A Quiet Place

For some, birding is an escape. For others, it’s an extension of a world where we can’t let our guard down.

This past April, as Blackpolls, Black-throated Blues, and dozens of other warblers invaded New York City, I was 3,000 miles away in the mellow village of Pijijiapan. The tiny Mexican enclave, cradled in the mangroves in the southern state of Chiapas, had its own birding boasts: Turquoise-browed Motmots in every pasture, Giant Wrens under every banana eave, and a pair of pygmy-owls, flirting above our open-air dining hall. But the warblers we caught in our banding nets—Common Yellowthroat and Yellow, mostly—reminded me of the migration boom back home.

In the evening, before another heaping plate of tortillas and Oaxacan cheese, my classmate Sarah and I wandered down the red-dirt footpath sans guides. Sarah knew a little Spanish; I couldn’t tell jacana from jicama. There was no cellphone reception, so we left everything but our binoculars and cameras in the bunks.

As Sarah struggled to get a portrait of a spiny-tailed iguana, a sweaty, middle-aged man crept out of the woods. In one hand he carried a bloody machete. In the other he carried an even bloodier sack.

Record scratch.

Freeze frame.

You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation. The answer to that is easy: I was doing what you’d be doing on a rare excursion to Latin America. Birding. Eating up those sweet lifers. Tapping that tropical mojo. Praying to never see a starling again.

Point is, there’s nothing I should have done differently to avoid Señor Machete. And yet, why did I feel like I’d compromised my and Sarah’s safety?

Welcome to life as a female birder, where you’re often second guessing yourself in scenarios you have little control over. Every time a man takes an extra beat to read your driver’s license. Every time you’re traveling solo and the entire hotel floor is vacant. Every time a drink is handed to you at a party. Every time you wonder if the birds are worth the risk.

Some birders might read this and feel the outrage rising in their stomachs. Birding is a safe, friendly community, they will say. No one wants to hurt each other. Everyone is a welcome. (I expect these comments because I’ve seen them time and again while publishing stories on sexism and bigotry in Audubon magazine.)

Those people should remember a few things. One, birders can be nice, and they can be creepy; the traits aren’t mutually exclusive. Two, birding doesn’t exist in a silo; it might serve as an escape, but it will never fully isolate us from the ills of the world. Three, defensiveness gets us no place. We exist in a society that devalues women, physically, mentally, and literally through the wage gap. Sexism has been written into our history, and it’s being written into our present. If we want to write the future any differently, we can’t hold birding as an exception.

I won’t go through and define every clear and present danger for women. Just read the biography on Phoebe Snetsinger, which details how she was gang raped, and how she internalized the trauma to keep it from sidelining her gender-defying quest. Or learn about Mollie Tibbets, the beloved student who was murdered while running in rural Iowa last month. Or just talk to one of the female birders in your life. Each of us has a unique set of fears, borne out of choices, influences, and experiences. Some women may be backcountry-savvy, armed with the confidence to conquer mountain lions and rattlers. Others may feel more secure in the city, armed with the street smarts they’ve wielded since childhood.

I for one am always vigilant. After practicing Krav Maga for the past few years, I try to keep defenses against common attacks—chokes, wrist grabs, hair pulls, bear hugs—playing in my head. I also like to have a simple tool in my pocket or my pack: a Swiss Army Knife, a kubotan, a pair of eyebrow scissors, a lighter, a collapsible hatchet. But most times they’re stripped from my carry-on when I fly, leaving me bare-knuckled when I’m birding in a new spot.

That sadly means making some sacrifices. I decided to venture out alone to California’s Salton Sea, feeling reassured that it was U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service land. Same with the Bear River Migratory Refuge in Utah and the Great Falls National Historic Park in Patterson, New Jersey. But I’ve skipped the Tijuana wetlands during my last two visits to San Diego, in fear of the heightened Border Patrol aggression. Owling is usually a pipe dream, too—unless I can rally some birding friends in advance.

Of course, my limits may be less oppressive than others’. Birding as a woman has its hazards, but so does birding as a black American. How does birding as a black woman compare? A transgender woman (a community that faces extraordinary rates of violence)? A Dreamer woman? A paraplegic woman?

To ensure the safety of female birders everywhere, we need to understand these different layers of danger. Then we have to learn how birding makes us—or a certain few of us—more vulnerable. Lastly, we must empower each other with information. If there’s an eBird hotspot that you’d never revisit, blast it over your listserv. If there’s a tour guide or outfitter that left you feeling shook, share your feelings in a Facebook group. If someone in the community is harassing you, either in person or online, let your pals know. And if that’s all too public for you, maybe an anonymous tip chart is the way to go.

To end on a warmer note, Señor Machete turned out to be another jolly villager: A peek into his sack revealed a freshly killed iguana, identical to the one posing for Sarah’s camera.  It was a reminder that in my six years of birding, I’ve so far gone unscathed. I can’t wait for the day when that statistic no longer has any purpose.

Purbita Saha