Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Melissa Hafting’s name in the photo captions. The new version of this article also states that Hafting currently runs the BC Rare Bird Alerts site, and did not start it.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article noted Hafting bought field guides after an incident during which she was questioned about her birding knowledge. She has bought such guides since she was a child. The word “many” has also been added to the following sentence about Hafting: When she joined the birding community, she said, many people didn’t trust her identifications, an important part of professional and competitive birding.
Sam DeJarnett was sitting on her couch, deep in conversation, when she saw it.
Perched on a branch outside her window in Portland, Ore., a California scrub jay was plucking blue berries from their stems, gulping them down one morsel at a time. She could see every flick of its tail, every white speck in its indigo feathers.
She had no choice, she said, but to stop everything and watch.
DeJarnett knew some people wouldn’t call this real birdwatching. To truly watch the birds, they would say, you have to be in a particular spot, binoculars around your neck, searching for something special. People might laugh at her affection for the “common” scrub jay, said DeJarnett: Let them. This is how she likes to bird.
Birdwatching, or “birding,” took off as a hobby in the pandemic. Suddenly, everyone was noticing cardinals and catbirds on their afternoon walks, developing an appreciation for the family of crows they could watch from their window. The bird identification app from the National Audubon Society, the preeminent birding nonprofit in the United States, was downloaded nearly twice as many times in March 2020 as March 2019. Local birding groups have scrambled to meet a sudden spike in demand.
White men have long been the “face” of birdwatching, said Purbita Saha, an Indian Bengali birder and writer at Popular Science who has reported on women in birding. With the time and resources to hop a flight to Costa Rica, dropping everything as soon as someone spots a rare macaw, White men write the top field guides, win competitions and overwhelm the leadership ranks at the largest birding organizations. But all that could be shifting, Saha said, propelled by the hobby’s new popularity. Eager to bird wherever, whenever, an influx of new birders could change what it means to “go birding” — and who is expected to lead the way.
Racism and sexism in birding dates back centuries, Saha said, to the earliest American ornithologists. John James Audubon, a birding icon and namesake of the National Audubon Society, enslaved people in the early to mid-1800s. For his seminal work, “The Birds of America,” he sometimes relied on observations from people of color — but never acknowledged them as equals, including racist comments in his writings.
Audubon’s peers and rivals were all White men, Saha said. While there were women studying birds at the time, she said, they were far less visible. “They didn’t get published, they weren’t invited into scientific societies,” she said. “They don’t have that imprint in history as we know it.”
Prominent birding organizations are led mostly by White men, said Saha. In 2019, 72 percent of members of the National Audubon Society were women — but 75 percent of people in executive leadership positions were men. Audubon appointed its first female president, Elizabeth Gray, earlier this month. She is the first woman to lead the organization in its 115-year history.
On issues of diversity, Audubon is on a “positive trajectory," said Lisa Hardaway, vice president of communications. “But we also understand the need for and are committed to continuing to diversify Audubon at all levels for a birding and environmental movement where every one is represented.”
The terms and labels of the birding world can be intimidating, said Jane Kim. She said she hesitated to call herself a “birder,” even after she illustrated “The Wall of Birds,” a celebrated birding book published with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
“For me there are certain actions that take place when one identifies themselves as a birder,” said Kim, who is an American of Korean descent. “You make a checklist, you input data into eBird,” she said, referring to a crowdsourced birding database. “I prefer to say, ‘I’m going to go out naturing.’”
For people of color, women and nonbinary people, the outdoors sometimes feel like a place “where you don’t belong,” said Martha Harbison, the vice president of the Feminist Bird Club, a birding group with chapters across the country. Dominated by White people, many outdoor activities such as birding can be alienating, especially when there is a power imbalance within the group that is exploring the outdoors, said Harbison, who is trans nonbinary. Bird tours and walks are often led by a guide — usually a White man — with knowledge that he intends to impart to everyone else.
“It becomes this very hierarchical thing,” said DeJarnett, who is mixed race and recently launched “Always Be Birdin’,” a podcast that aims to make birding more accessible. “It’s like, 'I know things and you don’t.’”
Women and people of color have to work harder to be believed, said Melissa Hafting, a Black birder in Vancouver who runs “BC Rare Bird Alert,” a website that tracks uncommon birds. When she joined the birding community, she said, many people didn’t trust her identifications, an important part of professional and competitive birding. Many birds are nearly identical, distinguishable only by a slight upward turn of a beak, or a faint striping on the belly. With rare birds, especially, you might only see the bird for a few seconds — or from far away.
Birding on a beach one day with a White male colleague, Hafting said, she was approached by another White male birder who asked for an identification. After she named the bird — correctly — he turned to her colleague and asked again, as if he hadn’t heard her, she said.
Hafting ordered multiple field guides and studied them obsessively. She drilled herself on each bird’s size, plumage and moulting behavior.
“I read the books over and over and over. I wanted to know everything there is to know, so I could show people. So people would believe me.”
Sarah Winnicki, an ornithologist at the University of Illinois, has had similar experiences when uploading their identifications to eBird. All eBird records are reviewed by a volunteer to ensure their accuracy, and rare identifications are often flagged. The reviewer might request photos, rejecting the sighting if the birder has none to show.
When Winnicki reported a black-billed cuckoo, a bird with only one or two annual sightings in the area, they immediately got an email, said Winnicki, who is nonbinary.
“He was basically like, ‘Pics or it didn’t happen.’” Camera equipment for birding is extremely expensive, requiring high-focus lenses that can cost thousands of dollars. “Not everyone can afford to prove their sightings,” Winnicki said.
After this happened multiple times, Winnicki and their White male friend decided to start playing a game: They would trade off who submitted each rare sighting to eBird.
“It’s not a very scientific study, but he was certainly called out less than I was,” Winnicki said. It was particularly frustrating, they said, because the male friend had only been birding for a few years — and Winnicki is an ornithologist.
The vast majority of people can’t participate in the type of birding that requires a faraway locale. Growing up in downtown Cleveland, DeJarnett missed out on “good birds,” as many in the birding community refer to species that are less common. Now, living in Portland, she will occasionally drive a few hours to see different species, she said, but rarely farther than that.
“There is this mentality that to see good birds, you have to leave certain spaces, especially urban spaces,” she said. “There is this ideal fantasy of what it means to ‘bird’ — as if your favorite bird should be a quetzal from Mexico.” (DeJarnett’s favorite bird is the American crow.)
The “fantasy” also typically includes expensive birding equipment, DeJarnett said: binoculars and spotting scopes, both of which can cost hundreds or even thousands or dollars, along with specialized cameras. But none of that is necessary, she said. An inexpensive pair of binoculars costs less than $50. If you’re birding in a park, or from your window, you might not need any equipment at all, she said.
The birding community has been reckoning with its lack of diversity, especially after Black birder Christian Cooper was harassed by a White woman in June while out birding in Central Park. The woman called the police on Cooper, falsely accusing him of threatening her. That incident galvanized birders of color across the country, DeJarnett said, and prompted her to create her podcast. Suddenly, she said, Black birders and other birders of color became far more visible, connecting with each other and speaking out about their experiences in the field.
“It really spurred the conversation of why birding is so White and so male,” she added.
Organizations such as the Feminist Bird Club are encouraging people to bird in cities, or wherever they happen to live, and hosting bird walks that have been especially well-attended in the pandemic. This year, Harbison took a group of birders out for “Gullintines Day,” identifying seagulls on the shores of New York City on Valentine’s Day. It was freezing cold and outside of breeding season, Harbison said, so the gulls were more drab than usual, slight variations of white and gray. Still, they said, the event was full.
“This is not a high-cost activity. You don’t need a car,” said Saha. “More and more people are going to their local cemetery or park, or the river alongside their city. They are grabbing a pair of binoculars and realizing that’s all they need.”
In birding, there is lots of “early gatekeeping,” Winnicki said. Without even realizing it, they said, veteran birders sometimes leave younger, newer birders feeling like this hobby isn’t for them. If you’re out with someone new to birds, they said, don’t dismiss their incorrect identifications: Gently correct them, or maybe just let it go.
When they get excited about a sparrow or a cardinal, Winnicki added, don’t laugh.
Get out your binoculars, and take a look.