Each spring and autumn, during peak migration, the skies and treetops are abuzz with avian activity as billions of birds move across the United States. It makes no difference if you live in the city, the suburbs, or the country: thousands of birds are passing through your area. Many are just stopping by to rest and eat to fuel their journey ahead. Others will hang around for a few months to care for new chicks, taking advantage of the abundant wild food supply (read: insects, mostly) in your neighborhood.
Tenijah Hamilton started birding last year after the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and she now hosts the Bring Birds Back podcast, often focusing on the interconnectivity of people and nature. Journalist Purbita Saha loves to go birding in any season and particularly enjoys observing female birds, the unsung counterparts to their showy male companions. Christopher Joe runs a bird and wildlife tour company on his family farm in rural Alabama, offering a safe space for all to experience the thrill of birding. All three came to birding in their own way, but they share a common mission: to inspire more people to become advocates for the natural world, in the midst of a looming biodiversity crisis.
Since 1970, three billion birds have disappeared from North America. Efforts by the Trump administration to gut wildlife protections no doubt accelerated the decline. Thankfully, the Biden administration recently announced it will reinstate Migratory Bird Treaty Act protections, while also embracing ideas to do even more for bird conservation. In addition, members of the current Congress have reintroduced the Migratory Bird Protection Act to address the killing of birds by industry—including through reckless activities like maintaining open toxic-waste ponds that store by-products from oil, gas, and mineral extraction. (These ponds, which inadvertently draw wildlife looking for a place to rest and refuel, are estimated to lead to upwards of one million bird deaths each year.)
“This is welcome news to those who care about birds, whether backyard, rare, or imperiled birds, because this law protects almost every native bird species in our country,” says NRDC senior attorney Katie Umekubo. “And we must continue working across all fronts to ensure that strong and better bird protections are here to stay.”
Below, three of those advocates—Hamilton, Saha, and Joe—share their passion for birding, and tips for how to find joy by noticing the winged beings all around us.
Podcast host and producer, Bring Birds Back
In March 2020, I was living in a studio apartment in Boston when the pandemic caused the massive global shutdown. That experience completely changed my relationship to nature and the outside world. Since there weren't a lot of options to socialize safely, I started to meet up with my friend Robin—she loves birds. I called her O.G. Bird Girl, and I was Bird Girl in Training. We’d go on these long walks, and she’d pull out her binoculars and say, “Who’s that?” And she’d look, and I’d be curious, and I would look. That was a new experience for me. I just had never had this awareness before of the world around me to look around and ask, “Who’s that?”
Every time I went on my walk, I’d cross over the Charles River. There was a great blue heron there that I named Herbert—the first big bird I'd ever really seen. I would stop on the overpass and watch Herbert as he would stab into the water with that long bill and try to catch a fish. It was just really majestic and terrifying.
I moved to Georgia this past year. I like to sit on my balcony and watch the Canada geese and hear them honk. A lot of raptors fly by too. It’s always so interesting. I love little moments of connection like that. I love that anyone can bird anywhere—even when you take out the garbage, you can just take a moment and observe.
The first episode of my podcast for Bring Birds Back aired in May 2021. At the time, I knew so little about birds, but the team at BirdNote [a nonprofit radio program] saw that as an asset in that, just by being myself, the listeners could discover new things together with me. I feel immensely proud of it. Recently, I was talking with ecologist Desiree Narango. She likes to stress the interconnectivity of everything and has helped me to broaden my thinking about climate change from the human point of view to how it also affects the lives of birds and animals. I have seen places in Atlanta along the BeltLine (an urban rail trail) where they are making it more adaptable for climate change: planting more native trees gives coverage and shade for people and birds alike. Native plants attract insects, which feed the birds—the intersections of nature and urbanization is a big part of the web of life.
It is never far from my mind the way my presence in this field subverts and challenges people's expectations—to be visible in this space as a Black person and a woman is so important and exciting, but not without its challenges. I take the stories and experiences of folks like Chris Cooper and Aisha White with me, and I'm incredibly grateful for the ways that the Black birding community has presented a safe space for me. I hope the show is a safe space for people to learn and explore and feel seen too.
Senior editor, Popular Science
Montclair, New Jersey
I started birding in college when I took an ornithology class. We started out counting Canada geese and studying their behavior out on a lake on campus. When spring migration came around, we got to see red-winged blackbirds and black-capped chickadees. I got a pair of vintage binoculars at an antique store, and I started birding on my own.
I really do enjoy birding in every season. Spring carries its own excitement, but I love evening birding in the fall. I really like to go out and see nighthawks and chimney swifts and see what's migrating overhead. When I think about migration, it's hard not to talk about shorebirds, just because they go through some of the most grueling long-distance migrations of any wildlife. I like looking for rufa red knots, one of the smaller shorebirds on the East Coast. They're very beautiful: In breeding season, they have a rusty-colored breast and a speckly back. They come all the way from the southern tip of Chile. They have a very important connection with horseshoe crabs: the migration coincides with the time the crabs are spawning—the eggs are an important food source. It's a really intricate, natural process that happens on our coasts every year, and there's a lot of concern around it because climate change could disrupt the timing.
One of the big issues I worry about is window strikes, when a bird collides into glass. This issue causes up to one billion bird deaths every year—especially during migration, there can be dozens of collisions with just one building in a single night. Everyone has windows on their houses, office buildings, and schools. We have the information that can help us rethink how we do construction and take into consideration the other creatures that are sharing our environment. New York City was able to pass some legislation that requires bird-friendly materials, like placing patterns or tinted glass on new buildings. So that showed it can be done.
A few years ago, the naturalist and writer Kenn Kaufman wrote an essay about how there's this huge bias among birders to only go after male birds or to only appreciate and study male birds. And it’s not just birders—it's common among photographers, scientists, and even in ornithological collections at museums. It’s been found that many collections used for research primarily have male birds, so if genetic studies are conducted, or there are descriptions of species, female birds aren’t included. In 2019, a group of five of us [we call ourselves the Galbatross Project] came up with the idea for Female Bird Day (#femalebirdday) each May, to boost appreciation for female birds. A lot of us have found that if we slow down and focus our attention on trying to identify female birds, it deepens our interest, and we’ve actually become better birders. I think it’s worth saying to new birders, especially those who started birding during the pandemic, you’re not biased yet! If you have a feeder in your yard, you can pay close attention to both sexes of birds and understand how they interact with each other, and with other wildlife. Obviously, female birds are vital for future generations of birds so if we don't know what they're up to, if we don't know what their needs are, how can we really make sure that birds can adapt and have sustainable populations in the future?
District conservationist, Natural Resources Conservation Service
I grew up on my family’s farm in Newbern, Alabama. It’s a very rural area, and it’s part of the Black Belt, which refers to the fertile black soil found here. Cotton grows well here and was a big part of the agricultural history of this region, as was slavery and Jim Crow. So that legacy was a big part of the backdrop of the area when my family came here and purchased the land in the early 1900s. They bought 200 acres, and for a long time it was a vegetable farm, and they had some livestock. Now, we are primarily a Black Angus cattle farm.
I work as a conservationist and have always loved the outdoors and nature. My favorite migratory bird is the rose-breasted grosbeak, but we get so many different birds passing through here—eastern meadowlarks, scissor-tailed flycatchers, and bald eagles. In the fall, we start to see a lot of American kestrels, a type of falcon—a really cool bird. Our family farm has a lot of habitats for them: bottomland hardwood forest, a creek area, hay fields, and pasture land. In 2018, I was interested in expanding our business, and I contacted the Alabama Audubon about birding. Since our first meeting, things really started to take off. We created a new business, Connecting with Bird and Nature Tours, and in 2019, we partnered on the Black Belt Birding Initiative. This past August, 130 people came out to the farm for it.
The main draw that everybody hears about are the swallow-tailed kites. At the Black Belt Birding Festival, we set aside a hayfield to cut to attract them; they eat the dragonflies and crickets that start flying around when we cut the hay. We had people lined up—they had lawn chairs, binoculars, and cameras. My dad was in the tractor and started cutting the hay, and after about 15 minutes, a Mississippi kite came zooming in, diving for the insects. Then a bit later, there was one swallow-tailed kite that flew in right over people’s heads. And next thing you know, the one turned into two, two turned into five, and I'm like, “Oh my gosh.” People were so excited, and this one woman had tears running down her face; she said she’d never seen anything like it.
Another time, I had a birder tell me that he was on a search for a lifer bird [a first-time sighting of a given species for a birder], the summer tanager. We met up at six in the morning, and we found three. He was running around with his 600-millimeter camera lens, saying, “There's one here. Oh, there's another one over there.” I was just so pleased that day that we could help him see this bird.
Last year, there was Black Birders Week, and not too long ago, I was on a panel for an Audubon talk called Black Birders and the Deep South. I really learned a lot about the wider issues about people feeling welcome and safe when they are out in nature. And it’s not just bird-watching. My brother is a wildlife artist, and if he’s doing scenic paintings off the side of the road, he’s got to watch where he goes because it can be like, “Hey, what are you doing here?” And you still have a lot of people who don’t understand that this can be an issue. This past year, people started posting about my tours on Instagram, and that put a light on me to other Black birders and let them know that “Hey, this is a safe space.” So that’s been really great. To have people think of me and my family farm as a welcoming place and put us out there like that is something good. We had our first camping group this past summer, and I’ve reached out to bikers and horseback riding clubs. We want to create more opportunities for people.
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