When Punk Rock, Tattoos, and Birding Collide

Paul Riss is shattering the mold, proving that birdwatchers can come in all styles. 

Paul Riss is in love with birds. He spent 2011 crisscrossing Ontario, searching for hundreds of species. He’ll happily stalk a rare bird for hours. He even gave his children the middle names Thrasher and Wren. To put it lightly, he’s kind of fanatical about birds. But he’s also passionate about his unique punk rock style—and about melding the two.

To show that birders come in all sorts and professions, Riss set out to do a “big year,” counting as many species as he could in 365 days in Ontario. He also took up the challenge for another purpose: to break birdwatcher stereotypes and inspire young people to try the hobby. “Birdwatchers are little old ladies with blue hair and field vests,” Riss says, conjuring the typical image of his kin. Although there’s nothing wrong with that kind of birder, Riss adds, he wanted to show that there are other types out there, too. To help in that effort, he’s documenting his success in ink.

His appearance is unusual for most 42-year-olds: He occasionally sports a mohawk—a vestige from his younger days—and drives a bright-yellow 1974 Plymouth Duster. Even more striking is his skin, an image-covered canvas. At last count Riss had 15 tattoos. In the next few months he plans to get 230 more—one for each bird species he saw in 2011.

Riss started what he called his Punk Rock Big Year two Januarys ago, an effort reminiscent of bird expert and Audubon field editor Kenn Kaufman’s 1973 big year (chronicled in his book Kingbird Highway). Riss wasn’t an experienced birder at the start, so he turned to Kaufman and Canadian birders Richard Pope and Margaret Bain. He called Kaufman out of the blue, asking whether to pursue this at all, what places to focus on if he did, and whether, when he moved onto the inking phase, he should use the birds’ scientific or English names. (They concluded scientific names—fewer letters.) “He wanted to know if I saw any sort of downside to his approach,” Kaufman says. His response? “Absolutely not. The image of birdwatchers being Miss Jane Hathaway from The Beverly Hillbillies has been so persistent that anything we can do to shake things up is good.” 

Pope, who completed a big year in 2007 and wrote a book about the experience, and Bain spent hundreds of hours with Riss, taking him to the best birding spots and teaching him birdcalls. From day one, the unlikely trio became good friends. “We made plans to go birding,” Pope says. “I met up with him in a random parking lot, and we went birding on January 2.”

Whenever possible (he did have a full-time job in advertising), Riss went searching with his binoculars around his neck, gradually gaining more knowledge and adding to his list. In January he saw a red-tailed hawk, in the spring a great horned owl, and in the fall a ruddy turnstone. He counted his favorite bird of the year—the smew—on December 27, with just four days to go. He recorded the process on video (he’ll release the final documentary in 2013) and a blog titled Punk Rock Big Year: A Year’s Worth of Birds and Tattoos.

By the end of 2011, Riss came up shy of the record 338 species seen in the province. But he says that doesn’t detract from his experience, his 234 species, and his chance to mold a new generation of birders. (He does regret leaving his wife at home with two sick children on one occasion, and not taking a long drive to see just one more species.) He’s started doing outreach to a younger audience, through Kenn and Kimberley Kaufman’s Young Birders Conference. And slowly but surely, he’s permanently etching the year onto his body, one tattoo at a time (in Sailor Gothic Regular font, if you’re curious).

“The oddness of the whole thing, the anomaly of having birding and punk rock somehow connected . . .” Pope says, trailing off. “You don’t think of punk rockers as being conservationists, ecologists, and definitely not into birds and birding. Here’s a guy bringing two unlikely, disparate fields together.” With luck, that commingling Riss brought to life will show anyone who cares to look just how universal birds can be. 

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