Mya-Rose Craig is a most uncommon birder. The England native has seen more than half of all species in the world. She’s a climate activist who’s shared a stage with the likes of Greta Thunberg. And she’s only 21 years old.
In her memoir Birdgirl: Looking to the Skies in Search of a Better Future, released in the United States in March, Craig describes a childhood of international birding adventure, concentrating on the ways the hobby exposed her to a beautiful and complex world in crisis—both global and personal in scope. While the book ties Craig’s life story to her activist awakening, it’s equally compelling in its focus on the tensions of growing up with a parent coping with mental illness. As a child, Craig used nature as an intermission from familial pain. Now she uses her platform to help young people commune with the natural world and protect it.
Craig’s birding path started before she was born. Her father Chris, an English engineer and dedicated twitcher, would routinely venture out at any time when prompted by a rare bird alert. Early in life he met, birded with, and married Helena Ahmed, a Bangladeshi lawyer from a lineage of anti-racist activists. Not long after that came Mya-Rose.
Her parents prioritized birding adventures as she grew up, traveling around the world and away from their Bristol, United Kingdom, home for months at a time. By her teenage years Craig had experienced, and begun blogging about, avian spectacles beyond the dreams of most adults in places such as Ecuador, Uganda, Madagascar, Antarctica, and the United States. In Australia she is approached by the mighty Southern Cassowary wearing “an abundant glossy black plumage, like a fur cape draped over his back and shoulders, clashing dramatically with the bright flash of his long blue neck.” In Peru she glimpses the rare Golden-backed Mountain Tanager, “a small but spectacular bird with jet-black wings poking through a golden jacket and a sky-blue crown of feathers.” And in Indonesia she admires the mating dance of a Wallace’s Standardwing: “He seemed to quadruple in size in front of my eyes as he puffed out his chest, iridescent emerald ‘wings’ shooting out to catch the sun.”
For Craig, wildlife is a bright spot in a childhood strained by her mother’s difficulties with bipolar disorder. As a child, she struggled to cope with the intense mood swings brought on by her mother’s illness. For example, on birding trips, failure to spot a target bird could trigger a depressive episode for her mother. “It’s when she doesn’t get her bird, despite all our efforts, that a darker, longer shadow is cast on whoever is closest by,” Craig writes.
Still, birding time was family time, when all were at their most focused and present. Helena put tremendous care in finding the birds on the family’s target list. “Walking, waiting, watching, and calling—my family begins to operate like a simple organism,” Craig writes, “each of us in sync with the others, as we make eye contact; nod directions to follow a lead, a path; or glance into the trees, intuitively understanding what we have to do.”
As she grew older, birding trips helped expand her perspective beyond her family’s fragile balance. Growing up, she’d been aware that her hometown, Bristol, had built its wealth from the slave trade. But she had an awakening on a birding trip to Ghana, where she visited the “Door of No Return,” through which Africans forcibly taken from their homes walked to British ships as enslaved people. “Nothing had ever really brought home the reality of individuals being turned into commodities, with no rights or human dignity,” she writes.
While visiting her mother’s extended family in Bangladesh, Craig joined a conservation effort aimed at protecting the endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper. She met Bangladeshi birders, scientists, researchers—women, and men of all ages. It got her thinking the birding community in the United Kingdom was not nearly as diverse or accessible as it should be.
These experiences catalyzed an activist streak. She began writing about conservation and climate change, which led to speaking appearances and a growing public profile. In 2016 she organized her first conference focused on increasing the diversity of those participating in nature work. Craig then started a birdwatching summer camp—Camp Avalon, set at Avalon Marshes about 25 miles from Bristol—focused on kids of color.
“The goal is to try and engage a new generation of environmentalists. But also we’re spending a lot of time trying to give them the tools to manage their own mental health,” Craig says. “Like, ‘if you’re feeling really overwhelmed and angry or sad or upset, maybe try just going out to a local green space and just sitting for 15, 20 minutes and trying to absorb that. It will make you feel better.’”
The memoir is imbued with lessons in how birding can help form community, provide mental relief, and offer new perspectives. As Craig sees it, birding means standing aside, placing yourself, with proper humility, in the broader scheme of the natural world. It’s not easy to do without a birder’s patience to see what’s right in front of you. For many birders, the way into themselves is through looking out into the world.
Birdgirl: Looking to the Skies in Search of a Better Future, by Mya-Rose Craig, 304 pages, $28.00. Available here on Macmillan.