Can Birds Rehumanize Red & Blue Politics?

In these divisive days it’s hard to imagine anything that could get Democrats and Republicans to go for a walk together.

But apparently, once a month on Capitol Hill, it happens.

I learned this wondrous fact by listening to Bring Birds Back, and if you’d like to know more, I hope you’ll listen to Season 3, Episode 1 and subscribe to the podcast all about “the joy of birds and how humans can help them through simple, everyday actions.”

Bring Birds Back is a BirdNote production (see Sparrowfare’s The Blessings of Birding by Ear) and on “Birding on the Hill,” host Tenijah Hamilton has a hopeful and at times hilarious conversation with Audubon “bird lobbyist” Tykee James about the bipartisan nature of birding and a bill (the political kind – a pun I’ve re-employed, James style) he hopes will pass before the November election.

In a brilliant strategical move, Tykee James shares his passion for birds by conducting “Birding on the Hill” walks for legislators and their staff: “Democratic side, Republican side, Senate side, House side,” and he’s been doing it since 2019.

“A typical outing has between two and 12 Hill staffers or legislators, Democrats and Republicans,” notes Christian Science Monitor staff writer Dwayne A. Weingarten:

The hourlong early-morning expeditions provide an opportunity to learn basic birding techniques, identify bird species, and just talk outside the halls of Congress, away from intense policy discussions.

The common experience around birds creates openings for true collaboration across the aisle. 

James says he grew up with birding as a means to build trust and coalition. “It only makes sense that birding is now a vehicle for us to build bridges, to build common ground,” he says.

Perspectives often vary, even when two people are standing on the same spot and are looking at the same bird. One person may notice its shape and another its color, for instance:

I’m talking about seeing a red bird, and you’re talking about seeing a bird that has a nice little mohawk and we know that we can pool these perspectives together, we know that we can pool our knowledge together.

Sharing the same ground but having different perspectives enhances everyone’s experience. James connects this with what may have once been “part of the enjoyment of the legislative process, finding common ground, honoring different perspectives and building from there.”

Obviously birding isn’t a cure-all that will make two people on opposite sides suddenly agree with each other enough to support a given piece of legislation, but simply being together and sharing a common interest may help humanize our opponents, which will create better dialog in the future.

In the second half of  the show we learn more about James’ current passion, the Restoring America’s Wildlife Act, a bill which has truly bipartisan support (at least 17 Democrats, 16 Republicans and one Independent). The bill has passed the House and it’s James’ hope that it will be put to a vote in the Senate before the mid-term election. While 42 senators have co-sponsored the bill, it doesn’t have the 60 votes needed for passage.

The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act provides federal funding to enhance the drafting and delivery of state wildlife action plans, as well as providing funding for Native American conservation efforts. Check out the bipartisan list of cosponsors here and read a Wildlife Society factsheet about the bill here.

According to a 2019 study published in Science, almost 3 billion birds have been lost since about 1970, a fact that has mobilized interest around what humans can do to preserve ever-shrinking wildlife habitat. The background behind the study was explored onHow Do We Know that Birds Are in Trouble?”, the very first episode of Bring Birds Back.

The loss of 3 billion birds is staggering to contemplate, especially when we consider that many of the factors behind this loss are things that we can take steps to change.

Truly this world “wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell,” as priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins memorably put it almost 200 years ago. But preserving wildlife will help ensure that kingfishers will still catch fire, dragonflies draw flame, reminding us that “the world is charged with the glory of God.”

I share Hopkins’ view of the cosmos, but even if you don’t, “Birding on the Hill” is proof that birds can help people of varying worldviews unite at least once in a while.

With winsome humor Tykee James reminds us all that together we can make “a difference for our little feathered friends, our little avian homies.”

Even if we’re not exactly “birds of a feather” on every issue facing us.

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You might also enjoy Sparrowfare’s The Blessing of Birding by Ear: Tips for Identifying Birds by their Song and Loathing and Hopelessness, Juice and Joy: Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Secret Sorrow.

Can you tell the difference between a raven and a crow? I’ve always struggled to hang onto the details, but BirdNote’s episode Ravens and Crows – Who’s Who? set me straight in less that two inutes.

Have you stumbled on other ways to get people of opposing views together on common ground? I’d love to hear from you!

Photos by Gauravdeep Singh Bansal. Patrice Bouchard on Unsplash and Ian Kirk via Wikipedia.