Have Book, Will Travel

Seven words ... that’s all it took.

The songs of a Bewick’s Wren filled my ears and images of the White-headed Woodpecker and Lawrence’s Goldfinch, seen earlier in the day, were still fresh in my mind as I sat in a hotel room in Kernville, California during the autumn of 1999, celebrating the recent release of my second and third books. And yet, my mind was already jumping ahead in search of a topic for the next book.

This was my second visit to Kernville--the first coming in April 1997. During that visit, local birders had reacted to me in the same way birders do wherever I travel. “I’ve never met a black birdwatcher before.” This seven-word reaction is often among the first words I hear when I meet other birders for the first time.

Having spent the first 25 years of my career working for the federal government, I had an opportunity to visit some of the most scenic areas of the United States. I lived a biologist’s dream life, working at National Wildlife Refuges and National Forests across the country.

Those seven words followed me wherever I went. I’m not sure what caused me to think of those words while sitting in that Kernville, CA, hotel room. But as I began to ponder those words, I began to ask the question... “Why?” Not too long after that, I realized that many other people and organizations were starting to ask the same question: “Why?” As in, why don’t we see more minorities visiting National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges, going birdwatching, or simply enjoying nature?

Soon thereafter, and with encouragement from Kenn Kaufman, Ted Eubanks, and Paul Baicich, I began work on a research project that would ultimately become my latest book, Birding for Everyone. The purpose of Birding for Everyone is to encourage minorities to develop an interest in nature, albeit through bird watching.


If John Robinson achieves his vision, the future birders in this group won't be hearing the "seven words."

Since releasing the book in April 2008, I’ve spent the last 15 months touring the country and introducing the study of birds and the enjoyment of nature to children. I am living the actual vision that came to me in Kernville in the fall of 1999. Cleveland, Ohio; Boston, Massachusetts; San Francisco, CA; Pittsburgh, PA; Atlanta, GA; Columbus, OH; San Antonio, TX; Ithaca, NY; and the list continues. Despite meeting hundreds of young children during this tour, the feeling never changes: each time I have an opportunity to talk to just one young boy or girl and tell him or her about nature and birds, I know that the end result of that encounter may last a lifetime for that child.


Many of the children in this audience at San Francisco's E.R. Taylor Elementary School are at about the same age as the author was when Jack London's "Call of the Wild" changed his life forever, setting him on the path to becoming a wildlife biologist and ultimately devoting himself to the cause of introducing children to birds.

I know this from personal experience. You see, when I was in the sixth grade, I did not read books (except whenever the library teacher gave me a book report assignment). That same teacher noticed my apparent dislike for reading and asked why I did not read any of the thousands of books that were in the school library. When I told her none of the books interested me, she simply replied with another question: “Okay, so what does interest you?

When I told her that I enjoyed chasing the butterflies and looking for crayfish and spiders in my back yard, I saw a smile come over her face ... the kind of smile adults give a child when they know they’ve figured out exactly what the child wants. She went over to the book shelf, retrieved a book, and handed it to me. It was Jack London’s Call of the Wild. I began reading it and immediately discovered that it painted a picture of a world that I never knew existed but, strangely enough, had always been searching for.

Reading that book caused me to create a vision of what I wanted to be as an adult: a biologist. I envisioned myself living in Alaska and studying wolves. Once formed, I carried that vision everywhere I went. It was as strong as ever when I began to prepare my college applications at the beginning of my senior year in high school.

The Travel Begins

Two life-changing events occurred before I was 20 years old. The first was the grade school library teacher who taught me how fun it was to read, thereby introducing an inner city youth to nature. The second occurred during my sophomore year of college, when my school advisor told me I had to take a course called Ornithology.

When I began learning about birds, I found my thirst for knowledge knew no limits. The more I studied birds, the more I discovered about this Earth we live on. For most people, the arrival of spring is merely a date on a calendar. However, for birders, the arrival of spring is marked by the appearance of their first American Robin or Louisiana Waterthrush.


Taking young children birding is a great way to spur their interest in the natural world. Birds are brightly-colored, they can fly, and they can be found almost anywhere. The opportunity to get a close-up view of a bird through binoculars, or a spotting scope, might be the gateway to a lifetime of enjoyment. Here the author shows a group of youngsters the field guide illustration of a bird they've just seen.

I left Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania traveling west to Ames, Iowa to attend college at Iowa State University. By a stroke of good fortune, I got the opportunity to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at the end of my sophomore year. Upon graduation, I accepted full employment with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and began a journey that would involve me criss-crossing the country as my career began to flourish.

Mound City, MO; Bemidji, MN; Carbondale, IL; Dover, TN; Hayward, WI; Vermilion, Alberta (Canada); and San Francisco, CA. Each new location brought a new job, new life experiences, and a whole new list of birds. The Bachman’s Sparrow in Kentucky; the Northern Gannet in Illinois; the Snowy Owl in Tennessee; the Fork-tailed Flycatcher in California; the Sprague’s Pipit in Canada. At each new location I would hear those seven words: “I’ve never met ...

The Travel Continues

Upon leaving the federal government after a 26-year career, I spent several years running a global travel business. During that time, I led birdwatching and natural history tours to exotic lands in foreign countries, including such places as Costa Rica, Mexico, and South Africa. In addition to these beautiful destinations, I led tours in the United States (e.g., northwest Tennessee, southeast Arizona, the Upper Texas Coast, and coastal California).

While riding in a safari vehicle in South Africa, my clients and I drew alongside of two wild animals in the Kruger National Park. I vividly recall feeling as though I needed to pinch myself to ensure I was not dreaming. I realized then that my reading of Jack London’s Call of the Wild had led me to this time and place: here I was, just four feet away from two male African lions! The next 15 minutes were spent observing these lions at this incredibly close distance, creating an experience that will forever be etched into my memory.

The Book

Less than two years after that once-in-a-lifetime experience in Kruger National Park, I published my book, Birding for Everyone. Many people ask me why I wrote the book. That answer is quite simple: you see, our nation’s population is becoming more ethnically diverse and in less than a generation we will find that various minority populations will collectively make up the majority of the people living in this country. Yet, we know that minorities are disproportionately under-represented among people who are birding, visiting National Parks, or simply enjoying nature. Those beautiful places that you and I take for granted – be they Yellowstone National Park or the Florida Everglades – may not be available for our grandchildren to enjoy if the majority of the voting public does not express a strong interest in nature. It is my vision that Birding for Everyone will be the catalyst to encourage many youth and young adults of this and future generations to begin a study of nature through birds.


In April 2008, Birding for Everyone was delivered to my office from the publishers – the culmination of the most significant creative process I had engaged in during my lifetime. Within days, my phone began to ring. Individuals and organizations wanted me to come speak to their group. And I began to travel.

The message is simple: Nature is here, and it is for everyone to enjoy. Just as one book changed my life and allowed me to travel the world as a result; it is my hope that my book, Birding for Everyone, will change the lives of many thousands, if not millions, of readers.


Will these be the faces of the adult birding community 30 years from now? If we are to preserve and protect the world around us, much of the future effort will be dependent on our ability to foster an interest in nature among young people from all ethnicities.

As I write this, I see that my last two weeks have been an adventurous period in my life: I was in Boston to film a TV show for children; then I spent two days in Pittsburgh to film a segment with five young birders for OnQ Magazine; and now I am on a plane headed for California where I will meet more young birders.

My future plans are just as exciting. By the fall of 2009, I will have created a non-profit organization – the International Institute for Bird Watching. This organization will function to fulfill my purpose, which is to share my ever-expanding awareness and enthusiasm for nature, the world’s natural wonders, and the persistence of vision with audiences that resonate with (or benefit from) those experiences.

I see many more journeys coming up. Care to join me? I hope that you can.

[John C. Robinson is an award-winning ornithologist and wildlife biologist who has introduced thousands of people all over the world to the joys of bird watching for over 30 years. His latest book, Birding for Everyone, encourages minorities and inner city youth and young adults to become bird watchers. Visit www.onmymountain.com for more information. You may also hear John C. Robinson speak at two very important conferences in September: Breaking the Color Barrier in the Great American Outdoors (23-26 September 2009 in Atlanta, GA) and Diversity in Outdoor Recreation: The Many Faces of Conservation in Toledo, OH on 26 September]


John, I admire your efforts very much. It might be worth a letter to President & Ms. Obama to see if they would at some point be willing to go birdwatching with one of your groups. The media would surely follow. It’s a very worthy cause and might make not only the kids but also the parents take notice. Keep up the great work!


I have been a reader all my life and a birder since my 20’s. I love your story about how books changed and directed your life. As an adult I realized that almost all my interests started with reading about it.
Your work seems extremely important to me and I wish you well. It is interesting how simple an idea can seem, but someone has to think it and then do it. You are doing it very well.


Essays like this are so important to braoednnig people’s horizons.


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