Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The ABA Needs to Soak Up the Fun

Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Pages and pages have been written lately about the future of the American Birding Association—some of it fairly pessimistic, some of it quite optimistic. Recent posts have tended toward the latter, which is reason for hope.

I don't have a lot to add to the chorus of voices suggesting how to save the organization, but I do want to make one suggestion to the ABA as a whole, and especially to the incoming president/CEO: Please make it fun.

I've been an ABA member since the mid-1980s. Back then I was trying my level best to fit in with the more experienced birders I encountered. I knew then (and still know) what it's like as a bird watcher to feel not good enough to "hang" with the big dogs. That's a problem that's plagued the ABA almost since its inception: new bird enthusiasts not feeling comfortable joining because they felt inadequate in skill level and experience.

I've heard other things named as THE reason for the ABA's decline.

"It's just a club for listers!"
"Is it a conservation group or a birding group or both?"
"All that super-difficult bird ID stuff in Birding magazine is way over my head."
"The conferences are too expensive."
"It just doesn't matter like it once did."
"It's too serious!"

That last reason may be closer to the mark than any of the other ones.

In the fall of 2008, I participated in a facilitated visioning session for the ABA. The half-dozen of us in the session worked for an entire day discussing what the ABA had done in the past, what it was doing currently, and what it might do in the future to maintain and enhance its standing in the North American birding community. I thought (as did the facilitator, and most of my fellow volunteer participants) that we came up with some really great ideas and recommendations. Sadly nothing ever came of our work—at least not yet.

If all of our recommendations could be summarized in one central theme, it would be to make being a member of the American Birding Association an engagingly fun experience.

An enormous factor in being a bird watcher for most of us is the social connection we enjoy with others who share our interest. When I look at my actual, real-world friends, most of them are birders. When I look at my Facebook "friends," the same is true.

However, being connected hasn't always been so easy.

As a young birder in the 1970s, I had no clue that there were others my age who shared my interest in birds. It wasn't until I joined a local bird club that I connected with fellow bird watchers, albeit much older than I.

In 1978, my family started Bird Watcher's Digest. We reached out through the mail to bird clubs and newspaper columnists writing about birds and nature in order to find content and subscribers. The ABA was newly formed, too, but not yet a well-known entity.

In the fall of 1979, when I went to band hawks as a volunteer in Cape May, New Jersey, I found out that there were people who did bird stuff for a living! Five or so years later, I discovered the American Birding Association and I attended my first ABA convention in 1990 in Fort Collins, CO.

Today it's far easier to find and connect with others who share our special interest. The ABA, if it is to survive and grow, needs to facilitate these connections. And it needs to make sure that EVERYONE is invited, and that EVERYONE is having fun. Like the host of a really awesome party, where everyone is having such a blast that they never want to leave.

Think this is vacuous? Perhaps it is. But it's worked for me here at Bird Watcher's Digest, in the content we create, and in the events that we coordinate.

Certainly the ABA needs to promote responsible birding. It needs to publish important data. It needs to support the development of the birders of tomorrow. It needs to figure out how to run itself like a business with good financial decisions and an elimination of the conflicts among membership, staff, and board. It needs to figure out how accomplish all these things AND how to be relevant in a world where everyone can be connected all of the time.

Make it fun, and all of these challenges will be easier to overcome. People have so many choices for spending their time, attention, and money. We humans are social creatures. We tend to gravitate to things that make us feel good. As bird watchers we might even need a bit more "feel-good" stuff since we've only recently emerged from the socially stigmatized days of Miss Jane Hathaway. A fun ABA will attract more members, which will help the organization become more relevant, which will attract more members...

Here's hoping that the months and years ahead will see a lot of F-U-N put into everything the ABA does. I, for one, believe that the hobby of birding needs the happy sense of belonging that a healthy and engaged ABA can offer. And so I'm going to do what I can to help things move in that direction.


On August 25, 2010 at 1:31 PM cyberthrush said...

Well-said!! I just hope someone is listening... The ABA is (and will always be) a wide mix of people -- your recipe for success is both simple, but sometimes hard to implement with such a mix. One thing your words are NOT though -- is

On August 25, 2010 at 2:44 PM Jeff Gyr said...

Nice post, amigo!

I've made no secret that I am among those who have applied for the job at ABA, though I've resisted (so far!) the minor temptation to start a "Jeff Gordon for ABA President," fan page on Facebook or anything quite that nakedly self-promotional.

But I'd like to take the opportunity to share with you and your readers a few lines from the cover letter I submitted with my application, since I think they dovetail quite nicely with your thoughts here.

Applicants were asked to write about their view of the ABA and its role in the birding community. I made a number of points about ABA having to do more for birders, be a voice for birders, recruit new birders, and in a focussed, "birderly" way, promote conservation of birds and their habitats. All these things are key, I arugued.

Then I wrote this: But the most fundamental thing ABA needs to do is to once again be a social focus for birders and a crucible for birding culture. As Alvaro Jaramillo said in a recent comment on Kenn and Kim Kaufman's blog: "The organization has to be the party everyone wants to be invited to." It's easy to dismiss a party as something frivolous, but that's not what Alvaro was talking about—he meant something much deeper and more profound.

Human beings are an inherently social species, and much of our greatest, bravest work is done cooperatively. What have people always done before setting out to face ferocious animals many times their size? They have gathered together to dance and to sing—to get in sync for the task ahead. And when they came back from the hunt? In the campfire’s glow, they celebrated their victories and mourned their losses, together, through storytelling and music. It's no accident that Mark Crocker called his book
Birders: Tales of a Tribe.

I think ABA’s highest and best role is to light that fire and beat those drums. It must provide the space where all birders come together before and after our many quests and where we welcome others to join us. It did that not so long ago, and it can again. It must.

Of course, we birders don't go out and try to spear wooly mammoths or saber-toothed cats. But there's still that element of conquering the challenges and mysteries of life and of doing it together. Anyone who's ever faced a mudflat full of shorebirds or a canopy flock of warblers will know what I mean.

To me, the greatest thing about birding is that it is just so darn much fun. But not disposable, junk-food sort of fun. Fun that warms the soul and makes you laugh out loud and love that you're here now on this great green planet with so many other wonderful creatures.

Whoever gets that job, I hope they are able to help ABA recover its sense of fun and in the process, reconnect with what has always been its greatest strength. And I know that he or she will have a great ally in you, Bill.

Good birding!

On August 25, 2010 at 3:08 PM Idaho Birder said...

Amen to that! That it is why I enjoy birding and your magazine...they are fun!

On August 25, 2010 at 3:15 PM Lynn said...

I agree. Birding is fun, and at least something, preferably much, of a birding organization should reflect that fun. How that happens with ABA, of course, is not yet very clear. As the newbie ABA board member, I would welcome specific ideas from anyone on how that might happen. Lynn Barber

On August 25, 2010 at 5:30 PM Patrick B. said...

Well said Bill. Also, I love Jeff's cover letter snippet.

On August 25, 2010 at 5:57 PM Mary said...

Bill, this post reflects who you on a mission, aiming to have fun. There is an enormous crowd of folks behind you chanting, "Go Bill! Let's have FUN".

From someone who still has trouble identifying common sparrows and their songs, and owns a tiny life list, I'm slightly intimidated by the bird-smart, experienced ones in the group who list on site, then smile and nod when they record a lifer. Why not do the "lifer dance"? I avoid those serious types and go on about my simple way - loving my first sight of a Hooded Warbler, Bobolink, and Pileated Woodpecker. Laughing out loud and disturbing the peace when appropriate, of course!

I'm not a member of ABA but I get it. After a rain-soaked day watching the best birds, best photographers, and best guides, I'm eager to raise my glass with new and old friends, and PARTY. That's what it's all about.


On August 25, 2010 at 7:05 PM Kathi said...

Great post, Bill. I am not a member of ABA, and truth be told, have never really considered it. I, too, felt it must be for "serious birders" who were "better" than I, if one defines "better" as "can ID a gull or shorebird without using a book." I do serious work for pay 5 (or more) days a week; when I bird, I want to have fun. I don't want argue about the amount of wear on the tertials or be lam-blasted for enjoying common feeder birds.

If ABA is trending to more fun and less intimidation, I might be interested in a membership.

Kathi, who would be happy to chair the "Jeff Gordon for ABA President" committee

On August 25, 2010 at 9:21 PM Erik said...

I’ve been an ABA member for about 15 years but it’s never been much more than a magazine subscription to me. I’ve never met anyone who works for the organization and have seen practically no local presence in the places I’ve called home. I know a few members but for the most part they are listers, twitchers, and chasers. I wouldn’t necessarily classify them as advanced birders, but they have impressive lists.

One thing I have learned as I have traveled and attended various festivals is just how good we have it here in Ohio. We have the Ohio Ornithological Society, the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, the Toledo Naturalists’ Association, many other organizations, local bird clubs, Audubon societies, and well established and proactive park districts. In April and May there are field trips every weekend in a variety of local sites. It’s less so in other months but there are still numerous activities and lots of chances for birders to get together. The birding community here is just that, a community. That’s part of the fun. It’s not the case everywhere and in some places there is almost a zero chance for birders to get together with other birders.

If they want to be successful, the ABA needs to build a community. They need to be more inclusive and create more opportunities for birders to get together, not just an expensive annual conference. You don’t want to lose the hard core listers but you need to bring in the middle group between the backyard feeder watchers and the uber-enthusiasts. Reach out to under served areas. Make extensive use of social networking. Get the staff out into the birding community. Work with existing organizations to co-sponsor activities. Get visible and use enthusiastic people who make birding seem like a great way to spend your limited free time. That enthusiasm rubs off and if it happens to be associated with the ABA, great. The membership dues will flow from there.

On August 25, 2010 at 11:05 PM scienceguy288 said...

As a newbie to the bird watching world, I often feel overwhelmed and intimidated by these big organizations, and your suggestions hit the nail on the head for me.

On August 26, 2010 at 12:25 PM Alan said...

Well written Bill. Like others who've commented here, I'm not a member either for the very reasons you mentioned. Let’s hope that they are now beginning to listen. Thanks

On August 26, 2010 at 12:53 PM Tamie said...

Thanks, Bill. I could so hear you saying every word, or maybe I HAVE heard you say every word before. And I couldn't agree more.

As the Convention Manager for ABA from 2006-Feb 2010, I tried to interject fun into all our events, and you and Julie were part of that fun. I took some criticism from Board Members for taking a "less scientific" approach to our speakers and workshop topics, but I wanted our sessions to be informative AND fun. The average attendee of our events has a life list of between 300 and 500. Amazed? The events were designed for birders who wanted to be introduced to an area, have excellent guides to help them with identification, and share socially with other birders. People who went to events would plan to meet up with their newly-made friends at future events, or plan visits or birding trips together. It was the birder's network, and fast friendships were sealed. The dinner table was the place to talk about future trips, to see if anyone had been to Ecuador, where was the best birding in Maui, where to stay in Anchorage, or some hot spots near Las Vegas. And always a topic of discussion was where the good local eateries were at birding locales.

ABA used to offer a directory of members so that when you were planning a trip, you could contact a fellow member to ask about the birding spots, maybe some guiding possibilities, and insider tips. The members used this resource for networking and connecting with each other, and it was a fantastic tool between face-to-face encounters.

To address the "expensive" events, hotels with banquet rooms, hotel breakfasts & dinners, catered lunches, nice buses, permits, and support staff expenses are just that: expensive. Not taking meals together, or riding in school buses, or not staying together seems to take the "fun" out of a social event, where birding is the focus.

I thank you and your constituents for joining in on the think tank, and can only hope the powers that be will listen to your 2008 suggestions. ABA has a diverse membership, with different ideas on how, why and when to see birds, common or rare. Birding produces pleasure to us all, regardless of our manner of doing so. That pleasure is our common denominator.

I have been an ABA member for over a dozen years, and have met some wonderful friends from near and far. As an employee, I always appreciated your willingness to participate, your fantastic attitude about our sport/passion, and your desire to make ABA better. Ditto Julie. Let's hope the spirit is contagious with the new management!

On August 26, 2010 at 1:23 PM Bill of the Birds said...

Wow! Thanks to all for the insightful, illuminating, and supportive comments to this post. This great conversation is going on all over the Web and the network of bird-watching connections offline, too.

I hope all that's been said is not dismissed as mere grapevine chatter, because it's like a huge, organic opinion poll/focus group that can be used as a set of guidelines for the new ABA leader.

Thanks again, everyone!

On August 30, 2010 at 4:30 PM Bonnie said...

Well said, indeed. Your post also reminds me of why Birdwatcher's Digest remains my favorite birding magazine.

On September 1, 2010 at 9:24 AM Bonnie said...

Tamie, if you're reading the comments here, I just want to thank you and the other ABA staffers who worked on the conventions. I attended the 2006 and 2009 conventions, and enjoyed both. At both conventions I met friends whom I had made at previous conventions, and had the chance to see great birds at terrific birding spots.
Thanks again!
Bonnie Mulligan

On September 8, 2010 at 3:07 AM green lasers said...

Great post, Bill. Even thoughI am not a member of ABA, but truth be told, i will consider.