A New Birding Club Wants to Help COVID Long-Haulers Safely Enjoy Nature Together

Ed Yong, an award-winning science journalist who widely covered the pandemic, recently launched The Spoonbill Club to provide community—and an accessible hobby—for folks with long COVID.
Illustration of people watching birds next to a lake.
Illustration: Kyutae Lee

In September 2022, Ezra Spier contracted COVID-19. Initially mild, his symptoms continued and even worsened weeks and months later, leading to a diagnosis of long COVID. A year and a half later, the condition has irrevocably altered Spier’s life, restricting the former hiker and outdoor enthusiast to short walks around the block. Like many long-haulers, Spier’s new reality contrasts sharply with his former vibrant social life: He often spends days inside without seeing other people. But a new birding club, organized by science writer Ed Yong specifically for people with long COVID, hopes to offer Spier and other long-haulers both community and an accessible activity.

“I think that Ed’s initiative is going to make so many people feel seen,” says Molly Adams, founder of the Feminist Bird Club and co-author of “Birding for a Better World: A Guide to Finding Joy and Community in Nature,” who has talked about their personal experience birding as a long-hauler. “I just think it will be such a gift to so many people who are suffering from long COVID, especially if they’re being introduced to the hobby for the first time.”

Yong, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his COVID-19 reporting, only started birding himself in September 2023. “It’s been a very full-throated progression into what I’ve come to call birder derangement syndrome,” Yong admits. Now, he pores over his Sibley field guide to improve his ID skills, and he’s already recorded 459 species globally on eBird since starting. Many of those entries include photos by Yong, who purchased a mirrorless camera soon after beginning birding. “They definitely scratch slightly different itches,” he says of birding and bird photography. One day, while quietly birding, an idea struck him: This could be the perfect low-activity hobby for COVID long-haulers.

After years of extensively reporting on the pandemic, long COVID never strays far from Yong’s thoughts. “The illness is very contracting,” he says. “It really shrinks your capacity…it shrinks your possible sources of joy and connection.” Though Yong doesn’t have long COVID, he’s shared openly about how years of pandemic reporting challenged his mental health. Birding provided a balm. “It really deepened my connection to the natural world, and I wanted to share that with this community of people who have become so important to me,” Yong says. “It really felt like that could work.”

An estimated 6.4 percent of people in the United States—approximately 21 million people—suffer from long COVID.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 6.4 percent of people in the United States—approximately 21 million people—suffer from long COVID. But every person’s symptoms vary, says Lisa McCorkell, a long-COVID patient and cofounder of the Patient-Led Research Collaborative that supports COVID research and advocacy. In 2021, the group documented more than 200 different symptoms, including loss of smell, fatigue, memory loss, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, and post-exertional malaise. With post-exertional malaise, any cognitive, physical, or emotional effort can exacerbate current symptoms and trigger new ones for days or even months, preventing many COVID long-haulers from returning to their normal lives. Though some with long COVID can do dinner with friends or visit a museum, the stimuli or physical exertion keeps them bed- or house-bound for days or even weeks afterward. “It’s sort of like a devil’s bargain: Do I want to see my friends or do I want to feel like crap?” Spier says. “And I’m one of the lucky ones—for some people, their symptoms are so severe they don’t get that choice at all.”

A fledgling birding club

Yong, who is based in Oakland, floated his idea of a birding club by several long-hauler friends, including McCorkell. Though she’d never gone birding, she thought it had promise. Yong also asked Adams, who gave it a big thumbs-up and connected him with Marissa Ortega-Welch and Skylar Wang from the Feminist Bird Club’s San Francisco Bay Area chapter, who volunteered to guide the trips. Thus, The Spoonbill Club hatched.

Sharing its name with the pink wader common in the southeastern United States, The Spoonbill Club is unlikely to see any Roseate Spoonbills in the San Francisco Bay Area. The name, suggested by Yong and embraced by participants, is a reference to spoon theory, a way for people with long COVID and myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) to talk about their illnesses. They explain daily energy in terms of spoons, and describe activities such as showering, eating, or birding by how many spoons each requires.

Organizing an outing would consume a lot of spoons, Yong says, so it was important for him, as an able, healthy person, to lead the planning. Ahead of the first meetup, he sent participants a survey with questions about accommodations they needed, what time of day would be best, if they required transportation, and if they had binoculars. “It’s important to me that our goals are to protect people’s health and to show them cool birds—but always in that order,” Yong says.

In February, Spier and McCorkell joined Yong, the two Feminist Bird Club guides, and four other participants at Heron’s Head Park on the inaugural outing. A marshy area close to the water, the park gave participants the opportunity to see more than 30 species, including exciting views of a Belted Kingfisher. Critically, the trail was flat and groomed—carefully selected since one participant was a wheelchair user—and participants had access to benches or folding chairs where they could sit and rest when standing or walking became too taxing.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is something that is kind of all around me all the time without me realizing, and all I need to do is tap into it,’” Spier says. “What a gift it is to receive an experience like that.” 

Yong organized a second outing with 10 participants mid-March and plans to offer a monthly event for COVID long-haulers. He hopes the club enriches their lives by teaching them a new hobby and giving them a safe way to gather in person. “In part, it’s also my way of saying to them, someone gets it,” he says. “Not only are we saying what you have is real and important and debilitating, but that doesn’t need to be it.” Last month, Yong shared the idea more widely through his newsletter and a post on Bluesky, inviting interested long-haulers to contact him. Dozens in the Bay Area and beyond emailed in response. “I’m excited to see where it goes,” Yong says.

Adams, for one, would love to see a chapter start in New York, where they live. “I would probably start crying,” they say. “I would be so excited.” Before COVID, Adams was an active birder, volunteer bird bander, and advocate for bird conservation, who regularly birded sunrise to sunset. Long COVID now limits their intentional birding to sitting inside their house or car listening for bird calls through the window. Depending on the day, even the most accessible outing might not be possible.

Though The Spoonbill Club is still only in its fledgling stage, the next phase could include virtual options, suggest Adams and McCorkell, who note that leaving home isn’t even an option for some folks with long COVID. A natural partnership could form with the Feminist Bird Club, which already offers virtual options for disabled participants, to also allow house- or bed-bound long-haulers to experience the joys of birding. “I’m really excited to see how this club is received and how it evolves,” Adams says.

Though Yong initiated The Spoonbill Club, he’s quick to say that isn’t about him. “It seems like such a small thing to be able to do for a community of people who have a lot of needs right now,” he says. “I really hope that this inspires people elsewhere in the country or elsewhere in the world to do their own versions of The Spoonbill Club.”