Education: It's Not Just For Kids!

By Cindy Hardin

This past July I had the good fortune to attend the National Audubon Convention in Skamania, Washington. Three days were spent listening to wonderful speakers and getting to know Audubon members and staff from all around the country. As you probably know, David Yarnold was hired as CEO and President of National Audubon three years ago.  He has put a lot of energy into finding ways to re-vitalize the Audubon Society, with a special emphasis on outreach to state Audubon organizations and local chapters. A major goal that was repeatedly emphasized at the gathering was that of increasing and diversifying the membership of Audubon, from local to national levels.

A most interesting session was the Sunday morning Plenary, where the entire group gathered to hear a panel, composed primarily of younger people, talk about their ideas and their personal relation to Audubon. One young man’s comments were of particular interest regarding the goal of achieving more members in the organization. He talked about how birding in general and Audubon in particular can be a bit intimidating to the novice. He actually said, with no offense intended, that “you guys need to get over yourselves”!  He went on to say that he felt some folks with lots of birding experience tend to be a bit dismissive of those with less knowledge, particularly when these novices become excited or ask questions about what may be a very common bird.


I have actually experienced this attitude myself, particularly early on when I started as a volunteer at Ballona. At that time I had zero experience in birding, but had recently seen some migratory White Pelicans at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands. I related my exciting (to me, at least) discovery to some long-time birders, and mentioned that I had heard that they were usually found in Freshwater habitat, to which the response was a cursory “that’s right”. I did not know that they sometimes stopped at saltmarshes while migrating, nor did I know that they wintered in lakes in California. A migration story like that may not seem remarkable to a long-time birder. However, most people, if they are aware of migration at all (and many are not!), have only the vaguest idea of the process. They probably know that the fall means that migratory birds and other animals head south, and spring means that the direction reverses northward, but that is about it. When one shares facts about this amazing mass movement of animals, it piques the interest of the layman. The Arctic Tern flies 11,000 miles twice a year in its journeys! The Golden Plover flies to Hawaii without stopping! Our own Pacific Flyway (and all the other flyways) is like a freeway in the sky for birds! By encouraging and dazzling people with tidbits like these we can raise awareness about natural habitats, and by association, Audubon’s efforts to create a more environmentally healthy and bird-friendly world.

Of course, we live in a highly urbanized area, and migration is not something in the forefront of the mind of the average citizen.  However, people do recognize the “common” birds that they see in their yards, city parks and streets. I often wear my Audubon baseball hat when I am out and about, and have been approached more than once with questions about our local avian population. Everyone wants to know about Mockingbirds, especially in the Spring. Number one inquiry: “Why are they so noisy and why do they swoop at me when I am in my yard/going to my car?” When I explain that the birds are probably nesting nearby and have chicks to protect, annoyance gives way to understanding. I go on to explain that the parents work together, with one as the lookout and the other as the “enforcer”.  Now the understanding turns to amazement. “They really work together like that? They can communicate with each other on that level?” They can and they do! The final part of the exchange is when I tell them that the harassment will stop as soon as the chicks fledge, which shouldn’t be long at this point. Now my inquisitive stranger is relieved, but also is usually thrilled to know that real live Animal Planet type stuff is going on in their midst, in the middle of the city.

Opportunities to inform and educate people about birds, the environment and Audubon’s mission abound; If we take the time to talk to people about the wonders of nature, we have a chance to inspire them to be better caretakers of nature. An additional benefit is the contagious nature of the excitement experienced by one who might be new to the world of birding. It is great fun to hand a pair of binoculars to someone who has never birded before and provides them with a close-up view of a plunge-diving Pelican or a blossom probing Hummingbird. Sharing information about the observed behavior (the Pelican can hold up to three gallons of water in its pouch! The Hummingbird can fly backwards!) serves to enhance their experience and can make a life-long impression on the novice, and hopefully motivate them to learn more. Another comment made by the young speaker at the convention’s Sunday session was “If someone is excited about a sparrow, let them be excited about a sparrow!” With the right amount of patience, humor and enthusiasm on your part, they might even become members of Audubon!

The fact of the matter is that we have a whole new generation of potential environmentalists and birders out there, and in all of my years of educating and training docents and interns for our education programs I have yet to find someone who is unimpressed by wonders of the natural world and its denizens. Our volunteer docents pass their knowledge on to the students that visit Ballona and Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area. The hoped for result is that the generation coming up will know enough about natural habitats to motivate them to protect and save wild spaces and create some animal friendly habitats in their own urban environs.

Education (ideally) can be a lifelong process, and to that end I must mention that docent training classes for the Ballona Wetlands Program begin on September 10th and for the program at Kenneth Hahn on October 4th. I would love to have you join us for either or both. Please feel free to contact me if you are interested.

[see article: Time to Get Ready For The Kids!]

Published Western Tanager Vol. 80 No. 1 Sep/Oct 2013