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The Tale of one Young Birder (and how it applies to others)

February 21, 2008

An interesting thread has been making the rounds on Birdchat recently. I don’t typically read everything that gets posted there, comments about cats and requests for information and the like usually meet the old delete button for me. But a recent conversation about young birders has indeed kept me interested beyond the first paragraph. You see, it’s something that I think about fairly often, because there aren’t that many of us. Birding , by and large, tends to be a hobby that people come to later in their lives. People who typically have always had an interest in nature, and find that watching and identifying birds is a great expression of that interest. Sometimes that interest manifests itself as in interest in birds at a young age, as it did for me, and sometimes it doesn’t. But there seems to be a common thread for those who do turn to birds; early individual attraction to nature study, an older mentor (be it personal or though a book) who focuses that general interest into something specific (could be birds or bugs or plants), and many opportunities to express that interest in the greater world. Anyway, here’s how it worked for me.

I was always the kid who ran around outside catching insects or turtles or snakes. I didn’t think much of birds then, likely because I couldn’t catch them and put them in a jar, but I remember being somewhat aware of them tangentially. I was fortunate to grow up in an area where I was able to explore the forests and fields with parents that understood the importance of a personalized nature experience, which meant, I was alone for a lot of this time. Whether or not my parents had any worry that something could happen to me they’ve never said. We lived in a pretty secluded area, and the folks who lived around us knew me enough to keep an eye out so that I wouldn’t get into anything I couldn’t handle. In any case, I often caught insects for my collection, captured baby river turtles and kept them in an elaborately constructed aquarium “habitat”, and climbed and canoed and swam all over.

I don’t remember the specific moment when birds entered the picture, I had several “spark” birds. But I began listing when I was 13 so it had to have been before that. My dad was an enthusiastic convert as well, and so we took great advantage of family vacations and the local Audubon Society. As the young birder du jour (and the only member under 40, funny how things haven’t changed…) the members of GOAS were happy to serve as mentors to a young enthusiastic novice. It was a perfect storm, really. I was able to take advantage of family trips to Florida, my grandmother’s winters in South Texas and summers in Kansas, and best of all, a spot at Camp Chiricahua in southeast Arizona financed largely by the kindness of birding organizations in Missouri and beyond. So yeah, I was fortunate, and I was really into it.

But when I got in high school I got involved in other things and suddenly had less time for birding. It had little to do with any burgeoning image consciousness, as has been suggested by some in the Birdchat conversation. It had more to do with, for me, an interest in music and band, and the sudden need to pay for insurance on an old Nissan Sentra. Birding began to slide farther down the list of priorities. It probably didn’t help that I had done so much so soon, I’d effectively burned out. My Saturday mornings then, were for music competitions and work rather then getting out in the field. While I still managed to find time for the local CBC and my interest in birds was still there, time was always short. When I went to college and became interested in competitive cycling, my time and money went towards that instead, along with other college things, until a fateful trip to the mountains of North Carolina just after my wedding, a full ten years after I had put the binoculars down, pulled me back in.

Like a bookend to the premature suspension of my birding career, I had found myself looking for something to occupy my free time since finding the roads too dangerous for cycling since my move. Danielle and I were honeymooning in Asheville, in the Appalachians, and on a particularly nice September morning had pulled off the road to follow a short trail through the rhododendron glens along the Blue Ridge Parkway. I heard a strange chip and it all came began to come back to me. I pished a bit, whistled a screech owl call, and in an instant, a male Black-throated Blue Warbler rocketed in. I didn’t have binoculars with me, but I didn’t need them. The bird perched fewer than five feet away, flashing the white patches in its feathers and calling as I stood there, transfixed. This particular species was not only new to me, but one I had always dreamed of finding in Missouri (they tend to stay further east). It was the perfect bird at the perfect time. A perfect storm, again. Within a week I had a new pair of binoculars and I soon sold one of my bikes for a scope. It was a reawakening of the slightly obsessive, proudly geeky individual whose words you’re reading now. I haven’t looked back and don’t intend to.

What does this mean for other young birders? Who knows, other than in broad terms, the space to explore my interest on my own when I needed it, and with more experienced individuals when I needed that. Do kids these days miss the opportunities I had to be outside in my formative years? Probably, the encroachment of the modern world is unrelenting and unlikely to abate any time soon. But I’m not willing to write young people off just yet. There seems to be a great deal or wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth about the state of “young people” among those with many years between the present and their own youths. The bottom line is that, while it certainly seems that the electronic revolution has adversely affected the opportunity for young people to have that personal experience that is so important for a lifelong love of nature, young people still desire that connection with nature, and will respond well nearly every time an opportunity for it is presented. And the means for seeking that opportunity out are greater than ever.

So all I can ask for those who worry about the state of birding, is to be that ambassador whenever the opportunity presents itself. To the kid who runs ahead flushing the birds, talk to them. To the one who asks you what you’re looking at, show them. Sometimes we hold back because we’re still afraid of being perceived as the geeky birdwatchers so we stay insular, to our detriment. Yeah, birding is geeky, there’s no two ways about it. We can deny it and try to fight it, but in the end we must embrace it. There’s nothing wrong with being a geek, nearly every single interesting person I know is one. We can change what being a geek means, we all have that ability. There’s little more interesting to young people than passion, cynicism has no power against it. Sure they want to fit in, but they want to be different too. Give them the opportunity. Why not birds? (Incidentally, all this optimism and “power of positive thinking” crap probably comes from listening to too many Obama speeches lately…)

One more quick story to wrap up what has been an incredibly overlong post (blog? more like a book). On my first North Carolina CBC I spent the afternoon at a Wake County park on Falls Lake. The CBC had been advertised in the parks newsletter as a “family bird walk”, which you birders know is far from what a CBC can be. As my group pulled up to the park headquarters on what was a drizzly cold day, a young family had come hoping for that bird walk. They had three children, ranging in age from 4 to 10. The youngest was one of those boys who would run off in front, yelling and scaring every bird within 100 meters in all directions. I didn’t know quite what to do, so I started talking to him. I asked him questions, I told him what we were doing and described birds I heard and saw by the lake. And you know what? He got into it. I got the feeling the family didn’t want to walk in the rain anymore so when the trail turned back, I took the opportunity to lead them back to the park office and we spent an hour watching the birds at the feeders (I ended up with more species than the group that continued in the rain, too). The parents even took me aside and thanked me for being such a good sport about it. It was my pleasure, I really meant that. Maybe the kid’s interest in birds will continue, maybe not. Maybe it will turn to bugs or snakes or plants. It doesn’t matter, what matters is that a situation that some birders might have seen as a liability was turned into a opportunity to be a spokesperson for the hobby that I love so much. Will this attitude mean more birders in the future? Who knows. Can’t hurt though, right?

Whew. Did you make it this far? If so, you deserve a medal.

  1. Greg permalink
    February 21, 2008 10:35 am

    Yeah, I made it though the whole thing! Maybe because it’s another snow day….. (: No, I really enjoyed it:

    The best line of all to me was:

    There’s little more interesting to young people than passion, their cynicism has no power against it.

    So true!

    An inspired rant, at the least. Ah the “audacity of hope”!

  2. noflickster permalink
    February 21, 2008 12:01 pm

    I’ve long held the belief the single best thing a person can do is inspire another to become passionate about something, and this is reinforced every time I lead a walk, give a presentation, or just “re-direct” a toddler that is hanging out with my 4-year-old daughter. I suppose this is why I’ve always been attracted to education, either formal (teacher) or informal (museums and the like).

    Although my current job title is “research biologist,” and I do like uncovering and piecing together information, my interests definitely lean towards teaching. One day, a second career.

    A final note (in an already too-long comment – I’ll give the medal back if you made it this far): maybe I was naive, but I was surprised to find so many “hard-core” ornithologists, whom I thought were driven by pure science, are actually more driven by the educational opportunities their research opens up. Many of the folks I work with at the Lab are heavily involved in outreach at many levels.

    Great post!
    – Mike

  3. Mike permalink
    February 24, 2008 6:49 pm

    Great observations, N8. I think some of the panic about youth outreach comes from the philosophy that people only protect what they love and not that many people seem to love nature as much as, say, sports, computers, gadgets, or really anything else. Any tiny indicator like the recent report on diminished national park attendance creates enormous ripples among those who fear the demise of birding. Hopefully, anybody who is feeling that anxiety will find and follow your excellent suggestions.

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