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CREDIT Murmuration of Starlings, Mike Dabell (Getty Images)

Join a Bird Club.
Save The Planet.

In the 2023 documentary Join or Die, on the divisive nature of American civic life, the Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam, author of the culure-shifting Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, (2000) explains how the once-common experience of belonging to a club helped shape American society—and why a decline in club membership now contributes to social problems. Armed with decades of research and observations from leaders and thinkers like Hillary Clinton, Pete Buttigieg, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, and professors Eddie Glaude Jr. and Raj Chetty, Putnam argues that joining clubs can save civic life and reverse the unraveling of our democracy.

 

In a world of increasing individualism, we must find ways to rebuild the social ties that once held us together.

The sight of European Starlings moving in what seem like large synchronized clouds across a twilight sky transfixes even birders who dislike this invasive species. The explanation for this behaviour remains unclear—why do they do it? 

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Clubs offer much more than a sense of interpersonal connection and belonging. They provide real opportunities for people to gain experience leading and contributing to a collective. Because clubs are run by their members, they teach people how democracy works. By coming to mutual agreements as to a club’s values, principles, goals and policies, clubs require that people listen to each other, work out disagreements, and vote. Clubs also have the power to be a collective with members acting as one to influence policy and legislation that matter to their members.

Clubs, Putnam argues, can make all the difference. And that includes, of course, bird clubs. 

 

Birders at dusk at Parker River WMA

Birder group at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, Newbury, MA (@MFB)

So … join a bird club, save the planet? It’s not as preposterous as it seems. Bird and nature clubs already have a history of creating cultural and political change. For example, the Nuttall Ornithological Club (1873), founded in Boston, played a significant role in advancing science and conservation and continues that work today. The American Ornithologists Union (1883) also got its start as a club dedicated to the study of birds and their habitats. Together with Mass Audubon (1896), another former 19th-century club turned conservation leader, the ASU later played a major role in conservation law, including the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The Audubon Society (1905), now National Audubon, was originally a club and grew to be a highly regarded champion of environmental protection, helping to pass the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the establishment of the National Wildlife Refuge system. 

More recently, the Feminist Bird Club has centered social and racial equity in its agenda along with birds, and groups like In Color Birding in Philadelphia have created welcoming and inclusive birding experiences for people who have not been welcomed into a predominately privileged birding world. Today bird clubs and affiliated groups across the country bring attention and progress to issues like microplastic pollution, water quality in BIPOC communities, fishing line entanglements, sea level rise, lead and heavy metal contamination, delayed mowing to protect grassland birds, banning second-generation rodenticides, preventing bird collisions and much more. 

Even if Putnam is wrong, growing America’s bird clubs while becoming more inclusive, diverse, and welcoming seems like an essential and powerful idea—if only to mobilize more citizens willing to address the growing challenges of climate change, environmental justice, conservation, and the deteriorating biodiversity of our plant. Bird clubs have the potential to be powerful leaders of change if bird clubs were to act more collectively. They could be a powerful force that policymakers could ignore. Working together, bird clubs could lead greater progress on environmental goals locally, nationally, and globally, and secure bold action on climate change and conservation.

The US Fish & Wildlife Service has reported that 45 million Americans call themselves birders. Compare that to the Democratic party which estimates it has 49 million registered voters. Mobilizing birders might be more effective than organizing voters. 

Birding promises and often delivers transformative real-life experiences that remind us of the world outside ourselves and our responsibility to something more than ourselves. When we have those experiences with others, we might find ways to listen better, extend grace and kindness, and avoid the traps of red and blue. We might rediscover that sometimes democracy matters more than we think. Conversation matters. And that progress comes in stages until the dam breaks, even when we are impatient. We might re-learn how to work together to achieve bigger goals and urgently needed solutions.

So, join the flock, learn new skills, see birds from new perspectives, make new friends, and get ready for spring when songbirds are migrating through dressed in their finest feathers.

You’ll be helping to save democracy—and helping to save the planet.

 

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