From left: Judith Mirembe, Kimberly Kaufman, Leticia de Mello Bueno, Molly Adams. Photos, from left: Esther Ruth Mbabazi, Camilla Cerea/Audubon, Jayme Gershen, Eva Deitch

Culture

When Women Run the Bird World

For decades female birders have been the silent majority. Now they’re starting their own movements to transform a privileged culture.

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



Audubon

American Birding Association

American Bird Conservancy

American Ornithological Society

BirdLife

Cornell

Gay Birders of North America

Ohio Young Birders Club

Staff

Board

Director

is 60% female and 40% male.

   

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

The Phoebes, a female-centric birding group formed by members of the Tropical Audubon Society. Photo: Jayme Gershen

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.” 
 

The Phoebes consider themselves serious birders who are interested in science and conservation, but they also make sure to keep their walks light and friendly. Here they explore Florida's Kendall Indian Hammocks Park. Photo: Jayme Gershen
 

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.

Feminist Bird Club members Georgia Silvera-Seamans (left) and Loyan Beausoleil (right). Photo: Eva Deitch

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.

On an October walk in New York City's Washington Square Park, the group recorded the site's first-ever Belted Kingfisher sighting, along with six Brown Creepers and four woodpecker species. Photo: Eva Deitch

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.

Judith Mirembe (wearing a hat) and the Uganda Women Birders with botany and zoology students from Makerere University. Photo: Esther Ruth Mbabazi

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.

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America

Male + Male

National Geographic Backyard Guide to the Birds of North America

Male + Male

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America

Male

The Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd Edition (and all Sibley books)

Male

The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America

Male + Female

The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds

Male

Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America

Male (+ 1 Male and 2 Female contributors)

Birds: A Fully Illustrated, Authoritative and Easy-to-Use Guide

Male + Male

Click each top-selling field guide to reveal the genders of the authors.

Uganda Women Birders currently has 50 new and longtime members, 30 of whom are employed by tour groups. On average, Mirembe says the guides can earn $1,200 for a two-week expedition. (An annual salary would be roughly $5,000, based on eight or nine trips.) Compare that to the $600 the average Ugandan makes in one year, and the benefits of the business are clear.

In addition to helping members achieve economic independence, the club is working to change societal attitudes around gender equality by hosting presentations on how female guides can be breadwinners. “Only 2 out of 10 women we train get support from their partners after marriage to continue birding,” Mirembe says. “This has to change.”

Support is also needed to get the women through the rigorous training period. Mirembe, who now works as a bird-population-monitoring coordinator at the nonprofit Nature Uganda, says that it takes at least two years to acquire the skills and confidence for bird guiding—and even then, the graduates aren’t guaranteed a stable career and income. After seeing the high dropout rates of club members, Mirembe realized the group needed a more reliable job engine. So this past August she launched a birding company, Women Adventures Africa, to employ women who trained with the club. “This company will give women hope that if they train hard, they will have a job at the end of the day,” Mirembe says.

Club member Dianah Gimbo (holding the field guide) shows the students the birds that live in the Kasenge Forest in Mukono, Uganda. Photo: Esther Ruth Mbabazi

Women Adventures Africa is still in in its infancy, but Mirembe is committed to hiring only female freelance guides and paying each of them $80 to $100 per day, until she can take on a regular staff. The target clientele, she says, are travelers who believe in the guides’  knowledge and leadership and want to elevate it.

Mirembe recognizes that the appeal of female guides isn’t limited to Uganda; she’s helped women in Kenya and Rwanda launch their own economically motivated clubs in recent months. “It gives me a lot of encouragement to keep moving, as we are building a chain,” Mirembe says. “My hope is in building stronger networks that [we] will learn from each other and have competent women birders to effectively conduct tours continent-wide.”  

Linda Alila, an ornithology intern at the Nairobi National Museum, is the co-founder of the new Kenya Women Birders group. To her, the new venture is a way to not only earn a living from birding, but also contribute to avian research and conservation. “Women birders will have an opportunity to be citizen scientists through our efforts,” she says. “If we understand birds’ ecological and economical importance, we will help in sustainably conserving them.” One way to achieve that, Alila says, is by encouraging the use of the global BirdLasser app, which allows birders to map their sightings and track regional migration patterns.

Like the Uganda club, Kenya Women Birders supports 50 passionate members, including university students, tour operators, leisure birders, and guides. They face many of the same challenges that Mirembe has encountered, but thanks to the ground she’s broken, the path will be smoother for the women birding behind her.

Kimberly Kaufman, director of a research observatory, co-founder of a migration festival, and adviser to a youth-science network. Photo: Camilla Cerea/Audubon

Birding for Respect: Biggest Week

Kimberly Kaufman noticed all-male lineups at festivals, so she headlined hers with expert women.

At a birding festival in Florida several years ago, Kimberly Kaufman was listening to a panel—ostensibly the region’s birding experts—discuss avifauna and its conservation. She looked at the slate of all men sitting on stage before her, and then at the gathered crowd, where she recognized several women with deep knowledge of local species. As the men spoke, she felt the urge to say something grow stronger and stronger—until finally Kaufman pushed down her discomfort, stood up, and asked: “Why are all the panelists men?” Onlookers gasped, murmured, and gradually broke into applause.

The simple query generated a shocked response because Kaufman had questioned a long-standing norm. Men fill the vast majority of speaker slots at the country’s leading birding festivals. But not at the Biggest Week in American Birding, the annual festival in northwest Ohio that Kaufman co-founded 10 years ago, and especially not last year.

To attract tens of thousands of lens-toting enthusiasts to admire migrating warblers as they pause before crossing Lake Erie, she books birding’s biggest stars (including her husband, Kenn Kaufman) to speak during the 10-day festival, as well as several lesser-known experts, including accomplished women and trans people. When planning the 2018 event, she noticed a “groundswell” of awareness around sexism in birding, so she decided to focus on women even more than usual, booking them for 11 of the 13 keynote speaker slots. (This year 5 of the 11 speakers are women.)

Tiffany Adams presented on urban birding, Ashli Gorbet told stories of migration science, Catherine Hamilton and Kelly Riccetti taught field sketching, and a panel of “Power Women” recounted their experiences breaking the Big Year glass ceiling.

Kaufman believes it’s important to foster the change she wants to see. It’s a philosophy she has embodied throughout her notable career in ornithology, from her early days as a bird bander, as the executive director of Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO), an inspirer for clubs for young birders in 20 states, and more recently as the founder of the Biggest Week. She’s watched with satisfaction as issues of diversity and inclusion have skyrocketed to the fore of her industry. And she’s using her power to elevate new voices and overlooked experts, many of whom are female.

For Adams, a naturalist in Seattle who has been trying to break into an ornithological career for the past few years, presenting at last year’s festival provided a springboard to other opportunities, including press attention around her vision of urban birding and, this month, a presenting gig at a prominent environmental-education conference. “It gave me hope that if I can do this, if I can speak at such a prestigious engagement, what else can I do?” Adams says. “It opened my eyes to the possibility that being a birder and building a career around it is not a fairy tale.”

BIRDFEST!

  • Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival
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  • Florida Birding & Nature Festival
  • CVBC SYMPOSIUM
  • Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival
  • Alaska Bald Eagle Festival
  • Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival
  • Godwit Days
  • Yakima River Canyon Bird Fest
  • Indiana Dunes Birding Festival
  • Biggest Week In American Birding
  • Acadia Birding Festival
  • Festival Of Birds
Tap or hover to show birding festivals that featured women in their lineup last year.

Kaufman’s interest in helping lift others up stems from her experience as an outsider in the birding world. She grew up on a farm in northwest Ohio, where she spent her free time poking through nearby woods, swamps, and marshes. She felt a deep connection to nature generally but didn’t take special notice of birds. “My family was so poor, there were times when my parents were struggling to feed the five of us [kids], much less a feeder,” Kaufman says.

She didn’t catch the spark until her late twenties when she spied a group of striking yellow birds outside an office window—American Goldfinches, she was told. “The entire course of my life changed in that moment,” says Kaufman, who owned a home- and office-cleaning business at the time. “If something like a blazing-gold American Goldfinch has been under my nose my whole life and I missed it, what else is out there?”

She soon began volunteering with the state wildlife agency to monitor Bald Eagles nesting near her home. Unsated, she trained as a bird bander and worked as a researcher at BSBO. There she had several masterful female mentors, but at conferences she was often the lone woman in a group of men. “Not a single one of them would assume that I was a fellow bander,” she recalls; they presumed she was someone’s girlfriend. But she found that her knowledge far surpassed that of the average bander, thanks to the high volume of birds she handled at BSBO, and that realization gave her the confidence to assert herself when men tried to dismiss her.

“I see this happen so often, that women get dissed in the field and they don’t say anything; they don’t speak up for themselves,” Kaufman says. Using these moments to start constructive conversations is important, she explains, both to establish female expertise and to prevent further indignities. “You don’t have to be rude to say, ‘How funny that you would think that I’m not the field trip leader—is that because I’m a woman?’ ” she suggests. “It’s not just about teaching people to ID birds, but also teaching people how to be better human beings.”

Participants identify migrating warblers on the famed Magee Marsh boardwalk. Photo: Camilla Cerea/Audubon

Her approach has boosted many young birders, especially female. “Younger women in their teens can fall into confidence traps, where even though they have this expertise, they don’t feel like they do compared to their male counterparts,” says Auriel Fournier, a bird researcher at Mississippi State University who met Kaufman, her “bird mom,” at BSBO when she was 10 years old. “Kim’s been really good about providing the mentoring and support to give those women the ability to take those next steps, whether it’s leading field trips at the birding festival or organizing talks at the Ohio Young Birders Conference.”

While Kaufman is thrilled to see women gaining prominence and is dedicated to doing her part to elevate them at the Biggest Week and beyond, she stresses the importance of supporting anyone with a birdy passion—female, male, or transgender. “If we just treat everyone with respect and the benefit of the doubt from the start,” she says, “we’ll all do better.”

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