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Published: Sunday, 9/20/2009

Bird aficionado seeks diversity in birding

Kenn Kaufman Kenn Kaufman

Kenn Kaufman, an internationally renowned birding authority, naturalist, and author, knows diversity when he sees it in the bird world, and that in part is why he is troubled with a lack of diversity in the birding world.

"When you're into birds and nature, you think of diversity as a good thing," began Kaufman during an interview last week. "Seeing 20 warblers is better than just one or two."

So over time, he began to wonder why so many minorities were all but invisible among participants in birding and indeed other outdoors activities.

"I just wondered, 'Why?' Is there something we're doing to keep others out? It was disturbing. I'd never belonged to an organization that actively excluded any people," Kaufman noted, adding that certainly includes any bird clubs. "But somehow we are not appealing to broad groups of people."

Now a resident of Oak Harbor and education chairman of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory there, Kaufman has a sizeable life-list of birding expeditions that he has led all over the planet. He has delivered lectures to thousands of people, has compiled scholarly papers, and has been honored with the American Birding Association's prestigious Roger Tory Peterson award.

"I started thinking about this issue probably 20 years ago, as I started traveling and speaking to large bird clubs and groups." Whether he was in Alabama, New York, or Chicago, the story was the same as he gazed from the lectern: "I never saw a black face in the crowd. In the Southwest, I never saw a Native American. I started thinking, 'What's wrong with this picture?'•"

As Kaufman noted in an online posting about his concern, "the bird community just doesn't look like America.

"This isn't unique to birds though," he continued. "It's reflected in most areas of natural history and in many other aspects of outdoor recreation. Hiking, camping, even something as basic as visitation to national parks, are afflicted with this same lack of diversity."

Kaufman, incidentally, is not just sounding off. Formerly a resident of the Southwest and widely traveled in Latin America, he literally has put his money where his mouth is. He compiled and ultimately convinced an initially reluctant Houghton Mifflin to publish a Spanish language edition of his popular field guide to North American birds - the first among such guides. He even paid for and oversaw the translation himself.

"I actually lost a lot of money doing that. But [the Spanish edition] has gotten good use in some areas, so I'm happy about that."

Now Kaufman has taken the lack-of-diversity issue a step further. He has spearheaded a day-long program, "A Conference on Increasing Diversity in Outdoor Recreation." It is set for Saturday in the Ward Pavilion at Wildwood Preserve Metropark.

The conference evolved from the BSBO education committee, of which Kaufman is chairman. Contacts with the Metroparks and Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge revealed that both of those public agencies also were concerned with the diversity issue. As a result, BSBO, Metroparks, and the Ottawa refuge are cosponsors.

"Many of us find it hard to even talk about this issue, let alone do something about it," says Kaufman. "But on Sept. 26, birders and others in northwest Ohio will have the chance to hear from people who are already doing something, to learn from them about how to promote diversity in the outdoors."

The list of lecturers includes John C. Robinson, the man who encouraged Kaufman several years ago to do the Spanish-language bird guide. Robinson is a biologist, bird authority, software designer, and author whose latest book meets the issue of diversity head on - Birding for Everyone: Encouraging People of Color to become Birdwatchers.

Nature photographer Dudley Edmondson also is on the slate of speakers. He has found that he often is the only African-American present at popular outdoor destinations. He too has authored an insightful book, Black and Brown Faces in America's Wild Places.

Tamberly Conway is conservation education coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service in Texas. Her doctoral dissertation, in process is titled "Latino Legacy: Building Place-Based Connections of Youth through Family Experiences on Forest Lands." She is to address outreach programs and conservation education programming among Latino communities.

Kaufman said that Joe Balderas, executive director of the Sofia Quintero Hispanic Art and Cultural Center in Toledo, is tentatively scheduled as a panelist in a closing discussion. Other scheduled panelists include Diane DiYonker, a teacher at the Toledo Public Schools' Natural Science Technology Center; David Russell, professor of zoology at Miami University, and Jill Russell, executive director of the Avian Research and Education Institute in West College Corner, Ind.

Advance registration for the conference can be done online at bsbobird.org, or by calling BSBO at 419-898-4070.

Contact Steve Pollick at:


or 419-724-6068.

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