Culture

From Birding in the Bronx to Birding on Your Screens, It's Been a Journey

Jason Ward, a birder and host of the new Topic show 'Birds of North America,' reflects on the unorthodox path that got him to this point.

Birders share a certain kinship with one another. We're able to perceive and travel through the world in a unique way. We can’t help but notice out-of-place bird songs in movies. In the midst of serious conversation, our gaze is often hijacked by a fluttering passerine. And not to mention the fact that no matter the occasion, we typically keep our favorite pair of binoculars nearby. I’m guilty of all of those, as I’m sure most of you are. But that’s probably where our similarities end. Sure, we both love and appreciate our feathered friends, but we're more different than we are alike. Which is something that I don’t see as a bad thing, I see that as a cause for celebration. Let me explain.

I grew up in New York City. Not Seinfeld’s New York City, not the city Sarah Jessica Parker strolled through for six seasons on HBO. I was born and raised in the south Bronx, in Castle Hill projects, in one of the poorest congressional districts in the country. I grew up around drug use, gangs, and crime that occurred so often it was normalized and often an afterthought to those who lived around it. You’re probably wondering how I managed to steer clear of the volatile ecosystem that seemed to engulf anyone that it touched. Well, little eight-year-old Jason had a secret—a secret that kept me safe and occupied. I loved animals. Each day, after school, when kids would head to the park to play basketball, or home to watch Nickelodeon, I would head to the local library. There, I would stack my desk full of books and escape into a world full of creatures, from prehistoric dinosaurs to modern-day cheetahs, great white sharks, and birds of prey. A love for the natural world grew each and every time I dove into those books.

Many of my childhood friends grew up idolizing the likes of Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter. For me, my heroes were Jeff Corwin, Chris and Martin Kratt, and Steve Irwin. I wanted badly to share my passion for wildlife with everyone, but it often took a backseat to the harsh realities of everyday life. It’s hard to truly be a kid and mentally escape into a world full of wonder when you’re not sure when your next meal will be. Occasional family trips to the Bronx Zoo brought euphoria, and visits were free on Wednesdays. Once there, I would act as a tour guide, dragging everyone to each enclosure to rain facts about the animals I recognized from library books. Sure, my audience was only as large as my parents and three younger brothers, but I felt as if I was on a stage, introducing these animals to the world. I was in my element. It almost felt as if I was auditioning, though I wasn’t sure what exactly for at the time.   

Mike Bergin, founder of the blog 10,000 birds, defines the term “spark bird” as “the species that mutates one’s benign regard for nature into a seething, immoderate interest in avifauna." My spark came during one of the toughest times in my life. My family had been living in a homeless shelter for a couple months at the time. One day, looking out the window, I saw a Peregrine Falcon plucking the feathers off of a pigeon as it prepared to eat its freshly caught meal. A real-life nature documentary was playing out right in front of me. I couldn’t contain my excitement, nor did I want to. After doing some research, I discovered that this incredible raptor resides on six of the seven continents. In fact, its latin name, falco peregrinus, translates to “wandering falcon." My connection to the Peregrine was instantaneous. To me, it represented not being constrained by boundaries. Here was a bird that was able to leave an unfavorable situation for greener pastures. I was hooked. That was the moment that made me a birder.

​Since that day, I have dedicated my life to spreading my love for wildlife to as many people as possible. After I moved to Atlanta and bought my first pair of binoculars, I continued my mission more formally: whether it was leading monthly bird walks as a volunteer for Atlanta Audubon, working at Zoo Atlanta as an education instructor, or creating my very own weekly quiz game on Twitter called Tricky Bird ID. More recently, I became a Fund II Apprentice for the National Audubon Society. Every step of the way, it has all felt so natural, like the auditioning I did as a child at the zoo was paying off.

Now, I have a project that I’m most proud of. What began as a direct message on Twitter from Anna Holmes, the editorial director of the media company Topic, has turned into me hosting Birds of North America, a new web series about birds and birding, directed by Rob Meyer, who co-wrote and directed A Birder’s Guide to Everything. New episodes will be released each Sunday on YouTube and Topic.com. You’ll get to follow me around as I experience the best that birding—and its community—has to offer. From attending festivals to interviewing birding rockstars, you will witness my elation as I try my best to describe the range of emotions that birding brings out of all of us.

We might have taken different roads to get here, but what we have in common is a deeply rooted affinity for things with feathers. No matter how vastly different our upbringing, I find that I bond with birders mere seconds after meeting them for the very first time. We are a part of the best club on Earth. Which is something I get to convey on camera for the world to see. I’m living my dream. Don’t pinch me.

Jason Ward is the host of Birds of North Ameria, the founder of Tricky Bird ID on Twitter, and a Fund II Apprentice at the National Audubon Society. 

Watch the first episode of Birds of North America below, and tune in each Sunday to catch new episodes on Topic's Youtube channel and at Topic.com

“The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of Audubon. Audubon does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.”