding with LGBTQ+ Pride Event

The Bruin Birding Club’s LGBTQ+ Pride Month festival celebrated how birding is for everyone.

Sunday, June 11th was the biggest event of the year for the Audubon on Campus chapter at UCLA, the Bruin Birding Club. It was our very first bird-themed LGBTQ+ Pride Festival, welcoming LGBTQ+ folks and allies to celebrate, build community, and enhance their relationships with birds and the outdoors. We organized a series of events across the day to give attendees a variety of ways to engage with two key ideas. First, birding is for everyone, and there’s no one way to bird. If you’re interested in birds in any capacity, welcome; you’re a birder! Second, LGBTQ+ birders exist, and now more than ever we need spaces where LGBTQ+ folks can be outside, grounded in their bodies, and experiencing joy and community.

Focusing on Birds for Pride 

We believe that birds can bring people together and inspire positive change. Birds are a source of inspiration and meaning, and birding with other people is a great way to connect with others and to notice patterns and changes in the landscapes around you. Birding also offers significant mental health benefits! A recent study found increases in self-reported mental health and wellbeing when people saw or heard birds, and especially so when outdoors. Similarly, another study found that listening to birdsong significantly lowered anxiety and paranoia. Since LGBTQ+ people are more than 2.5 times more likely to develop anxiety or depression over their lifetimes, it is increasingly important to create dedicated spaces where LGBTQ+ people can enjoy the mental health benefits of birding.

Such spaces are especially important in today’s political climate. Queer rights are under attack, and over 500 anti-trans bills have been introduced around the US. In some ways, the outdoors can be a refuge for queer folks, but natural spaces and outdoors groups are often inaccessible, othering, and unsafe, especially for people with multiple marginalized identities.  

The Bruin Birding Club is one of an increasing number of organizations that strive to make learning about birds and engaging with the outdoors safe, accessible, and fulfilling – for everyone, regardless of experience level, background, and identity. The Queer Birders of North America, an international fellowship group for LGBTQ+ birders and allies, was founded in 2002, and dozens of local queer birding groups have formed since then. There are also professional societies and affinity spaces for folks who study birds, such as the LGBTQ+ caucus of the American Ornithological Society, the Rainbow Lorikeets.

Mindfulness, Bird Walks, Drag Performance, and more

As attendees began to arrive, UCLA’s resident Red-tailed Hawk soared above curiously, as if sharing in the excitement. The guests made their way to “The Nest”, a small outdoor amphitheater in the Botanical Gardens. There, the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center led a bird-focused mindfulness exercise. Surrounded by a canopy of eucalyptus, sycamore, and pine trees, participants focused on their breath or the chorus of bird calls as an anchor for their attention. 

After the mindfulness exercise, participants split into groups for guided bird walks in the Botanical Garden led by members of the Bruin Birding Club and the Los Angeles chapter of the Feminist Bird Club. Right at the start of the bird walks, an unusual bird call sounded. We excitedly searched for the source of the call, and then finally, someone spotted it: a Swinhoe’s White-eye, a chatty olive-and-gray bird with a bright eye ring. Incredibly, it was the first record of this species for the UCLA campus, and a fantastic way to start the bird walks! 

An hour and a half later, we moved out of the garden and gathered to hear from a panel of six speakers who work in science, film, and conservation and are advocates for creating inclusive spaces in the birding world. They discussed challenges that LGBTQ+ folks, especially those of color, experience while birding, and key considerations for fostering inclusive spaces that center marginalized voices. They also touched on individual actions that audience members can take to support bird conservation efforts, such as contributing to community science efforts, planting native plants, and putting stickers on windows to reduce collisions. 

With plenty of ideas to digest, participants headed to the lunchtime mixer – a space for LGBTQ+ identifying birders and allies to network, exchange ideas, and learn about supporting resources throughout Los Angeles. Several organizations had prepared fun activities and information for the festival attendees to peruse, such as making bird button pins with the Audubon Center at Debs Park and comparing bird specimens from the Natural History Museum of LA and the UCLA Dickey museum collections. We set up a photo booth for attendees to take pictures with friends and cutouts of their favorite bird species. After a drum roll, we announced the raffle winners, and thanked our generous attendees who helped us raise over $400 for the UCLA LGBTQ Campus Resource Center

To close out the festival, the talented drag queen The Queen Fantasia Wood dazzled the crowd with two bird-inspired costumes, an acrobatic performance, and the message to be politically active and to radically love yourself. Just as this bird-themed LGBTQ+ Pride Festival centered around themes of subverting expectations on what constitutes a “typical” birder or birding event, drag performance has a long history of challenging societal expectations of gender expression and loudly celebrating individuality. Drag performance is increasingly under attack, both legislatively and physically, and we at the Bruin Birding Club wanted to send a clear message: drag is and always will be a safe, fun, and magical space and an integral part of any LGBTQ+ Pride celebration. 

Reflecting on Successes

Our first ever bird-themed LGBTQ+ Pride Festival had over 70 people in attendance, ranging from UCLA students, staff, and faculty to community members from across the greater Los Angeles area – and around 70% of these participants were from the LGBTQ+ community. We surveyed attendees before and after the festival, and the results demonstrate the value of creating inclusive and welcoming programming that centers historically marginalized groups in the outdoors. 

  • Before the event, 73% of respondents said that they were very interested in birds, and this increased to 90% after the event. 
  • Participants also learned how to make a safe space for LGBTQ+ folks in their birding communities, from 60% before the event to 85% afterward. 
  • Festival attendees became more aware of threats currently facing birds, from 64% before to 88% after the event. 

We had a fantastic time planning the festival with an incredible team of Bruin Birding Club members and are sincerely inspired by all the wonderful people we met. We have so many ideas for follow-up events, and we can’t wait to get started!

This event was made possible by an Audubon in Action grant with support from Audubon’s LGBTQ+ Affinity Group.

Interested in finding out more ways to bird with LGBTQ+ folks? Consider checking out a local queer birders group near you! Here are a couple that the authors know about: Bay Area, California; Cincinnati, Ohio; Cuyahoga County, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; Hunterdon County, New Jersey;  New York City; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Tippecanoe County, Indiana; Montreal, Quebec; Vancouver, British Columbia; Norwich, England; Feminist Bird Club (multiple locations)

Want to know more about the Audubon on Campus program?