Enter Nick Spigler’s room and this is what you’ll find: The delicate nest of a tree swallow, some as-yet-undissected owl pellets wrapped in plastic, and row upon row of books devoted wholly to birds. Clearly, the 15-year-old Bel Air resident has his head in the clouds, his feet off the ground.
Several times a week, Ellie Andreen, 14, visits a park near her home to check on her brood. Already, the bluebird boxes she placed there last winter have produced several families of offspring, which Ellie fusses over like a mother hen.
“These little creatures are, like, my babies, so cute and nice,” says Ellie. “They really don’t have habitats, so it’s good to give them homes. I see the eggs and feel that my work has paid off.”
Though fledgling bird-watchers, Nick and Ellie are among the youngsters involved in birding in Harford County, Maryland, the US, where several grade schools pique their interest with engaging programmes in ornithology, even if some kids can’t yet spell the word.
Raising youth awareness is a must, long-time birders say. While there are 45 million bird-watchers in the US, according to a 2016 US Fish and Wildlife Service survey, their average age is 55. As regards to the future, that’s nothing to crow about.
“People think all birders have grey hair, glasses and wear vests,” says Mary Murray, 65, education coordinator for the Harford Bird Club. “We’ve got to change that. These children are going to inherit the earth, and we need to teach them early how to be good stewards of it.
“Birds are an indicator species, like canaries in a coal mine, and if kids pay attention to what birds are doing, they will understand the health of their environment.”
Those hopes may be tied to more than a wing and a prayer. At 11, Katie Vanarsdale has her life planned. A bird rehabilitation specialist, she will be.
“People are messing up their habitats and polluting and doing all of that bad stuff in the world, and I think I’ll have to help them,” says Katie, a sixth-grader at North Harford Middle School. “Birds definitely need us on their side.”
When her family purchased a farm in White Hall last spring, Katie erected a bluebird house. Within 30 minutes, a squabble ensued between two would-be tenants, a bluebird and a tree swallow. The bluebird won and hatched five eggs.
“Then we found a dove which had walked into our garage,” Katie says. “I named her Creamsicle and put her in a cat carrier, with food and water. She laid an egg and I named it Skittles, but Creamsicle left it behind, so I put Skittles in our chicken coop, to see if anyone would sit on it. But something ate the egg.”
The lesson? “Nature has a way of weeding out the weak and the sick,” she says. “That’s life.”
Both Katie and the others embraced birding early on, joining bird clubs at their respective elementary schools. Once a month, groups of 20 to 30 students tromp through nearby fields at 7.30am, before class, hoping to spot a woodpecker, oriole or scarlet tanager with binoculars supplied by the Harford Bird Club.
Murray, a former long-time Harford County teacher, leads the morning outings. Having started the programme eight years ago, she tells the kids: “We’re playing hide-and-seek with the birds, only they don’t know it.”
They call themselves the Early Birds, Feathered Friends or Bird Buddies. It’s a fellowship that eluded young birders of the past, says John McKitterick, 65, VP of the Maryland Ornithological Society.
“I’ve been a birder since I was 10, but nobody else my age was interested – and I didn’t tell them because they’d think I was weird,” says McKitterick, of Columbia. “Now things are changing, with these clubs for kids. And social media has given them other ways of connecting with other young birders.”
With the rise of websites like eBird, one can keep a running list of every species seen, turning the quest into a nationwide scavenger hunt for bird buffs of all ages.
“Birding as a hobby won’t disappear, it’s simply changing with the times,” says Amanda Subolefsky, media manager of the Harford Bird Club, which has 125 members. “Instead of carrying field guides on their walks, people use the apps on their phones, and online check lists, to stay involved in the sport.”
Nick’s T-shirt tells all: A pair of binoculars and the words Bird Nerd. Nick wears it proudly; no stigma attached.
“Being part of the bird club at Prospect Mill Elementary (in Bel Air) since second grade made it seem more common than just some weird hobby,” he says. “I had to get up at 6.30am for the walks. That was for the birds, so I didn’t mind.”
Since then, he has attended youth birder symposiums and camps, studied bird banding and migratory patterns and – at last count – witnessed 190 of the more than 400 species in Maryland. Even the mascot at his high school, North Harford, is a hawk.
It’s a hobby that can rub off on others. Sometimes, whole families catch the bird bug.
“I always thought birds were nice, but my kids got me more interested in them than just saying, ‘Oh, that’s a cute one’,” says Kim Andreen, Ellie’s mother. “Now we all go, like little kids at Christmas, to check on her bird boxes and see what’s going on.”
Andreen’s other daughter, Faith, also has a thing for birds. There are stuffed birds in her room and bird posters on her walls. “As a kid, I tried to fly,” says Faith, 11. “Flapped my arms and jumped off things, but it didn’t work. I thought, ‘Why can’t I have hollow bones like birds so I can fly?’ ”
She’ll not forget the first chirps she heard from her sister’s bluebird box. “I wanted to call them all Bob; that’s my grandfather’s name,” says Faith. “We call everything Bob, even the bugs we find. But that (idea) got shot down pretty quickly.”
Her goal? A career in forensic ornithology, sparked by her years in the bird club at Meadowvale Elementary and a two-day stay at Harford Glen Environmental Education Center, where all of the county’s fifth-graders get a crash course in birding.
Faith’s favourite is the blue jay. Why such a common bird? “Blue jays are aggressive,” she says. “They show us that we need to be confident in ourselves. You can’t live life being calm and chill. Blue jays will fight for what they want.”
It’s a mantra, Faith says, that she has adopted when it comes to the land and its critters. – Tribune News Service/The Baltimore Sun/Mike Klingaman