ABA: Inclusiveness

Mallard on the park pond, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher at the migrant trap, Wandering Albatross over the Drake Passage: would you enjoy looking at any of these birds? If so, you're a good birder.

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: The intense discussions this summer regarding the future of the American Birding Association (ABA) have led some people to question just who the organization should be for. Predictably, a few have suggested that it should be a group designed for "good birders." I have strong opinions about that idea, I’ve expressed them in the past in other settings, and I want to repeat them here.

Forgive me if it seems immodest for me to quote from myself. But I wrote something a long time ago that still seems relevant:

"Birding is something that we do for enjoyment; so if you enjoy it, you’re a good birder. If you enjoy it a lot, you’re a great birder."

I wrote that back in the 1980s, and apparently it rang a bell with some people. The editors of British Birds were kind enough to quote it in their fine magazine. Roger Tory Peterson quoted it in the introduction to the 1990 edition of his Field Guide to Western Birds. (Peterson had been my lifelong role model, and you can imagine what a thrill it was to be quoted by my own hero, the man who was the world’s most influential birder at the time.) Later I used this same phrase in the introduction to my own Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America. So the thought has been out there for a while, but I wanted to repeat it.

Birding is something that we do for enjoyment, so if you enjoy it, you’re a good birder. If you enjoy it a lot, you’re a great birder. I think the American Birding Association will need to adopt that attitude as they go forward. Become a group for all those good birders -- for everyone who enjoys it -- and try to make them into great birders by helping them to enjoy it even more. In fact, the ABA could claim to have some initial ownership of the idea, because I first thought of it after taking part in a panel discussion at an ABA convention. I wrote it in a letter to Jim Tucker, who was then still the executive director of ABA, and he liked it enough that he printed it in Birding magazine as a letter to the editor. So it first saw the light of day in ABA’s magazine.

Do you enjoy birding? If your answer is "yes," it doesn’t matter whether you’re watching the finches in the back yard or trekking off to Borneo to look for Bristleheads, you’re one of us. You’re a good birder. I hope the American Birding Association will make a strong comeback and offer an enhanced experience to all of us.


  1. Thanks for that, Kenn. It is nice to know that I am a great birder!

  2. It always surprises people who attend a birding festival for the first time when it dawns on them that not everyone there is an expert. In fact, most attendees are just like them...desirous of learning more. That's when they start having fun, because they're comfortable.

    I tell people who I sense are feeling inadequate and overwhelmed in such situations that I get a much bigger kick out of birding with someone who's never seen these things than with someone who has. It helps me appreciate the real wonder and beauty of any bird ("good" or common) with new eyes.

    One of my early painting mentors was Bob Clem. He said, "If all you have at your feeders is house sparrows, draw house sparrows. You can learn as much from them as from any bird."

    Thanks for this post, Kenn. I'm in complete agreement.

  3. Well said-thanks for continuing to be a voice for inclusiveness!

  4. Thanks, Kenn. I am a great birder and, reading this, I no longer feel stupid when asking for help with identification - even when once identified, I clap my forehead because it was so obvious!

  5. There's nothing wrong with quoting yourself when you're right, Kenn!

  6. We are all birders. Expert, great, good, beginner, casual, whatever we would like to think of ourselves as regards to skill level, we are birders. That is the common thread that brings us together.

    The ABA’s mission should simply be two words - Promote Birding.

    In one form or another we all bird. If we look at this like a food pyramid, the elite (if that is what one would call them) would be at the pinnacle, those just getting started in birding would lie at the base, and the majority of us fall in the middle. This analogy provides a picture of what’s ahead of us, if we are to grow this hobby, and grow ABA. If ABA was to just cater to the top of the pyramid, the foundation would eventually crumble, with a few left standing alone. Some might say this is, in part, what has already happened. If the direction of the ABA were to concentrate on Promoting Birding, there is room for everyone. Those newbees to birding will learn from someone like me, and I in turn, will learn from a Kenn Kaufman - providing we are willing to share our knowledge and are committed to Promoting Birding. We are all working our way up the ‘food pyramid’, but at the same time need to replenish the base.

    There is a great deal that falls under Promoting Birding, but in a nutshell we need to get get the word out about birds and birding in every way possible. This is not going to come in a year or even two, but it is something that we must build upon and grow. By getting the message out to schools, clubs, etc., ABA begins to lead the way. Todays youth are tomorrows future. Todays beginner birders are the future of birding. We each need to support each other and there is no better way to do that than educating, teaching, mentoring those below you on the pyramid, to be as enthusiastic and committed as you are, to growing our passion. We should be catering to everyone, regardless of skill level.

    We all began at the bottom, and one of the main reasons we “moved up” is that we educated ourselves, or have been mentored by someone.

    Though we all have different backgrounds we are passionate about birds, that is what brings us together. For those that might be considering joining ABA, they may well be asking a simple question. Why should I join? What is ABA going to do with my $40 yearly membership fee? Well, maybe, if the mission was to Promote Birding, it could be possible for people that have never heard of ABA to get behind this great cause. They would feel that their investment was being used wisely for the good of the birding community.

    Just imagine if we could get a decent percentage of the supposedly 40 million ‘birders’ in North America. The ABA could really accomplish a great deal!

  7. Totally agree Kenn...

    I agree with Julie about birding with a new birder..Its wonderful to see birds through a newbies eyes.

    I learn from every birder I bird with.

  8. Fantastic post Kenn! I couldn't agree more!

  9. Great definition of a "good birder". I wholeheartedly agree and think that the ABA should encourage membership for anyone who has an interest in watching birds no matter what their level of experience is.

  10. Wonderful words! Now how to work that into the ABA bylaws, and/or perhaps as a requirement for ABA board membership...they must be a "good birder" by Kenn's definition. Lynn Barber

  11. I love your definition of a good and a great birder Kenn!

    I am lucky enough to have started birding in my own backyard in Northern California. With the help and experience of fellow local birders, I gained knowledge and appreciation for birds quickly.

    As Julie said, I was always amazed at how excited the experienced birders in my organization were when I got another lifer (and, as you know, when you are new to birding, the lifers come fast and furious).

    It is important for organizations to bring in new birders continuously to survive. Enjoying birds and sharing your birding knowledge with others are really the only attributes needed to make a successful birding community thrive.

  12. Who is a good birder? What is the meaning of "good"? Thank you Kenn for so well answering this question a long time ago. I would like to add ",,,and respect their habitat." I am honoured to have had the pleasure of birding with you. I remember observing with you a pair of terns - Royal or Elegant... you left the debate open ended, and we all thouroughly enjoyed watching the beautiful creatures. They were more than just a tick mark on a list. Let's hope you can find, and I know you will, a new president who will value birds and their habitats, and respect all good birders.

  13. Thanks Ken. If I had a dollar for every time I've quoted you on this, I think I'd be able to pay for my kids' education and retire :-)

  14. Thanks for making this great point Kenn! The birding community really needs an inclusive mentality like you describe. The more we bring people in, the greater our network becomes and this ultimately allows birders to more easily bring awareness to pressing issues of conservation. Without this awareness, we cannot begin to develop and enact solutions to our problems.


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