Have I ever told you how I came to this birding life?
“This birding life,” what is that, anyway? It’s not as weird or arcane an existence as you might think; it’s simply another way of living in the world, using your senses to invite nature in, wherever you are, whoever you are. And I mean everyone.
But admittedly, there’s a learning curve. Deciding to go for it takes some brain power, and some bucking of cultural expectations. It is only more recently that the birding world has (a bit self consciously) embraced DEI—diversity, equity and inclusion. Birding is historically a very white, middle class pastime.
I do not want to overlook the challenges of anyone wanting to start birding, especially someone who does not see herself represented among the birding community. It’s scary enough to try a new hobby, even more so when you are looking at a group who doesn’t look like you.
But the birds do not give one hoot what you look like or how much you know about them. So just remember that. Forget about the people for a minute and remember why you started down this path in the first place—the birdsong or the flash of a colorful wing that inspired you to take a closer listen and look.
Because there’s a before-birding-life and a now-birding-life.
Like being born again. That’s me, I’m a born again birder. I’m not being flip; I really mean it. Now I’ll explain.
My twin sister and I were born to birder parents.
But birding parents does not for certain a birding daughter make. I begrudgingly birded with them all through childhood, picking up bird information by proxy, but mostly enjoying the hot chocolate and promissory Archie comics (if we didn’t whine) of the trip.
I was a “sorta” birder, a birder by obligation. I didn’t identify as a birder as a kid, but I felt at ease in the birding world, with parents who were active in it.
I didn’t realize how lucky I was for that last detail, but more on that later.
Then came the years of bird recession—those years as a young adult when I lived oblivious to bird life around me, a good ten years…wasted. Chasing career ideas, boys, good times, whatever else.
Those would have been good years to be paying attention to birds, too. I visited Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, England, France, Austria and Switzerland in those days of school and early work life when my downtime and disposable income went to travel.
My sister was the one who got us back on the birding track. Age 28, she hired a birding guide for a day while on a 6 week solo trip in Brazil, and reported on such sightings that she and I both said, “Why haven’t we done this before?!”
Hence the “born again.” The birds had been there all along, and we simply had to resume our attention to them.
Now getting back to that feeling welcome in the birding world, despite being a prodigal daughter. When I decided I was a birder again, I jumped back into it, volunteering with Seattle Audubon on a local bird census. I didn’t give it a second thought that of course I was a birder, and should be taken seriously by the other volunteers.
I knew where to look for a community to join, but not everyone does. Heck, I knew a community of birders existed! For some new to birding, they are the only ones they know for reasons of location, socioeconomic situation, or even gender.
That’s my privilege of birth, association. Not everyone has or feels that. But birthright does not legitimize me any more than anyone else, and it shouldn’t. What makes a person a birder is the love for birds and their integral and critical place in nature.
When I resumed birding, I was essentially a beginner birder, despite my history. But I had the confidence that I knew what I was doing, and excitement for all I had to learn.
And I would say the same to any woman wanting to try out birding. Have the confidence that you want to learn and are doing so sincerely. No one can doubt that. We all start somewhere.
Birding is one of those skills that takes research, practice, repetition, learning from people more skilled than you, and folding it into your life in such a way that it becomes a lifestyle. I would equate it with learning another language or taking up yoga. You can adapt it to your life casually or totally, and you’ll thrive from the time with birds (and the people who share the love of them) either way.
I am no expert. While I write about birding culture, I would say I am still very much an intermediate birder. And lucky me! What this means is I will never stop learning about birds.
The trajectory of my birding life has been slow going since I came back to the nest at age 28. But here is what I have done to keep it going, to build on it, and to share it with others. May these ideas assist your own flight path.
The basics of getting started:
I follow the American Birding Association code of ethics. This informs my attitude that the welfare of the bird is more important than my seeing it.
My tools are at my fingertips for birding at any time: I carry a small pair of binoculars in my bag and have downloaded the Sibley app to my smart phone as my field guide and bird song reference. If I hear something and have a notion for what it might be, this app is invaluable for playing the audio to confirm my hunch. However, I never play audio to lure a bird to where I can see it.
Then I go outside! I keep my ears open for birdsong through city noise and my peripheral vision alert for signs of movement amid the urban environment. When I catch sight of something, I whip out my bins and have a look.
Over time I learn what birds live where, and what it is I’m looking at. I’ve learned this from practice on my own (and a lot of guessing), birding with more skilled birders (on group bird walks or when I volunteered on the census team) and research on Birdweb (which is specific to WA State).
I do not keep a life list. I decided early on that birding is not a competition for me and seeing a rare bird is special, but not my right. It’s more important to me that the bird exist than that I see it. I don’t know how many birds species I have seen in my lifetime.
I DO keep a birding list for birds seen at my home, and of the birds I have seen in my home state of Washington. The home list is 50+ species and counting (over 10 years of observation). The state one is about 150 since I started keeping track about a year ago.
I report some of what I see to eBird, which is a useful citizen science tool. I admit that reporting to eBird has replaced my filling notebooks with a birds seen list. I’ve been slow to adapt to birding technology and recognize that it is helpful for others. Maybe someday I will use more of it.
Sharing birding with others:
Birding for me is not strictly recreational—it’s mission driven to educate and bring more people to the hobby toward a greater purpose of conservation. So I am an advocate for birding as a pastime and conservation as its endgame.
I tell people I’m a birder, cause I think it’s a fun fact, and I strive to “live my truth” as a conservation-minded person in the world. If I am not sharing birding and its greater purpose, I am not doing my part to keep birds around.
I love joining group walks as a participant, ready to learn. I’ve gone on walks with Seattle Audubon, Washington Audubon, the National Parks department, King County Parks department, and lately the Feminist Bird Club Seattle Chapter.
I love taking friends birding! I occasionally lead informal bird walks for and with friends, including the annual All Ladies Birding Tailgate to the Skagit Valley, which I co-lead with my sister Gilia. We advertise to Facebook friends in the area where we live and emphasize the sorority of the all day trip in addition to the birding.
Making birding a lifestyle
Birding is more than a personal pastime:
It’s using my senses.
It directs my observation of my surroundings.
It helps me relax.
Birds influence how I landscape my yard.
It informs my consumer choices—Bird Friendly Coffee, Forest Stewardship Council paper products, organically grown produce, and more about this to come.
Birding takes me to amazing places mostly near and occasionally far, and offers a special way to experience those places, whether I am visiting for the birds or for another purpose.
Birding is a community of people already interested and yet to be interested—all of them potential friends.
I’ve learned new (non-birding) skills through volunteering for bird conservation organizations.
I’ve found lifelong friends through birding.
I’ve introduced non-birders to birding with great results!
Lastly, and this would be obvious, birding has given me a creative outlet, and a community of readers who enjoy what I produce.
Thank you, birds!
What about you, how did you come to birding? Tell me in the comments; I’d love to hear your story.