Books

Sorry, Hollywood, but Ian Harding Would Rather Be Birding

Best known for his role on the show 'Pretty Little Liars,' Harding's new book 'Oddbirds' shares his love of birding and birds with a new audience.

Ian Harding can’t find his running scope. Wait, let’s rewind: Ian Harding has a running scope. He just told me about it and how he always takes the miniature scope traveling when he thinks he might have time for a run. As any good birder knows, you always have to be prepared. But this afternoon, sitting near the open window of a restaurant in New York City’s West Village, Harding is not prepared. The scope is MIA. "Son of a bitch," he mutters, rifling through his messenger bag. "Where is it?”

Not that it matters. Harding hasn't had time to scope any birds today, what with back-to-back interviews he's had. Harding is best known to millions of fans—younger females, particularly—for his breakout role as the dreamy high school English teacher Ezra Fitz on Pretty Little Liars, Freeform's teen thriller-drama currently in its seventh and final season. But today's interviews have not included discussions of the series finale or how the writers plan to resolve the spaghetti bowl of daytime drama-esque plots they’ve created over the years. (How'd Harding keep up with all those, by the way? "I didn't.") No, we are meeting to discuss much more important matters: birding. 

On May 2, Harding, age 30, released his first book, Oddbirds, a memoir of personal essays. In each one, he intertwines his lifelong passion for birds and birding with family memories, life lessons, and anecdotes from his acting career. If this sounds like quite the hodgepodge, it can be, but Harding manages to mostly make it all work, weaving together an engaging mix of sometimes funny and sometimes introspective tales. For gossip-hungry fans of Pretty Little Liars, he also tosses out enough behind-the-scenes morsels to keep everyone sated. (Example: He hasn't been allowed to shave his own face or chest for the past seven years for fear of shoot-delaying razor cuts.) Most surprising, however, is how much of the book birders can also appreciate. 

In the book and in person, Harding comes off as an everyguy with a self-deprecating sense of humor and a tendency to get so wrapped up in a conversation that he meanders into an entirely new topic. He also has a heightened sense of how he is perceived, and this was especially true when it came to writing a book—a book about something as niche as birding, no less. "I’m aware of the mild—mild is putting it mildly—stigma of ‘actor writes book,’” he says. Harding chose to write about birds because it's something he's passionate about, and besides, "I don't have enough good juicy stories to write a tell-all," he says.  

From the beginning of his career, Harding was never taken with the glitz and the glamour of the Hollywood scene, which he calls "hollow." Actors often say that, but it's believable with this one. As a broke young actor, he wore a green Hollister sweater from high school to his first Pretty Little Liars callback with his onscreen love interest Lucy Hale because his one good button-down still had spaghetti stains "from a raucous Italian dinner a few nights earlier," he writes. And despite doing frequent sex scenes, he tells me he only recently broke down and got a real gym membership. "Before I just used Warner Brothers' because it was free, or very cheap," he says. "I really enjoy saving money." 

Born in Heidelberg, Germany to an American military family, Harding’s fascination with birds began when he was young. In an early chapter of the book, he fondly remembers going on walks with his father in the woods behind their family home in Springfield, Virginia. His dad knew enough about birds to identify some, including a hawk that the young Harding ended up naming Mr. Hawkins (not, he admits, the most creative name). But it wasn’t until his family moved to Herndon, Virginia and his dad gave him a beat-up Audubon field guide that he identified Mr. Hawkins—and his many lookalikes—as a Red-tailed Hawk. Harding remembers not being able to sleep that night from the excitement, and the book quickly became one of his favorites. That is, until he decided to leave birds behind. 

"In my adolescence, I took this odd interest I had, and I hid it," he writes. "I buried it. I was afraid of getting picked on, of getting made fun of by the opposite sex, by anyone really." 

Years passed. Harding grew up, attended the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—the chapter where he details playing a jellyfish for an entire semester is especially humorous—and then moved directly to L.A. Harding didn’t rediscover birds until he was in his mid-twenties and had already landed the role of Ezra Fitz, who, it’s worth mentioning, is in a scandalous relationship with one of his students, played by Hale, for the majority of the show. A few years into the gig, while on a fall ski trip to Big Bear Lake with some friends, Harding and a new friend bonded over identifying a swimming Hooded Merganser from the car. Back at their cabin, the two began birding around the nearby lake and Harding quickly fell back into his old passion. In describing that moment, he perfectly captures what it’s like to exist in the world as a birder.    

“I was suddenly aware of the world again in a different but oddly familiar way. Birds were outlined in silhouette out on the water. They were chirping overhead in the trees and in the bushes along the shore. I was paying attention to every sound.” He continues: “I wasn’t in my head, worrying about work, or thinking about how I needed to watch what I ate over the holidays. It might sound like some hippie California nonsense, but I felt very, very present.” 

For much of the book, Harding caters to his younger fans, who are far more likely to pick this book up than most birders and way less likely to know anything about birding. Despite all the expository asides, Harding still manages to provide some insightful observations about the hobby. One notable example is a scene that inspires a digression on how birding and the solitary adventuring it often entails instills a sense of honesty in a person. "If you can’t be honest with yourself, than what’s the point,” Harding writes of someone who would lie about an ID while birding solo. 

As a lifelong birder and of a similar age as Harding, his take on honesty struck me. It's something I've often considered, and I believe being raised birding has instilled in me a special value system that does not need the pressure of others to do the right thing. It was also key in developing an early conservation ethic. I asked Harding if these values were something he considered while writing the book, knowing that he would be introducing the hobby to a whole new audience.

"I know that the demographic that watches my show is predominantly younger, and having been on the show, it’s on your mind and how you come off to people in almost everything you do,” he says. "So when I was writing this book, I was all about that. Because the thing I value a lot about birding—it’s almost kind of like karate. Stick with me on this analogy. Karate or some sort of martial arts is, yeah, about self-protection or learning how to throw a punch, but it teaches you all of these other life lessons. As you said, honesty. Also how to be alone and how to be present. Like, I’m the most present when I’m outside, when I’m birding. Because you have to take in the world around you.”  

Photo: Sophie Hart

"This is not a slight against teens when I say this, but there is so much built-in narcissism [nowadays]. And I know this because social media is literally part of my job. If I didn’t need social media for a career, I wouldn’t have it. But this”—he lifts up his phone and extends it out from him while mimicking a rigorous selfie shoot—"is an external consciousness that you are continuously taking in, and without doing anything, [you are] literally putting yourself outside of yourself.” 

One of the more memorable birding stories in Harding’s book is when he and his two birding friends, one of whom he saw the merganser with, trek from L.A. to High Island, Texas, for its mythical spring migration turnout. Due to delays, the trio ended up missing the prime birding window and instead headed to W.G. Jones State Forest in search of one of its endangered Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. At this point in the book, Harding talks a bit about habitat loss and ponders the idea that we are slowly watching this species disappear. Earlier in the book he also mentions global warming in passing. While he doesn’t exactly mount any soapboxes in Oddbirds, Harding says he did want to make people think about these issues. 

"There’s a lot of political and bipartisan bullshit right now about the environment, about nature and all that,” he says. "When you’re sitting here in the middle of the W.G. Jones forest, which is a very generous term, and when you’re standing there and you’re looking at these houses and these trucks that drive by putting all this shit into this atmosphere, you have to be like, this [woodpecker] is dying because of us in some way. And you can’t just be like, well, it should adapt or die. But no, everybody’s connected. If you think that we’re not, let’s talk to some honeybees and bumblebees, and let’s see if we’re not connected.” 

While Harding drew from his own experiences to write the book, he says the actual writing process and compilation all of his various stories was a challenge. "It was very humbling,” he admits. "Thankfully it’s not longform and I didn’t have to map out completely created stories. It was all real.” Even still, his momentum could shift daily. "Kind of like anything, one day you feel like a genius—Wow, I feel like a genius, I just wrote that—and then the next day you question whether or not you’re illiterate,” he says. 

Although each chapter has some sort of lesson or connects various parts of Harding’s life, he doesn't always succeed in seamlessly weaving together all of the threads. "Some of the stories took some acrobatics and others were fairly obvious,” he says. In one chapter, Harding relates his run-ins with the paparazzi to what a rare bird must experience surrounded by crazed birders and photographers. "It didn’t dawn on me at first, and then I was like, Oh wait a minute, I must know what that’s like.”  

Harding is at what he calls a “sweet spot” in his career. He’s officially a star, but once he escapes L.A., he’s not quite famous enough yet to get mobbed by paparazzi. ”The privacy I have now is at a good level,” he tells me. "It’s a good level of fame. Nobody will harass you. There’s no telephoto lens across the street.” 

That could change soon, though. Harding has several possible jobs in the works, including a couple new TV shows that could have much broader audiences. But for now, he has found himself with some free time to go do some real birding, and he can’t wait. “I just think it’s something that gets you out of yourself, into the world," he says. "It does connect me to something deeper, and I can try to describe it, but I think, as you know when someone asks you what do you love about birding, I can give you a bunch of reason but none of them quite nail it.” 

Oddbirds, by Ian Harding, St. Martin Press, 252 pages, $17.56. Buy it on Amazon

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