Birding In The National Parks: Is There A Lack Of Diversity In Birders?

When spring migration ends, the biggest birding lull of the year sets in. It’s a good time to sit back, recover from your migration birding binge, and reflect on some things. One of the things I’ve noticed this week is that I’m white.

I’ve known this for some time, of course, and I’ve been well aware that the friends I bird with and travel with are all similarly hued. No matter where I bird in this country, I’m birding with white people. It’s an interesting correlation to travel in the national parks. When I visit a park, I’ll see plenty of folks of Asian descent, be they Americans or visitors from abroad, but you certainly don’t run into many people who trace their roots to Africa or Latin America.

This is an elephant that’s been in the birding and national park rooms for some time now. It’s been discussed in these pages of National Parks Traveler, and very recently more people in birding circles have been admitting the behemoth is sitting there in plain view.

Birding and nature travel are hobbies of white people.

I’d been thinking about the wonderful outreach work Yosemite National Park Ranger Shelton Johnson has done, not the least of which included stealing the show in Ken Burns’ documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. I’ve long thought the goal would be the day that Johnson would be just another exemplary ranger, not the black ranger from Yosemite. If we can label people simply as soccer players, models, and presidents – sans qualifiers like “gay”, “plus-sized,” and “black” – then we’ve made it. Then we’d be where we needed to be.

But we aren’t there yet. Thankfully, folks like Shelton Johnson don’t get bitter, they get proactive. Johnson famously took Oprah camping in Yosemite. Who knows what that accomplished, but if one kid from an urban area starts dreaming about visiting Yosemite some day, I’d say it was a success.

This brings me back to birding. My wife and I were strolling around Magee Marsh in Ohio during the festival known as The Biggest Week in American Birding. Thousands of people line the boardwalk at Magee to see migrating warblers put on the greatest show on earth. It’s something no one should miss, but it was painfully obvious that most people of color were missing it.

We drove through the south end of Toledo to get to Magee Marsh. For several miles, my wife beside me was the only white person I saw. Twenty minutes down the road, at one of nature’s greatest spectacles, I did a double-take the two or three times I saw someone who wasn’t white. I don’t recall driving through a force field of racial segregation, but apparently we did.

I’m scruffy and tattooed, but at Magee Marsh I share scope time with Mennonite families decked out in their traditional straw hats and bonnets. Birding seems to be quite a popular hobby with Mennonites. Even the young children get in on it, and some of those kids are among the more skilled birders on the boardwalk.

I’ve run into people that clearly could have chartered a private jet to the festival and others who probably scraped together change to get there. There are threadbare denim overalls and the latest fashion from L.L. Bean. Some use questionable language and some speak the King’s English. They’re big and small. Some are in wheelchairs, some have “26.2” stickers on their cars. But they are all white, or at least nearly every single one of them is.

We can debate the reasons for this until all of us of every color are blue in the face. One factor that is often discussed, and which I think is inarguably significant, is socioeconomics. Urban minorities are by-and-large poor. They can’t travel to national parks and they can’t buy expensive binoculars. But here’s the thing about Magee Marsh: It’s three bucks of gas from Toledo and the birds are so close you don’t even really need binoculars.

It all comes back to generating a passion for nature in the youth. Perhaps most importantly, we need to give them a role model, though that term is used to the point of cliché. Should we call them heroes? I’m fine with kids listing Shelton Johnson as a hero and wanting to deliver the mail in the winter in Yellowstone like he did. Politicians, pastors, and athletes make wonderful heroes, but who says a park ranger can’t wear that hat as well? How about an ecology professor?

Enter Dr. J. Drew Lanham from Clemson University. He’s one of the few African-Americans you’ll see at any given birding festival. As unfortunate as that is, the flip side is that Dr. Lanham is a personable and engaging man with a passion for teaching. You won’t just find him out looking for warblers in the marsh. Later that evening, you’ll find him talking to packed classrooms and banquets about efforts to get minorities and kids interested in birding and nature. He’ll speak eloquently about the miracles of nature, all the while subliminally giving an ecology lesson. Run into him in the woods, and he’ll lend you his binoculars and give you a tip on recognizing female Blackpoll Warblers. Dr. Lanham makes it cool to be a birder and a scientist, and he does it all with a smile. Sounds like a good hero to me. Heck, I’m an almost-middle-aged white guy of relative privilege, and he’s become one of my heroes!

Where do we go from here? To revisit the oft-quoted wisdom of Senegalese Ecologist Baba Dioum, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught.”

Truer words have never been spoken. Let’s spread the word, support diversification programs, and let everyone know how great a trip to Acadia this fall would be. In the meantime, we’ll tip our caps to Shelton Johnson and Drew Lanham. With folks like that leading the way, maybe we aren’t too far away from a time when the kaleidoscope of songbird colors will be mirrored by the people on the other side of the binoculars.

Comments

This is a great article, well-written, and so very true. I see this same thing when I take my camera out for a morning of birding at the nearby national wildlife refuge or state park here in southeast Texas.

Yes, very good article. It is great to see people from all parts of our nation and the world visiting and experiencing a new place. The federal/state sector (still counting beans) must realign from solely "making opportunity" because there is sure a lot of it in our public lands, and start "making connections" and as Rebecca says generating that passion in youth. Parents, schools, clubs, churches, community groups get those youth outside and connected to nature and history.

Nice article about an important issue, Kirby. Since you mentioned the Biggest Week in American Birding, I wanted to take this opportunity to point out the extraordinary efforts being made by the organizers of this festival to engage a more diverse group of people in birding and other outdoor activities. I'm providing a link to the online edition of the 2013 Visitor Guide for the festival here: (http://issuu.com/presspublications/docs/americanbirding2013new/1) Inside you'll find articles about the participation of Outdoor Afro in this year's festival (page 13) and a very interesting interview with Dr. Lanham and Doug Gray about their life experiences and programs they led at the festival this year (page 24-25).

Yes, it's going to take time, but as someone who has attended this festival for the past three years, I've seen progress already. And Drew Lanham has become one of my heroes too, for his willingness to speak up and reach out to people of all races. These trailblazers deserve the support of every one of us, whatever our skin color. Thanks again for giving this issue a broader audience.

Kim Smith

Rochester Hills, MI

Thanks for that link, Kim. I hope I didn't imply that the Biggest Week was somehow not doing its part. As you say, their efforts have been extraordinary. When I think of progress in birding, I think of Kim Kaufman! (And every time I say something like that, she points to all the hard-working people around her.)