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Transforming the modern Ornithologist

Ringing of a Greater Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) at Farnborough Airport.  © Colin Wilson
Ringing of a Greater Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) at Farnborough Airport. © Colin Wilson

A personal perspective by Niamh Bothwell

From as young as I could remember I have always had a passion and love for birds, especially European species. When I was home taught from the age of 6 by my parents until I was 12, the main theme of my education consisted of engaging in nature. We created ponds, butterfly gardens, bird-boxes and, as we had a motor-home, we travelled a lot around the UK visiting nature reserves.

My favourite, and most regularly visited site, was Titchwell Marsh Nature Reserve located in North Norfolk. During our visits to the marshes, I fed robins, chaffinches and blackbirds from my hands and spotted species that were just out of this world, such as bearded tits, little egrets, cuckoos and hen harriers. How can nature make such spectacular and delicate creatures?

Islands of the Common Terns (Sterna hirundo) at the Institute of Avian Research, Germany © Niamh Bothwell
Islands of the Common Terns (Sterna hirundo) at the Institute of Avian Research, Germany © Niamh Bothwell

This is when I decided I wanted to become an ornithologist. My eagerness to learn helped me to quickly identify birds through my binoculars by their colour, song, shape, and their “jizz” (a term used to describe a bird’s actions). I even learnt some of the Latin names and participated in bird-ringing, where I had the privilege of getting up close and personal with an array of species, including multiple finger nips from feisty little great tits and blue tits. Don’t mess with them!

However, despite many positives to being a birder, it’s not always easy being an ornithologist, especially if you are a woman, and a young woman at that. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the field, the hobby is largely dominated by white, older men. Despite the RSPB being created in 1891 by three women: Eliza Philips, Emily Williamson and Etta Lemon (who weren’t even allowed to vote in those days) the inadvertent sexism continued.

For instance, sometimes my parents and I would be at our local birding sight, Eyebrook Reservoir (a great stop-off for migrating birds) and a couple of times we would be interrupted by other birders asking what we had just spotted, majority were “Twitchers” praying for some juicy rare bird to tick off their long list of top 10 to see. Even though me and my mum would have spotted and identified the species, the birders would always turn to ask my dad (who is a feminist) what he had seen and completely ignored us. This wasn’t the only time, it happened on multiple occasions.

Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) parents provisioning their chick © Andrea Parisi
Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) parents provisioning their chick © Andrea Parisi

I didn’t just experience this when I was at home but it continued throughout university, particularly during my Masters, and even witnessed it happening to my friends. Once, we had just finished a lesson and somebody had spotted a bird perched high up on a conifer chittering away. As we could only see its silhouette from a distance the male student couldn’t identify the species; however, from its jizz, the tree it had landed on and the sound it was making, I was able to identify it as a goldfinch. Despite my certainty, the male student disbelieved me and continued to search through their binoculars, only to find out that I was in-fact correct. Would they have believed me if I was a man? Or if I was older with more experience? Who knows, but it makes me realise how daunting it is to be a female who has a hobby like birdwatching!

I know from speaking to my friends, there are also other barriers such as vulnerability which discourages young women from going to their local parks, as they don’t feel safe walking alone. Although I don’t experience this fear walking, I do ensure I am cautious and vigilant on my walks by always making sure I have my phone on me and by letting family or friends know where I’m going before I leave.

It is a sad reality, as women should be encouraged to birdwatch and supported to join the nature community. A fairer representation of women in birdwatching on social media, as well as more opportunities for women to get careers in the field would benefit the next generation greatly. Therefore, there needs to be more female role models to support women in this industry.

In the future, I hope we can inspire the next generation of birdwatchers and naturalists, where, no matter what your sex, age or ethnicity, you can be just as great as any naturalist.

Niamh is on LinkedIn

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