OPEN MIC: How to talk about climate change as a young birder

At the mic: Claire Wayner is a 17-year-old young birder from Baltimore, Maryland, who started birding in 2012. Since then, she has grown to love urban birding and often incorporates her passion for birds into her environmental activism with Baltimore Beyond Plastic, an advocacy organization that she co-founded in 2016 to reduce plastic trash in Baltimore. When she’s not meeting with lawmakers or leading local bird walks, Claire enjoys listening for nocturnal flight calls from her roof and going backpacking. She aims to work in environmental and climate policy after attending college at Princeton University.

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I remember when I heard my first Wood Thrush. It was six years ago in the woods close to my backyard, along a stream called Stony Run. When I was younger, I had played along this stream every day after school, had built forts out of cattails and made paper out of birch bark. Yet I’d never listened to the birdsong, until that one day when I discovered an old bird guide at my grandparents’ house and began paying attention. Once I started listening and learning the birdsong, I could never again shut my ears to the omnipresent warbles and calls that filled the air.

Wood Thrush. Photo: Kelly Colgan Azar/Creative Commons

When I listen to the Wood Thrush today along Stony Run, potentially even the same bird from six years ago, I now wonder whether the thrush will return in 30 years. A startling report from Audubon in 2014 found 314 bird species that breed in North America, including the Wood Thrush, will be imperiled by climate change over the next 60 years. Already, birders older than me, those who have been around long enough to see trends set, are witnessing declines. Ten years ago, the trees were filled with warblers of all different species; nowadays, some species are so uncommon that one or two individuals might be seen per season. As an avid birder, I first became aware of climate change through birds like the Wood Thrush.

But what do we birders do to raise awareness about climate change when only 14% of the U.S. population watches birds? While that percentage may seem high, consider that birding is often limited demographically to older, wealthier participants. Paying intimate attention to birdsong is rare among the general populace and even rarer for someone young like me. Attempting to explain climate change from a birding perspective, especially to those who don’t go outside regularly, often doesn’t get me anywhere. People zone out when the focus of the conversation is on obscure species like the Wood Thrush; most of them have never heard its song…and maybe never will.

We birders can try centering conversations around the human effects of climate change and momentarily disregard birds. Mosquito and tick ranges will increase, bringing more infectious diseases. Air quality will worsen, affecting those with respiratory illnesses and asthma. Rising temperatures will threaten the elderly and poor of health, and sea level rise will engulf low-elevation communities. These are all certainly powerful arguments, and non-birders tend to gravitate toward rhetorical strategies that prioritize human communities (and not avian ones), but I have two major problems with this approach.

First, many of these talking points – sea level rise, declining air quality – are not the most tangible. If someone’s house is above water now, or if the air is perfectly clean currently, it’s difficult for some to believe that things will get worse. Climate change has historically struggled with a lack of immediacy; people just don’t see it as urgent unless ocean waves are suddenly lapping their back porch. Admittedly, after Hurricanes Sandy, Harvey, Maria, and so forth, this situation has been happening more frequently but certainly not with the frequency we need to accelerate action and dispel apathy.

But my second and more significant problem is this: human-centric arguments continue to separate humans from nature and act like climate change will have differing effects on both. That’s simply false – in fact, it couldn’t be farther from the truth. An increase in temperature threatens all of us alike, and when non-human species collapse or shift somewhere else, humans will suffer. Think of all of the ecosystem services birds alone provide: pollination, seed dispersal, and insect and pest control, not to mention the $41 billion in revenue generated annually for the U.S. economy just by the bird-watching industry. Without certain bird species, the puzzle starts to crumble, and guess what? We are a part of that arrangement, whether we like it or not. By prioritizing humans in our conversations, and neglecting to discuss Wood Thrushes, we perpetuate the assumption that humans are somehow separate, or even better than, the natural world.

So how can we birders talk about climate change in an engaging way without alienating our audience? I’ve found, through my many years of leading bird walks and educating fellow youth, that a holistic blend of birds and humans that mixes birds into peoples’ lives yields the most effective result. Birds are tangible, unlike arbitrary rising sea levels or melting Arctic ice. As I said above, they play a critical role in all of our lives. For instance, non-birders and birders will probably agree that mosquitoes are annoying. Well, birds are nature’s insect control mechanisms – if we foster healthy bird populations, we won’t see as many pesky mosquitoes.

Young birders in the field. Photo: Jennie Duberstein

To stop climate change, we must start by cultivating an appreciation for nature. Not everyone will fall in love with birds as much as we birders have – and that’s okay. But how can someone want to fight climate change if they are isolated from the very planet which is now threatened by their actions? The fact is that human society set itself up for climate change – and climate denial – a long time ago through separation of people and planet. Today, we see that the communities most threatened by climate change – people of color, low-income households – are oftentimes, especially in urban areas like my hometown of Baltimore, the most isolated from nature, caught up in concrete, polluted jungles. Our youngest generations, like my own, are also significantly more isolated with the rise in popularity of technology and video games. I find that Richard Louv summarizes this plight best in his 2006 bookLast Child in the Woods:

The child in nature is an endangered species, and the health of children and the health of the Earth are inseparable.

That’s where we birders, young and old, can come in and play a major role. By teaching people, especially those historically isolated from green spaces in urban environments, about the sheer beauty and diversity of our avian world, we can build up a feeling of love and respect for the outdoors. I do it regularly by leading youth bird walks in Patterson Park, an urban green “oasis” in southeast Baltimore. Many of my young participants don’t get outside often or come from communities where nature is seen as something foreign and frightening. Connecting them with bird species like the Wood Thrush is powerful and inspiring both to me and to them. Unlike the human-centric arguments, which often suffer from a lack of immediacy, arguments that involve observing wildlife like birds are incredibly palpable. Participants see the Wood Thrush, hear it, breathe in its beauty…and then can connect the concept of climate change as threatening this beauty.

The author leading a birding walk. Photo: National Audubon Society

If we fail to educate others, then climate change will continue to remain an isolated movement and concept. Environmentalists and birders alike will continue to be seen as privileged, white tree-huggers. Loving nature will continue to be optional in today’s society. We cannot afford to stay silent.

As a young birder, I have a powerful tool in my love for birds, and I’m not afraid to use it in my climate advocacy for a just and equitable future. I hope that all my fellow birders, young and old, will do the same.

2018-07-18T16:03:51+00:00

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