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A call to all birders: take the pledge to fledge a newcomer

August 22, 2012

Photo by Bruce Fellman

As the Naturalist’s 13-year-old grandson Cameron Walley, who “fledged” as a birder not long after he could walk, knows well, birds are everywhere. As a bird-watcher, there’s no better feeling than bringing a newcomer into the fold, so “take the pledge,” and share the excitement.

I have a confession to make: this column has a subversive agenda.

Oh, I know that on its surface, A Naturalist’s Journal has always seemed like a simple, and usually gentle, exploration of the natural world, and this is pretty much an accurate assessment. But when I started this weekly effort in the early part of 1978, I also had something more in mind than simply conveying my love of nature and teaching readers how the outdoor universe worked.

I wanted to make you interested. I wanted to make you care. And, above all, I wanted to make you consider, at least every so often, making a commitment to the causes of environmentalism, conservation, and preservation.

Whether I’ve succeeded is, I suppose, something for my biographers to decide—that’s a joke, incidentally; I gave up seeking fame long ago, and I don’t expect to have biographers—but I hope that, after almost 35 years of trying, I’ve helped you to see the value in the natural world. More to the point, I hope I’ve given you good reason to raise your voices in protest whenever that world is threatened.

So it was that when, a few weeks ago, I got a notice about a new, gently subversive effort aimed at furthering the very agenda I’d long championed, I knew that I’d be bringing it to your attention. The effort is called Pledge to Fledge (P2F), and it’s designed to get people involved in environmental awareness through that most common of gateway drugs: bird watching.

The guy who told me about the P2F campaign is bird-watcher extraordinaire Richard Crossley. Readers of the Journal met Richard last year when I wrote about The Crossley ID Guide, which is one of the most innovative field guides to birds I’ve ever used. What I didn’t know at the time was that Richard was in the process of hatching an international effort to bring lots of newcomers into the birding fold. The vehicle to achieve this subversive goal was simple: you and I.

“The bread and butter of Pledge to Fledge is to empower every individual and make them feel they can make a difference,” said Crossley, during a phone conversation from his home in Cape May, New Jersey. “On the smallest scale, all we’re asking is that each birder takes someone new outside birding for a half hour. That’s the bare bones of it.”

The “pledge” part can be found on the new organization’s website——and here’s what you’re agreeing to do:

I pledge to actively share my enthusiasm for birds with non-birders by taking them into the field to show them birds and foster their own appreciation for birds whenever possible. I will strive to be friendly, patient, helpful, and welcoming when approached by ‘non-birders’ or asked about birds by acquaintances. I believe that individual birders, as part of an international grassroots movement, can effect positive and profound change for our shared birds and their future.

This is, of course, something we do all the time, but if you need additional reasons to get involved, consider the following, which is also the preamble to the Pledge:

As a birder, I have savored the sights of nature’s most spectacular works of art. I have felt the pride of discovering a rare bird in my area. At times, my spirit has been soothed by the songs of our winged wonders. I wish EVERYONE could experience these joys.

By building public appreciation for local birds, communities can realize the intrinsic, aesthetic, and ecological value of birdlife and nature in general. This life-fulfilling appreciation also serves as the requisite foundation for bird conservation action.

I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to take the Pledge and get involved, and if you agree, the campaign kicks off on the August 24 to 26 weekend. (If you miss this opportunity, there’s a second one in April 2013.) Crossley explained that there are numerous public events in the Cape May area and that many conservation organizations around the country will host their own P2F forays. “The big one for me is that on Saturday night, August 25th, we’ve invited all the neighbors on our street to spend an hour with us, take a walk, and get to know us and the local birds,” said Crossley. “It’s that simple—it’s informal, not intimidating, and a great way to create community. This is the true essence of a grassroots effort that relates to birds and nature.”

The P2F idea was the result, Crossley continued, of a chance meeting he had last year at a British bird fair event with Keith Barnes, a founder of the avitourism business Tropical Birding, and two women, Michelle Mohilef and her sister, Danielle Rudner, both of whom run Pacific Bird and Supply Company, a business that offers insect-based wild bird food and other birding supplies. “These two remarkable ladies bloody blew me away,” said Crossley, who was brought up in England. “And they could break down birding in America better than anyone I’d ever met.”

Crossley had long wanted to figure out how to get more people in this country involved in his passion, and in Michelle and Danielle, he found the answers. Thus was born the germ of the idea that became, with the addition of New Jersey teacher and writer Dave Magpiong, P2F. In fact, Magpiong had already pioneered a gentle approach to fledging new birders—see his website,—and he and the sisters brought their educational insights to the campaign.

There’s a wealth of great information at the P2F site, and if you’re at all concerned that you might not know enough to succeed in “fledging” a new birder, read and relax. You’ll do just fine.

“Most people don’t realize how much they can accomplish as individuals,” said Crossley, “but you can definitely make a difference, and not only in the life of one child or one neighbor. You can affect a whole neighborhood, and maybe, as we saw in Egypt, one person can make an impact on a global scale.”

In terms of creating the same kind of revolution in the birding world and raising the endeavor’s profile, well, Crossley is also hoping to find an individual champion with name recognition. “If Justin Bieber announced that he was a birder, birding in America would change overnight,” said Crossley.

But while we wait for that to happen, the campaign starts small: birder to birder, one person at a time.

The shorebirds are returning to the coast. The nestlings raised both here and in the boreal forest breeding grounds are flooding the woods and fields. There are hawks lording it over the skies, and in the woods on the ridge, I heard wood peewees and red-eyed vireos find their voices once again. It is a great time to be a birder.

Take the pledge. Do something subversive. Get someone else involved in birding. Make a new friend—and maybe turn someone into a new defender of the natural world.


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