Birding

The Life of a Teenage Birder

A busy high schooler shares how he got hooked on birds at an early age and what they mean to him.

From left: Bird expert Kenn Kaufman, a mentor to the writer, leads him and a group of birders on a walk at Magee Marsh, Ohio; The writer helps a fledgling birder use a spotting scope on the same walk. Photos: Kim Kaufman

“You're a birdwatcher? But you play hockey! That's crazy!” It's not uncommon for me to hear some variation of this from new friends. Yes, it's unorthodox for a 17-year-old badly in need of a haircut to be captain of the hockey team and also a bird guide. But this is who I am, and I love it.

My passion for birds sprouted when I was six years old. I was struck by the Northern Cardinal's vibrant red and wanted to learn all about the feathered creatures that lived around my home in Toledo, Ohio. After my grandfather took me to nearby Magee Marsh, there was no going back. Since then, I’ve had some wonderful opportunities to guide walks around the city. But sometimes, life can get in the way.

Birding in the fall and winter is especially tough because of hockey season and school; between practice and homework, I have little free time to study birds. But in the end, hockey gives me more than it takes away. Traveling to tournaments in the United States and Canada allows me to observe species I wouldn't find in Ohio, and meet new people who share my interest. I once bonded with a gentleman in Toronto over the fact that we had the same nemesis: the Cerulean Warbler. So, it’s not just about the birds you see, but also the people the birds bring to you.

The writer attributes the Northern Cardinal's bright feathers to first piquing his interest in birds. Photo: Nate Koszycki

Adults, whether they're strangers or mentors or my parents, have helped shape my role as a birder. My good friend Tim Haney, for instance, has guided me through exciting experiences in the field, while Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman have taught me to be a leader to other young enthusiasts. This kind of support from grown-ups is crucial. Many kids feel dissuaded when others their age don’t understand the point or joys of birding. It's up to adults to encourage them to continue to do what they love.

To teens still getting to know the world of birds: Don't let other people's opinions get to you! The critics don't count—in school, in sports, or in birding. If you know your stuff, they'll have nothing to talk about. Build your knowledge by asking questions of those more experienced. Then, pass that insight on to those who aren't fully fledged. It gives younger birders confidence in what they do, and is also rewarding and fun.

If you're always on your phone, you've already got a head start on birding. Social media is an excellent tool for finding and sharing sightings, photos, or opinions so that you never feel isolated. I love using Facebook and Twitter to tell my stories, and Instagram and Snapchat to drop highlights from the field. Any way you use these options, they can help birders and non-birders understand what you're up to. Hopefully, the excitement will be contagious! 

Yup, I'm the type of kid who helps pump up his team for a big game and admires the song of the Wood Thrush on a spring morning; a captain who leads on the ice and in the field. Young birders around the world will have different experiences, but we all have the same calling. I can't wait to hear your story someday.

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