Since donning my birder hat years ago in my early 20s, I was used to being the only birder in the room (or field, to be more accurate) under 30, and quite possibly the only woman under 30 there at all. Birding wasn’t something most of my same-age friends wanted to do.
When explaining to peers my passion for watching wild birds, people were receptive to the idea as a novelty, but rarely interested in joining me. “Yeh, that’s cool,” they’d say in that gen X way of dismissing something with a pseudo affirmative.
Happily, those days are over. Now when I share birding exploits with peers, they want in on it!
Helen Macdonald started us down the birding is edgy/cool/not nerdy path with her H is for Hawk. Her memoir is unlike any other birding memoir for its greater message of grief, history, and triumph of females in a man’s world (Helen and her hawk). As a memoir is stands out, as a bird appreciating memoir (falconry isn’t exactly birding, but close) it is special for its female author. Thank you, Helen.
What delights me even more is the recent rise of young women (much younger than I am!) taking up birding as a no-apologies downright cool practice. Using their social media savvy, their inclusiveness, their creativity and their sociability, they are bringing birding to new audiences more than anyone I have witnessed in the years I’ve been beating the birding-is-cool drum to younger women (which I used to be).
This critical mass of girl birders is what it takes to bring birding into the mainstream, and in particular, this current generation of women in their 20s.
What are they doing differently than earlier generations? Using social media. Teaching themselves. Inviting others to join them. And finding that birding as a practice brings each of them peace in their lives.
The women here are all under 30—some barely over 20—and each one is breathing new life into this pastime through example of time in the field her way.
I first heard Tiffany Adams on the podcast Sound Effect from the local NPR affiliate KNKX in Seattle. She was talking about her love of birding with her friend Rasheena Fountain. Go and listen to the 10 minute clip and you will be as intrigued as I was after hearing her story. She is determined to rewrite the narrative of what a typical birder looks like, considering that she has encountered few other women of color on her birding path.
Adams, 28, got her start birding in NYC, where she is from, joining a birding meet up in Central Park. From there, she expanded her practice through bird walks and eventually led her own bird walks as a volunteer for NYC Audubon. She has made a name for herself in the North American birding community as an expert for urban birding, and spoke about her experience as a speaker at the 2018 Biggest Year in American Birding at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Ohio.
Now living in Seattle, Adams birds alone frequently in city parks but plans to resume leading bird walks via her Facebook page. “Birding is an escape for me,“ she says, of her love of solitary birding. “But even when I try to escape people, I meet amazing people through birding!”
Another New Yorker, Molly Adams, 28, is quietly becoming one of the most famous Millennial birders in the country, through her founding of the Feminist Bird Club in 2016. Seeing a need for a safe, inclusive group for women, LGBTQ, non-binary, trans and people of color wanting to bird in the city, she put out the word on her social media and organized her first bird walk. What was intended for just her own city quickly caught hold in the ambitions of other young women around the country, and world. “Many of our members would not necessarily consider themselves women, and they’re most often the people who feel the least safe and unwelcome in traditional birding settings,” says Adams. “I try to articulate that the club focuses on the safety of (all) identities.”
The Feminist Bird Club now has chapters in Boston, Chicago, Buenos Aires and more in development (a Michigan chapter launched this month). Adams has been featured in the New York Times and interviewed on the ABA podcast. Holding down a full time job and coordinating monthly walks and the expansion of the Feminist Bird Club has proven to be a nice problem to have, but Adams is still concerned about doing it thoughtfully. Currently the Feminist Bird Club is simply a labor of love, not a formal non-profit. Adams donates money raised from annual Feminist Bird Club patch sales to a different social justice non profit every year. Black Lives Matter has been the recipient for 2018.
Frances Kane and Bridget Kiernan, both 22, started the Chicago chapter of Feminist Bird Club while still college students. In fact, they met in a bird identification class, which inspired them to take birding on as a life practice. Not knowing Adams prior, they reached out to her via Instagram and to start a Chicago chapter.
The model of the Feminist Bird Club appealed to them. as they wanted to bird on their terms. “I gained bird i.d. knowledge with a group of fellow novice birders, which gave me the confidence to eventually go on bird walks with official birding groups,” says Kiernan. By “official” she means the established birding organizations that often lead bird walks with a resident expert. But that very platform was what both women found challenging. “Guided bird walks have been intimidating for me in the past, because I couldn’t keep up with the pace that the guide would be able to identify birds,” says Kane. “I think that structure of a guided bird walk where there is a single expert feeds into the stereotype of birding being something you need to be good at/something reserved for other experts, versus a way to simply enjoy your natural surroundings.”
Karla Noboa, 25, of Boston felt similarly out of place on most birding walks, often being the only young woman, and the only person of color. When she found the Feminist Bird Club model, she contacted Adams as Kane and Kiernan had done, and the rest is history. A natural curiosity for the outdoors is what fueled Noboa’s interest in birding. “I studied Natural Resources in college and want to know what every plant and animal is any time I’m outside!” she says.
Like Tiffany Adams and Molly Adams, Kane, Kiernan and Noboa are attracted to two things about birding: the meditative quality of it and the community of like-minded people they meet. “The observation and identification of birds quiets and focuses the mind on your surroundings.” says Kiernan. Noboa agrees: “When I realized how good an active meditation (birding) was and how much it improved my anxiety, I was hooked.”
Birding as each woman does outside the traditional birding organization, they draw artists, activists, “even nurses!” says Kiernan. The Feminist Bird Club model specifically invites participants not represented in the mainstream birding world, and offers a safe place to learn about birds. As a result, curious non-birders join and leave forever changed. “Opening birding up to those beyond the hobby’s typical demographic is valuable and increases public urgency towards issues like climate change and environmental degradation,” says Kane.
Ultimately, what makes these millennial women effective birding advocates is the ease with which they navigate sharing their experience with others—even as some might describe themselves as introverts—and their intent toward greater good. “I enjoy the duality of birding as both personal and social, birding has allowed me to connect with people I would not have encountered otherwise and I am proud and excited to fostering a birding community in Chicago and to be apart of the birding community at large!” says Kiernan. A perfect summary.
You can find out more about bird walks hosted by these women via the following links: