For The Birds

I Know Why the Wild Bird Sings; Or Do I?

We are part of The Trust Project

For the birdsThe bird sings in the forest. Does it seek to be admired for its song?  
-Kwai Chang Caine, Kung Fu  

A few years ago a young man came with his father to an Audubon Society event. Though he was legally blind, he was a complete ace at identifying birds by their song. Consequently, he went on at least one field trip with Saw Mill River Audubon. We welcomed his gift of bird gab and instead of seeing his sightlessness as a handicap, we prized his extrasensory hearing acumen as a gift.  

This is a time when birders of all branches, pardon the pun, are being welcomed into the circle of observation. Black and Latinx birders are stepping to the fore, one positive outcome of the unfortunate “Central Park Karen Incident.” And while handicapped accessibility has been an issue for many years—the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990–some in the birding community are making it a priority.  

Freya McGregor is one of those people: the.ot.birder on Instagram, and key player in promoting the website (Birdability was founded by Virginia Rose, who’s been a wheelchair user for 48 years). Freya’s frequent social media posts remind us that some things hold people back from birding: lack of wheelchair access, lack of braille signage, lack of equipment like binoculars, even lack of a ride to a birding outing.  

Locally, we at Saw Mill River Audubon were happy to make birding easier for one of our members, a lifetime hiker and birder who had arthritis and has had spinal surgeries, requiring a walker, and sometimes, a wheelchair. She complained that “most boardwalks are very short and then revert to dirt. So I could never really enjoy any time in the woods.”  

After contacting SMRA, she was encouraged to visit our Pinecliff Sanctuary, and on her first trip there navigated the loop trail twice, spotting a Barred Owl, and Wood Thrush, and the mighty ruler of the forest canopy, a Pileated Woodpecker. All this was possible because there was a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk she could meander along with her husband.  

I joke sometimes that my birding is awful because as I get older my sight and hearing both are diminishing. But for some, addressing very real accessibility issues helps them to enter the universe of birding in a unique way, and may allow us to glimpse things differently, too.  

So walk beside a birder with disabilities: try to see what they see, hear what they hear, feel what they feel. Give somebody a ride. Lend them your binoculars for a little while. You might be surprised by how much you get in return.  

Please contact Saw Mill River Audubon if you have any questions about our handicap-accessible sites or events.  

Brian Kluepfel is a proud member of Saw Mill River Audubon and a contributing author to Lonely Planet travel guides, Westchester Magazine, and Birdwatching magazine.  Check him out at and on IG @briankluepfel . 

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