Over its 16-year existence, tens of thousands of people have embraced Birding Pal, an online forum that allows travelers to link up with local avian experts and guides for just $10 a year. The website looks like a Y2K throwback with its jumble of testimonials and ads, but it’s relatively easy to use. Pals are archived by country or state. A few include bios that describe their location, level of skill, and interests; others disclose little more than a last name and first initial. Once a user settles on a host, the duo can exchange messages through Birding Pal’s email system. And that’s all there is to it.
“It’s as barebones as it gets,” says marathon birder and writer Noah Strycker. After successfully meeting dozens of pals during his record-setting global Big Year, he swears by the service. He’s found it handy in far-flung hotspots that don’t have large social-media networks and ample online resources; plus, he’s made a few lifelong friendships along the way.
But as thorough as the site is geographic-wise (it covers locations such as Suriname, Eritrea, and Orlando, Florida), the vague profiles can be a turnoff to anyone worried about personal safety—a group that includes many women. “Strycker does a lot of things that I wouldn’t do as a female,” says Sharon Stiteler, a national park ranger and well-known birding guide, who's decided against using Birding Pal. “That’s just the way of the world.”
The problem, as multiple people described to Audubon, is that the site doesn't have a solid feedback system that allows users to vet hosts. This creates roadblocks for female birders, many of whom are already cautious about navigating the outdoors. The fear is real. In 2012, a woman was raped in New York City’s Central Park during her regular morning bird walk. Years earlier, Phoebe Snetsinger, the first lister to get 8,000 species, was gang-raped at machete-point in Papua New Guinea. More recently, hikers, rangers, and scientists have shared graphic stories of sexual abuse in national parks.
Liz Harper, a wildlife biologist based in Minnesota, says Birding Pal's lack of detailed profiles and consistent reviews deterred her from using the service. “My concern is not knowing who’s on the other end,” she says. Harper had hoped to tap the service during a trip to Croatia, but opted out after browsing the site. “I guess it depends on your risk aversion,” she says, “but I didn’t think it was worth it. It was better to learn the birds on my own.” As a tradeoff, she came home with a less extensive species list.
For those female birders who do try it, the experience can be nerve-wracking—even if it ultimately turns out for the best. “I just want to be able to verify the identity of a person,” Elizabeth Norman, an agent at the International Rescue Committee, says. “It’s a safety issue for men and women.” When she went to Serbia in 2014, Norman couldn’t find any avian clubs to join up with. Birding Pal was her last resort: She connected with a professional guide on the network to chase the Ortolan Buntings and European Rollers she wanted—but not without discomfort. “I was nervous. It was just the two of us in the car, going to a deserted area,” Norman says. “But after 10 or 15 minutes, I was totally comfortable.”
Other women have used Birding Pal with no problem. “It really did work for me,” Cyndi Elias, a clinical-trial manager in Minnesota, says. She met up with a pal in Rome and ended up going out to dinner with his family—a spontaneous, tangible connection she enjoyed.
While Elias had a positive experience, there are a few changes that would make the site more safe and inviting for all. With a comprehensive rating system, Birding Pal users could filter out “the hinky,” Stiteler says. And by requiring longer bios and recruiting more female pals, the service could close gaps that it—and the general birding community—may not be conscious of. (For instance, after being interviewed for this story, Strycker realized he didn’t know any women on Birding Pal.)
In response to Audubon’s questions about security, Birding Pal pointed out that it accepts reviews—it just doesn’t vet and post them all. The service verifies users through PayPal and asks for addresses, phone numbers, social-media info, and emergency contacts.
“Safety for women is an important consideration everywhere,” a representative told Audubon in an email. He didn’t mention any plans to update the site.
Birding Pal may be inclusive on the surface, but its shortcomings in transparency are alienating concerned clientele. “As our founder Knud Rassmussen always said, ‘A stranger is just a pal you haven't met yet,’ ” the representative wrote. It’s a lovely sentiment, but it still ignores the broader issue. For a woman in the field, a stranger isn't always a pal. That’s just the way of the world.