Bird documentaries have also been minting new birders, and making environmentalists out of them
New York: On Global Big Day last month, birders around the world counted all the species they could spot in 24 hours. It was a super-birding event in the bonanza that is spring migration — which runs from late April to early June, but peaks for songbirds in May — when millions of birds make their way from parts south to breed in the northern latitudes.
In Prospect Park, members of the Feminist Bird Club did their bit for this enormous citizen-scientist data collection effort. Led by Molly Adams, its founder, the group clocked more than 80 species in less than 10 hours, including one black-billed cuckoo and a cerulean warbler. These were good “gets”: The cerulean warbler is at risk of extinction — like so many birds, a casualty of habitat loss — so noting its whereabouts is particularly important for conservation efforts. The cuckoo is not a rare bird, it’s just hard to see and not many of them stop in New York City during their migration; that made its sighting a bit of thrill, Adams said.
“We are seeing lots of males today,” she said, “because they are the first to arrive and establish territory. We’re not just excluding females here.”
She showed off her club’s iron-on patch, an embroidered spotted sandpiper, known for practicing polyandry (yours for a donation of $10 or more; the proceeds go to Black Lives Matter), and promised a female-bird-only walk sometime in the future. (Adams’ backpack was embellished with an “I Love Vultures” button, among other bird pins, but no patch because she does not own an iron.)
Although Adams, who is 28 and the outreach coordinator at the New York Aquarium, would certainly describe herself as a feminist, and her club’s manifesto reads, in part, that it is “dedicated to providing a safe opportunity to connect with the natural world in urban environments and having an ongoing conversation about intersectionality, activism, and the rights of all women, nonbinary folks, and members of the LGBTQ+ community,” this was not a dogmatic crowd, nor was it mono-gendered. The talk was of birds, not humans. Among the 15 or so attendees, there were semi-novices, sharp-eyed experts and total newbies.
“Look, there’s a rubber-soled black bike shoe,” said Michael Silber, 36, a graphic designer.
“I already had that on my list,” said Chelsea Lawrence, 28, a software tester for a television company.
Younger urban birders — yubbies? — like those led by Adams are the new faces in the birding world. They use social media to track their ornithological marks, with digital assists from apps like Ibird or Merlin and websites like ebird — the data collection site run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology — which have replaced old-fashioned Sibley guides to aid in identification (although Sibley has an app, too). They are drawn in by the visual seductions of Instagram, as well as a desire for a community inflected by environmentalism. As Jonathan Franzen, still the literary world’s most famous birder, discovered, many soon find that without the structure of birding, “the stimulations of nature,” as Franzen wrote in My Bird Problem, his coming-out-as-a-birder essay in The New Yorker, remain “stubbornly theoretical, like sex on Prozac.”
They also keep up to date with Twitter, now abuzz with local bird alerts. David Barrett, 54, a hedge fund manager turned computer scientist, is the creator of several of New York City’s Twitter bird alerts, marvels of near instantaneous crowdsourced data. He is also the author of the birding memoir A Big Manhattan Year, in which he detailed his 2012 battle with Andrew Farnsworth, a noted ornithologist and birding record setter, to see the most species in a single year.
Bird documentaries — like The Messenger, out in 2015; Birders: The Central Park Effect, out in 2012, and Emptying the Skies, out the following year — have also been minting new birders, and making environmentalists out of them, as An Inconvenient Truth once did.
Pete Lengyel, a co-founder of the Kings County Brewers Collective, was hooked by Birders when he saw it a few years ago. Its filmmaker, Jeffrey Kimball, an urban birding convert, captured four seasons of Central Park’s birding community in an engaging portrait of its singular characters. There’s Starr Saphir, the flinty matriarchal figure who led birders even as she became significantly ill with cancer, and Chris Cooper, 55, a biomedical editor who birds by ear (using birdsong to identify his quarry) and whose exposition on what he called the “7 pleasures of birding” pops up all over the internet. Lengyel, 44, sent the film to all his friends and convened his own birding group, the Beerders, which includes two brewers, a baker, a butcher and a fashion designer — a nice cross-section of Brooklyn professions.
“We didn’t know how to interact with nature in the city, and now we have a sort of purpose,” he said, adding that they don’t go out too early, as the practices of his profession keep him from being a dawn riser. Cooper’s “7 pleasures” is a touchstone for his own birding passion. “No. 3 is the joy of hunting without bloodshed,” said Lengyel, a former Marine. “I got a camera early on to capture images, and I feel like I’m carrying a rifle around. The joy of collecting is No. 4. I’m still looking for a prothonotary warbler.”
Over the past few decades, as David Ringer, 34, chief network officer at Audubon, pointed out, cities have focused on creating more green spaces, making parks safer and making sure that all communities have better access to nature.
“You see with these efforts a corresponding rise in birding,” he said.
Audubon’s market research has identified 9 million people between the ages of 18 and 35, Ringer said, “who share that blend of an interest in birds and environmental activism.
Twenty five per cent are Hispanic, 18 per cent are African-American and 10 per cent are Asian-American. It’s an amazing representation of the demographics of the country.”
“I think it’s a short path from the joy and wonder of birds to the recognition of what they’re telling us about the environment, and what that compels us to do,” he said.