On the surface, birding might seem like neutral ground—an activity that any curious, nature-loving person can enjoy, regardless of age or gender. Go on a hike with your local ornithological club and at least half the attendees will be women. Circle the marsh with your binoculars and you’ll probably see a woman doing the same.
But female birders don’t always feel comfortable in the field, even with the rising awareness around #MeToo. Many of us keep on despite frequent put-downs and hostility, enduring dismissive comments about our knowledge and in the worst cases, sexual harassment. I’ve had men touch my hips to correct my perfectly fine birding stance. A ranger at a national wildlife refuge winked and told me about his “big, loaded gun.” My friends have been propositioned in parks and stalked by drivers along country roads. Not even a 16-year-old can bird in peace without commenters attacking her abilities and life list.
Like most matters of importance, women have been integral to birding from the get-go. Female ornithologists drew attention to avifauna in the late 1800s, and suffragists helped the movement take off in the early 1900s. Today, 42 percent of U.S. birders identify as women. Personally, female birders have run my world ever since I picked up a field guide in college. My ornithology professor was a woman. My boss at Audubon is a woman, as are most of my colleagues throughout the office. My birding circle is mainly members of the Feminist Bird Club.
And yet men have the loudest voices and the most power in the industry. The closer you get to the top of the birding, conservation, and academic ranks, the more the gender balance tips. At Audubon, for instance, the membership is 72 percent female, but the executive staff is 75 percent male—and the organization has never had a female president in its 114 years. This pattern persists industry wide. Men hold the highest positions at the American Birding Association, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the American Bird Conservancy. They dominate bookshelves, festivals, competitions, and gear and travel ads. They build their reputations and livelihoods around the practice and reap the greatest profits.
Gender Representation At Major Bird Organizations
American Birding Association
American Bird Conservancy
American Ornithological Society
Gay Birders of North America
Ohio Young Birders Club
For birding to be equal, we need more women in charge—and that's a change we're finally starting to see. Female leaders around the world are launching clubs and businesses that not only offer a safe space to bird, but also spread the wealth and agency to those who’ve long been discounted.
Judith Mirembe, Kimberly Kaufman, Molly Adams, and the founding members of The Phoebes are just a few examples of women trying to transform the community from its core. As most of them told us in interviews, the goal isn’t to split the birding world by gender; it’s 2019 and we’ve fought too hard against misogyny on all fronts to do that. The point is to gain parity, educate against prejudices, add new dimensions to the sport we love, and bring men along with us as we try to create a better, safer culture for everyone.
If men aren’t down with that, we ask them to please step aside so that we, the women, can get to work. —Purbita Saha, Associate Editor
Graphics by Alex Tomlinson; research by Lexi Krupp, Jason Gregg, Jillian Mock
Birding for Solidarity: The Phoebes
Eight women decided they had enough of the sport's competitiveness, so they created a community to lift their sisters up.
If you’re in the presence of a male Eastern Phoebe, he’ll let you know. The small sooty-brown flycatcher cues his own arrival with a raspy, two-toned fee-bee that rings out from the woodlands. The female phoebe, meanwhile, keeps a low profile among the branches. Her nest, which she builds on her own, is an engineering marvel: a woven collage of mud, moss, grass, and fur.
But her subtle strength and fierce independence tend to go unappreciated—a feeling the Phoebes, a women’s birding group in South Florida, know all too well and are trying to amend, one mindful excursion at a time.
The founders of the Phoebes first met on a muggy October morning in 2017 during a fall-migration walk led by record-breaking birder Noah Strycker, the Tropical Audubon Society, and Leica Store Miami. The women hailed from a range of backgrounds—biology, education, culinary and visual arts—but they felt an instant connection through their shared love of nature and kindred perspectives. They spent much of the hike along the Biscayne Bay laughing, filling in the pauses between sightings with chatter and queries for Strycker, who responded deftly and supportively. By the end of the day, the women knew they’d experienced something different from the typical ID- and list-obsessed outing. They wanted to build on the collaborative spirit and decided to meet again.
Over dinner at wildlife photographer and writer Kirsten Hines’ house in Miami a few nights later, the ladies vented about their frustrations with “serious” birding: the competitiveness, the tendency to dismiss common species, the contempt toward newbies, the mansplaining. They decided to embrace their own style of birding—one that moved at its own pace, dwelled more on the animals and their environments, and above all, accepted any woman with an interest in Aves, no matter her skill or knowledge.
But what to call this sisterhood? The women settled on the Phoebes, in part because the drab songbird is often overshadowed by Florida’s tropical species. The name had feminist connotations as well: It paid homage to Phoebe Snetsinger, the driven, whip-smart birder who documented 8,300 avian species in her fifties and sixties, and Phoebe, a Titan from Greek mythology whose name signifies brightness.
“It was a powerful, feminine night,” says Leticia de Mello Bueno, one of the founding eight, who is now a communications manager at Audubon. “I felt queenly. There was the sense that something significant was happening through us.”
Fast forward a year and a half, and the Phoebes are on the ground doing exactly what they set out to accomplish. The club converges once a month at different locations in Miami-Dade County, including urban parks and beachside oases. Each walk draws an average of 20 participants, and the group’s mailing list includes 70 or so members.
The field trips offer a built-in space for empathizing and networking. Members are encouraged to take breaks to ask questions, work out basic IDs, and revel in the details of any species, avian or not. (A WhatsApp group allows them to keep up the conversation and share personal milestones in between meetups.) The women keep a list of all birds they see or hear to help track population trends for eBird, but otherwise they don’t tally species competitively.
It’s an approach that might generally appeal to more women than men. Both genders go birding with roughly the same levels of interest but with drastically different styles, according to a peer-reviewed study published in 2015. The researcher surveyed 954 members of the American Birding Association, 65 percent of whom were male. They found that men focused more on listing and traveled farther to see rare birds; women, on the other hand, birded closer to home and reported higher personal enrichment.
Hines stresses that everyone can channel the Phoebes’ mission and broaden their birding horizons, regardless of gender. “We are not anti-male,” she says. “We wanted to create a community for women that was pro-environment, and we see birds as a gateway drug for that.”
This perspective drives the group’s second calling: conservation. Miami, and Florida in general, is plagued by a slew of environmental issues, from pollution to invasive species to, of course, bird and habitat declines. The Phoebes have taken part in two Christmas Bird Counts, volunteered with the Cape Florida Banding Station, and hosted native-plant walks—activities that have piqued some younger recruits’ interest in conservation careers. Even the monthly birding outings can be a form of stewardship. “Listing [on eBird] is really helpful in understanding the impact of climate change and which species are going one way or another,” says Hines. The Phoebes help compile data on avian migration, breeding fluxes, and behaviors that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Which brings us back to the female bird that inspired Hines and her friends to transform their beloved pastime. History has it that it was the first species to be banded in North America; in 1804 John James Audubon tied silver threads onto five nestlings in Pennsylvania, then watched for them to return every spring.
The Phoebes also watch for the return of their namesake in Florida every winter. True to form, they celebrate each and every one they find.
Birding for Social Change: Feminist Bird Club
Molly Adams wanted everyone to be treated fairly, so her club builds justice into its mission.
As a solo female birder in New York City, Molly Adams has felt unsafe on more than one occasion. So in the fall of 2016, she began the Feminist Bird Club to create a space where women, trans individuals, people of color, and other marginalized groups could experience birding in a protected environment. “It only takes one individual who exhibits sexist, racist, or homophobic behavior to ruin the entire experience,” she says. What’s more, she wanted to build a network that would advocate for a larger purpose—though she didn’t know exactly what that would be.
Then Donald Trump was elected president.
“Immediately, I went into panic mode,” Adams says. Like so many others in the aftermath of the election, she rallied to the aid of refugees, reproductive-health advocates, and others subjected to the attacks that followed Trump’s campaign and policies. In a few months, the Feminist Bird Club raised $300 for Planned Parenthood’s New York chapter by selling patches embroidered with Painted Buntings. The response convinced her that there was an appetite for social activism within the birding community.
Three years later, Adams’ vision is stronger than ever. What started as a series of late-morning and afternoon walks with friends has exploded into an advocacy powerhouse for birders, with chapters in five U.S. cities, Toronto, and Buenos Aires.
Thanks to articles in the New York Times and by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the 20 slots for walks in New York City now fill up almost as soon as they’re posted. While participation is open to anyone, the goal is to elevate marginalized groups. It’s not that other birding outfits like the Brooklyn Bird Club and New York City Audubon aren’t inclusive, she stresses: The fact that inclusivity is built into the Feminist Bird Club’s mission just makes it more appealing to novices.
Take Kasia Chmielinski, for example. The mixed-raced birder, who identifies as nonbinary, wanted to join a local group to hone their skills; but the meet-ups they attended were monopolized by men.
That wasn’t the case during their first Feminist Bird Club meet-up in Washington Square Park last fall, which highlighted Georgia Silvera-Seamans, a black female ecologist. “It's important for me to be involved in organizations that are led by women and people of color, or at least have a strong showing of them,” Chmielinski say. “I think it changes the nature of the conversation; it changes the nature of the group. It feels more inclusive.”
Adams welcomes cis white men to attend events, too. If it looks as though they’re going to fill up too many slots, she just convinces them to sign up for another date. On the walks themselves, she encourages anyone stealing the good views or trying to school others to take a step back.
As the club’s popularity has grown, so have the funds it has raised for various causes. Each year Adams conceptualizes an iron-on patch that features a different bird and sells for $10. For the first two years she covered the costs out of pocket in order to donate every cent of the proceeds. This year, a small grant from the Safina Center, a conservation nonprofit, has helped defray the expense. Still, Adams works tirelessly to get hundreds of them out to donors—a task she assumes on top of her day job as the advocacy and outreach manager for New York City Audubon.
Her efforts have paid off. In 2017 the Feminist Bird Club donated $1,000 each to the New York Abortion Access Fund and the Women’s Initiative; in 2018, it donated $4,700 to Black Lives Matter. This year, the money will be split between Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a volunteer organization that helps migrants and refugees safely cross the border from Mexico, and Native Youth Sexual Health Network, a reproductive-resource group led by and for Indigenous youth.
When it comes to choosing where to donate, Adams says that she consults with the other Feminist Bird Club chapters. “Unfortunately, there isn't a shortage of groups of people that [the Trump] administration is attacking,” she says.
Patches aren’t the only means of fundraising for the club. During Global Big Day last year, the New York City chapter enlisted supporters to pledge money for each species spotted and brought in $460 for the Sex Workers Outreach Project. The count took place during peak spring migration, Adams recalls, and people were excited to see Scarlet Tanagers and Yellow Warblers for the first time that season. Toward the end of the walk, the group also spotted a female Cerulean Warbler.
“Folks were so enamored by the pale blue color of the female we found,” Adams says. It was much subtler than the flashy male birds—a nuance that both beginner and expert birders could admire.
While Adams is proud of how quickly the club has grown, she wants to encourage members to make their own change. “I think it's really important for them to go back into the other birding communities and maybe bring some of the ideals of the Feminist Bird Club to them,” she says. Now that they’ve found their voices as advocates, they can get other birders to wield their binoculars for justice.
Birding for Economic Empowerment: Uganda Women Birders
Judith Mirembe faced uphill odds as a bird guide, so she's training others to break into the career.
Growing up in western Uganda, Judith Mirembe’s parents told her stories of the African Pied Wagtail, or Kanyamunyu. If the little black and white bird appeared in their compound early in the morning, the family would know to expect guests. When she was four years old, they saw a wagtail three times in one week. “Coincidentally, we received visitors,” Mirembe says. “That is how my love for the birds was born.”
Birding became Mirembe’s passion. She’d watch flocks rise from the trees in nearby forest patches and fly to the crops surrounding her home. But she didn’t consider pursuing her favorite creatures professionally until she enrolled in a university in Kampala in 2012. Even as she was working toward a degree in environmental science, she worried about career prospects after graduation. Well-paying jobs are scarce in Uganda, and the market would be even tougher for her: The unemployment rate for women in their twenties and thirties is more than twice as high as that for men.
Mirembe approached Herbert Byaruhanga, the managing director of Bird Uganda Safaris and her brother-in-law. She began training part time with him to build her birding skills while juggling her schoolwork. She couldn’t afford to buy high-quality binoculars during her apprenticeship and was grateful when a female tourist from Australia eventually gifted her a pair.
Mirembe was armed with the skills and gear she needed, but the odds were still against her. For one thing, across Africa, birders generally, and bird guides especially, skew male; in Byaruhanga’s 20 years in the business, he’s encountered an estimated 120 male guides and only 30 female ones. What’s more, clients or employers might hold her gender against her. “Birdwatching has become popular in Uganda, but the woman’s place is still seen as belonging to the kitchen,” Mirembe says.
With Byaruhanga’s encouragement, she decided to form a group dedicated to empowering jobless female college graduates to break through the male ranks of the industry. She recruited 10 ladies and launched the Uganda Women Birders club in 2013. Over the years, dozens of employed members of the group have helped to teach fresh guides and connect them with tour companies across the country. The costs of training and gear are largely covered by scholarships and donations. In 2015 the club received $30,000 from the United Nations Development Programme. In addition, they’ve received funds from friends, international and local fairs, and the Uganda Wildlife Authority.