This Is Not Your Grandfather’s Birding Club

A passion for women’s and LGBTQ rights is required in Molly Adams’s Feminist Bird Club; birding expertise is not.

Feminist Bird Club members in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery and Arboretum, home to such birds as yellowthroats, blue-gray gnatcatchers, cedar waxwings, American goldfinches, and downy woodpeckers

Credit: Keith Mulvihill/NRDC

A northern mockingbird alights on a stately mausoleum and begins to sing. Molly Adams is nearby, listening. “That call sounds like a woodpecker,” she says as she points to the bird known for its vocal mimicry. “One of my favorite calls they mimic is the car alarm.”

It’s an overcast morning in New York City, and Adams is part of a group of about a dozen people surveying the sprawling Evergreens Cemetery on the BrooklynQueens border. The famous resting place of many historical figures (tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and blues pioneer Lucille Hegamin, to name two) turns out to be a rest stop for a wide variety of birds, too, including hawks, warblers, ducks, and woodpeckers.

Adams is leading today’s birding jaunt, a gathering of the Feminist Bird Club, which she founded in the autumn of 2016. The club is the fruit of her two primary passions: a love of birds, naturally, and her desire to help urban folks connect more with the outdoors. She began bird-watching in 2012, just out of college, after landing a job as an educator and designer at the South Fork Natural History Museum and Nature Center on Long Island. Adams continued her hobby while she pursued a master’s degree in marine conservation and policy at nearby Stony Brook University, and she kept it going when she moved to Brooklyn and took a position in the education department at the New York Aquarium.

When Adams started the club, she had more than birds on her mind. “I was thinking that if I create a club, it can’t just strictly be about bird-watching,” she recalls. “There needs to be another purpose for this group.” And with the 2016 presidential election approaching, she adds, “people were talking more about feminism and other issues.” Reflecting Adams’s desire to create a community that would uplift those feeling increasingly marginalized in the social and political landscape, the FBC was born. It would be, as its mission statement declares, “an inclusive bird-watching club dedicated to providing a safe opportunity to connect with the natural world in urban environments while working to protect the rights of all womxn, non-binary folks, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.”

In the cemetery, two types of yellow warblers suddenly appear before the bird-watchers. Char McCutcheon peers through binoculars at the pine warbler and palm warbler overhead and lets out a tiny gasp. “I’ve never seen that much detail before,” McCutcheon says. “They look like they’re from another world.”

It’s the first birding expedition for this Brooklynite, who heard about the FBC through a local arts group, the Earth Arts Initiative, and reached out after reading the mission statement. “Being a trans, nonbinary-identifying person myself, it was important to know that it was a place that I am going to feel comfortable and welcome,” McCutcheon says.

After the trip, McCutcheon reflected on the experience. “In the past, I might have gone for a walk in a cemetery, but I wouldn’t have noticed all the birds. It really opened my eyes. Like, wow, this whole world has existed around me all the time, and I had no idea.”

Char McCutcheon (right) at a Feminist Bird Club outing in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn, New York
Credit: Keith Mulvihill/NRDC

Now that the FBC is finishing its second year, Adams has been pleasantly surprised by reactions from participants like McCutcheon. The club founder notes she often thinks about who’s being excluded from the bird clubs that already exist—intentionally or not—and believes the homogeneity of many clubs may stem from the fact that in our culture, and in the sciences especially, white males often run the show. (Adams notes, however, that men are welcome in the FBC, and they do show up for walks.)

Beyond its mission to give safe harbor to feminist voices, the FBC also seeks to uplift other vulnerable communities. Adams has created a mechanism for the group to raise money for social causes such as Planned Parenthood and the Women’s Initiative through sales of an annual club patch, which she designs herself. This year’s patch—which shows off a spotted sandpiper—is raising money for Black Lives Matter; it sold out in 24 hours and is now in a second run. Additionally, Adams encourages participants to pledge a dollar amount toward a given charity for each bird species they identify on special occasions. For example, club member Chelsea Lawrence helped lead an effort to raise funds for the Sex Workers Outreach Project on Global Big Day, an annual 24-hour birding challenge that took place this year on May 5.

Adams, who admits she once saw social media and smartphones mostly as barriers to connecting with nature, says she is now using platforms like Instagram to bring about positive change through the FBC. She has also seen the club expand—including to different cities—through connections she has made online. (A recent profile in the New York Times also helped spread the word about the group.)

“I found Molly on Instagram,” says Karla Noboa, who lives in Boston. “I have a friend who loves posting birds on Instagram, and he shared something from her profile with me.” Noboa adds that she didn’t always feel welcome at local birding group meet-ups because she didn’t feel like she fit in. “I’m a first-generation American; my parents are from Ecuador,” she says. “The birding groups I attended in the past made me feel like I couldn’t speak up.” After speaking with Adams, Noboa decided to start an FBC chapter with an emphasis on environmental equity and inclusivity in her own city.

Another FBC chapter recently sprung up in Chicago, created by residents Frances Kane and Bridget Kiernan, who also discovered Adams’s group through Instagram. Kane and Kiernan wanted a place where novices could feel welcome and celebrate a sighting of any type of bird. “We wanted to create a safe space for all sorts of people and all skill levels,” Kiernan says. “We don’t want anyone to feel like they needed to be camping with their grandfather their whole life to have this knowledge about birds and nature.”

At their gatherings, Kane says, “somebody can point out a mallard and say they’re really excited about it, and we will respond in a way that’s not, like, ‘Yeah, yeah, we’ve all seen one of those.’”

For Adams, finding birds both common and uncommon—and often right under our noses—is still a thrill. Take, for example, the nighthawk. “I had always heard people talking about how the nighthawks will come in the fall,” she says, and she marveled at anyone who’d actually spotted the expertly camouflaged bird. “I'd seen pictures of them blending in with logs in National Geographic.”

Finally she spotted one perched on a tree branch in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. She was thrilled with her find, but other birders urged her to wait until the fall for a bigger spectacle, when large migratory flocks of nighthawks pass through the city on their trip south. Last September it happened: “I actually saw what everyone else was talking about. If you look up right when the sun is setting, you'll see dozens of chimney swifts catching insects overhead, and then one by one they begin to disappear and are slowly replaced by nighthawks.”

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