At ten years old, Matthias Benko’s hobby of collecting toy cars and sorting them by color set the stage for what would become his passion for the next decade – birding. Now, as a junior at Indiana University Bloomington, Matthias is bringing this passion to campus where he is inspiring fellow students to advocate on behalf of birds and the places they need.
In 2020, Matthias started Bloomington Birders, a small birding club that brought a handful of students together over their shared love of birds. During a pandemic-fueled year, the birding club offered opportunities for connection through outdoor bird walks and virtual gatherings.
“I personally felt compelled to create a club that was about more than just birding," said Matthias. “Climate change impacts all of us, and is one of the most pressing global concerns. As a twenty-year-old, I feel very unsure of my future, which motivates me to want to make a difference.”
This interest in advocacy led Matthias and members from Bloomington Birders to join Audubon Great Lakes on a campaign to build support for climate solutions in Indiana, to protect the two-thirds of North American birds that are at-risk of extinction from climate change. Throughout the spring and summer, Matthias and volunteers worked to raise awareness of the bipartisan Growing Climate Solutions Act, a federal bill that will help farmers and foresters in Indiana and beyond scale-up their climate-friendly practices to reduce harmful carbon emissions. Together, student volunteers made hundreds of calls to encourage their fellow birders to contact their legislators urging support for this important bill, and authored six letters to the editor in newspapers across the state. Their advocacy helped the Growing Climate Solutions Act secure an overwhelming bipartisan victory in the U.S. Senate, it now awaits a vote in the U.S. House.
Inspired by his campaign work, Matthias collaborated with Audubon Great Lakes to register Bloomington Birders as an official Audubon on Campus Chapter, a student-led organization that works to create meaningful change on- and off-campus. Launched in 2018, the Audubon on Campus Program engages thousands of young people on college campuses across the country.
The opportunity to advocate for the strong environmental public policy that tackles climate change is motivating a new generation of young people. This fall, students at a recent IU Bloomington event flocked to join Bloomington Birders.
“Forty-five people signed up in one day. Many of them were interested in birds, but when I mentioned our environmental advocacy, they immediately became more interested,” said Matthias.
Propelled by this growing excitement, Bloomington Birders has organized a number of events to keep members engaged. This fall, members went on their first bird walk of the year at Griffy Lake Nature Preserve, and participated in a trash pickup at the local Lake Monroe, the chapter’s first conservation-focused event of the year.
This month, Matthias joined Audubon Great Lakes to view the Sandhill Crane Migration spectacle at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area with Senator Todd Young (R-IN). As a voice for young people, Matthias joined Audubon representatives in thanking Sen. Young for cosponsoring the Growing Climate Solutions Act and shared the importance of addressing climate change to create a safer world for birds, other wildlife and people.
What’s next for Bloomington Birders? This year Matthias plans to host an invasive species pull, and offer members the opportunity to participate in advocacy.
“I realized from an early age how important habitat is to birds. If this habitat doesn’t exist, than the birds aren’t there,” said Matthias. “There’s a big opportunity to make change. I’m glad that Bloomington Birders is a part of that change.”