The dangers of solo birding when you are a woman and what we can do to keep ourselves safe


With the recent attacks on women, reports of women being followed while out walking in local birding spots like UBC and Burnaby Lake and allegations of sexual assaults this year by prominent male birders on women birders, I felt I had to speak out. Not to mention you may remember a case of a 73 year old women birder who was raped a few years ago while birding in Central Park in NYC. You may also remember a famous female birder was gang-raped while birding in Papua New Guinea. Also with the ever increase of systemic racism in Canada, with many attacks right now on minorities, especially Asian Canadian women; I felt it is time to do something to help women birders in my community. I recently posted about an excellent article by Sabrina Hepburn called "Safety and The Solo Birder" which was first published by the American Birding Association's Birding Magazine. You can read my blog post and the article in full HERE.

Birding solo is more dangerous for Black, Indigenous and women of colour, women and trans women, this is a proven fact. I like to bird solo, both internationally and locally. I go birding in places like Arizona alone and sometimes don't see another person for hours. I travelled across Colorado and Kansas alone and do the same here in BC. I’ve travelled all over Europe alone too. I love birding solo (for the positive sides, freedom, peace... you name it) but there are also dangers to birding alone, especially when you are a woman. A female birder from WA state Bryony Angell, talked about her fears about the danger of solo birding back in 2016. You can read it HERE.

I wanted to first stop and applaud the Ontario Field Ornithologists for putting out statements on their website stating their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ birders. You can read it HERE. Other birding associations across the country and in the US have done the same like Oregon's Birding Association and the Society of Canadian Ornithologists who take it one step further. They both put out statements that say they stand in solidarity with women birders who have been victims of sexual assault. You can read them HERE and HERE. These organizations that are stepping up to do the work and acknowledge the systemic racism in Canada and the US and in the birding community is very important to people like me. They are trying to make everyone feel welcome without just assuming they feel welcome. Silence to me is complicity. I wish more Birding Associations in North America would put up statements like this and do the work that needs to be done.

Many women birders have contacted me privately letting me know how unsafe they feel when birding solo. Men have reached out to me too, letting me know about female birding friends they have had to help out in the field. Some men have been asked to take women birding into wooded areas where solo women feel particularly unsafe. When I'm notified of areas that are dangerous to women birders in my community, I let them know with direct messages to avoid the area or be vigilant in those areas. I also let men know so they can keep their eyes out and many of my male birding friends have daughters and wives too. When a woman was jogging the trails this year in Pacific Spirit Park and was attacked by a man who wanted her cell phone -- it all is telling us women to be extra vigilant. I am good friends with a female RCMP officer who has helped me tremendously with this topic. 

I invite more women to reach out to me by email or phone and we can discuss some safety options that I take when out birding that may work for them. There are some simple things women can do to protect themselves while out birding.

When you go birding alone, try and let your partner, family or friend know where you are going and when you plan to return. When you go into wooded areas or areas where you are alone, you can carry dog spray (pepper spray and bear spray is illegal to carry in Canada when intended to be used against humans). It is fully legal to carry bear spray in areas where you may encounter bears/cougars and if you are attacked it will be another option you can use on an attacker. Make sure you take a course or at least watch a youtube video and test it out beforehand, so you know how to actively deploy these sprays. You don't want to spray it back in your face or make it non-effective, which will only aid your attacker. You can buy dog spray and bear spray from places like Amazon and Mountain Equipment Co. Bear Horns can scare off a human attacker too (but are bulky to carry). Pocket knifes are allowed to be on your person if not concealed (such as on your belt loop). Make sure your cell phone is always charged and bring a fully charged battery pack with you. It can save your life. Don't ever forget a first-aid kit either. I carry two small kits on me at all times and a small flashlight plus a survival kit. You should carry a self defense key chain (make sure you purchase a legal one) (or hold your keys pointed out in your fist when you walk). When out alone keep your cell phone hidden on trails, you can eBird later. Keep headphones out of your ears and stay vigilant of your surroundings at all times. Also women can take a self defense course and many are available online, if you don't feel safe doing an in-person one right now in the pandemic. 

Don't ever push your limits of personal safety. When your gut tells you to go, or it you feel it is not safe, get the heck out of there. Don't ever bird alone at night, unless you can owl near your car at all times. If you are a mother enroll your daughters too, sign them up for girl guides/scouts all these tools can help save your life. Know how to start a fire (carry fire starters with you), cut wood and camp and cook alone, know how to use a knife in the wild (IT CAN SAVE YOUR LIFE).  It is important to know that any item you use on an attacker as self defense can be used against you so it is VITAL you know what you are doing when you use them. I am happy to help any women with outdoor survival skills I've learned since I was young. My dad was always really outdoorsy (as most Norwegians are) and taught me from young many skills that have helped me today. He hiked solo up Mt. Cheam (when there was no road from the highway- it was a crazy slog) taught me bear safety and to love the outdoors and to be always alert and aware of my surroundings. I keep taking refresher self-defense courses and recommend women do too. Again this course can save your life.

Women who contact me, who feel unsafe when out birding solo can get my phone number and can call me (especially if they have no family or friends to call or who don't answer for any reason) if they are ever being followed or feel unsafe on a trail. I can be a person that can talk them through a scary event or they can text me with their location and I can call the police on their behalf. Sometimes it may not be smart to call the police in front of a potential attacker but a text may be safer. If I am available I can also meet you, if you are being followed. 

We all deserve to feel safe while in the outdoors. This is why I’m trying to bring awareness and create a women’s safety network for local birders.

I love birding alone but as a biracial woman must stay vigilant - Photo: Alana Paterson

Comments

  1. T an excellent and timely post Mel. Really good advice!! I too love birding alone - it’s my happy place - and I would hate to have that taken away by an unpleasant event. In my case I’m lucky that I’m not an immediate target (white, over fifty) but being aware of surroundings is key. As birders we often can pick up when somethings not right (birds and insects go quiet!) listen to your senses. Look around and if someone seems to be approaching and it doesn’t feel right - get out of there! Talk loudly on your phone (even if no ones picking up!) and a lot of men are great - a lot are really more aware of how intimidating they might appear and let you know they’re “safe” - by crossing to another path or the other side, or with a wave or loud greeting (that isn’t meant to scare but let you know that they know you might be scared - and a lot of men would be more than happy to step in if you’re in a situation to remove the person following you. Listen to your instincts. What a great post Mel!! Well done and thank you - from another sole birder (don’t forget to call me if you need me - there’s no one angrier than a grumpy old white lady)

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    Replies
    1. thank you so much kate for your post and sharing your tips, I really appreciate it.

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  2. Mel
    Sadly, a very timely post. For many solo birders, especially female and BIPOC, danger sometimes comes from unexpected directions
    As a father of a daughter and a trans BIPOC, i have tried very hard to prepare them for the worst, whether they be hiking, jogging, or just out for a walk. When I hear their stories, my blood runs hot with anger and cold with fear ( a parents worst nightmare)
    Your very sage advice should be heeded by all. Be aware, be alert, and be prepared.
    Again, another great post and I hope it is read by many.

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    Replies
    1. thank you ken, that means so much to me. I am grateful that as a male birder you are so supportive of this issue. how lucky your kids are to have a dad like you! glad your kids are prepared too. my dad has said the same thing about stories I've told him. it is a scary thing for any parent to think about. it's so good to have people in our community looking out for one another and most importantly that women and trans women are getting prepared out there to protect themselves. because the world isn't always so supportive and you can really only depend on yourself to fight off any potential attacker when we are out in the woods alone. see you out in the field my friend.

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  3. Great post good to highlight these issues

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  4. Great post good to highlight these issues

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