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Birds
Not Just Your Grandma’s Hobby
For those who think birdwatching is for baby boomers and older, think again.

A great blue heron.
Gary Kramer/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

At 6:20 a.m. on a Sunday morning, I awake with a start, pulled from sleep’s comfort by a blaring alarm. While I can’t deny the lure of at least one more hour of shut-eye—as other twentysomethings are most certainly enjoying—rest will have to wait. By 7 a.m., I’m perched on a Connecticut riverbank on one of April’s coldest days, counting birds and trying—unsuccessfully—to ignore my numb limbs and the intrusive squawks of six dozen grackles drowning out the more delicate song-bird calls.

This is fun…right? In that moment, I’m not so sure. But once I come in from the frigid air and thaw, selective memory kicks in. I forget the venture’s unpleasantness and instead recall with joy observing six sunbathing wood ducks, a great blue heron taking wing, and two common mergansers swimming. I then think, as I often do after these trips: That was great. When can I go again? 

To those unfamiliar with birdwatching, the sport has a reputation as one that caters to the gray-haired crowd. Perhaps it appeals to that demographic because, as birder David Nicola, 29, surmises, “people who are older have kind of slowed down their perspective and the speed of their lives, and can appreciate different things.”

But believe it or not, Nicola and I, a 28-year-old, have a great deal of company sharing our interest in birds. From 2000 to 2006, more than 38 million 20- to 34-year-old Americans reported studying, photographing or identifying birds, according to the most recent USDA Forest Service National Surveys on Recreation and the Environment. That beats the 65 and older category by 10 million people.

On every nature hike or bird outing I attend, I meet at least one other young adult—still, he’s usually just one in a 20-person crowd. Self-professed bird lover Yoni Rabino, 24, also says he’s regularly the youngest person on large birding trips. Once, during warbler migration, he spent a day walking around New Haven, Connecticut, with a group of men in their seventies.

So where are all these twenty- and thirtysomething birders, considering the number who report an interest in birds? It could be that the absence is more noticeable in regions of the country where young, plugged-in professionals—who don’t feel compelled to bond with nature—abound. “Especially in New York City and urban environments,” says Rabino, “there’s just less of a connection.”

While I’m uncertain where the rest of the young birders are hiding, what I do know is that bird lovers in our age category share some common bonds: Our infatuation with birdwatching typically blossoms after seeing exotic birds abroad, and that same fascination often elicits some playful peer mockery.

Sure, seeing rare and beautiful birds in other countries could hook anyone with the slightest birding interest—not just my peers. But we, as a group, have been known to spend weeks, if not months, on adventurous trips that land us knee-deep in a rainforest or desert somewhere—usually, but not always, under the guise of a study program. A relatively obligation-free life also lends itself to this educational gallivanting.

Rabino and Nicola, whose birding habits were each shaped by time spent living and studying in Africa, fit neatly into this mold.  Rabino, a donor relations manager for The Nature Conservancy and a Brooklynite who grew up in Westchester, started birdwatching informally at age 15. During his junior year abroad in Kenya, he learned spotting skills, binocular use, bird-identification tips—what he calls a serious birdwatcher’s necessary tools. For Nicola, a month-long stint when he was 20, studying community wildlife management in that same country, cemented his habit. “The birds there are magnificent,” he says, “and all over the place. There’s a ton of open space.”

My route to this hobby came via Costa Rica’s Manuel Antonio National Park on the country’s western coast. On a tour of the cloud forest during my weeklong adventure in the country, I heard the three-wattled bellbird’s gong-like call, saw the male quetzal’s two-foot-long, iridescent, aquamarine feathers, and watched a mottled owl sleep. From that day forward, a bird was no longer a bird to me, but a species with a habitat, a conservation status, and unique traits. It was love at first call.

My peers’ and my avocation does come at the cost of some ridiculing. But we’re apt to shake it off. “People definitely know this about me, and they make fun of me about it, but it’s just a fun joke,” Rabino says. “I’m definitely not ashamed of it at all.”

I personally wait until I know someone pretty well to open up about my birdwatching passion. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of my accomplishments—I can now identify dozens of bird species—but I still half-cringe when I’m outed. I don’t fear mockery or categorization with an unhip crowd; it’s more that outsiders—those who don’t “get” birdwatching—just don’t seem to understand the hobby’s appeal to anyone, of any age.

I’m hopeful that general misconceptions about birding, including those about young birders, will eventually dissolve. Perhaps they will, as it becomes easier for people my age to partake. For example, some of my peers have created a more inviting birdwatching environment for people in their twenties and thirties. The Nature Conservancy’s Young Professionals group—for which Rabino, Nicola and fellow Audubon reporter Katherine Tweed are all board members—offers walks twice a year, usually lead by Nicola. And New York City Audubon has at least one free walk per month, a welcome price tag for this audience.

I’m anxious as ever to learn more about bird identification to better keep up with the more experienced birdwatchers who usually populate walks. Rabino feels the same way. “When you look at these species, it’s a huge lesson in evolution, in animal behavior, in biology all at the same time,” he says. “It’s really refreshing. I kind of need that every once in awhile.” I couldn’t agree more.

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