The Enduring Importance of the Bird Club

The Enduring Importance of the Bird Club

If you have an interest in birds one of the best ways to learn more is to join a local bird club. A bird club offers you the opportunity to meet other birders of varying levels of experience and allows you to share and contribute to the collective knowledge of the group. Apart from the social interaction a bird club can offer you can also help contribute to valuable avian research to help further the knowledge and preservation of many bird species. Read more to learn what joining a bid club has to offer you.

Clubs for the study and conservation of birds have a long and glorious history dating back to the first meeting in 1889 of Mrs. Williamson and her group of ladies gathering together at her Didsbury, Manchester home in opposition to the use of Great Crested Grebe down to line gloves. Little may these ladies have dreamed at the time that their small group would evolve into the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Likewise when around this same time Harriet Hemenway and her cousin Minna Hall rallied their friends from Boston society to protest the rampant use of egret and other plumes in ladies’ millenary, neither likely imagined that one day they would be hailed as the founders of theNational Audubon Society. The purpose of both these groups, as with most bird clubs to this day, was far more simple and straightforward – the gathering together of people with a deep and abiding interest in birds for the purpose of mutual education and the furtherance of a common goal.

Today’s bird clubs span a range of interest and experience levels. From the local groups of week-end birders planning and taking field trips through to field ornithologists and banding / ringing groups organized to collect and obtain scientific data that will be used in ornithological research. All members still share that same common interest in their subject and benefit from their association with one another. What’s more, as ornithology is a fairly young science, the wall between the amateur enthusiast and the degreed professional is not nearly as high as it is in most other sciences. Did you ever meet an amateur brain surgeon or a week-end nuclear physicist? This means that interested and enthusiastic amateurs are not only able to help in the collection of data that can be used by researchers, they are actively sought after to do so through bird clubs large and small throughout the world.

Take for example the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s citizen science programs. Project Feederwatch recruits its members throughout North America to monitor, record, and report the birds visiting their respective birdfeeders from November through April each year. This data is then used by the lab’s ornithologists to assess the health of bird populations throughout the continent. Likewise the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count and the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch (held each January) – local chapters throughout those organizations’ respective countries contribute thousands of reports that are then compiled to help in the larger conservation activities of the organizations themselves. According to Wayne Mones, vice president of the National Audubon Society, “Most of the bird population data we have for the past one hundred and eight years was made possible through the participation of bird clubs and their members.”

Of course, the opportunity to contribute to scientific research is not the only reason to join and participate in a local bird club. For beginners, a local group composed of birders of all levels of experience can be of inestimable help in “learning the craft.” From the opportunities to attend presentations and lectures about species, habitat, behavior, and most important for many beginners, identification, to the regular schedule of field trips led by more experienced members, membership in a local bird club can be an essential part of the enhancement of most anyone’s birding activities.

Due to the recent rise in the use of the Internet for communication, not to mention the exponential growth in social media networks, such asFacebook and Twitter, some have been moved to ask if perhaps the bird club is becoming a relic of by-gone days. It is true that many birders are joining on-line networks and subscribing to list servers to fill some of the needs that were previously met by bird clubs. Indeed, when understood and used in light of both their inherent strengths and weaknesses, virtual birding communities can be a great benefit to those participating in them by allowing more rapid transfer of raw information (rarity sightings in particular via list servers) as well as the ability to meet fellow birding enthusiasts from around the globe. However as most people with experience in virtual communities will readily admit, there are limits to the uses of virtual communities.

Birding is an experiential activity. Its heart lies in the ability of people to visit the outdoors (even if only from their own back porch) in order to see, hear, and, in cases of educational opportunities and programs for the disabled, touch the birds with whom we share this planet. While much time can be spent on-line reading about, discussing, and viewing pictures or movies of birds, without the time spent actually experiencing them in the wild, the entire endeavor rings hollow. And while one can study, discuss, and build up quite a body of knowledge through virtual birding communities, “going it alone” in the field, while possible, can lead to frustration and a diminished enjoyment of the activity.

Take the case of “jizz,” or as it was originally written GISS (General Impression, Size, and, Shape), for example. Jizz is generally used to describe all the tips and tricks that can be employed in the field to identify a bird, particularly ones that are challenging to differentiate from other similar species or are only seen in less than ideal circumstances for observation (many pelagic species observed at sea, for instance). While there are many good field guides for birds, not one contains all that is known about identifying each and every species in the field. The late, great Roger Tory Peterson did include some superb tips and tricks in his guides, as has his intellectual and spiritual protégé Kenn Kaufman in his own works. More importantly remember that deep in the minds of the most experienced birders, there lies the identification skills passed from one birding generation to another as well as those discovered first hand in the field that are not yet contained in any book.

The best way to tap into these vast, unfathomable wells of knowledge is through the participation in the bird clubs to which these experienced individuals belong. “It’s the face-to-face contact that makes the bird clubs important today,” says Clay Taylor, Swarovski Optik North America’s naturalist product manager and digiscoping guru. “To become a better birder, go out birding alone, go with others of a similar skill level, and go out with people who are way better than you; do all these things and keep them in balance and you’ll improve quickly.” Paul Green, executive director of the Tucson Audubon Society puts it a bit more succinctly; in his words it’s all about “learning from people who know more than you.”

Finally, there is, of course, the sheer pleasure taken from the association with others sharing an interest akin to your own for the purpose of nothing more than the sharing of experiences, adventures, jokes, and camaraderie. As Marleen Murgitroyde, tourism and events manager for the famous Cape May Bird Observatory puts it, “Bird clubs are simply a great way to meet and mix with others sharing similar interests to your own.” Just as sports enthusiasts gather together to watch their favorite teams play, knitters and quilters assemble in circles to practice their crafts, or virtually any other number of individuals sharing a common interest congregate, the sum of the experience is larger than the individual parts. The human spirit, deny it though we might, revels in the idea that while we are individuals, we are not alone in our interests; that we indeed share common bonds with others. Joining groups formed around a single interest, such as birding, is a superb way to meet and develop friendships with others whom one might otherwise have never met. Just as birds flock together to feed, roost, or protect themselves from predators, the “flock” of a bird club offers the individual birder the ability to develop stronger skills, find intellectual satisfaction, and build social connections that may last a lifetime.

If you are interested in participating in a local club check out or state by state guide to bird clubs in your area.