Birds

Good Bird Watchers: Meet Virginia Rose, the founder of Birdability

In our “Good Birders” column we introduce bird watchers who make a difference – people who use their time, talent and treasure for scientific or conservation efforts, public relations or the like. This episode, meet Virginia Rose, a retired teacher who leads a movement to improve the bird experience for people with mobility issues.

In recent years, a movement has been built to give people with mobility problems better access to nature, especially bird watching. It all started thanks to Virginia Rose of Austin, Texas, a retired high school and college English teacher.

When Rose was 14 years old, she broke her back in a riding accident. She has used a wheelchair since then.

Bird watchability: access for all

On Thursday, October 20 at 4 p.m. Eastern, Rose will host an Audubon webinar to share the history of her work with Birdability, the steps she is taking to develop it, the Birdability website, and how Audubon Chapters works Can make bird watching accessible to all. Her motto: You won’t know until you leave!

One of her grandmothers was a bird watcher and when she died she left Rose her Peterson guide with her numerous and cherished pencil marks. Rose herself caught the birding bug in 2003 after attending a presentation on the house finch given by her local Travis Audubon Society.

She joined the group and “took all of their bird watching courses and did all of their field trips. Everyone was so welcoming and there was no hesitation ”about her mobility, she recalls. “Excursion leaders just picked me up and off we went.”

While birdwatching, directing bird walks for Travis Audubon, and still teaching, she considered “helping people with mobility problems get on trails, but I wasn’t sure how to do it.” After retiring In 2018 Rose decided to run a birdathon on her own. She didn’t like participating in other birdathons because she didn’t want to slow down the bird watchers or feel rushed.

She called her birdathon “Birdability” and went alone to five accessible parks around Austin. Her efforts caught the attention of the local media and the National Audubon Society, and Rose was soon the face of the fledgling Birdability campaign.

It has grown a lot over the past few years, more than Rose could have imagined. “It happened very quickly,” she says. “I feel like I’ve landed in the middle of a movement.”

In essence, the goal is the same as in her first solo birdathon.

Accessible public land

“What I want to achieve is that people are able to observe birds on their own,” she says. “The beauty for me of being alone on a track is just great. I think it’s really important that people can be left unattended on a forest path. “

Rose has identified several keys to making public land accessible to people who use sticks, walkers, wheelchairs, or otherwise need assistance.

Parking spaces should have a handicap accessible space for vans with 8 foot space to load. Goals should be manageable for everyone. Trails need hard surfaces and slopes shouldn’t be too steep. Steps without accompanying ramps are prohibited, toilets must be made accessible as per the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and blinds should have lower viewing holes and room for a wheelchair to maneuver, among other things.

To this end, Rose works continuously with county, city, and state parks, as well as various conservation areas, to encourage organizations to make real estate more accessible to all. “

Rose emphasizes that she does not only stand up for people who use wheelchairs, crutches or other aids. “We’re all temporarily fit for work,” she says. Every body slows down as it ages, even if it’s not badly injured like Rose. So if outdoor accessibility is improved, everyone benefits.

Expand the circle

The move involves more than a list of design changes to bird watching spots. Rose works with organizations that can help get more people bird watching too.

She plans to turn to assisted living centers. “I want to get birdability programs for independent living across the country in all of these centers,” she says. “I mean, it fits perfectly. What could be nicer than getting a couple of seniors to birdwatch when the trails are accessible? ”

Rose hopes to make similar advances with rehabilitation centers, camps for children with mobility issues, support organizations for people with spinal cord injuries, Easterseals, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, veterans groups, and other similar organizations.

Promoting Rose’s work has drawn many people to turn to her, including bird watchers who want to help. She decided to represent them as “birdability captains” who could lead the work to improve accessibility wherever they live. Some of the captains have mobility problems, others don’t. A woman joined after the death of her 43-year-old best friend and bird watcher who suffered from multiple sclerosis. After her friend’s death, the woman said she would “do anything to help you,” she told Rose.

When we spoke in September, Rose had 18 captains in 13 states and she is interested in finding more. (If you’re interested, email her at [email protected].)

The group recently held their first Zoom meeting. Neither of the captains knew each other before the meeting, so Rose asked them to introduce themselves. While they were talking, one participant got emotional because she later said to Rose, “I realized I was part of a new community that I didn’t have before.”

This article was published in the November / December 2020 issue of BirdWatching magazine.

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