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Flight Lines: Birders not immune to group declines

Birders attending the Potholes and Prairie Birding Festival in Carrington look for grassland species in the early morning light. Held annually for many years, the 2019 festival has been cancelled for lack of enrollment. Photo by Keith Corliss.

A stark reality is staring us in the face. No, I'm not talking about the brutally cold weather we've endured the past few weeks nor the mountains of snow we must gingerly peek around while trying to turn a street corner. Instead, I'm speaking to the slow but steady decline of social organizations within the local community and the country (world?) at large.

Almost every group I hear about--be it Kiwanis, Rotary, B.P.O.E., VFW, or whatever--is and has been experiencing falling numbers over the past several years. If there is one out there with growing membership I don't know about it. According to Putnam, attendance at service clubs declined an estimated 58 percent between 1975 and 2000. I doubt the trend is changing.

Let me be a little more specific. There are some organizations with fairly steady numbers but I'm addressing the bustling, come-to-every-meeting types that actively participate. They are different than those who simply have their name on some roster. The doers are getting harder to recruit it seems. And they are getting older.

The birding community mirrors this as well. There was a time when local bird watching groups such as Audubon chapters saw rooms filled with eager listeners at meetings, with folks helping out and volunteering for various projects. That is not the case today.

The reasons usually cited for the slumping numbers are much the same everywhere but all entail a certain societal shift, an inertia that is difficult to counter. The Internet is most often pinpointed as the culprit. Instead of having to learn of information at meetings or through mailings, it is now instantly available on our phones, negating the need or desire to physically gather in groups.

Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms are plucking people away, particularly among the young. The gathering of people behind a common cause that has been a physical one for so long is becoming more and more virtual, leaving meeting rooms increasingly empty. There is hardly a 10-year-old today without a cell phone. This is the generation we are losing. They are not going to want to attend meetings.

Among bird watching groups the elephant in the living room is eBird. It is the Google of the birding world with a nearly unlimited amount of information ready at the touch of a button. Back when I got started in this interest, in order to find out where I might find a certain bird I had to know somebody or call the local "Rare Bird Alert" and listen to a recorded message once a week. Today, the moment a person finds a bird and uploads it into eBird, the news is passed instantly to the world.

Moreover, the media we used to look forward to then devour at meetings--the slideshows or videos--are now available 24/7 on platforms such as YouTube.

I am not suggesting that these paradigm shifts are necessarily a bad thing (although there are studies that suggest younger people are falling behind in face-to-face or group social skills). They are just different.

While the older among us struggle to stem the tide of ebbing involvement, perhaps we should accept the reality that it will likely never come back. Instead, we should be looking for ways to accommodate the current momentum. Be innovative, be forward looking, be welcoming, be creative. Be open to the idea that, moving forward, it will look quite different.

We need to get our arms around the fact that the world is ever evolving. Today it is doing so at an accelerated pace. That means organizations have to stay nimble, stay visionary, stay original. If indeed they will breathe at all.

The days of groups gathering in a large room with someone at the front announcing, "I call this meeting to order," are numbered I think. What organizations will look like in the future I don't know. It's quite possible those left standing will exist only virtually.

I will personally miss the social aspects of group organizations. That is something computers cannot replace. But the shift is here. It is the new reality. Fifty years from now it will be even more removed from what we knew. Something new will have come along and replaced Facebook. Remember when we all thought Sears and Roebuck would be around forever too? The only thing constant is change.