Biological sciences graduate students launch Inclusive Birding Club at NIU

Huskies at all stages in their educational journey can now join a new club focused on creating a welcoming space for aspiring birdwatchers to share a fun hobby.

On top of fostering an equitable environment, the students in NIU’s Department of Biological Sciences say the goals of the Inclusive Birding Club are to offer a mental health-boosting outlet, a conduit to career exploration and a means to support conservation efforts.

“This is just the beginning in terms of creating a culture of change,” said Andrew Dreelin, a first-year graduate student who studies grassland species in north-central Montana and spearheaded the club’s establishment. “The long-term goal is to have a self-sustaining, diverse body of undergraduate and graduate students who are coming together in a shared and welcoming space to explore their passions together, and for that space to be a boost to people’s mental health and to be an avenue for people to network and receive mentorship.”

Five graduate students — club president Dreelin, secretary and social chair Carly Crow, treasurer Erin Rowland, conservation coordinator Christy N. Wails and trip coordinator Tony Del Valle — received formal approval from the Student Government Association in October to launch the Inclusive Birding Club.

“I’m super proud of them,” said Jennifer Koop, an assistant biological sciences professor who serves as the club’s faculty advisor. “I’m proud of the motivation and the reason, as well as the execution of it.”

Koop, who has a background in birds of the Galápagos Islands and a research interest in parasites, said the students have been self-guided in their efforts to create this equitable club. Their work is a reflection of goals shared in letters written this summer by faculty and the Biological Graduate Student Association to the department, outlining action items surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion.

“I think a lot of us since then have been a bit more conscientious about equity issues going on more broadly within the university,” said Wails, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate studying seabird colonies in New Zealand who also previously helped document bird-glass collisions on campus. “Having this opportunity to thread in a lot of the ideas we came up with from that into new organizations can help ensure that we’re addressing those systemic problems, and we’re trying to move forward.”

The club’s creators found inspiration from larger efforts like #BlackBirdersWeek and the international Feminist Bird Club. Aside from that, the pastime is rapidly growing while trying to outgrow what the students call Eurocentric, competitive roots. But the group acknowledges that their work will never be done, and birding has a long way to go toward becoming for accessible to people with disabilities, as well as gender and racial diversity.

“We are here to make this an educational experience that is tailored for you,” said Crow, a first-year student who studies invasive parasites to nesting species on the Galápagos Islands. “That’s what we want to make very clear from the beginning is that, we are a club that wants to work with everybody to make sure everybody has a fun, relaxing experience — to however extreme they want to be with their birds.”

How can you get involved if you’re interested in birding? In the spirit of inclusivity, prospective members start with filling out a survey to help shape the club by expressing their motivating interests in joining.

“The really great thing about birding is that all you need at the basis level is to just to go outside, and look at birds,” said Rowland, a second-year Ph.D. student who researches small mammals at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, Ill. “You could have all the fancy equipment and all the field guides and binoculars and everything else, but you don’t need it. Birding is something that is free to everyone. And that’s the real beauty of it.”

Rowland encourages interested members to connect with the club on social media, and fill out the survey to get on the email list for events. The group is currently hosting virtual meetups, and is hoping to plan birding walks starting next year, where equipment and instruction will be available for all levels of birders and nature-lovers.

“I would just say give it a try,” said Del Valle, a second-year graduate student researching grassland species in tallgrass prairies in Nachusa and Kankakee Sands in Indiana, who says he now spends all his free time birding despite feeling intimidated when he started. “Even if you’re not into birds or new to birding, we were all new to birding and we were all rookies before.”

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