There is a campaign that was started by the Cape May Bird Observatory and New Jersey Audubon some years ago, based on the simple act of sharing birds with children. It should be no surprise that I could not be more supportive of this.
Through my experiences as a bird educator so far I have faced certain challenges…very unexpected challenges…that have made me think more about the realities of taking any and every child birding. These obstacles are not transportation based or a lack of supplies (binoculars, bird guides, etc…) or some other logistical problem. I’m referring to much more real and important issues that I think we as a whole need to address.
I’m referring to children (and even adults) with special needs. I did a school program some time ago where one student had a learning disability and another student was blind. (It’s this experience specifically that sparked this post.)
I have to admit that I never really thought about these issues before. There’s only been a handful of times when it’s come up in my life. I was always an observer at these previous times, so my role and the way it impacted me was very different.
When I did the Texas Classic (a birding competition) in 2006, one of the adult teams was made up of participants who were blind. This team competed completely by ear and the bird sounds they identified. (The majority of teams have the ability to create a bird list based on what they identify by sight and/or sound). They had a driver and some additional people that would help guide them through certain parks, but otherwise were completely independent and self-sufficient. This team was incredible at identifying bird sounds. They did quite well and completed the competition with a very impressive list. I remember being in awe that this team existed, let alone at what they accomplished.
At Hawk Mountain there is a special wheelchair built to handle the trails and transport people to the lookout spots along the mountain. I have never seen it in use, but it’s always there at the trailhead. Whenever I see it, it doesn’t look like a sad object sitting on the sidelines. It’s always given me the feeling of a loyal and eager service dog waiting quietly in the corner until it’s called upon to help however it can.
The start of the path up to the various look out points at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. (K. Rutter and JERutter, right, Photo by P. Rutter)
Ever since I can remember I’ve said that “I’m a bird watcher, not a bird listener.” Being thrown into a situation where I had to lead and not just observe was challenging but one I am so grateful to have had. Even just this one time has pushed me to re-evaluate how I am as a bird educator. And it’s made me re-evaluate how the birding community is as a whole.
During the school program I was able to adjust how I spoke and try to connect on the right level for the student with a learning disability. I made sure to play bird calls and guide the blind child in feeling the study skins I was showing (the beak shape, wing shape, softness of feathers, etc.). I was able to get by and accommodate my diverse group of children that time. But I honestly wonder about the next time, and other needs that may come up. These are real issues that deserve our attention and thought. While I wouldn’t say that this issue has been swept under the rug or avoided, I do think that we should start talking more about how to address them. And we need to think about all types of situations where special needs may require additional assistance in getting as full of an experience as possible…in the classroom, on a bird walk, at home, in a group, one on one. The Texas Classic team and Hawk Mountain anecdotes above show that any person can go birding as well as enjoy and learn about birds, especially when the community rallies behind them and supports their needs.
I think it’s important to raise this topic because when we talk about taking kids, or anyone for that matter, birding we need to be inclusive. Not only because we can have a larger impact then, but because it’s just the right thing to do. Honestly, maybe future signs that say “Take A Kid Birding” should include something like “no matter what”.