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The future of bird clubs

November 2, 2009
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As bird bloggers and readers of bird blogs we’re all pretty well-versed on several aspects of social media, right?  I mean, you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t.  And you’re probably pretty aware of the rest of the world of bird and nature blogs, too.  You probably even write one yourself, and therefore consider your web-based colleagues as much apart of your birding group as birders in the real world.  I certainly do, and I think it’s a testimony to nature bloggers as a whole that so many of us feel a legitimate sense of community from our regular interactions here.  As Mike Bergin of 10,000 Birds like to say, our blogs are the bird club of the 21st Century.

But what about actual bird clubs? You know, the ones that require crowding into a church rec room and watching a slide show about someone’s recent trip to Arizona.  Those obviously still have a purpose, as that’s still how the majority of birders enjoy their birder fellowship and likely will be for the foreseeable future.  For all the great work that’s put into online bird community, there’s something to be said for the simple camaraderie of the monthly meeting and the importance of involvement in local organizations for building social ties between people with a common interest.  After all, there’s scarcely a better way to encourage participation for local conservation issues than a face to face appeal.  In any case, neither appears to be going anywhere soon, nor should they.

A problem arises, however, in the rather significant dichotomy between the primary users of the two media.  It’s no shock to anyone who has been involved in bird clubs for any period of time that the membership tends to skew older.  Birding certainly appeals to folks with a bit of discretionary income and free time for obvious reasons, it’s from whence come the well-worn generalizations about birders.  But generalizations often exist because they’re generally true.  Birders are older and trying to deny that simple facts like trying to deny that your new squirrel-proof feeder will eventually succumb to the nefarious rodents.

You’d never know that looking at the birding blogosphere though.  The purveyors of bird blogs trend significantly younger than the birding public on the whole.  This, too, is hardly a surprise.  Young people tend to flock to new technology disproportionately.  In fact, one of the most exciting things about being involved in the birding, and by extension nature, blogosphere has been the realization that there are lots of like-minded younger people out there.  And yes, I still consider myself, at nearly 30, to be on the younger end of birder demographics.  That probably says something about what we’re dealing with here.

I wonder, however, how many bird bloggers, and young people in general, are involved in their local bird clubs.  When I was a mad-keen teen birder back in the mid 90s I was pretty heavily involved in the local greater Ozarks Audubon Society, but I was surely in the minority.  Since then, and especially since I moved to North Carolina, I’ve been pretty negligent about going to meetings and talking face to face with local birders beyond those I’d come across on local bird walks, but it was something I was interested in fixing. Until my friend Becky, who just so happens to be the president of the Wake County Audubon Society, asked me to become a member of the board of that organization.  So I took it.

Organizations like Wake Audubon are always looking for new members, not only to leverage our voice as a local authority on conservation issues, but to have the money through dues to actually make an impact on projects that fulfill our mission, things like the Young Naturalist’s Club for instance. As older membership stagnates or even decreases, it’s important to look for like-minded people wherever you can find them.  Ideally, people between 20 to 40 years are a group that organizations like Audubon have sometimes struggled to attract, but Wake Audubon has been doing some really useful things to get the word out to that group of people who, it should be noted, are no less enthusiastic about doing things for the local environment and in many cases are specifically seeking out organizations that will help them do it.

Wake has already done some interesting things to that end.  There’s a page on Meet-up.com, a site that seeks to get people pointed to organizations that they’d like, than has already seen some dividends, and a move to update members on late notice field trips via RSS feeder or e-mail subscription to the site seems to be an appealing way to keep people up to date on the very latest with a minimum of tech savvy required.  All in all, the boards seems receptive to incorporating these web 2.0 ideas into their regular rotation as long as someone is willing to take the reigns, as is the case with so many volunteer organizations.

In any case, I’m interested to see how these ideas and attempts to bring the old and the new together are received by all involved.  I think it could pay off in a positive way. For my money, what we do here on the blogosphere ultimately means little unless we can find a way for it to benefit birds and bird appreciation in the greater world

Have any of you out there done anything like this with your local bird clubs?  Does it work?  Any other ideas?

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13 Comments
  1. November 2, 2009 8:20 am

    I’m a member of the Queens County Bird Club, which is shrinking and graying and literally dieing out. There are efforts underway to get it growing again, but considering that Queens is the most diverse place in the world and almost everyone in the club is white (me included) we have an uphill effort.

    The club has just started a blog though, so we are doing some online outreach, and it looks like I’ll be trying to do a Big Sit recruitment event next year in a public park.

    I think that most people are going to stumble across such clubs through old media, though, like community newspapers. It seems like things that are done in meatspace are still best advertised in meatspace, rather than online, with some exceptions.

    • November 25, 2009 4:35 pm

      To Corey, Nate, et al.

      Bird clubs, like other clubs, wax and wane in membership numbers. I have been working hard to build the QCBC back up, with better field trips, better organization, and better speakers.

      Good clubs provide something for different desires. Some like presentations, some the group trips, others the publication.

      Birders in large part are loners, so not every birder wants or needs to be part of a club. Blogs fill a need, as do forums and list-serves, but they are no replacement for personal interaction: reading about something is nice, but it doesn’t compare to a shared experience.

      OTOH, Blogs are club newsletters re-invented and brought into the 21st century. More immediate for sure, and decentralized editorially. Again, no replacement for shared experience – yet some folks have been members of QCBC just to get out newsletter.

      …The only thing constant is change…

      ps. with a youngon’, Corey will be sprouting those gray hairs really soon!

      • Nate permalink*
        November 25, 2009 4:44 pm

        @Arie- Great comments, and I really couldn’t agree more. With the proliferation of the internet, I think blogs and sites like Meetup and others can serve as an accessible way for people to get involved in the birding community, but ultimately you want people to get people face to face. Not only for the great fun that can be had in groups of passionate people involved in a shared pursuit, but in light of making a difference from a conservation perspective as well. For that, more is always better.

        I hope online interaction will never completely take the place of conventional bird clubs, but I can definitely see how one can support and enrich the other, and I hope bird clubs take advantage of those opportunities as they come up.

  2. Nate permalink*
    November 2, 2009 10:13 am

    @Corey- I definitely felt both some excitement at the possibilities of incorporating social networking technologies and some hesitation. I think the place to start is where everyone is comfortable, with e-mail, as just about everyone has an e-mail address anymore and most birding communities are comfortable with birding listserves and such. It’s not too much more to subscribe to an RSS feed for updates about field trips and service projects. I think most people would appreciate that.

    The meet-up thing was surprising. I think most bird clubs would be surprised at the number of people, even younger people, looking to make a difference in their community through an organization like Audubon. It’s just a matter of meeting them where they are and most importantly, incorporating them into the regular group.

    I’m kind of excited to see where this stuff goes. I think it can be a successful model for any bird club or Audubon chapter to use.

  3. November 2, 2009 11:43 am

    I’m not currently involved in any bird clubs because there isn’t a good fit in New Jersey. (NJ Audubon is organized around centers rather than chapters, and there aren’t any local ones anyway.) When I lived in DC, I was a member and eventually board member of DC Audubon. At least half of the board was younger than 40, and field trips had a substantial component of young adult birders in addition to the graying ones. There was a willingness to engage the internet to some extent (the organization has a website and blog, plus sends all correspondence to members by email). There is not much engagement with other forms of social media.

  4. November 2, 2009 8:49 pm

    The two clubs I’m most involved with are both online to some degree. One (the Menotomy bird club) actually grew out of a local listserv and may be the first online only club in the country. All announcements for trips and meetings are via email and the club’s website. Since the club’s pretty casual (I don’t think we even have a clue about membership), that’s about the extent of what’s done. It’s pretty mixed age-wise, although the younger members seem to have moved on recently.

    I’m also webmaster for the Brookline Bird Club which is much bigger and more established. We’ve been moving more online and have started to establish a presence with several social media sites. I’ve been twittering weekly trip updates, meeting updates, and rare bird updates (even managed to break one or two ahead of the emails going out). A little over 100 followers (depending on how many spammers I haven’t blocked) and maybe 20% are actually members, so there seems to be some potential for outreach there. Someone else set up a facebook page and I’ve been trying to get a trip report blog going, although neither one’s taken off just yet. We’re working on getting younger and expanding our online presence (not without resistance I won’t go into here, send an email if you want to discuss further).

  5. Nate permalink*
    November 3, 2009 11:37 am

    @John- Your experience is similar to my past experiences with bird clubs. There are definitely those who think that social media is frivolous or silly, and they’re not entirely wrong, but there’s an entire generation of people who use on social networking to not only find out about new opportunities but interact with like minded people. I think bird clubs ignore them at their peril. The end result is to get people involved in a real physical way, but a networking presence can be a useful tool to that end for people of a certain age.

  6. Nate permalink*
    November 3, 2009 2:02 pm

    @Jason- I’m lucky as there doesn’t seem to be much resistance to expanding the online presence among the board of Wake Audubon. It remains to be seen how it plays out among the general membership.

  7. November 4, 2009 12:09 am

    Should clarify that the opposition is more in that people think the old way (the member bulletin and stuff) defines the club and isn’t actually resisting the new. We are struggling a bit deciding where to add value to keep people renewing their membership when everything’s available online.

  8. Nate permalink*
    November 4, 2009 10:33 am

    @Jason- Yeah, I can see that. We’re going to an entirely online newsletter nest year as well. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.

    I would hope that people see the value of using dues to support things like the Young Naturalist’s Club and an honorarium for interesting speakers who come in from out of town. Granted, the meetings are free, but as long as Wake Audubon is seen as doing good for the community as a premier organization for environmental issues, people may be willing to pay to continue to be a part of that. But I’ve only been involved for a relatively short time, so my perspective is relatively shallow.

    There’s also the added advantage that comes with being a member of a parent organization like National Audubon. A membership to the local comes part and parcel with one to national, which includes a glossy print magazine and flashy things like that.

  9. November 12, 2009 9:44 pm

    @John: We’d love to have you at Monmouth County Audubon! We’re currently meeting in Red Bank…

    What I notice is that the “regulars” that come to every meeting and program are people I never see out in the field doing actual birding. They seem to come just for the slideshow and free snacks. Trying to get them more involved, to volunteer some time or contribute in some way to the organization is impossible.

    Thanks for an interesting article and some ideas about how we might draw new members!

  10. Nate permalink*
    November 12, 2009 9:51 pm

    @Laura- That’s a great point! It’s something that sort of turned me off of the Chapel Hill Bird Club, a local bird-specific group, when I started going. I’d go on the field trips and it would be a completely different group of people than who I’d see at the meetings, and the two groups seemed to never interact!

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