Worried that the future of the nation's wild places may rest with an increasingly diverse population that has little experience in the outdoors, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is looking to an unusual savior: birding.
On Saturday, black, Hispanic and female birders, nature photographers, teachers and professors will gather at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Bloomington to share ideas and brainstorm about how to bring more minorities into birding.
Counter to its little-old-lady-with-binoculars image, birding is an ideal way to lure young people into the natural world, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife's Paula Ogden-Muse.
"This is about saving the kids, but also about how to save the planet," said Ogden-Muse, visitor services manager for the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge near La Crosse, Wis. "We need to get the people we don't see into the refuge, and stop talking to the choir."
Ogden-Muse said her own interest in birds was sparked by a mentor who kept bringing up his bird sightings in conversation.
"He would say, 'Did you see the hawks migrating?' I would say, 'No,' and then think, why am I not paying attention to what's going on around me?" she said.
Charlie Blair, manager of the Bloomington refuge, said it's not hyperbole to say the future of wild places is tied to broad participation in activities like birding.
"In [U.S. Fish and Wildlife], we tend to be very white and until recently, very male," he said. "We need to broaden who's involved if we want future support for these wildlife refuges."
'Portal to the natural world'
Planners hope to draw 75 or more people to the meeting. One of the speakers is Dudley Edmondson, a black nature photographer, filmmaker and author who lives in Duluth, Minn. He said his life changed in his senior year of high school when an art teacher took students on a birding trip.
"We all packed into his Toyota and drove from Ohio to Texas," he said. "We saw all these different birds I'd never seen before, different kinds of hawks and cranes. That got my curiosity going. ...
"Bird watching was my portal to the natural world."
Edmondson is the author of "Black and Brown Faces in America's Wild Places," which includes portraits of outdoorsy African-Americans who are passionate about nature.
"Conservation clearly is something that for a number of different reasons has been carried mostly by European Americans," he said. "With demographic shifts, it's clear that if we don't get everyone concerned about the environment or at least educated about it, there's risk of losing the gains we have made."
The average American birder is 50, more likely to be a woman than a man, with above-average income and education, according to a 2006 Department of the Interior survey. While 24 percent of whites are birders, just 8 percent of Hispanics, 7 percent of Asians and 6 percent of African-Americans are birders. "Birding" is defined as everything from observing birds through a window at home to traveling the world to build a bird list.
Minnesota was fourth among states in birding participation, with 33 percent of residents saying they watched birds.
Diversity has been discussed among birding organizations for some time, partly with an eye to the environmental issue. For several years, Audubon Minnesota has run programs to involve youth in bird conservation, particularly in urban areas, said Lee Ann Pfannmuller, interim director.
Ron Windingstad, who retired from the organization a few weeks ago, worked on hands-on bird projects in diverse elementary schools and with Hmong Boy Scouts. The Hmong Eagle Scout candidates built artificial chimneys to provide nesting sites for chimney swifts, which are rapidly losing the open chimneys they once commonly nested in.
"It was very rewarding to see the boys stick with these projects," Windingstad said. "Their parents and families and relatives and friends all became aware of the need to conserve the birds. A number of them built nest boxes for kestrels and put up feeders for birds.
"These are becoming important groups to conserve birds. They just haven't had the chance."
Ogden-Muse, who proposed the Bloomington meeting after she learned of a similar conference in Philadelphia, worked with urban Latino families when she was with the National Park Service and more recently got Hmong women to work with staff at the Wisconsin refuge.
An inexpensive hobby
"When people have an opportunity to be outside, feel safe and share their enthusiasms ... I've seen it work," she said. "We have to overcome the obstacles to getting kids outside."
Birding need not be expensive, she said. Used bird guides can be found in second-hand stores; a bird list can be kept on a pad of paper. Many birding groups run free tours and share binoculars.
"It's about paying attention," Ogden-Muse said. "Once you look at birds, you can't help notice what they're eating, what trees they're in, what flowers are there, the bugs that are there, and what a beautiful world we live in!
"If people don't care, they don't act. ... Once I know something, I want to pass it on. It starts with caring about what's in your back yard, and hopefully spreads to caring about what's in everyone's back yard."
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan