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On being the ABA blogger

March 4, 2011

Most of the people that find their way to this blog probably know that, since the beginning of the year, I’ve been taking on a more active role managing the blog of the American Birding Association.  This has been a pretty extraordinary opportunity, and though it’s taken a lot of my time and effort recently, I feel pretty good about taking it on.  Especially now that the site seems to be moving under it’s own steam to some extent.

But as a birding geek, I have to say that the most rewarding part of the position is to be in regular contact with some of the best field birders and most influential minds in our little community, who just happen to be really pleasant people too.  I don’t say that to name drop per se, in a very large sense I still see myself as an amazingly average and very fortunate individual just kind of riding the wave, but to illustrate that when it’s all laid on the table your particular place in the birding community doesn’t really matter, only that we are all birders and we share that passion about being in the field and looking at birds as often as possible.

And yet, the ABA has always seemed to suffer from the perception that it is elitist.  Why does this problem continue to vex an organization that ostensibly seeks represent the interests of birders on the continent?   I suppose you’d first have to have to define what is meant by “elitism”.  Is it an interest in esoteric aspects of bird ID?  Is it a disdainful attitude toward beginners or those with interests other than listing and chasing?

If it’s the first, then many in the ABA may have to plead guilty.  There is a definite subset of birders that find the frontiers, to use the self-ascribed term attached to the listserv discussion group, of bird identification fascinating, who want to work through the difficult stuff and push the boundaries of what we can know with binoculars and scopes.  And it’s the hard work of those birders that make things like subadult gull and non-vocalizing Empid ID attainable for the rest of us.  The ABA fills a crucial niche for that community which is, in many ways, the very root of the organization.  I don’t think anyone would suggest that the ABA shouldn’t continue to be a resource for aspect of the community.

As to the second, I’ve never seen much of the attitude that seems to engender the claims of elitism in so-called “advanced” birders.  There are some jerks in every field, and while birders are friendly and generous with their experience they can’t be expected to beat the general public when it comes to the asshole ratio.  We are only human after all.  But here’s the deal, none of the  people involved in the ABA in are like that.  The ABA, to an individual, consists of people who like to bird and who like to share that interest with anyone who will listen.  I know it sounds sappy, but it’s true.  And in my interactions with ABA staff and other well-known birders in that circle this is the sort of thing that comes through loud and clear.

But ay, there’s the rub.  If I weren’t heavily invested in the organization, I might not see it.  I’m the fortunate one on the inside now, but I know I’m not unlike any other birder anywhere on the continent otherwise.  It’s this disconnect that is the primary reason why I feel so strongly about this blog initiative as a way to not only increase the transparency of ABA goings on, but to introduce the greater birding community to some of the ABA staff such that the charges of elitism will be shown to be groundless. Most expert birders I’ve come across are amazingly forthcoming with their experience and knowledge, and many in the ABA circle, within and without the organization, got to where they are by not only being amazing field birders, but by being exceptionally good birder advocates too.  But too often that second part of their personalities is lost.

Which is where the blog comes in, in that deally, you get the opportunity to see that part of the ABA.   Social media isn’t a catch-all, but for an international organization that clearly struggles to reach everybody, it can be a boon if used correctly.  So maybe this is all a round-about way to say you should all go over and check out Jeff Gordon’s video post asking for suggestions as to what you would want in an organization that represents birders.  I think it succeeds on two levels 1) it’s a fantastic use of the medium and 2) it is a very clear, very honest attempt by the leadership of the ABA to appeal to birders generally.  It’s the opposite of elitism, and I think it suits the ABA really well.

I’m just proud to be a part of it.  I guess that’s all I wanted to say here.

  1. David permalink
    March 4, 2011 10:20 am

    The type of elitism that I see complained about the most or that I see the most is that of serious birders and listers not wanting their listservs and/or conversations `disturbed’ by people reporting red-breasted mergansers or other birds which are not considered rare to them but may be rare to the not so experienced birder reporting them. They believe that they have found a fantastic bird because they see in the messages on the listserv that no one is reporting said birds. They then get jumped on for reporting non-rarities to the listserv by the experienced birder who`s waiting for the report on the Black-billed Magpie and considers the report about Mergansers akin to spam.

    The crappy thing is I see moderators more and more siding with the experienced birders, they themselves usually being experienced birders themselves. The listserv then pushes away the average birder and becomes a circle jerk for the super birders who discuss the tertials on larids and secondary plumages on peeps.

    Not to say anything is wrong with that, but I do not see why listservs and blogs cannot help the average birder improve their skills (very much like Sibley`s does which I still think is one of the best blogs out there). I never understood why the experienced birders just didn`t ignore the posts on Chickadees and White-throated Sparrows, but I can see why organizations like the ABA and OFO from where I come from is increasingly alienating the average birders. I find this odd as birding become more and more popular they wouldn`t be trying to raise the level of the discussion instead of just dismissing it.

  2. Nate permalink*
    March 4, 2011 10:48 am

    @David – That’s a good point that I hadn’t considered. The way that many beginning birders interact with the community is via listservs and it’s sort of the wild west. And add to that the fact that intention is difficult to discern in emails and you have a recipe for disaster. And I’ve often been amazed at the claws that come out on other state listservs in that we in the Carolinas avoid that for the most part. But we also have an excellent moderator.

    I guess I don’t know what to do about that other than encouraging a separate listserv, which sort of goes against the point of building birding communities by segregating experts and beginners, or encouraging a moderator to crack down on perceived slights by so-called “experts”.

    But I can sympathize where you’re coming from, there are annoying posts on Carolinabirds from time to time, but I’m one of those people that deletes lots of stuff, from feeder bird reports to lengthy replies on distribution of so-and so. Like you, I don’t understand why a judicious use of the delete button can’t be applied, but to each their own.

  3. March 4, 2011 1:37 pm

    Amen to the delete button on listserv emails! I love that “experts” post right along with little old grannies looking out their kitchen windows. I peruse all their posts and I choose to read them quickly or in depth as I please. I also choose not to be offended (and it is a choice!). I have seen people be nasty to each other and I have seen the moderation step in and chasten appropriately. It’s all part of the fun of birding to me!

    Utah is having a mini-controversy related to listservs. There is one for rare birds only and one for regular bird discussions, and half a dozen others based on region, all of which don’t allow for outside links that may contain any element of commercialism. So another listserv was created recently where anything goes, except for discourtesy. Some in the “established” birding community were happy to see the “anything-goes” group leave. I still subscribe to all three, but admit that I post the new listserv more. They are much more tolerant and hip to new media, but still have some high powered birders weighing in with pleasant expert opinion and sometimes controversial politics.

    I’ve only been in the birding world for about six years and I’ve never sensed elitism on the part of the ABA. I guess I missed it. I assume that those hurt feelings related to elitist birders are hold-overs from days of yore.

  4. March 5, 2011 10:25 am

    Great post Nate, though I’m not sure how much can be done about the “perceived” elitism of ABA — by its nature, the better, more experienced, even ‘elite’ birders, will be the most active members of the group, and just their presence may be inherently intimidating to a lot of average or novice birders. It’s a problem most specialized groups probably suffer from. Putting out a welcoming call for inclusiveness, as you and Jeff G. are doing, though is certainly a wonderful effort, to be commended.

  5. Nate permalink*
    March 7, 2011 9:21 am

    @Robert (BiF) – I’m with you. The “elitism” of the ABA was definitely from an older era, but the organization has always struggled to shake it. I think in the years that the organization has grown, however, the people that have been put in influential positions have been the sort of birders you want there. People that can switch from genial accommodation of beginners one minute to deep discussion of tertials and feather tracts the next. Jeff Gordon and Ted Floyd fill that role obviously, but everyone who picks up binoculars in that organization is the same way. I think personal interaction with the wide range of birders, to the extent that the organization can do that, is the key to finally destroying that unfortunate stereotype.

    @Cyberthrush- Thanks for the kind words! You’ve hit on it, I think. I’ve been an advocate for an ABA blog for sometime because I really think the best way to kill this elitism rap is to make people available. This does it pretty well, I think.

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