A Feminist Revolution In Birding
Tired of being marginalized, women are rising up against a macho culture
Wherever Noah Strycker goes, he tends to be the center of attention. In 2015, Strycker, then 29, set a world record by tracking down 6,042 bird species in 41 countries. Since then, he’s been a birding superstar, headlining festivals and guiding walks around the globe.
But for a bunch of the women who attended a walk Strycker led in Key Biscayne, Florida in October 2017, he didn’t turn out to be the main attraction. Nor did the Magnificent Frigatebirds, the Indigo Buntings, or the dozens of other species the group was lucky enough to spot.
Instead, the six women, who hadn’t met before, found themselves drawn to one another.
Most of them had been on walks with Miami’s Audubon chapter and other bird clubs; several had been birding for over a decade. But they’d never felt comfortable in the birding community.
Some were alienated by its focus on identification and fast-paced listing. “I have always been more about, ‘Let’s sit and let’s watch, and maybe I’m not going to figure out exactly what subspecies this is, or maybe I’m not going to reach 100, but I’m going to really enjoy the time I have with these organisms,’” says Kirsten Hines, 43, a wildlife photographer, herpetologist, and Tropical Audubon Society board member. “And I find most birders, they’re not into that; they’re happy to hear it and move on.”
On walks, the women sometimes found other birders — especially men, who tended to be in charge — cold and condescending. “When I first started birding, I felt intimidated,” says Eliana Ardila Kramer, 38, a surgical veterinary technician who grew up in Colombia and Aruba, moving to Miami as a teenager. “I knew that I didn’t know much, but I also felt that I was reminded of how little I knew.”
For example, some guys seemed to condemn her for not knowing common North American species like cardinals. “Well, I was a new birder I didn’t know what that was,” she says. “When you’re starting, you don’t know these things.”
The Strycker walk was different, she says, partly because he set a friendly tone but mostly because there were so many young women, and “the women took over the walk.”
“We were all helping each other,” Ardila Kramer remembers. “We were all pointing out birds, and together we were IDing the birds.”
There was also a lot of laughter.
“Everybody was having fun, and people were joking and they were talking, and it was like, ‘Well, this isn’t a normal bird walk,’” recalls Hines.
Before they parted, the women exchanged numbers, and a few days later, Hines had the group over for a potluck dinner in her garden in Coconut Grove.
As evening turned to night, the women, sipping Prosecco, discussed both their passion for birds and their frustration with the birding scene, which was tainted, they concluded, by old-school machismo. They agreed that as women in their twenties, thirties, and forties, they didn’t fully belong.
But being together felt just right.
“It felt like … ‘we are comadres,’” says Letícia de Mello Bueno, 40, who worked for Tropical Audubon and had helped organize the walk in Key Biscayne.
The new friends started meeting regularly to eat, drink, and bird. By December, their ranks had grown to about 10 and they were calling themselves the Phoebes, after both the flycatcher genus and the ancient Greek goddess. And last year, they turned the Phoebes into a public, all-female club.
“There are great groups that support birding in co-ed and other situations,” says Meredith Bergstrom, 31, an urban planner who grew up birding with her father. “What felt like it was missing was a group like this that particularly met the needs of women who might be new to birding or that just gave hopefully other people the same feeling of inspiration that we were gleaning from each other.”
Men shaped the culture of birding and still dominate it, but that could soon change. In recent years, women’s bird clubs have blossomed in at least six American states, four other countries, and online. Their specific missions vary, but they all aim to welcome women into birding and empower them in the field and beyond. A club in Brooklyn raises money for progressive political causes; three clubs in Africa train women to make a living as bird guides, thus freeing them from dependence on men.
If the clubs succeed and multiply, they could transform more than just the lives of the women who join them. They could also transform birding itself — and maybe even the world.
Birding as we know it began in the mid-19th century, when shotgun-toting gentlemen on both sides of the Atlantic set out to “collect” as many specimens as they could. One prominent naturalist, Spencer Baird of Pennsylvania, had amassed a collection of 3,696 birds by 1850, a feat that earned him a top position at the new Smithsonian Institution. (The assemblage filled two railroad cars when it was transported to Washington to seed the museum.)
A few women, including Florence Merriam of upstate New York, perceived an alternate path: observing birds peacefully. “[T]he student who goes afield armed with an opera-glass and camera will not only add more to our knowledge than he who goes armed with a gun, but will gain for himself a fund of enthusiasm and a lasting store of pleasant memories,” Merriam wrote in a field guide that she published in 1889, at age 26. But many men scorned this approach, claiming that birds could only be properly identified in hand.
Naturalists weren’t the only men shooting birds. By the end of the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of birds — many of them egrets — were being massacred annually by milliners, who fashioned women’s hats from their feathers. The bloodshed infuriated a group of upper-class women in Boston, who launched the Massachusetts Audubon Society for the Protection of Birds in 1896. Members swore off feathered hats, educated the public about the beauty and fragility of birds, and lobbied vigorously for laws that would protect them.
The revolt was a stunning success. By the 1920s, Audubon societies had formed around the country, killing birds was a federal crime, and watching them through binoculars was a popular pastime.
While thousands of American women took up birdwatching during this era, men outnumbered them and ran the show. Having abandoned competitive collecting, men invented and spread the gospel of competitive listing — the practice of tracking the number of species you’ve seen and trying to outdo your friends. Men ran the National Association of Audubon Societies, which was founded in 1905 (and later renamed the National Audubon Society). Men populated the most prestigious bird clubs, many of which barred women. Men authored most of the field guides and became the first paid ornithologists.
Since then, a lot has changed. As of 2011, women comprised slightly more than half of American birders, according to a federal study. The formerly all-male societies have been admitting women for decades, and many bird clubs and college ornithology courses enroll more women than men.
But men still vastly outnumber women among the birding elite.
Men still publish almost all the field guides. Men still fill most of the ornithology posts. Men win most of the national birding awards, and they prevail on the prestigious “records committees” that referee controversial sightings. At a typical birding festival, a lineup of mostly men lectures an audience of mostly women. Almost all professional bird tour guides are men, even though there tends to be a slight majority of women on the trips. And while seven out of ten Audubon members are women, the organization’s national office and many of its biggest chapters are led by men.
Meanwhile, women birders are too often overlooked, underestimated, and belittled.
“You’ll never be an expert,” the man said. “You’re a woman.”
“It’s maddening,” says Kimberly Kaufman, 50, who runs The Biggest Week in American Birding in Ohio and mentors many young birders in the state. In birding, as in society, “there’s just absolute gender bias.”
Sometimes, this bias is subtle and hard to prove.
About six years ago, Ardila Kramer was birding alone in Mindo, Ecuador, when, to her delight, she saw a Greater Ani. A lifer, the glossy cuckoo was nonetheless easy for her to identify because it was so much bigger than the other cuckoos in its genus.
Later, reading about the species in her field guide, Ardila Kramer, who was in her early thirties, realized that it wasn’t known to occur in Mindo. She went to the office of a local bird tour company to share the news of her exciting find.
But the guide she spoke with, a man about her age, dismissed her immediately.
“He was like, ‘Oh there’s no way you saw that.’”
Luckily, she had documented the sighting with photographs, and as soon as the guide saw them, he acknowledged that she’d been right. All the same, she was annoyed. If she’d been a man, she suspected, she would have been respected in the first place.
Sexism in the birding world can also be shockingly overt.
In 2012, Erin Lehnert, then 22 and an ambitious beginner, landed a two-month gig as a naturalist at the Cape May Bird Observatory in New Jersey. When a famous birder and author dropped by one day, she asked him for tips on developing her expertise.
“You’ll never be an expert,” the man said, according to Lehnert. “You’re a woman.” With that, he just walked away.
“I was pretty stunned, to say the least,” says Lehnert, now 28, who declined to name the man out of concern for her career.
Around the same time, Lehnert started looking for an ornithologist to take her on as a master’s student. But over the course of several years, three different male ornithologists at three different universities expressed concern about investing in her, suggesting that she’d likely get married, have children, and drop out.
Eventually, a female friend connected her with Chris Butler, an ornithologist at the University of Central Oklahoma, and now, she’s studying under him.
Women continue to face sexism after climbing the birding hierarchy.
In the summer of 2017, Catherine Hamilton, a renowned birder and bird artist from California, was invited to represent Zeiss and display some watercolors at Birdfair, a festival in England. There, she fell into what she initially thought was a productive conversation about the optics industry with “a really well-known international birding figure” who runs a major conservation organization.
“I had made some remark just about how the industry worked and how the competition could be good in certain circumstances for everybody, because it builds a strong stable market,” recalls Hamilton. “But he said, ‘Oh, that’s just ridiculous. Get back in the kitchen!’”
“How does that even come to your mind?” reflects Hamilton, 50, who didn’t name the man because her path still crosses with his. “I was basically making an economic point, and then he completely undermined me and used a sexist statement to shut me down.”
On a muggy morning last September, five members of the Phoebes crept through a lush, dripping forest in Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, the site of the momentous bird walk where the group was born. Accompanying them was a sixth woman, Sarina Atkinson, who was wondering whether birding might be for her.
The women moved slowly, taking everything in. Spiders as big as their hands wove giant, intricate webs. Butterflies that looked like winged zebras darted through the air.
The birds were few but lovely: a Red-bellied Woodpecker inched its way up a tree trunk; a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher perched on a sky-high branch; and, best of all, a Prothonotary Warbler, likely on its way south, flaunted its lemon plumage in a glade.
There was no leader — the Phoebes like it that way, so all voices are heard — and the group tackled the identifications as a team. Meanwhile, they attended to Atkinson, carefully describing the location of each bird and explaining how they knew what it was.
A core mission of the Phoebes is to invite women into birding by cultivating a warm, mellow vibe. But the club isn’t just for beginners. It’s a space for women of all levels to pal around while learning to trust in themselves.
Atkinson, 26, had just moved to Florida from Rhode Island, where she was a social scientist in an Environmental Protection Agency lab. Her colleagues, most of them men, often birded at lunchtime, but she never summoned the nerve to go along.
“They’re all very intense, hard-core birders,” she explained. “So I was always very intimidated by it, and that was my impression of birders.”
The Phoebes, she was realizing, were different.
“This is nice because even if I don’t know anything, I can ask questions, and I don’t feel like it’s a stupid question,” said Atkinson, who heard about the club through Tropical Audubon, where she was volunteering. “This is also a good way to make friends.”
A core mission of the Phoebes is to invite women into birding by cultivating a warm, mellow vibe. But the club isn’t just for beginners. It’s a space for women of all levels to pal around while learning to trust in themselves, says Hines. On many bird walks, men dominate while women defer, and “we wanted an environment where that wasn’t even an option.”
Without men, the Phoebes can also experiment with what birding is.
For example, the birding culture has traditionally favored male birds, which tend to be more colorful and more vocal than their female counterparts, but the Phoebes value females just as much. In fact, their unobtrusiveness is likely a reproductive strategy, since it helps keep their nests and their nestlings hidden, says Alison Enchelmaier, 28, the education coordinator at Tropical Audubon and a longtime Phoebe.
And while birders have traditionally prized birds above all other life forms, the Phoebes prefer a holistic approach.
“In nature, everything is connected,” says Ardila Kramer, who stops for bugs, seeds, shrubs, trees, and whatever else she happens to spot. “So it’s not just about the birds, but it’s about nature and the environment.”
These days, the Phoebes are organizing about one walk a month, posting about it both before and after on social media. A recent Saturday morning walk in Kendall Indian Hammocks Park attracted about a dozen women, half of them newcomers to the group. The walk also attracted some love from afar.
“I so wish we were with you fantastic women,” wrote an Instagram user in Texas who birds with her daughter. “Keep being badasses ladies. You’re amazing!”
Around the world, at least seven other women’s bird clubs are thriving, each of them charting a unique course. One of the most ambitious is Uganda Women Birders.
Though there aren’t many Ugandan birders, the country is an increasingly popular destination for American and European ones. To find specialties such as the Shoebill — a four-foot-tall, fish-eating swamp species whose beak resembles a giant yellow clog — these visitors typically hire local guides, almost all of whom are men.
A young visionary has set out to change that.
“A lot of women stay in abusive marriages simply because they cannot sustain themselves and depend on the man for all their needs.”
Judith Mirembe, 27, started birding as a teenager, after her father died and her mother, unable to support her, sent her to live in Kampala with her older sister and her brother-in-law, Herbert Byaruhanga. An expert birder, Byaruhanga owned a tour company, Bird Uganda Safaris. In his spare time, he taught Mirembe what he knew.
After high school, Mirembe won a scholarship to Uganda’s top university and began working as a Bird Uganda guide. But it pained her to leave other women behind. As she knew from her mother’s experience, women have a hard time making a living in Uganda. Many employers still think women belong in the kitchen, she says, so they pass over them for all the best jobs.
This prejudice not only impoverishes women — it endangers them, Mirembe says. “A lot of women stay in abusive marriages simply because they cannot sustain themselves and depend on the man for all their needs.” Bird guiding, which pays well, can liberate them.
In 2013, Mirembe and Byaruhanga founded Uganda Women Birders, which aims to turn women who’ve never used binoculars before into experts on East African birds. Over the past six years, the club has successfully trained more than 30 women, about 10 of whom now work as guides.
Still, the enterprise faces significant challenges. Learning to find and identify birds takes time, and many women drop out prematurely, concerned that their efforts won’t pay off with a job. Furthermore, the group is perpetually short on money, which it needs to host outings and buy members equipment.
Mirembe is undaunted. Earlier this year, she opened her own safari company, Women Adventures Africa. Not only will it will be staffed entirely by alumni of Uganda Women Birders, but a portion of its profits will be set aside to fund the club.
Mirembe’s enthusiasm is contagious. Two clubs modeled on hers, Rwanda Women Birders and Kenya Women Birders, have launched in the past year. When Kenya Women Birders threw a kick-off party in Nairobi last month, a delegation from Uganda Women Birders was there to wish them well.
While the African clubs seek to help women establish their careers, Prescott Women Birders, in Arizona, serves women who are winding them down.
The group was founded in the spring of 2004, when some retired women who belonged to the Prescott Audubon Society decided to meet up every week for a bird walk. “If you don’t use your binoculars on a regular basis, you really can get rusty pretty quickly,” says Karen O’Neil, 75, who joined the group in late 2004 and is a past president of Prescott Audubon.
“In our discussions, there’s no competition. There’s only cooperation, there’s sharing, there’s teaching, there’s learning from each other. Or, if you want to sum that all up in one word, you could call it ‘sisterhood.’”
The women sidelined their male friends because, like the Phoebes, they didn’t want to be led. In general, men “just think they ought to take over a leadership role,” says O’Neil, a retired nursing instructor. “And that’s not what we wanted. Ours is essentially a leaderless group.”
Instead, like the Phoebes, the women practice “birding by committee.” When they’re unsure of an identification — it’s sometimes hard to tell a Hammond’s Flycatcher from a Dusky, for example — they hear one another out. With no men around, O’Neil says, egos don’t get in the way.
“In our discussions, there’s no competition. There’s only cooperation, there’s sharing, there’s teaching, there’s learning from each other. Or, if you want to sum that all up in one word, you could call it ‘sisterhood.’”
The club’s outings, on Monday mornings, usually draw about a dozen women, but there are 90 women on its email list. Some longtime members in their eighties and nineties are now physically unable to bird, but they enjoy receiving the weekly trip report, which includes photographs and a play-by-play narrative.
“It’s kind of like virtual birding for them, and they love it,” says O’Neil.
Unlike Prescott Women Birders and its counterparts in Africa and Miami, the Facebook group World Girl Birders is open to men.
When she founded the group in 2015, Debi Shearwater, then 64, had been guiding seabird tours off the California coast for nearly four decades. But, like Mirembe, she regretted having few female peers. In general, women birders didn’t get the recognition and respect they deserved, she believed, and she thought a forum that celebrated them could change that.
“We need men to advance women as much as possible in the birding world and the rest of the world.”
The club debuted on March 8, International Women’s Day. Its page was shared so many times that by March 11, more than 1,000 people belonged.
“I guess what that showed is there was a need for it,” says Shearwater.
Initially, some women criticized her for including men, but she insisted. In her view, “we need men to advance women as much as possible in the birding world and the rest of the world.”
Now, World Girl Birders is a lively community of about 3,050 women, 170 men, and 15 others from dozens of countries. Members set up rendezvous at birding hotspots around the globe. They swap travel tips, gear recommendations, and job postings. They maintain running lists of women guides and speakers. They announce their books, their art exhibits, and their milestone birds. They discuss weighty issues such as sexism and safety.
They do not, however, discuss politics, because “politics can be debated elsewhere,” Shearwater says, and she worries that such discussions could drive some members away.
By contrast, another group, the Feminist Bird Club, has marched straight into the political maelstrom.
Molly Adams of Brooklyn first thought of starting a club in the summer of 2016, when she saw signs near one of her favorite birding spots, the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, announcing that a young woman had been murdered during her evening jog.
Adams, then 26, typically birded the city alone, even though strange men sometimes approached and harassed her. The murder convinced her she’d been risking her life. Meanwhile, she was becoming increasingly concerned about the “sexist, ableist, hyper-capitalist, and xenophobic behavior” of the Republican nominee for president.
So when she launched the group, a week before the election, she was hoping to make birding safer for women, but also to create a community of like-minded activists. Like Shearwater, she made membership open to all, partly because she felt that men of color and trans people need safe spaces even more than some women do.
Adams figured mainly her friends would join and that membership would max out around 10. But once word got out on social media and, later, in a New York Times feature, her creation exploded. The club’s walks, which are limited to 20, routinely fill up weeks in advance, largely with casual and first-time women birders. Independent chapters have arisen in Boston, Chicago, and Michigan, and a spinoff club, Colectiva de Observadoras de Aves Feminista, is up and running in Buenos Aires. (That club is only open to women and trans people, says its founder, Victoria Boano, 37, because sexual harassment is pervasive in Argentina and she wanted to create a “non-violent, non-threatening space.”)
Adams has raised money for a different progressive cause each year by selling Feminist Bird Club patches for $10 apiece. Last year’s patch, featuring a Spotted Sandpiper, one of the few polyandrous birds, garnered more than $4,500 for Black Lives Matter. This year’s patch features a female Snowy Owl, which Adams chose to highlight the sexual dimorphism of the species and to remind birders that it’s vulnerable and shouldn’t be disturbed. The proceeds will be split between an organization that helps Latin American migrants and one that promotes the sexual health of indigenous youth.
“It’s hard to feel like you’re accomplishing something important now, with all of the tragedies that are taking place,” says Adams, now 28, who recently left her job as outreach director at the New York Aquarium to become the advocacy and outreach manager at New York City Audubon. But her club — and its impact — keep growing.
There are many ways to be a feminist birder.
Kaufman, the Biggest Week director, is “on the fence” about the American women’s bird clubs. She understands why the clubs have formed, and she sometimes posts on World Girl Birders. But she fears that the groups could isolate women and reinforce the idea that they should be “kept separately.”
Furthermore, she worries that the clubs that exclude men are setting a double standard. “I wonder how they would react if they found out that there was a men’s-only version of that,” she says.
Kaufman, who is also the director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, prefers to devote her feminist energy to taking on the birding establishment.
Not only will the birding community benefit when women’s contributions are fully valued, but gender equality in birding could pave the way for gender equality worldwide.
A few years ago, for instance, she attended a panel at a bird festival in Florida — she declined to say which one — that featured five or six men and no women. During the question-and-answer session, she stood up.
“May I ask why, with so many qualified women in the audience, there aren’t any women on the panel?” she asked.
At first, there was “stunned silence.” Then a few women started clapping, and one woman said, “I would’ve been on the panel if I’d been asked.” Eventually, most of the room joined in the applause.
“I just hope that it influenced some change there,” says Kaufman. “At least, I think it opened the door.”
Experiences like this inspired Kaufman to turn the most recent Biggest Week, last May, into a showcase of unsung female talent. Of the 13 keynote speakers at the festival, 11 were women, among them authors, photographers, and scientists.
Not all the speeches sold out, Kaufman says; it’s challenging for little-known speakers to fill a house. But money wasn’t her goal — change was. Each of the women had something valuable to say, and each of them deserved the chance to say it.
Now, Kaufman is challenging leaders of other established organizations to “step up” and give women their due.
The stakes are high, she says. Not only will the birding community benefit when women’s contributions are fully valued, but gender equality in birding could pave the way for gender equality worldwide.
“With birding growing so rapidly, I really think that we can be an example that the rest of the world can look to. I don’t think we should underestimate the influence that we can have.”
A culture that embraces and elevates everyone, regardless of gender: ultimately, Kaufman and the women’s clubs want the same thing, even if they’re working toward it in different ways.
Maybe in the future, scholars will divide the history of birding into three phases.
First, women were barred. Then, women were marginalized. And then, in the first decades of the 21st century, women finally took charge.
I’m a journalist and the author of Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds, a biography of birder and adventuress Phoebe Snetsinger. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.