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ABA Shake-up

June 25, 2010

New I and the Birds #128 at Bird Ecology Study Group


I was sort of surprised, as I assume were many other ABA members, to receive an email blast from the ABA the other day announcing the departure of Rob Robinson as ABA President and CEO.  The reasons for Robinson’s departure were not stated, but it was clearly unplanned given Robinson’s brief tenure and the salacious details only hinted at (the rumor mill is apparently grinding, unbeknownst to me).  It’s too bad, the ABA has seemed to be undergoing an existential crisis of sorts in response to the national economic collapse and the stagnation of its membership rolls.  Robinson was sort of a response to all that in that he was not a birder (a distinction made all the more ironic when Audubon tapped their first birder in years to be president) but I thought his attitude towards the organization was positive and interesting.  Maybe what we needed was a non-birder to look  past our quirks as a group, focus on areas where we can improve in communicating our mission, and work towards the goal of promoting birding and, as an extension, conservation.

The ABA, for all of the issues I’ve had with it, remains a player in the birding community.  The ideals on which it was founded, as a response to the wider environmental missions of our traditional bird clubs like Audubon and as a place where birders more serious about the science and competition of birding could congregate, resonate to this day and the publications have managed to stay at a high level through any and all leadership changes.  In fact, I’d say that under Ted Floyd, Birding is as good and as interesting as it’s been in years.  Robinson didn’t have a whole lot to do with that, of course, but it’s indicative of the kind of positive product he had at his disposal.  ABA has it’s problems, namely that they were a little late to embrace the rise of birding festivals as opposed to the expensive and somewhat exclusive ABA conferences, and I still think they have a long way to go to fully adopt social networking which a must for any non-profit in this day and age, but they were heading in the right direction.

Both are easily remedied of course, and ABA has clearly made inroads in the former by sponsoring some of the finest festivals in the country.  I’ve advocated in the past the ABA should dump the old model of the ABA conference in lieu of local mini-conferences, but even that would require more money and logistical power than the ABA can currently provide.  Festivals are on the rise, provide an annual event that functions essentially as conferences for local birders anyway.  By having a presence ABA is reaching out to non-member birders in a way they simply werent before.  Seems like a win-win.

Their internet presence has increased with a couple of blogs, including one high-profile Gulf oil spill blog manned by Drew Wheelan that has gotten some positive attention for the ABA and bird conservation in general.  The others include the often entertaining PEEPs blog reporting on rare birds from around the continent and a young birder blog called The Eyrie that probably deserves more attention than it gets.  Still though, these are niche blogs at best.  The ABA deserves a real online presence, a full-time blogger than can provide a place where birders can get information and communicate.  The bird blogosphere is no doubt saturated, but the ABA could carve out a niche by providing the kind of insider information for which they’re still well-known.  Certainly with the talent they have at their disposal it would be a fantastic addition to the online bird community.

Much has been made of the ABA’s tack towards conservation at the lieu of birding and birding alone.  I certainly sympathized at one point with those who were dismayed at the ABA’s seeming morph into the Audubon Society, an organization that seems obsessed with Washington politics as opposed to bird-watching anymore.  In the past, we could sort of keep the sport of birding removed from science and conservation issues.  But if recent events have taught us one thing, its that it’s truly impossible to make that distinction anymore.  To love birds and birding is to be intimately involved in their welfare, there is no longer any place to hide.  In some ways this is sad, the frivolous pursuit of birds was a way to escape the cruel realities of life, but in a more important way it’s the essential move of a group of people whose hobby is on the front lines of any number of environmental catastrophes.  We are all witnesses.

Was Rob Robinson the person to take us in this new direction while keeping the fun and the community of birding on the forefront?  It’s all academic now, but the new leader is going to have a fine line to walk.  I hope they can handle it.

  1. June 25, 2010 10:14 am

    I’m not that familiar with the innards of the ABA, but this seems well-put to me, especially this:

    “To love birds and birding is to be intimately involved in their welfare, there is no longer any place to hide. In some ways this is sad, the frivolous pursuit of birds was a way to escape the cruel realities of life, but in a more important way it’s the essential move of a group of people whose hobby is on the front lines of any number of environmental catastrophes. We are all witnesses.”

  2. June 25, 2010 1:05 pm

    The gulf oil spill blog is the best thing I’ve seen from the ABA in a while. I think it’s great to have a birding organization doing first hand reporting at the scene of a major environmental disaster. I’d like to see more like that, from the ABA and other environmental organizations.

    I’d also like to see the ABA get a little more politically involved. Between NWF, Audubon, and a few other groups, I think that conservation issues are already about as well covered as they can be, but some additional voices would be helpful. Where the ABA could really make a difference is with regulations governing who gets to use public lands. Birders and other recreational visitors routinely get out-lobbied by hunters, anglers, and ORV users because those users have effective organizations lobbying on their behalf. This is an issue where the ABA would be well-placed to improve the situation if it wanted to take on that role.

    Also, I agree with Carrie. That passage is well written.

  3. June 25, 2010 8:38 pm

    As a relative outsider to the inner workings of the ABA, hotshot birding, and many of the issues that are contained within our relatively small and often cliquey group it has been hard for me to gauge the correct voice with which to engage our birding community. The opportunity to report on this tragedy here in the gulf was a very serendipitous occurrence, and from the beginning, I’ve been worried about alienating either one side of the “conservation in the ABA” debate, or the other. What I have tried to do, for the most part, is adhere to my somewhat narrow mission here in the gulf which is to report on the spill’s affects on birds and bird habitat. More and more each day, as Nate has stated above, our hobby, our passion of birdwatching is inextricably linked with the necessity of furthering conservation. In my view the ABA must remain true to its roots as the forum for the professional and serious birder to discuss the nuances and developments in our beloved activity of birding, but the overwhelmingly positive response to the ABA’s coverage of the disaster here in the gulf seems to speak to an available niche in our ecosystem that might be filled by us as a group. As we’ve seen within the creatures that we watch and study so attentively, sometimes evolution happens right before our eyes.

  4. Nate permalink*
    June 28, 2010 3:01 pm

    @Carrie- Thanks!

    @John- I couldn’t agree more about the ABA blog. That’s an excellent point about what the ABA should be lobbying for. The big environmental NGOs seem to have the big picture issues like global warming covered, but they’ve been negligent on land use issues and arguing for a greater wildlife watching voice in policy decisions. The ABA could absolutely fill that gap. I would love to see them take your advise.

    @Drew- I think you’ve done a phenomenal job with what you’ve been given. I think this awful incident has bridged the gap between birding and conservation work in a way that no other event ever has. Your work has gone a long way towards informing that sea change in the way people think about their birding. It’s great stuff. I hope you can keep it up as long as you can.

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