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 Snow Buntings have a circumpolar Arctic breeding range. Research suggests that a warming Arctic will trigger a “phenological mismatch” between the peak of their food sources and the demands of young birds, leading to a lower success rate of the hatchlings. (Snow Buntings, Getty Images)

HOW IT STARTED. WHERE IT's GOING.

ORIGIN STORY

The Boston Birding Festival was founded in early 2019 by a group of Boston-area birders and concerned citizens who knew each other from their work in marketing, communications, and producing and managing large corporate and nonprofit events. One day over post-birding coffee and donuts, we started to discuss the idea of producing a birding event for Boston.

Festivals, we thought, were a pretty interesting phenomenon. They bring people with a passion together to deepen their knowledge, encounter something new, rare, or unique, and meet fellow travelers. The secret sauce of a good festival lies somewhere in the interstices of communal learning, listening, discovery, and collective awe. Festivals often take place in a beautiful landscape or city or high-impact setting. If you have a good time at a good festival, you are also changed in some way.

Having recently produced a gathering in NYC for peacemakers and conflict reporters, we knew that when you bring people together from different discourses and disciplines to share stories and experiences, and to look at social and political challenges together, amazing things can happen. Give people something interesting to talk about and they do talk.  A conflict reporter may decide that the story should be about families affected by war rather than the size of the armory. Or a peacemaker might offer perspectives otherwise left out. Perspectives shift. Connections emerge. New ideas bubble to the top. 

When the story changes, change has a better chance.

Piping plovers are listed as threatened both on the Massachusetts and Federal Endangered Species Lists. Massachusetts has the largest breeding population of piping plovers along the Atlantic coast, with over 1,000 breeding pairs in 2022. (Piping Plover, Getty Images)

Birders know you find more birds in the ecotones—those magical edges where habitat meets up. The same is true with ideas. In  large and small collisions at the edges of  of different perspectives—that’s where new ideas and solutions are born. 

What happens when birding collides with climate change, sustainable energy policy, plastic pollution, environmental justice, or biodiversity? It’s easy to bird just for the pleasure. But birders are especially curious people.

What happens when photography, tech, social media, and generally brand newness infuse that part of the human brain that is endlessly curious about nature? What happens when birding as a thing expands its field of view and becomes more inclusive, more habitat-oriented, more scientific, more fun, and more intellectually diverse?

We started to do some research–what would it take to make a bird festival happen? What would it take to connect birding to something bigger in a way that would be exciting and inspiring? 

Around the same time, the American Bird Conservancy and the Cornell Labb of Ornthitholgy published a report about the state of birds showing that the total breeding bird population in the continental U.S. and Canada had dropped by 29 percent since 1970—almost 3 billion birds just disappeared. “Put that into the context of the other declines that we’re seeing, from insects to amphibians, and it suggests that there’s an ecosystem collapse that should be troubling to everybody, ” said Peter Marra, one of the study’s co-authors and director of the Georgetown Environment Initiative. “It’s telling us that our environment is not healthy. Not for birds, and probably also not for humans.”

We knew immediately that this Festival must not be limited to pleasure and celebration. We had to do something.

Then Covid struck and the pandemic made large in-person gatherings impossible. Covid also proved too much of an obstacle for a new, in-person event created by a new organization to get off the ground.

So we took a pandemic break and went back to the drawing board. 

 

Rising sea levels threaten habitat for Saltmarsh Sparrow along the Massachusetts coastline. (Saltmarsh Sparrow, Getty Images)

As we all socially isolated, it seemed the country itself had also fallen ill to a bleak and retrograde social climate, an intensifying antipathy toward science, and what seemed like a new cultural preference for hate and bullying over kindness, grace and compassion. The shocking murder of George Floyd demanded a reckoning with systemic racism.

A festival is supposed to be exciting. But what was there to excited about?

 

A male heath hen on the Great Plain of Martha’s Vineyard, ca. 1909 photo taken by (Unknown). The last Heath Hen died in Massachusetts in 1932. (Wikicommons)

Our time out allowed us to reflect on our goals, and how we could be a better partner, ally, advocate, and platform for other organizations from a variety of sectors that are leading the way in conservation, environmental justice, nature access, and climate resilience. A bird festival that did not address growing threats to birds, to habitat, to biodiversity—to life itself—would not be the kind of festival we’d want to create. A festival, we believe, should help people who care about birds take action—and not just for birds. The social challenges we face are deeply connected to the challenges of conservation. 

“When you look at the most powerful predictor of where the most industrial pollution is, race is the most potent predictor.”

Dr. ROBERT BULLARD

The facts about climate change and dwindling biodiversity have contributed to a sense of powerlessness and resignation. But we are not powerless, and we must not become resigned.

Collective action can create change quickly. And birding experiences, we believe, can play a role in creating the conditions for increasing and inspiring collective action.

There are 45+ million birders in the United States. Let’s see what we can do when we work together.

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