Assertiveness Training for Women Birders

by Lorna Salzman

(To the reader: this article is being distributed to numerous individuals and listserves and will shortly be posted on my web site . It was accepted last summer for publication in Birding magazine, the bi-monthly magazine of the American Birding Association - ABA - with a few minor format changes proposed by the editor and accepted by me. This past December, however, the editor of the Dimensions column where it was to have appeared apologetically informed me that the editorial "advisory committee" of ABA decided to kill it and that the ABA editor, Ted Floyd, had readily gone along with their decision.

Undoubtedly what this "advisory committee" had discovered was that my article was about male birders LIKE THEM. Early on Floyd himself apparently had no problem with the article but when confronted by the Old Boy Network he knuckled under without a whimper of protest. According to some people, this was the first time anyone had heard of any Birding "advisory committee" at the magazine, and one person inquired as to just what the magazine had an editor for in the first place if not to make editorial decisions on his/her own. Good question. (Recall the maxim about the horse designed by a committee, which turned out to be a camel).

In any case the killing of this article by the Old Boys at ABA definitively confirms the subtext of my article.They are living proof of the omnipresent threat of male birders to women and perfect examples of why and how men continue to dominate not only the profession but how they want to suppress public discourse about their behavior...........Lorna Salzman)

Some people still think birding is a backyard hobby of little old ladies in tennis sneakers. In fact it has become a highly competitive contact sport for macho types, who vastly outnumber females in the field.

Looking at the strongly skewed ratio of male to female birders, it becomes clear that there must be special hazards and risks that discourage women from participating in this popular sport. And in much the same way that obstacles to women in other competitive sports have been gradually overcome, it is incumbent on the presently male-dominated birding community to overturn the barriers to female participation so as to achieve gender parity in the field.

The general dangers presented to all birders are always with us: ticks, snakes, chiggers, mosquitoes, jaguars, Montezuma's Revenge and rental car breakdowns, though these are not found necessarily in the same place at the same time. Through the rapid communication offered by the internet and by specialized publications and bird clubs, birders have quickly learned how to minimize these omnipresent risks. With the exception of the professional trip leader who decided to investigate on behalf of his group a loud noise in the Indian jungle and was later found half-eaten by a tiger, most birders have learned how to keep insects more or less at bay, how to walk carefully on an untrodden trail, and how to recognize jaguar tracks. In any case the risks posed by wildlife in the United States are generally far less than those of tropical countries.

But there is another risk that is ubiquitous, on all continents and in all climates, which uniquely targets women birders, and which requires careful, calculated responses: men. In order to sensitize themselves to this special hazard, and most of all to develop appropriate defensive measures, women need to understand the behavior and ecology of the male sex, or rather of that morph of the male sex whose niche lies in bird habitats.

All male birders should be regarded as alpha males, even those lacking the typical physical characteristics. Many of these who might otherwise have served in the US Marines or in major league football are, either literally or figuratively, 90-pound weaklings who never read a Charles Atlas ad or assumed it didn't apply to them. But it does apply, whether they are 5'5" or 6"6"' tall,because if they are the former, that makes them even more aggressive and competitive. Thus, women, on encountering male birders in the wild, should assume the worst and not judge male physical size and bulk alone.

While some men may lack the physical equipment of alpha males, size matters in one crucial respect: binoculars. Apparently the binocular manufacturers are colluding with male birders. If you look carefully, you will see that nearly all the new improved binoculars advertised to and bought by the birding community are ten power rather than the old-fashioned seven or eight power type. And although new light materials are used, the new ten power binocs are extremely expensive and often heavier than the old type. An analysis of these facts tells us that the manufacturers took the male birders aside and whispered in their ears: "Psst, I've got a great deal for you. These binoculars are very expensive so frugal women won't buy them, and best of all they are too big and heavy for most women to carry, so you can spot those rare birds faster than they can". A male birder hearing this is hooked because it means that he can make a rapid identification before the woman can focus on the bird, and in most cases the bird will already have flushed before she sees it, thus insuring that she cannot challenge the man's ID.

It is important to understand the primary differences between men and women birders. They have not only different behavior but different objectives and therefore different strategies.In the field these will frequently clash. Therefore Assertiveness Training is a fundamental prerequisite for women before they can hold their own. The male goals are: maximization of species numbers; being the first to spot a new bird; finding a rarity. Anything that interferes with or poses an obstacle to these is considered detrimental and hostile, and the male behavioral response to such obstacles is calculated accordingly.

Female birders' objectives - and thus their strategies - are diametrically opposed to those of men: to have fun, learn about the ecology of birds, see interesting habitat and appreciate Nature. Thus, they should expect their presence in particular and participation in general to be regarded by male birders as hostile. With a little practice the following recommendations of adaptive behavior in the field should become second nature to women birders.

1. Your first impression is always correct. If you think you see a black bird with a yellow head, you have indeed seen one, even if this is literally your first foray into the field. Don't let any male question your observation. You were right.

2. There are no "rare" birds. Most birds called "rare" by men are birds they studied with extreme care and memory training in a book, not birds they ever actually saw in their lifetime. In practice the birds called "rare" by men (and few will dare to challenge them) will be those that no one else saw or was able to see, such as the out-of-range Manx shearwater seen fifteen miles away on the horizon of a black ocean, on an overcast morning, during a pelagic trip 80 miles out to sea, with eight -foot swells and a wildly rocking boat. (I was on that boat so I know whereof I speak.) If you find yourself in that situation, pull out your bird book and give the man a quiz: ask him to provide every field mark he saw and prove to everyone's satisfaction that it was indeed a Manx. This may take some courage but you need not worry that his troops will come to his rescue; they are all inside the cabin, eyes closed, manifesting a peculiar shade of yellowish-green. (Note: all beginning birders will sooner or later see a "rare" bird but eventually as the birders become more experienced, those rare sightings will diminish and eventually disappear).

3. Vernacular and traditional names are still valid such as Baltimore oriole and Myrtle warbler. Or Bluebill or timberdoodle. (Caution: the old-time vernacular for cormorants is disallowed). Don't let the self-styled male experts intimidate you or demand that you recite the full list of the most recent AOU species splits. Traditional and vernacular names are a vital part of birding history and culture so use them at every opportunity to keep birding a popular, not an elitist, pastime.

4. It is better to be a Splitter than a Lumper nowadays. Scientific advances in DNA analysis mean that new species are being split off from previous parent species faster than you can say "Drink your tea". But of course this can change so be alert.

5. DON'T, I repeat, Don't memorize birds from the book and then take off looking for them hither and thither. You will end up seeing memorized birds in wholly inappropriate habitats and will look foolish. Even worse, the B3 (Black Belt Birders, the avian equivalent of the Mafia) will put out a contract on you. This happened on a trip in South America where a male, not a female, tripmate, having read about an ancient Oilbird spotting in the area, ID'ed a single supposed Oilbird flying up a tiny stream at final dusk. He wasn't concerned about the fact that South America has only a handful of Oilbird cave colonies, separated by hundreds or thousands of miles, or that Oilbirds emerge at night and travel huge distances to feed in huge flocks not on riverine vegetation but solely on oil palms, or that the bird he saw was about one quarter the size of an Oilbird. But the B3 were just getting organized so the spotting of the purported Oilbird - in reality a small duck -- went unpunished. Today that spotter would be kneecapped had he been a woman, but being a man he got off with a light sentence: stepping out of a small boat, he slipped and fell into thick black mud up to his keister.

6. Be suspicious of any male birder who scorns the "clock" method of locating birds in a tree. This is hostility in the extreme because it is intended to impair or delay the enjoyment of the other birders. This method, which uses the highest central point of the tree as high noon, and the sides of the tree as a.m. and p.m., is extremely useful and works very well, saving a lot of time for less experienced birders who might otherwise search every leaf and never find the bird. The same men who scorn the clock method are the ones who call out a new bird and, when asked where it is, hem and haw and say: well, I guess it's out there in that tall tree between that small green shrub and that other tree, guaranteeing that by the time you have found the right tree the bird is gone. So the Guy chalks up the bird on his list and the others don't. This is what could be called Arboreal Upsmanship.

7. If you are a woman birder, NEVER bird in a group unless there is at least one other woman present, stick together, support each other, point out the birds to each other before you point them out to the men, and always take the offensive, not the defensive. If you see a new or unusual bird, do not under any circumstances allow your attention to be diverted away from the bird! Continue to study the bird and its characteristics and behavior, while noting its presence out loud so others can hear, but do not take down your binoculars or look away until you have examined it as best you can. All around you men will be demanding that you specify where it is; do not let them distract you until you are sure you have seen everything you need to see. You can be sure that if the situation were reversed, they would not defer to you. Hold your ground.

8. On pelagic trips, always stand at the rail and never move away. When a bird is spotted and everyone crowds to the rail, remember that the men are taller than you and can see over or around you quite well. They can take care of themselves.

Finally, some words of encouragement for those women birders who have unwittingly and unwillingly let themselves become awed by male birders:

Whatever happens, it's not your fault. The men are not always right. You are having more fun.

(Note: names have been withheld to protect the innocent; the guilty will recognize themselves. All situations and incidents, however, are taken from real life).

For identification purposes: Lorna Salzman, an environmental activist and writer, has travelled widely with her husband on most continents to see birds. She does not keep totals of birds seen.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.