I volunteered to write a BOU Diversity blog because I feel passionate about its purpose: building a safe, welcoming ornithological community where everyone’s voice is equal. When it came to writing it, however, I found myself staring at a blank monitor with nothing to say, thinking there’s nothing about me that others would wish to hear about; no empowering stories to tell. Then I made myself just sit and write, and suddenly memories flooded me, and I realised that I’ve become a victim of our society and the way we grow up expecting, and then accepting, subtle discrimination and microaggressions as the norm.
This is my journey to and through ornithology. I am writing as Natalia, a bisexual woman who is from a working-class background, Polish and loves birds. I’m not writing this to victimise myself because that isn’t how I feel, as my experiences made me who I am today. What I’d like to achieve with this blog is to make people think about the way they treat and interact with others and raise awareness of the issues faced by those who are ‘different’ from the majority.
My journey into ornithology was coincidental. I was born in a small Polish town to a family with no background in science; my Mum worked in an office and my Dad was a mechanic, truck driver and is now a builder. My interest in animals was apparent from early years though, as everything I ever wanted had to feature animals. I attribute this interest to my parents and grandparents, who’d always get me out of the house to nature and told me countless animal stories.
Silent for two years
When I was 10, we moved to England. I joined middle school, not knowing a word of English, and when I tried speaking, I was met with laughter. Petrified and alienated, I froze and refused to speak English for two whole years. When I moved to high school, things got better and I came out of my shell, feeling more certain and secure, and I excelled at most subjects.
Skipping forward a few years and my world came crumbling down. At 15, I began feeling attraction to women and not long afterwards my mental health problems began. I was at a Catholic school, so my-then-girlfriend and mine’s relationship didn’t go down well. We were bullied, called names and pushed into the road, whilst staff didn’t bat an eyelid. Things got darker yet when I lost my beloved grandparents. All my remaining dreams were shattered in 6th Form whilst everyone was talking about universities and their futures, I dropped several grade boundaries, failed exams and ultimately was removed from the Russell and Oxbridge universities application group. I felt invisible and worthless and saw no future for myself in higher education.
Nightjars and ‘drought’ ciders
With no options left, I took a gap year. I always loved animals, so I volunteered with cats, dogs and wild birds, and this is where my love and fascination with birds began. I soon gave up on the cats and dogs and spent every waking hour hand-rearing and looking after birds, observing their behaviours and learning all I could about them. The following year, I started an undergraduate degree in Zoology.
Moving to a new city gave me a chance to pick myself up and start my journey over again. And in some ways that definitely happened. I moved to Nottingham with my girlfriend and we both started going on almost-daily nature walks, trying to ID every bird that passed. In the 2nd year of my degree, I was fortunate to coincidently get my foot into a Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus) project, which allowed me to spend two summers tracking these stunning birds in the Sherwood Pines Forest Park, monitoring their nests, ringing the adults and chicks. I worked with two fantastic birders who shared their passion and knowledge for ornithology, inspiring me along the way. In the two years that followed, I frequently joined them bird ringing and nest finding, with lots of chatter, tea and biscuits involved. At this point I knew that I wanted a career with birds.
My time in Nottingham wasn’t all plain sailing though, as I felt disadvantaged by my background and sexuality. One memory that sticks with me is when a fellow student asked where my home was. It’s a simple question but the answer wasn’t simple at all. I answered them that my home is in Norwich, but they replied, ‘oh no, I mean where are your parents?’, so I simply replied ‘Norwich’. They further pushed saying ‘No, you’re not from England because you have an accent’. That really hurt. I don’t feel like Poland is my home as I don’t feel welcome there, with ‘LGBT-free zones’ popping up around the country. The only place in Poland that I feel true connection with is my grandparents’ grave, so does that make it my home?
My English ability was also another area of insecurity because as a non-native English speaker, sayings, jokes, puns and bird names often didn’t make sense to me. I felt inferior to my peers so did what I knew best and retreated into my shell. I think it’s natural for anyone learning a language to make (sometimes funny) mistakes, and I personally don’t mind a bit of laughter either, but I think the key is to laugh with the person, and not at them. Over the years, I’ve provided my now-wife and friends with a lot of entertainment, for example, when I asked for “drought cider” instead of “draught cider” at the local pub. My wife has also had plenty of fun teaching me wrong words for things, for example when she told me baby turtles were called ‘turds’, and then videoed me shouting “GO ON TURDS” over David Attenborough’s narration of the Green Turtle’s Battle for Survival.
The majestic Curlew making my world shine
Leaving Nottingham and Nightjars behind, I returned to Norwich and started a MSc in Applied Ecology and Conservation at the University of East Anglia, where I am still today. That year was a turning point for me, as I found myself part of a welcoming, diverse and open community that helped me grow in confidence and to nurture my interest in research. In my personal life, I came out to my parents, and my wife and I started to plan our wedding. For my MSc project I got to work with the best bird known to man – the Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata), so life was pretty good, and at that point I realised that I couldn’t imagine my life without birds and research.
Measuring Eurasian Curlew eggs at a nest site (done under license) © Robert Hawkes.
I found the School of Biological Sciences at UEA so welcoming that I didn’t want to leave, so I was adamant that I would stay to do a PhD here. And I did. In 2019, I started my PhD studying bird diversity and their ecosystem functions in fruit farms in Brazil and the UK.
In early 2020, I travelled to Brazil for fieldwork and the key thing that was stressed to me was my safety as a white woman. It was made very clear to me that I shouldn’t drive out of the local city without the company of a man, and thus, I was to pay for a male fieldwork assistant to support my research. At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but recently the unfairness of this hit me, as my male colleagues who previously conducted fieldwork in Brazil weren’t required to do that. I think this is a clear demonstration of how the inequality in the opportunities that women and men get in our society is so deeply rooted and normalised.
Getting married felt like a big achievement and a statement that I will live my life how I want to regardless of what others think. I feel lucky to live in a society that is on-the-whole accepting and to have supporting parents, but that doesn’t mean that years of judgement and regular microaggressions haven’t affected me. These days I’m thrilled to say I’m married, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still get a lump in my throat and a tight chest at the words ‘my wife’, and this isn’t helped by those who slip into assuming the gender of my ‘partner’ or ask for ‘his name’. Feeling like I repeatedly have to come out can get tiring, maybe because of the anxiety that comes with it and the expectation that I may need to explain why ‘I don’t’ look gay’ or have a mental-battle with myself about whether I should correct someone who assumed I’m gay and not bi. I personally don’t like sharing my sexuality as I don’t think it should concern most people I meet in a professional setting, but the matter of fact is that bisexual people are marginalised by both the straight and gay communities, which fills me with a sense of responsibility to speak up.
BOU: The home of ornithological diversity
Over my journey I’ve worked with Nightjars, Curlews and Godwits (Limosa spp.), ringed dozens of species of birds, and have a pair of binoculars, so am I a birder now? I find that the birding community, which is still dominated by white, middle-aged men, can be quite closed off. Occasions when questions about species identification are being directed to male birders despite me being the person doing a PhD on birds, don’t fill me with confidence. Perhaps it’s up to me to speak up and share my knowledge and passion for birds, or perhaps I’m just not ready to wear that birder badge yet.
Male Common Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) singing in a vineyard, UK © Natalia Zielonka.
The BOU is an incredibly welcoming community, and it’s because of this feeling of belonging that I felt safe enough to share my story. I know that some people may not think that a scientific society is the right place for such personal accounts, but for as long as any of us feel disadvantaged by our background, sexuality, nationality or race, gender or disability, we must carry on talking and sharing. There is room in science for diversity so let’s celebrate it and learn from each other.
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Image credit: CCO GDJ pixabay.com