Saturday, October 20, 2012

Hearts and Minds Together in Minnesota

Last week I spent a couple of days with folks intent on making a change for the positive.  The second Focus on Diversity: Changing the Face of American Birding conference was held at the Minnesota Valley NWR near Minneapolis.  One of our wonderful (but rare) urban refuges it draws an assortment of people in to enjoy the nature in their backyards.

Anyone who has read anything I write knows that I am passionate about “coloring the conservation conversation”.  That phrase has become my mantra as the demographics show us that within the next twenty to thirty years, those now classified as ethnic minorities will become the majority population.  The new majority may think about birds, trees and issues like climate change, clean air, water and energy  in ways that are different than the current majority does.   Like the old majority, the new one will buy, vote and patronize  based upon those things they care most about. Unfortunately, we’ve not done a good job as birders and conservationists in broadening the scope of those involved in our passion. 

With the numbers so clearly showing the trends to come it is really not a question of “if” we need to have more “Black and Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places”, it is a question of survival. Let’s face it, if birding and conservation organizations are to survive into the future then they will have to expand beyond the audiences they’ve traditionally catered to. It is this simple; stay the same and stagnate or change and grow.  If birds and people are to coexist in ways that benefit both into the future then I think the choice is an obvious one: reach out to someone different to make a difference! Staying the same is an unsustainable selfish and short-sighted decision. 

l-r; Kenn, Duck, Dudley and Roy discuss the issues
As birders will do, on Friday night we flocked to a social where the serious and not so serious issues were bantered about over beer, some mighty fine single malt scotch (Thanks Sharon!)  and other “lesser” beverages.  On Saturday it was down to brass tacks.  A wonderful medley of sponsors, panelists, facilitators and session leaders like Kenn Kaufmann, David Ring, Douglas Wayne Gray, Dudley Edmundson, Roy Rodriguez, Duck Washington, Rob Ripma, George H. Petrides Jr.,  Dan Kunkle, Sharon Stiteler, Paul Baicich,  Mamie Parker,  Danielle Mohilef Rudner, Michelle Mohilef, yours truly and the event organizer, Dave Magpiong discussed the serious issues of why and how the diversification of our wonderful pastime must occur.  There was no silver bullet solution but I do think the issue gained valuable exposure and from the breakout sessions action plans were hatched to put power behind the words. 

Douglas and LeShon Gray
The panels and conversations were real and sometimes painful.  Change and the revolution it takes to affect something almost always are. Thoughtful questions and opinions flew like flushed quail out of the audience. It was clear that everyone in attendance was thinking seriously about the issues at hand. 

Dave Magpiong says "If not now when?"
In between the sessions I met new friends who are now kindred in the effort to diversify and conserve. With so much at stake, the wear on our heads and hearts  was certain. 

me and  Valerie Redmond!
Me and Sharon Stiteler
TG fellow Dan Kunkle
The salve for the seriousness being addressed in the auditorium was the birds. Just outside the refuge window a flurry of feathers flitted about the feeders. A huge hairy woodpecker dwarfed a diminutive downy. Black-capped chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches along with flocks of red-wings and grackles and a few house finches ferried back and forth under overcast skies.
The view of the Mississippi River from the deck of Minnesota Valley NWR
 The centerfold bird on the scene, a shy but handsome Harris’ Sparrow made an appearance, helping us all remember why we were here in the first place. We all love to see diversity in the birds we watch.  Sure, flocks of redwings wheeling in the fading light of a winter day are a special treat and huge flocks of gulls offer opportunities for us to pick that rare vagrant out of the sea of white. But what is it that most of us are we really out there to see?  For 99.9% of us I think it’s as many different things as possible—maximum diversity.  It would make sense then to encouraging that same diversity among those who watch.  New eyes and ideas brought to birding will broaden the impact of the pastime and hopefully mean expanded impacts for conservation.

The future of birding!
As we convened in the near shadow of the Minneapolis skyline at that beautiful urban refuge it was clear that the mission to move forward with the colorizing effort is being taken seriously.  I met three students from the University of Wisconsin-Steven's Point who look like birding should look-diverse and passionate about the future of birds and conservation. Their presence was especially heartening. 

Thanks to all the committed individuals who gave of their time and money as well as organizations like the Fledgling Birders Institute (where it all began with Dave Magpiong), the  US Fish and Wildlife Service, Audubon Society, Wild Birds Unlimited and Eagle Optics for your support. You showed up to say “we care about the future of birding”.  These will be friends I will treasure and organizations that I prioritize with my patronage into the future. As our heads and hearts melded to make things better for the birds and people, I left with a heart full of hope and the knowledge that birding is sometimes as much about connecting with our fellow human beings  as watching the birds. Maybe one of these days I'll talk more about the birds than the people but for now, since birding doesn't happen without the human element, I'll stay on it! The social  interchange  in those people watching and caring about birds and birding together is a fun thing indeed! Focus on Diversity III is already planned for the Rio Grande Valley in 2013. Stay tuned!

Good Birding!
Obligatory bird pic--dead but it has feathers! Remember-birding without people is just birds!


  1. After reading your post and Sharon's at another site, it seems like this was a fascinating and soul-searching conference. As a fairly fluent Spanish-speaker I've often contemplated how to invite US-living latinos into the world of birding. I've made a few meager efforts indicating "Se habla espanol" when I host public tours and I've reached out to a local hispanic activities organization, but no real sign of success yet. Several hispanics work for construction trade companies that work with me in home building and I enjoy showing them the birds with my optics on the job site. I know they are just as fascinated as anybody else, but it still seems to me, that they see birding as a hobby out of reach for them in their culture.

  2. Wonderful post with a very important message!