Back on March 2nd, our intrepid ABA president, Jeff Gordon, posted a video blog in which he asked us, the members, what we wanted to talk about. There have been some amazing comments, issues brought up, questions, and suggestions. You can read all 60 or 70 some here.
I thought long and hard about what I wanted to lay on the table. I have always been a big promoter and devout supporter of young birders and getting kids involved in birding. I decided that I would lay on the table my issues and suggestions for the ABA's Young Birder programs. There have been hitches, glitches and drawbacks in the past, as well as some amazing events and programs. Over the past couple years, they've really started to go downhill. With the new leadership, they are finally starting to go in the right direction. I decided to lay out my suggestions as to what the ABA could do to promote YBs and get more kids interested in birding. Below is my "blog-post-length" comment:
I've been a member of the ABA for as long as I've known about the organization. I've been a firm supporter of the ABA and a devout promoter of young birders.
Several people have mentioned doing more to get young people involved in birding and promote more interest in birding, particularly the youngest kids. Few have mentioned ways to do this. I like the suggestion of a nation-wide Speakers Bureau, to have people representing the ABA doing presentations and workshops.
Getting kids out looking at birds is always a challenge. There's simply too many things tugging at their attention. What the ABA needs to do is use some of these things (particularly social media) to direct and engage youth. Not just at the national level, but at the local levels as well. I know a few kids who regularly attend local Audubon walks who might just join the ABA if it could offer them something. Yes, the ABA offers summer camps, but too often these are too expensive and too far from home for the less hardcore birders to attend. However, many times, these YBs don't even know that the ABA offers things like summer camps or the Tropicbirds Teams. I never would have been a member of the Tropicbirds Team if I hadn't already been an ABA member and seen the ad in Birding Magazine.
I'd like to see more advertising on this front, more subsidizing of attendance fees and lower attendance fees if possible.
With a speakers bureau, the ABA could have someone do a young birder workshop at local audubon and other nature events that would be designed not just to get kids interested in birding, but also provide some knowledge and opportunity for more serious YBs to find out what the ABA has to offer and take advantage of it.
I mentioned using social media too. I think the ABA is recognizing that Facebook and blogging are excellent ways to reach people. This new multi-author blog is great. The ABA's official page is good too. However, frankly, I have been disappointed with the ABA's Young Birder page. I feel that there has not been enough time devoted to it except for the occasional update about the Tropicbirds or the summer camps. In order to create more of a YB following, I think the postings on the page should be more regular and more engaging. Post things like photo quizzes, trivia quizzes, facts about birds, links to blog posts or helpful websites, ID tips, the kind of things that would get people thinking and get them interacting more. Not just with the FB pagemaster, but with each other.
I don't know if you know this or not, but my friend Jacob Cooper and I, a couple years ago, noticed that the Peeps listserve for Young Birders had died and nobody was posting on it. Using the database of YBs subscribed to Peeps and our own YB Facebook friends, we put together a more interactive chat group via the website Meebo.com. We called the group Jocotoco Wanderings. Unfortunately, there were glitches with Meebo and content couldn't be shared as much as we liked and it slowly died. Then, Facebook revamped their group pages and offered us a new venue. We moved the group to Facebook. The opportunity to share photos, links, thoughts, ID tips, etc via the Facebook group is enormous and it quickly took off. We now have 70 YBs as members of the group and many of them regularly contribute to the group. I have kept it a closed group however (invitation only) because I feel that all too often too many adults join groups like that and the YBs tend to get pushed aside by the (sometimes) superior knowledge and experience of the adults and end up simply listening and not actively joining in the discussions.
I have been thinking of adding a few select "Celebrity" Birders to the group. In the old Meebo chatroom, we had Kenn Kaufman join our discussions from time to time to great success. It allowed those who look up to the "celebrity" birders to actually talk to them and ask them questions. If the ABA could have select knowledgeable "celebrity" birders like this work to try to engage YBs more, the effect would be to get the kids thinking and maybe give them some spark to work harder to become better birders.
I attended a presentation the other night by Richard Crossley. He made one point that really hit home. In his home country of Britain, there is a birder by the name of Bill Audi. He's a TV star in a show called The Apprentice. People will follow what their Celebrities do. If their celebrity is a birder, then there's a greater chance that they too may take up the sport. This new movie coming out with Steve Martin and Jack Black I think is going to make an impression among the American public; two mainstream actors who are promoting the sport of birding. Crossley also mentioned that the US needs celebrity people like this. He held up James Currie, host of Nikon Birding Adventures TV as our current and future "TV celebrity birder" His point being that people who are well known draw attention. If they can draw this attention to birding, more people will become involved in it.
But, getting back to what I was saying earlier, If the ABA is able to do this and offer something worth joining in, the YBs will come. Friends will tell friends who tell friends and the network reaches YBs around the country.
But how does the ABA engage new, potential YBs? That has more to do with groundwork. Being there on the local level.
Birding is beginning to go mainstream. Even with youth. I'm seeing Young Birders clubs springing up around the country. These clubs and the Audubon societies will find the youth interested in the outdoors and birding. It's up to the ABA to engage them and take them to the next level, to promote birding with them and do what it can to help them become better birders. Offer them ways to connect with other YBs, offer them camps, workshops and field seminars to attend, do everything possible to keep prices for these events to a minimum. Try to make workshops that are free to attend.
How do you find the best places to go to do workshops? Again, the local level. Talk to local Audubon societies, YB clubs, even local birders who know a few kids who would be interested. Every little bit counts.
I owe the ABA a lot in my training as a birder. I used to (and still do) attend Audubon field trips, various local birding field trips, but it wasn't until I applied to (and was accepted onto) the ABA/Leica Tropicbirds Team that I really took off. Here was birding on a completely different level than what I was used to, with birders who were skilled far beyond anyone I had previously known. I took in everything as fast as I could, learning everything I could during the few days I spent in Cape May. The next year, I was eager to try again. This time, was with you and Liz. This time, I was older, a little more experienced, but again, birding on a level I wasn't used to, my skills jumped again.
Then came the camps that I found out about. The High Island Camp that didn't have enough people sign up to officially go, but thanks to some quick thinking and background work by the then Youth Education coordinator, Lori Fujimoto, I and another YB were able to spend a week at High Island living at the Tropical Birding house and birding alongside the TB guides. Again, it was a huge jump in my skills and knowledge as a birder.
In '08, I attended the YBC in Minot, North Dakota. This was one of the best events I've ever attended. An entire week spent birding not only with people my own age (which is a rare occurrence where I live) but also having mentoring by world-class birders (Michael O'Brien and Louise Zemaitis, Steve Howell and Ron Martin along with Jane Kostenko and Tyler Bell). The daytime field trips were awesome and the evening presentations and the photo quiz were superb. Again, it made a huge difference in my skills and knowledge as a birder.
I would really love to see something like this back on the ABA's agenda. From what I heard about the camp in California and Camp Colorado, they weren't even on the same level. I sincerely hope that the upcoming Camp Rio Grande will be about more than just birding the Rio Grande valley but really go into depth about the natural history of the birds and wildife present and the actual history of the area, how it came about as a birding mecca and where it's going. Past, present and future are always important to know. Presentations and workshops at the camp about ID, molt and other things is always engaging as well. I have a whole list of things I'd like to see at ABA camps, but I won't go into that here just yet.
Speaking of camps, I would also really love to see a Young Adult Birders Conference. An event designed for birders who are between 19 and 25. Design it so that it caters to all levels. Help out the beginners who want to come, but also offer the more technical, in depth things that the more hardcore birders will enjoy (I particularly liked Steve Howell's presentation about Molt at the YBC '08 in Minot).
I think the most important thing with any camp is that the camp leaders need to be more skilled and knowledgeable than any of the attendees. I would also suggest having one or two "Camp counselor" type positions (which I know the ABA has something along these lines already) at their camps for older (over 18) YBs who want to help out and give back to what the ABA has given them. I hold this in substantial importance because these are the people who will (hopefully) be the biggest promoters of YBs and the future camp leaders, the future teachers of the next generation of YBs to come through the ABA camps.
I guess in all of this, the best thing the ABA can do is to be able to offer something to YBs that is worth their time to check out and get involved in. Work on engaging YBs via social media like Facebook and offer things to get them out in the field and teach them about birds and birding. Whether that be sponsoring workshops, or YB clubs or whatever else or simply just being a presence that can help mentor YBs who want to become better at what they're doing and give them opportunities to advance their skills and knowledge through camps, workshops, birding with other their own age and birding with the best birders the ABA can offer them.
The value comes in knowing that there are other kids about your age who love to do what you do. Nobody likes to do something alone. Birding with others your own age is really the most fun thing I can think of doing. Seeing old friends and making new friends, working a network of people your own age. It's a really comforting thought that you're not the "only one" so to speak who is the "nerd" in your school.
Something else too, is not just to promote birding with youth, but to promote the older YBs and encourage them to help out the younger generations. Kids will look up to a celebrity birder who is older, but the real value comes in someone closer to their age who is willing to help them out. That is the person who they will look up to and follow.
Having gone through all the steps to get to where I am now and having been through the ABA's programs and knowing how to do things, I have tried to be that someone to the YBs I know;
the leader of the group and the one who encourages, engages and promotes. I have done it with moderate success. Especially in the Jocotoco Wanderings FB group. It really makes a difference when kids know that there's someone they can go to and ask a question, any question, and get a good answer. Even if I can't answer the question myself, I'll find someone who can. Whether or not my method is the best one or not, it works for me and I do whatever I can to promote youth in birding. The more YBs we have, the better. They are the Sibleys, Kaufmans, O'Briens, Crossleys and Jeff Gordons of the future. That's why we need them and why they need someone to look to for guidance and support.
When someone you really look up to takes the time to help you do what you want to do, that is the best thing that could happen to anyone. I'd like to see the ABA be that someone who gives kids a little nudge out the door so to speak.
At any rate, that's my 5 cents worth.
One thing I neglected to mention here is probably the most important. Schools. Go to the schools. This is an environment where you have the kids full attention without other distractions and you can tell them about all the awesome and amazing things there are to see in the natural world.
I spent a week last fall working for the Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, WI.
My job was to go around to area schools and talk to them about birds. These weren't high school kids, these weren't college kids. Many of them weren't even Middle school kids. The targeted age group was Elementary school. 1st-4th grade. Why? because that is the age at which kids are developing their interests and when they are interested in everything. That is the age at which their interests can be directed to things like birding. I tried to keep my presentations friendly, interesting, engaging and most important of all, I tried to show birds that the kids would like. Owls, Tanagers, Buntings, etc. The really colorful birds are the ones everyone loves to see. It was my hope that I would spark some interest in birding in at least a small percentage of them. Did I? I certainly hope so. As I stated above, kids are really the Sibleys, Crossleys, Jeff Gordons and Petersons of the future. All our hopes and dreams lie with them. The more kids interested in birding, the better.