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How to Fledge a Birder

The pleasures of passing along a passion for birds.

By Cliff Shackelford
Photos by Earl Nottingham

Last year, my wife and I led a bird walk at an outdoor event at the Pineywoods Native Plant Center at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches. Up walked a young girl to join our group, sporting not only the usual binoculars but also a unique green jacket covered in a birdy print.

That began my introduction to sixth-grader Hadley Watts (and her mother). I don’t meet a large number of “fledgling” birders, and this young lady’s extraordinary jacket hinted at real passion. After introductions, Hadley’s mom asked her to tell us what she wants to be when she grows up.

“An ornithologist!” Hadley answered firmly and swiftly. I couldn’t believe my ears — here was someone else who had gotten the birding “bug” early in life.

Let’s back up nearly four decades in Dallas, where I, too, was a budding birder eager to learn all I could about birds. At first, my parents, both non-birders, didn’t really know how to encourage my passion. They thought my love for birds was just a phase some youngsters go through, like those who bring home a frog or turtle they catch, hoping to keep it as a pet.

One day my parents found a Dallas Audubon Society flier tacked to a pegboard at our local library. That’s when things began to change for me. An upcoming birthday brought me new binoculars and Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of Texas.

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That paper newsletter on the library wall was social media at its finest in the late 1970s. That’s where I found out about upcoming meetings and eventually something called the Christmas Bird Count, where volunteers were needed. Bingo!

By this time, I was a young teen, so my dad phoned the local count’s organizer and found me a spot in a vehicle with a few seasoned birders. Amazing. Not only was I surrounded with like-minded folks, but I saw a few lifers. A “lifer” is what you call a species the first time you see it — it’s something new in your life.

I was hooked. Now that I am approaching the mid-century mark of my life, I’m still hooked, with no signs of quitting.

Back to Hadley, our fledgling birder. As our walk began, we asked Hadley what species she wanted to see most.

“A nuthatch — I’ve not seen any of the nuthatches before,” she said. Lucky for us, two species of year-round nuthatches can be seen fairly regularly on the Pineywoods Native Plant Center grounds. It didn’t take us long to find a brown-headed nuthatch, a tiny bark-clinging bird, and we watched for several minutes as it pecked on a large dead tree trunk, just five feet above the ground and less than 20 feet away from us. Now that’s the way to get a lifer, I thought. Even the seasoned leaders couldn’t remember a better view of a nuthatch. (With Hadley’s good luck, I joked that her next request should be the extinct ivory-billed woodpecker.)

She likes everything “birdy” — from crafts and photos to parakeets as pets. Her gym bag has hummingbirds all over it. Her T-shirts? Yep, they’re covered with birds. Can you guess her preferred topic for school reports? Everyone at her school knows she’s crazy about birds — the principal once rewarded her with bird stickers.

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When Hadley visits her friends’ houses, the girls’ bedrooms are covered in posters of popular musicians and actors. When those girls come over to Hadley’s house, they find her bedroom walls covered in posters and photos of birds. She’s got “the bug,” and everyone around her knows it.

The bird that hooked Hadley was a blue jay, followed soon by a northern cardinal. While playing youth soccer, she spent more time watching birds flying over the field than watching the ball. For her 10th birthday, Hadley requested “only birdy gifts, please,” including a birdbath, bird feeder, movies about birds, bird games and bird figurines.

Later came a cellphone with a birding app to help identify birds by sight and sound. (I sure could have used that when I was a kid long ago.) Then came a drone that Hadley flew in her yard in an attempt to get closer looks at birds. She walked with binoculars around the neighborhood, rewarded with observations of cedar waxwings and American robins.

During our annual spring migration birding trip to the Upper Texas Coast (including a stop at Sea Rim State Park), my wife and I met up with Hadley and her mom once again, and showed them a multitude of birds: colorful warblers, sluggish vireos, lanky herons and busy shorebirds. Months later, Hadley and her father joined us on a cold evening for an Owl Prowl at Mission Tejas State Park in East Texas. I hooted up a pair of barred owls for the more than 40 attendees, including a good number of young people, but I made sure Hadley had a front-row seat.

I’ll continue to make sure that Hadley has opportunities to pursue her passion and add more species to her life list. Watching a new birder grow and develop is the best kind of sighting.

If you have fledgling birders or naturalists in your home or neighborhood, be sure to encourage them so the interest can remain a lifelong passion instead of just a passing phase. Being closer to nature and all its beauty will make a child’s life journey enjoyable and rewarding.

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10 tips to encourage that fledgling birder in your family or neighborhood

  1. Ensure that your birders have their own pair of binoculars and a field guide (aka “bird book”). Always keep these items handy. A bird app should be on everyone’s cellphone.
  2. Find a local birding club or Audubon chapter whose experienced birders can help and point you in the right direction. Attend as many guided field trips as possible because you’ll learn and see a lot.
  3. Make birding a family event as Hadley and her parents have done – birding is a great excuse to spend time together exploring your region and beyond. Use TPWD’s Great Texas Wildlife Trails to help find new locations to go birding. The state’s trail maps can be found online at tpwd.texas.gov/wildlifetrails.
  4. Vacations and weekend excursions don’t have to be 100 percent birding, but at least some percentage should be. This will keep the fledgling birder in your life very happy. My school-age kids enjoy not only looking at birds but also other critters like turtles and snakes.
  5. Encourage conservation to all youth. Doing good things for birds and other wildlife is healthy for all of us. Birds are important neighbors to humans whether we realize it or not (birds can help keep insect and rodent numbers in check, pollinate our flowers and crops, clean up roadkill and more).
  6. Consider sending your fledgling birder to a summer camp where birding and other nature-related activities are the main theme.
  7. Encourage your fledgling birders to keep records of what they’ve seen. Services such as eBird and iNaturalist make data entry easy from any computer or smartphone. This also allows them to contribute as young citizen scientists.
  8. Spritz up your backyard or property with bird feeders, birdbaths and, most importantly, a wildscape (landscaping for wildlife as seen at tpwd.texas.gov/wildscapes). The best place to watch birds is where you spend the most time: home! It’s difficult for any skill level of birder to beat backyard birding.
  9. Encourage young people to save their hearing by wearing ear protection in loud situations. Birds are best detected by song, so we need the ability to hear them.
  10. Visit places with live birds, such as zoos. One of Hadley’s most memorable experiences was walking in an aviary at the Caldwell Zoo in Tyler and having birds fly all around her. As morbid as it sounds, museums with dead birds work well, too. As a kid, I encouraged family visits to the Dallas Museum of Natural History at Fair Park, where I repeatedly stood and stared at the pair of ivory-billed woodpeckers they had on display.

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