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Queer, Black and feminist birding groups encourage more people to get into the pandemic-friendly outdoor hobby

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Elise Greenberg wasn’t expecting many people at the Philly Queer Birders’ first meetup at The Woodlands Cemetery in West Philadelphia this past April.

“I honestly expected two to four people to show up,” she recalls. Greenberg had launched the Philly Queer Birders as an Instagram account just a few weeks earlier, seeking community in her new hobby. She was not the only one.

Fifteen people showed up to the event.

Philly Queer Birders founder Elise Greenberg (front left) and walk leader Edge (front right) watch birds in FDR Park at a Saturday meetup. Photography by Drew Dennis.
Philly Queer Birders founder Elise Greenberg (front left) and walk leader Edge (front right) watch birds in FDR Park at a Saturday meetup. Photography by Drew Dennis.

Greenberg had long been casually interested in birding, but it took a rare avian visitor from Siberia to inspire her to buy a pair of binoculars and get serious. In January crowds of birders gathered near the Philadelphia Museum of Art to view a tundra bean goose, a bird that presumably had gotten lost and ended up in Philadelphia.

“My partner and I live pretty near there. We walked down there expecting to see it with no binoculars, but got there and saw out-of-state plates and people with those lenses the size of your arm,” she says. Other birders let Greenberg take a look with their spotting scopes. She was hooked.

“…I thought surely there are other queer people who are into birding.”

— Elise Greenberg, Philly Queer Birders founder

Her new interest in birding coincided with rising pandemic fatigue.

“Vaccines were just becoming available but it felt untenable for the world to come back to a normal space,” she says. “I was missing people in general but also the queer community, and I thought surely there are other queer people who are into birding. I started the Instagram account thinking it would be a small group of people who would hang out and look at birds, but it has become much more than that.”

Philly Queer Birder meetups have followed every month, with demand exceeding capacity and registration spilling onto waiting lists.

The group’s June walk at Bartram’s Garden was led by Karla Noboa, who also co-organizes the new Philadelphia chapter of the Feminist Bird Club (FBC). Noboa, who uses pronouns they/them, serves as the chapter relations chair for the national organization, and first got involved in 2017 while they were living in Boston.

A few of the birds spotted at FDR Park.
A few of the birds spotted at FDR Park.

Noboa took up birding seriously after moving from Vermont to Wisconsin. Noboa, a hiker, was underwhelmed by the flat terrain of the Upper Midwest after living in the Green Mountain State. “I was like ‘Oh my God, this is so boring,’ and that’s how I actively started looking at birds.”

“When I started getting interested in birds I wanted to find people to go birding with. I had trouble finding a group I felt comfortable going out with,” Noboa says. “Everyone was older, so knowledgeable, white. I’m Hispanic, non-binary, young.”

Then Noboa discovered the FBC, which started in New York City in 2016.

“I asked if they could start a chapter in Boston in 2017,” Noboa recalls. “It started going from there, and when I moved to Philadelphia I decided to start a chapter here as well.”

The FBC combines birding with a commitment to social justice.

“While we lead bird walks, we want to focus on the ‘feminist’ that’s in our name, which means being social justice-orientated. Every year we make a patch and sell it and donate proceeds to an outside cause.”

The FBC will donate proceeds from the 2021 patch, depicting a female yellow warbler, to the Native Wellness Institute, a group that supports the overall wellbeing of Native people through a variety of programs.

The new In Color Birding Club shares the same commitment to blending birding with social justice. Upper Darby resident Jason Hall, the founder of the club, was motivated to found the group after 2020’s Black Birder’s Week.

Greenberg leads a group of birders through FDR Park.
Greenberg leads a group of birders through FDR Park.

“It touched me tremendously,” Hall says. “I remember looking at social media and tagging myself in some things and getting this response of so many people sharing my story that I was out here, and I was Black, and I was a birder. I remember thinking I did not realize there were that many of us out there.”

Hall saw Black Birder’s Week as a call to action. He spent the next year thinking of how he could respond and posting on social media.

“I was put in touch with the Valley Forge Park Alliance and the Fairmount Park Conservancy. They asked if I would be interested in leading some bird walks,” Hall says. “Both groups were looking to expand outreach, including with Black and Brown folks.”

Starting in May, In Color Birding has led walks at Valley Forge as well as in Philadelphia parks, including FDR Park and Fairmount Park West.

Along with leading inclusive walks, the club is developing plans to introduce more Black and Brown children to birding and to give back to communities of color—for example with food or back-to-school drives.

“The idea is not just to show up and say, ‘Hey kids, do you want to look at birds?’ but also respond to other needs,” Hall says.

Too often bird walks can feel like contests among experts trying to identify a new bird first, leaving little time to ask questions or just enjoy watching. All three leaders emphasized the importance of making birding friendly for beginners.

“You don’t have to be a serious birder,” Greenberg says. “Even if you’ve never picked up a pair of binoculars, come out. Birds are cool.”

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