At the Mic: Dave Magpiong
Voorhees Middle School teacher Dave Magpiong is Founder and President of the Fledging Birders Institute and has developed the Schoolyard Birding Challenge which encourages teachers across the country to share the excitement and profound developmental benefits of bird watching with their students. Dave also serves on a national committee for the Bird Education Network and helped create the Pledge to Fledge Campaign, with seeks to encourage birders to introduce birding to the uninitiated. Even more than birding, he savors time spent with his family - often exploring someplace!
Here, he responds to Greg Neise's piece Secret Handshake, published at the ABA Blog on June 4, 2013.
As I read Secret Handshake, published two weeks ago at the ABA Blog, I was struck by the Greg's openness. His mention of birding serving as an escape from other unpleasantries in life was golden. He hit a very important nail right on the head - birding holds profound benefits for many people. This is just one reason why ALL people should get involved with birding - IT'S GOOD FOR THEM!
I also applauded his later point that "birding is a great equalizer". Through birding, I have found myself socializing with people from many backgrounds that I otherwise would never have had the pleasure of knowing. In fact, some of my best friends come from birding experiences.
To be honest though, Secret Handshake had its own "cringe-worthy moments" and one of them was a rather gut-wrenching, which for me is saying something because I have a considerable gut! LOL
Many birders, including familiar ABA faces, frequently praise our community for its openness. inclusiveness, and welcoming nature. And yes - there are many terrific and friendly birders out there.
Yet, I often contend that many birders tend to be more focused on the limited world presented to them in the tubes of their binoculars rather than the greater world around us all the time, including other people (i.e. non-birders). When this point is discussed with birders, many dismiss the idea by saying something along the lines of " all the birders I know are friendly" or "there's only a few of those out there".
The post, and some of the comments that followed, seems to perfectly illustrate that point that birders are unwittingly often insular and (dare I say it?) - elitist.
Uh-oh Moment #1: "Someone stops to ask what we're looking at . . .and when we say 'birds', what follows is inevitably a detailed story and instructions as to where we can see eagles nearby."
When a non-birder comes up and asks that question, it is a perfect opportunity to open their eyes to the beauty you are watching - be it a Northern Parula, Blue Jay, or even a lowly House Sparrow. They are knocking on the door of birding and it is a perfect chance to open that door and welcome them in.
Instead, birders open the peep hole with the unwelcoming "a bird", which may likely show that curious soul that birds are nothing too interesting - instead of the beautiful, magnificent creatures we know them to be.
Wouldn't a better answer be something like, "an adorable little blue, yellow, orange and white bird that just flew up from the Caribbean called a Northern Parula - check it out" - as you hand over your binoculars to really wow them?
If that initial coldness doesn't scare them away and they start to share their own personal experiences, they are showing that they have a level of real interest in birds because they have been observing them at some level already.
Instead of actively listening and engaging their enthusiasm, we are bored by them relaying this information that we either already know or, even more painfully, know to be completely wrong.
Wouldn't it be better to get into a friendly give and take with their passionate story? We could encourage them to keep watching those eagle and learn more about their behavior. We can validate their enthusiasm by remarking that "Bald Eagles are beautiful birds to see. It's nice to see how people can work together to save such a magnificent bird from extinction. Did you know that other species are facing threats in your neighborhood?"
Uh-oh Moment #2: "You try to be friendly, but really, you just want them to go on their way, so you can get on with your birding."
Those words highlight how unwilling most birders are to engage with potential new birders. This is problematic. Besides turning away people who are mere steps away from being birders, it also leaves them with a bad impression of the birding community.
Rank-and-file birders have the ultimate power to shape the future of birding. We are the front lines in terms of the public's perception of the typical birder. Birders often blame the Beverly Hillbillies for birders having a "nerdy" reputation even though most people under the age of 50 barely remember Mrs. Hathaway!
Perhaps WE should accept a little bit of the often faulty perception of birders?
When people approach us with a little spark inside and we immediately blow them off, it burns them to some degree. They likely walk away thinking "that dude is lost in his own little world." Are we lost in our own little world? Sure! After all, we just want them to "go on their way" and let us do what we do - watch birds in solitude or with others that can enhance our experience.
Uh-oh Moment #3: "'Cerulean Warbler' was the secret handshake. I was now a friendly, and could be trusted."
That seems to be the clincher argument for birding as an elitist community.
The guy asking about what we're seeing gets a blow-off answer.
The guy sharing a Bald Eagle sighting (our national symbol and the perfect "I'm interested in birds too!" species) is wished away.
The guy who knows what a Cerulean Warbler - now THAT person is WORTHY of our time!
Why aren't people worthy of our time when they ask about the "canary with the black wings and hat in my yard"?
As a matter of fact, I would argue that they are MORE worthy of our time. They are noticing birds. They are observing birds. They are seeking out additional information about those birds. By spending some of our time with these non-birders, we may be able to get someone new interested enough in birds to watch them more often. By spending our time with them, we may be able to get them to care enough about birds to use native plants in their landscaping, switch to bird-friendly coffee, or volunteer with bird conservation projects.
The Secret Handshake does serve a valuable purpose. Chatting with our fellow skilled birders will build our lists, provide for more birding excitement, and gives us opportunities to improve our own skills. All of that is wonderful for us personally but where does it leave the birding community or, more importantly, the birds?
An ABA Board Member recently said to me: "When birders are willing to invest in someone else's birding, then we can grow birding like we need to." His words sounded like pure genius to me.
From my humble perspective, it seems that investing time with those that don't know the Secret Handshakes is better for everyone in the birding community. The new birders will realize the benefits that birding can hold for people of all ages. Having more people concerned about birds can translate into more support for bird conservation, provided they get suitable guidance from birding mentors. Of course, with more people out there looking, more birds will be found too - including some of our oh-so-treasured adrenaline producing rarities!
When you go look for those newly found rarities, be prepared to chat with people that know the Secret Handshake and those who don't know it - YET!