Many nature centers, bird clubs, and environmental organizations are running successful outreach programs across the North America. Some examples include presentations open to the public, special events/festivals, and the ever-popular bird walks.
These outreach programs can be successful for all stakeholders. The attending participants can have a wonderful time and learn new field skills. Ideally, they also walk away with a better understanding of conservation issues which can benefits our birds and the environment. The hosting organizations may end up generating some revenue from the program fees or even new memberships.
Again, the programs are highly successful at engaging people with some interest in birds. Yet, how many "outreach programs" are really REACHING OUT to the uninitiated? How may will break new ground?
Many of these activities include unintended but inherent barriers that can hinder large segments of the population from participating. Sure, bird walks at regional hot spots are wonderfully "birdy" but all too often these hot spots are some distance from population centers. Bird festivals can be lots of fun but how many "non-birders" are attracted to these events. Of course, it costs organizations to conduct these activities so they need to charge a nominal fee but those fees, while necessary, are a considerable barrier to birding. Why would someone pay for something they know nothing about?!
With relatively minor changes to programming, bird-education outreach could effectively reach more people. Some general considerations for reaching out include:
1. Conduct bird walks in popular urban or suburban parks: Sure, the list may not be as long as the hot-spot walks, but the number of people who can attend the event could skyrocket.
2. Partner with community groups: Churches, scouting troops, rotary clubs and other civic organizations already have inroads to the local families as well as individuals of all ages and backgrounds. Working together with these groups will make birding activities more accessible and inviting to large swaths of previously uninvolved public.
3. Provide FREE walks/programs: A regularly scheduled (e.g. weekly or monthly) FREE birding activity in a populated area can pay huge dividends by increasing awareness of your programs to new groups, who may return for more walks or even become a member!
4. Relevant leaders (mentors!): Participants will feel more comfortable engaging with your program if they can relate to the other active members and, more specifically, the engaged leaders. These are potential mentors who talk and look like the new participants, mentors who are friendly and welcoming, involved and inspirational.
5. Creatively paired activities: By broadening activities beyond merely birding, you can appeal to people with other interests. Sports, history, food/drink, pop culture, and art are incredibly versatile starting points. A terrific example of such creativity was a series of programs run by Edinburg Scenic Wetlands in south Texas known as Zombie Survival Nights. Participants learned how to survive a zombie apocalypse by utilizing their environment and included lessons on botany, edible plants, animal tracks, and bird calls!
Bird-education outreach is a critical tool to promote a societal bird conservation ethic. In our litigious society, it would be problematic to literally grab people by the scruff of their neck and open their eyes to the bounty of birds all around. Yet, if our bird outreach does a bit more reaching out, we can ultimately have a similar beneficial result of more public awareness of bird conservation issues.