Early birders: Researchers often get hooked as kids

by Anders Gyllenhaal
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Andrew Farnsworth was just 5 years old when he first started birding. As he grew up, this pastime and the science behind it became so captivating he started thinking about how to find a career that would somehow involve birds.

Today, Farnsworth, now 46, is one of the research associates at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which just completed its Global Big Day count that drew 26,000 contributors from around the world. (For a deep look Cornell’s innovation and development as the globe’s leading citizen science effort with its eBird project, see our story that ran Tuesday in the Washington Post. )

One of the intriguing backstories about eBird – a technology that’s become central to the routines of hundreds of thousands of birdwatchers – is how much of this work is in the hands of folks for whom birding was part of their upbringing.

“I was fascinated by migration at a very early age,’’ said Farnsworth, who works out of New York City and oversees the lab’s BirdCast and BirdVox projects that track the migration through a series of new tools. “I was very fortunate to be able to turn it into a career at the lab.’’

The stories of many researchers at Cornell, as well as Audubon, birding associations and conservation groups, follow similar paths.

Wesley Hochachka, a senior research association at Cornell, started birding at 6 years old. “A lot of birdwatching is collecting observations, and being able to see new species for the first time every year,’’ said Hochachka, now 57. “There’s a kind of game element to it, combined with the fact that I just found birds fascinating for as long as I can remember.”

Tom Auer, who has created a lot of the digital geography solutions that converted eBird data into animations, began in high school and soon became determined to find a career in avian science, partly because of early versions of eBird. “I saw eBird and said, ‘I’ve just got to do this.’ ’’

Over at the American Bird Conservancy, the 29-year-old director of public relations, Jordan Rutter was an avid child birder. She became so dedicated that she single-handedly rewrote the outdated birding checklist for a nearby national parks service site (Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Center) as a teenager and won the American Birding Association’s Young Birder of the Year Award at 13 years old.

Some of the staffers at these organizations who didn’t start as youngsters nonetheless found their way to birding as a hobby. It’s a unique part of the science of birding; there aren’t many research pursuits that provide both a profession and a pastime.

That may be why there’s such passion behind the work of many involved in the protection and study of birds. In interviews, conversations and in writings about their work, ornithologists and biologists exude an energy about their profession you don’t always encounter.

And they will need it: It’s an uphill climb when you look at the environmental challenges that face birds and people alike in a time of global climate change.

We should all be doing our part to spread the joys and values of birding to upcoming generations. We need all the future scientists, ornithologists, conservationists — and everyday birders — we can get.

 

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