Birding and personal safety

By Ilana DeBare

About two weeks ago, there was a terrible incident in New York’s Central Park where a 73-year-old woman was raped while birding. I won’t go into the details except to say that the rapist was caught, and turned out to be a 42-year-old drifter with a history of felonies who had threatened other park goers too.

So the risk wasn’t specific to birding. The victim could have been anyone in the park. Still, the attack raised questions for me about personal safety and birding, particularly as a woman.

As an advanced-beginner birder, I typically go out with other people for help identifying the birds. I was curious about how other more experienced birders – especially women – feel about birding alone, and whether they worry about personal safety. So I emailed a few of Golden Gate Bird Alliance’s most proficient women birders, and posted the question on our Facebook page.

I quickly realized there are a variety of issues around birding safety, beyond the rape-on-a-secluded-trail that had been on my mind:

  • Natural hazards – poison oak, mountain lions, rattlesnakes etc.
  • Optics issues – carrying $2000 worth of cameras, scopes etc. can make birders a robbery target.
  • Getting to birding sites, particularly if you need to take public transit through high-crime areas.

I received a variety of responses. Some women feel that birding is no riskier than daily life in a big city. Marissa Ortega-Welch, who helps run our Eco-Education program, wrote:

I am conscious of being a young woman and generally live my life trying to always be vigilant and aware of my surroundings and present an air of confidence…. I don’t give any more thought to my personal safety while birding than I do during any other activity in my life. I do bird and hike alone, and while occasionally my irrational fears will get the better of me and make me feel nervous, I remind myself that statistically I am actually much safer in the middle of the woods than in the city and certainly safer than being in a car.

But a couple of Facebook respondents said that safety concerns do affect their birding — in frustrating ways. One wrote:

As a woman, i am often concerned about my personal safety. If alone, I try to stay on traveled trails. Unfortunately, I never feel totally relaxed. And to be perfectly honest, it p—es me off!

And another added:

I agree…with being p-ed off! I often feel unsafe, especially when I’m engrossed in some interesting species. It’s a vulnerable position to be in, with your attention and eyes elsewhere entirely. I often take my dog with me, but when I can’t do that, I admit I can’t focus entirely on the birds. It’s enraging!

Why do such worries matter? Why can’t women – or anyone concerned about safety – simply stick to birding with friends? Frances Dupont, one of the leaders of our Burrowing Owl docent program in Berkeley, sent me an articulate summary of the value of occasionally birding alone:

I feel it is very important to be able to bird alone. I learn a lot from other birders, but also from patiently looking and listening by myself. If I know the area I am very comfortable birding alone, but I am jealous of male birders who dont stop to think about whether the area is safe, is it getting dark, etc. I also think women can be under some degree of pressure to be sociable and not solitary. But it is the solitary hours in the woods that really pay off.

What do you think?

Has personal safety been a concern to you while birding? Has it affected how and where you bird? Are there steps you take to feel secure? Or do you think these concerns are overblown, and birders should be more worried about being hit by a car on Market Street?

Please share your thoughts and experiences as a comment! If we get enough interesting responses, I’ll write a follow-up blog post. If you read Golden Gate Birder by email, you can leave a comment by going to the blog site at . Scroll down to find the comment box at the bottom of the page.