Friday, 30 June 2023
When it comes to the Australian bird nerd, there’s a certain stereotype we can’t seem to shake.
Whether they’re a birdwatcher or a birder, a twitcher or an ornithologist, the profile that comes to mind is usually some version of the same:
…that of an older man, sometimes clad in khaki, but usually white, straight and cisgender (in which their assigned sex at birth matches their gender identity).
Historically, it’s easy to see why – the study of birds in Australia was founded and popularised by men who fit this same profile. And while they still make up a significant part of our birding demographic and community today, in honour of Pride Month, I wanted to platform some of the many birders who don’t fit this mould.
I knew I loved birds before I knew I was queer. But as a nature-obsessed girl growing up in regional Victoria, I found myself surrounded by this same crowd on every bird and nature walk and talk. While they were usually kind and encouraging of my interest, I was lonely and longing to meet people more like me. It was only when I moved to Melbourne as a young adult that I realised other queer birders even existed at all.
It’s time that we challenge the perception of what makes a birder, and representation is an important first step in doing so.
Through diverse representation of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age and more, we can help more people feel seen and welcomed. We can reassure them that they’re not alone – that there’s a community of other people out there who are just like them.
This year, Pride Month falls at a time in which anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination, vitriol and violence is only gaining in traction and volume around the world. But those who call queerness ‘un-natural’ don’t realise that nature doesn’t abide by the same rigid social structures or expectations as humans do. And that if we were to apply these same standards, the natural world is very queer.
Globally, over 1,500 animal species have been observed engaging in same-sex behaviour, from courtship to co-parenting. It’s been documented in over 130 bird species, too – and that’s just the ones we know about.
We see this same behaviour in dozens of species in Australia, too – from grebes to Galahs and even lyrebirds. Some, like the Black Swan, even form lifelong pairs with the same sex and successfully raise chicks together – in fact, an estimated one-quarter of all Black Swan pairings are homosexual. The more we know about nature, the more we can challenge the very idea of what normal or – or indeed ‘natural’ – is.
And while it might ruffle some feathers, our message is simple: that everyone should be able to find joy, comfort and community in nature and in birds – because birding can and should be for everyone.
Happy Pride Month from all of us at BirdLife Australia!
Jason “the Birdnerd” St. Sauver is the Senior Education Manager at Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center for the National Audubon Society. He’s also the founder of Let’s Go Birding Together (LGBT) – a series of inclusive bird walks that deliberately welcome people who identify as LGBTQ+ and the allies who support them. 12 birders joined the first walk back in 2016, but it’s since grown to a national movement in America – welcoming thousands of participants at dozens of events held across the country every year.
Jason is a lifelong birder and proud gay man. Through birds, he’s found a deep connection with nature and people – but also the freedom to express his true self.
“Birds aren’t judgemental,” he says. “I can be as gay as I like and the birds still sing and fly, and that freedom is infectious. I also think the metaphor of being able to fly freely is not lost on queer folks – especially those still struggling to come out or find their authentic selves.”
But he also recognises that birding hasn’t always been a welcoming or accessible space for LGBTQ+ people – and he started Let’s Go Birding Together to help change that.
“I started Let’s Go Birding Together to create community, and what better way to do that than to start something on my own,” Jason says.
“Biodiversity makes our ecosystem stronger, and our diversity makes our community stronger.”
Jason’s queer bird icon is the Painted Bunting, because “It’s a little bird of all the colours of the rainbow, and it sings its heart out.”
Find out more about Let’s Go Birding Together.
Guille grew up in a Mediterranean coastal town in Spain. It was here that he became fascinated in birds as a child – an interest fostered and encouraged by his grandad. He soon joined the local birding and banding group of mostly older straight men – who didn’t shy away from casual homophobia or sharing what was expected from him as a straight young man.
Only he wasn’t straight.
“I nearly dropped out of birding when I was 15 because I was coming to terms with my sexuality, and that atmosphere was not helping much,” Guille says.
“But thankfully, when I turned 16 I met a bunch of queer people around my age through volunteering in Storm Petrel banding – and it was like an epiphany,” he says.
“With that confidence boost and knowing I had a safety net, I came out shortly after, and we became long-lasting friends. Frankly, we felt unstoppable.”
For a teenage Guille who was struggling to fit in with his other peers, birding was a safe space and the “ultimate escape”. Today, he works as an ecologist – and after seven years in Australia, he’s already noticed a seismic shift in the birding landscape.
“Birdwatching has changed, and it’s changing for better inclusivity very fast,” Guille says.
“Because, at the end of the day, whether we’re queer or not, most of us are a bunch of nerds who have probably been bullied, ostracised or laughed at in one way or another for being different and staying true to ourselves.”
Guille’s queer birding icon is the White-winged Chough. “While they might look like your everyday raven, if you look closer they’re sure to surprise you with their amazing social displays and dramatic eye game!”
Choughs also know the value of community. “They also raise their chicks communally, and offspring from older generations will stay and help raise their young siblings, even adopting chicks from other flocks to become part of the family.”
Lastly, I spoke with queer couple Stephanie and Amy, both keen birders and creatives. Together, they run Outer Island – celebrating Australian birds, plants and animals through sustainable, Australian-made souvenirs. But it’s the inclusive birdwatching group they founded together that they call their passion project.
Soon after they met, Stephanie, a New Yorker, inspired a love of birds in their partner Amy. When the couple moved to Sydney together, they wanted to make other birding friends – and so, in 2016, Sydney Bird Club was born.
“I was very intimidated by birding when I first started, because I was such a novice and didn’t know where to start,” Stephanie says, “So we founded Sydney Bird Club to create a space for everyone and to meet people who are just as excited about birdwatching as we are.”
Like Let’s Go Birding Together, Sydney Bird Club is an inclusive space for everyone to get involved in birding, both in-person and online.
“And inclusivity means everyone, from all walks of life,” says Stephanie. “We get a huge range of ages on our walks, a huge range of skill levels – with many joining us for their first ever time birding – and a huge range of gender expressions and backgrounds.”
“We do feel that being queer shapes our approach to birding,” Stephanie says. “When you come out, finding community is a huge part of figuring out your own identity and being celebrated for who you are. We bring our experiences of community to Sydney Bird Club, creating a safe space and accessibility to whoever wants to join.”
“When you know what it’s like to feel excluded, you know the power in including others.”
Sydney Bird Club is a success story – but it’s not without its own challenges.
“As a queer couple, I imagine we’re an easier target for people to vent their anger,” says Stephanie. “We do get hate email, but when this happens, I remind myself that our bird club is not for these people, and they’re the very reason why we started it in the first place.”
“Thankfully, we’ve never encountered anything like that in person and the birding community in Australia is so lovely. I will add one caveat, though, which is that we bird in safe countries. As a queer person, some of the world’s most beautiful birding spots are off-limit to us, with 64 countries currently criminalizing being gay.”
“We ourselves are extremely privileged, both being white and from western countries, but when you’re gay, even in New York or Australia, you learn to become aware of your surroundings and people in ways that I imagine others don’t… is it safe to hold hands? What if something happens and we need help – will who we are influence someone’s decision to help us?”
With that in mind, if you want to make birdwatching more inclusive and welcoming in your community, their advice is simple.
“Extending an invitation or making effort to include others, especially new or younger birders helps so much – especially if you fit into the more common demographic of a birder.”
“With the extinction crisis, we need as many people birding as possible, connecting with nature and contributing to citizen science and becoming advocates for birds and all creatures. For organisations, it’s important to showcase different stories, folks and bird photographers so people can see themselves reflected. If you can see yourself reflected in something, you can imagine a path to join in and be accepted.”
Find out more about Sydney Bird Club and their upcoming events.
Stephanie and Amy’s queer bird icons are Galahs and Black Swans – which both mate for life and form successful same-sex partnerships.
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