My New Book


American Birding Association…A Failing Hive?

I’m willing to guess that many of the people who follow along with this blog are not really aware of the American Birding Association.  It’s supposed to be the binding organization of birders across North America, but in the last decade, it seems more like a once great bird club that is slowly fading away.  Here’s how the ABA describes itself:

The ABA is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization that provides leadership to birders by increasing their knowledge, skills, and enjoyment of birding. We are the only organization in North America that specifically caters to recreational birders. We also contribute to bird and bird habitat conservation through our varied programs.

I like some of the staff at ABA and 20% of the profits from my online shop goes to their programs for young people–I think they programs for kids are great and had I been aware of them when I was a kid, I would have wanted to go.

Last week,I received a note that the ABA was looking to hire another President.  When I read it, I thought, “Again?”  The ABA had just dumped one president because the organization was bleeding members and failing and hired a new guy who was supposed to be the great white hope of the organization.  As soon as the ABA job opening came out, rumors about why the latest president was fired had words like “mismanagement” and “embezzlement” surrounding them.

T0 me, the ABA seems like a failing hive.  The queen failed and the hive started loosing workers, they tried to create a new workforce, but only produced drones who do nothing to help build up the hive.  A requeening was attempted and failed…should another queen be introduced?

Some, like Kenn Kaufman have loyalty to the ABA because he was there in the halcyon days of the 1970s when it was exciting, coming together and growing–birders finally had a chance to connect on a country wide basis.   I do not have this loyalty.  I wasn’t even aware of it until the mid 1990s.  I enjoyed some of the publications and I enjoyed the festivals when I could afford to go (or go on someone’s behalf like Swarovski). But I had no way of knowing about it as a kid growing up in Indiana.

But now many question if it’s too late for the organization–should it die?  Or should we try to requeen this hive and save it.

There’s lots of discussion about why the ABA is failing.

Can’t compete with the Internet: ABA brought birders together before there was the Internet.  Now that there are blogs, forums, state list sites, Facebook, Twitter, etc–people are more interested in their local patch, rather than a big organization that talks about gulls on the west coast than grosbeaks in the backyard.  It was slow to embrace the Internet and has really grown in the last year, thanks to a few forward thinking staff.

Birders Don’t Get Along: There are different types of birders and they can’t get along well enough to even partner up for conservation efforts (Duck Stamp, anyone).  Hardcore birders want the ABA to be id and listing and I would wager that though a vocal group, they are the smallest percentage of birders in the US.  Casual birders are intimidated and sometimes bored by the finer points of ID but they are a much larger group and would greatly increase membership and cash flow.  Currently, the ABA can’t seem to find a way to please both.

Offerings Priced Out Of The Market: The trips and workshops offered by the ABA are too cost prohibitive for the average person and suffer from competition from all the other bird festivals out there.  I think the bird festival business model needs to be overhauled, many bird festivals are faltering not only because of the economy but because many festival organizers don’t quite know how to price things and market them in a sustainable way.

The Board of Directors: Some say the whole board should resign because their actions of the last two years led to its fast failure.  I don’t know too many of the board members–which is weird, I get around, I travel all over the country and meet a lot of birders, but not many on the ABA board.  I think it might be interesting to add some fresher and younger blood on the board.  Perhaps someone Mike Bergin from 10,000 Birds who was one of the first bird bloggers, has been ahead on the bird blogging curve and using the website as means of raising money for conservation and keeping the bird community informed  rather than someone who is a Hollywood actress who happens to be a birder.  I’d also be in favor of getting someone who was a higher up at Ducks Unlimited on the board to help build an organization that cannot only bring birders together but turn it into a voice to be listened to at Congress and raise money for habitat.

Ever since I’ve been aware of the ABA, people have been asking, “Can this organizaiton be saved?”

Is it better to get a new president or let this hive die and start a whole new organization?

19 comments to American Birding Association…A Failing Hive?

  • Steve

    The magazine and editor have been great lately. The move towards recognizing the conservation issue has been good. It was just a corrupt president and an enabling board. Start the replacement process by picking a brand new President/CEO, investigate and prosecute any illegal activity discovered, and start replacing board members. I don’t think a new organization is needed.

  • Great thoughts, Sharon. I tend to agree with Steve, there’s a lot there that’s worth preserving, but it definitely needs a new direction starting with re-imagined leadership that’s transparent and open to all birders and members. This internet discussion has been great to that end.

    I love the idea of Mike Bergin on the board. The man is an idea factory.

  • I know nothing about the organization, and am but a back-yard birder, but I sure appreciate your wide ranging comments and work to help jazz the thing up. I am pretty familiar with organizations around here (not birding ones) that have similar symptoms, and until a few people talk serious about the issues, not much happens. So if it is worth saving, keep poking!

    I do know that our local birding group is not proactive at attracting new or young people to the “sport” and their materials available over the web read about like 1950s text books. On the other hand they are dedicated, active in many aspects of the community, and respected. They just seem terrible stodgy about birding!!!

    And now – the rabbits call.

  • Matt

    Sharon for President! All valid points. Hope you throw your hat in the ring.

  • Thanks for the presidential endorsement, but I think there are far more qualified individuals. Also, unless the ABA is willing to relocate its offices to the Twin Cities, I don’t see myself applying for the position.

  • I haven’t been a member of the ABA for many years. When I was a teenager, I wanted to learn all I could about birds. Instead of getting an allowance, I would have my parents buy me memberships in various birding and nature related organizations. ABA was one I was a member of. I would read the magazine cover to cover. I enjoyed it and learned a lot from it. As I started college, I dropped the membership because of money issues (it was the most expensive). I looked at the ABA as the “high-class birders club” due to the constant pics and talks of elaborate conferences. I am a “low-class birder”. I still use a $40 pair of binocs.

    I agree Sharon, the board of directors is a problem. The only current one that I have met is the actress. Here is an example of what the wrong people can do to a once great outdoor/environmental organization:

    The Cincinnati Nature Center was pivotal in my becoming interested in birds and nature. I first went there when I was 12 and quickly met people with lots of knowledge and enthusiasm. The first staff person I met there was Jim Berry, the director at that time. We talked about nature for a long while. I also met John Ruthven, Pete Thayer, Charley Harper and others there that I learned a lot from. I am still friends with some of the people that I met there. I was taking courses there at 15 yrs. old on shorebird and warbler ID taught by Jon L. Dunn. Then things changed… They decided that they needed more income I guess and decided to let most of their best naturalists go. They forced the director out. It was ugly. They started renting out facilities and hosting elaborate, loud wedding parties. They took their focus to pricey international safaris as opposed to QUALITY local programs. I never renewed my membership since. A current look at their board of trustees shows the problem:

    Full of Bankers and Lawyers. Don’t know any of them. Being run like a corporation instead of a non-profit. The new director of CNC I first met at a political shindig for local dignitaries at the university I attended. Many of which probably couldn’t tell a titmouse from a warbler. Most of the membership has shifted from naturalist types to dog walkers. They should look to put more involved folks behind the decisions and runnings of the ABA. I’ve always wondered what “qualified” means.

  • The ABA has an existing brand and membership base, so it would probably be easier to revive that than to start an entirely new organization. If two presidents in a row had to be forced out, I think that is a sign that the problems run deeper – it’s time to replace some of the board members as well. Bringing in someone from Ducks Unlimited might help, and Bergin (or you) would be a plus on the board.

    The ABA’s publications and programs seem directed at birders with large travel budgets. Regardless of the state of the economy, this is not going to be a very large group. The ABA needs to find a way to broaden its appeal to birders who don’t fit into that category.

  • joan schnabel

    Sharon, nice use of the word halcyon….

    .per Merriam Websters
    Main Entry: 1hal·cy·on
    Pronunciation: \ˈhal-sē-ən\
    Function: noun
    Etymology: Middle English alceon, from Latin halcyon, from Greek alkyōn, halkyōn
    Date: 14th century
    1 : a bird identified with the kingfisher and held in ancient legend to nest at sea about the time of the winter solstice and to calm the waves during incubation

  • Pawalleye

    I really see no need for the ABA. It is expensive relatively speaking and I have seen their monthly publication and it is not worth $45.00/yr to me. I would rather donate to or Audubon Soc. or the the local Audubon group. I think that the ABA has our lived its usefulness.

  • Well said, Sharon. I often hear newer birders complain that even our local Audubon can be too highbrow so I make it my goal to introduce as many newbies as I can to the ubiquitous Song Sparrow and help them remember that a common bird is just as “good” as a rare one. I think Cornell’s the organization to bring the backyard birder and the experienced birder together online in the new age of the internet. Look what they’ve done with citizen science! Birding isn’t just about ID and molt patterns….it’s about the contribution the average guy\gal can make right from the backyard. If the ABA can embrace that attitude perhaps it will be reborn.

  • Blunt talk, but very necessary. I’m ambivalent about ABA, but would hate to see it fail. On other hand, it conveys an elitist attitude toward bird watching that is hardly going to expand its base of support. And it ignores issues involved with hard core birding. In today’s world, should they be encouraging and promoting indiscriminate bird chasing and the carbon foot print that leaves.

  • Bonnie

    laura said:

    Birding isn’t just about ID and molt patterns….it’s about the contribution the average guy\gal can make right from the backyard.

    Well said; however, in my humble opinion the ABA was created by and for the segment of the birdwatching community that is enthusiastic about listing, the finer points of bird identification, and that, I’m sorry to say, condescends to those of us who don’t share their point of view. I’ve been to ABA conventions where I’ve actually heard a birder grouse about not liking the Northern Cardinal-why? because it’s a common bird and that birder was bored with answering questions about it from ordinary people-people who, if their question is met with enthusiasm and openness, might become more interested in birds.

  • Bonnie – good point. I wasn’t thinking about WHO created it and what they were trying to achieve. Yeah, it’s the condescension of an “expert” in any area that hinders the expansion of the organization.

  • @Bonnie- I take some issue with the statement that those enthusiastic about listing or the finer points of bird identification “condescend” to other birders. I frankly fail to see how expressing an interest that you do not share is in any way condescending. I really don’t get the “birders don’t get along” thing because in my experience people who know about this stuff have always been incredibly forthcoming in sharing that knowledge. Anyone is more than welcome to not care.

    Besides, who cares if a birder says they don’t like the Cardinal? And in what context was the offending comment made, because I doubt it was a fervently held belief rather than a hyperbole with comedic intent.

    I realize that there is a somewhat pervasive attitude that the ABA is just for serious birders, and I admit the ABA hasn’t been great at working to dissuade that myth, but all people that enjoy birding are welcome. You don’t have to care about molt or vagrant Calidris ID, but for those that are interested it really is the only game in town and that’s not a bad thing. But I think this over-concern with the actions of cartoon stereotypes of listers and so-called indiscriminate twitchers without any thought to the very real conservation work many of them (us?) do misses the point completely. It’s a two-way street anyway, there’s a good deal of condescension that comes from folks who believe their birding is more “pure” or “authentic” when they ignore that stuff.

    There are always people more interested in the numbers or the competition, there always will be, but for most others its about sharing an experience in the natural world, however you do it. That’s what the ABA is for and what it should be. We could do well to lighten up about our differences.

  • Bonnie

    Besides, who cares if a birder says they don’t like the Cardinal? And in what context was the offending comment made, because I doubt it was a fervently held belief rather than a hyperbole with comedic intent.

    I realize that there is a somewhat pervasive attitude that the ABA is just for serious birders, and I admit the ABA hasn’t been great at working to dissuade that myth, but all people that enjoy birding are welcome.

    I was present when the comment about the Northern Cardinal was made, and it was not made facetiously or for comedic intent.

    No, the ABA has not done a very good job of contradicting the opinion that it is primarily aimed at serious birders, and that apparently is because that is the community for which it exists, and has always existed.

  • I’m sorry Bonnie, but I really couldn’t disagree more. The ABA, at its core, is about celebrating birding and the community of birders and providing resources that are unavailable elsewhere. Granted, so-called “serious” birders (which is a completely objective definition) are the ones who are likely to be more interested in that sort of thing, but there’s no skill level requirement to get involved.

    Odd cardinal haters aside, there are lots of good birders out there who do lots of great things to promote birding and conservation at all levels. I’m at a loss as to why simply being interested in understanding molt or keeping a list or wanting to increase one’s field skills is considered “elitism” or condescending to those who don’t do those things, though. They’re just ways to enjoy birds and birding. Both are great. No judgment necessary.

  • Bonnie

    Nate, I don’t consider interest in improving one’s field skills or interest in education to be elitist. I certainly didn’t intend to imply that.

    As far as a big tent organization for birdwatching goes, one already exists, and it’s the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. No need for any other organization to try to duplicate that.

    Perhaps the ABA can regroup and carry on with its work. I certainly hope so.

  • Hey, thanks Shaz (and Nate and John) for the ringing endorsement! I’ve been on vacation and mostly offline or I would have jumped in sooner. I also like your idea of somehow tapping into the success in both vision and execution organizations like Ducks Unlimited have enjoyed. Oh, how I envy duck hunters…

  • You hit on a main problem with all nonprofits. At some point they hit a wall when it comes to membership and donations. They become saturated with their targeted member and have no idea how to attract the more casual member or someone outside their main target. They can have issues with attracting people outside of their primary, narrow niche.

    Organizations that have been around awhile develop a ‘good old boy’ attitude. They can be blind to their own shortcomings and so deathly afraid of losing what they are comfortable with that they can’t adapt to attract new members. It’s for this reason you can identify scores of nonprofits that seem to do the same thing but that work to retain different member bases.

    Good post.