Gendering Birding

Here are some very interesting thoughts on bird names by Rick Wright. In fact, Wright’s blog is full of the fascinating history of birding naming. Yes, fascinating, because names are how we understand the world. So who gives those names is important. Yup: as in all human endeavors, that means politics.

Along these lines, Wright gave a talk earlier this month at the Linnaean Society about the transformation of birdwatching in this country, which at its founding in the nineteenth century was dominated by women. They wrote the most popular books about birds, too. Probably the very first field guide was Birds Through An Opera Glass, which came out in 1889. The author was twenty-six year old Florence A. Merriam. (She would later be known in ornithological circles as Florence Merriam Bailey.)

“Wherever there are people there are birds, so it makes comparatively little difference where you live, if only you are in earnest about getting acquainted with your feathered neighbors,” begins Merriam in her introduction, succinctly summarizing the point of the very blog you’re reading. She goes on to note the number of bird species seen in Chicago, Portland CT, Washington DC, San Francisco, “while seventy-six are recorded for Prospect Park, Brooklyn, and a hundred and forty-two for Central Park, New York.” (Prospect Park’s number is around 291 species now.)

Roger Tory Peterson, the great white father of American birding, turns out to have been late to the scene, but he wasted little time in slagging the ladies who had preceded him. Wright’s argument is that bird identification became the point for the new breed of male bird-watchers, not the more holistic natural history of the late Victorian women. The lads claimed identification was more scientific.

Some whiff of this has carried on into our day of the “birder,” a word notable for its suggestion of action and sport, with metrics/data like list-making and “ticking,” as well as “chasing” rare birds. True, “birding” was used in the nineteenth century, but the competitive connotations are all our own. Did you know there was a “Top eBirders” listing on the citizen science ebird website? (What this has to do with science isn’t specified, because, um, it has nothing to do with science.)

Although Wright didn’t bring this up, the Peterson crew seems to have felt the need to prove their manliness. Since they weren’t hunters — all they did was look at birds not kill them — they risked being queer-baited. The tried-and-true method of out-butching the other boys is to ramp up the misogyny.

During question period, one old boy huffed and puffed that he’d never seen any evidence of sexism on the ol’ birding trail, as half the audience gasped and/or rolled their eyes. Classic mansplaining — “the anecdotes of my own blinkered perception trump all other experience” — or should we call it manbirdsplaining?

A couple of years ago, I hung out with some British birders who were truly amazed how many women birded here in the U.S. That doesn’t mean there’s no need for a safe and inclusive bird culture here, too, as the Feminist Bird Club, with offshoots in NYC, Chicago, Boston, and Michigan, attests.

3 Responses to “Gendering Birding”

  1. 2 Sherry Felix January 28, 2019 at 8:26 am

    I enjoyed Rick Wrights talk immensely.

  1. 1 American Dagger | Backyard and Beyond Trackback on July 19, 2019 at 7:00 am

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