Gracie McMahon, 2020 ABA 
Young Birder of the Year.
Photo by Kristine McMahon
Young birders who care

(published 11-4-20)

Those of us working through the COVID-19 era may be tiring of video conference calls. It’s easy to get Zoomed out, dreading the next “virtual” meeting.

But a Zoomer about birding? That’s different. I couldn’t wait to log on for the 2020 Illinois Young Birder Virtual Symposium.

The recent Saturday morning confab was time well spent and ended with a flourish as keynote speaker Kenn Kaufman addressed the kids and took their questions.

Kaufman tuned in for the entire symposium, listening to the presentations by some of our state’s top young birders and sharing his own perspectives in small doses. There is no bigger fan (and coach) of youth birding than Double K, one of the hobby’s rock stars.

The symposium is an annual gathering for Illinois Young Birders, a birding club for kids, teens and young adults ages 9 to 18. Administered by the Illinois Ornithological Society, ILYB aims to “foster and ignite a passion for birding among young people, provide community, promote conservation, investigate careers in birding, build positive relationships with other birding groups, and most of all to have fun!”

The fun part is easily achieved through monthly field trips to birding hotspots around the state, primarily in the Chicago region. Of course, ILYB members are usually birding somewhere every weekend. These kids eat, sleep and bird, and their field identification skills often surpass those of their elders.

Gracie McMahon's hand-painted bird rocks
served a conservation and public awareness
purpose in the Rockford area. 
The symposium showcased other skills, including sketching, painting and photography. A slideshow of member artwork and photos played to a soundtrack that included “Birding” by the Swet Shop Boys, a tune worthy of your investigation.

Earlier this year, one of the symposium participants, 14-year-old Gracie McMahon from Rockford, was named 2020 Young Birder of the Year by the American Birding Association. Her presentation to ILYB summarized her contest entry, including required elements focusing on conservation and community action.

In 2019, Gracie launched a public outreach project in which she hand-painted 52 rocks with different species of birds. Each rock was numbered, with a message on the back: “What bird is this?” along with, the website of the Sand Bluff Bird Observatory, where Gracie volunteers.

Snowy Owl painting by Stephen Hurst
The rocks were placed throughout the Rockford area for random people to find. The finders could then go online to watch a video about their bird and receive an invitation to visit Sand Bluff. Gracie and other SBBO volunteers created a short video for all 52 birds.

“My project wasn’t for people who were already interested in birds,” Gracie said. “It was for people who knew nothing about them and weren’t aware that birds need our help. Hopefully now they are, and they will continue to expand the birding community.”

Other symposium presenters were Peter Tolzmann, speaking about the human impact on birds; John Fabrycky on birding in Israel; and Oliver Burrus sharing insights about data science and “machine learning.” Part of Oliver’s talk covered iNaturalist, a useful app for helping ID virtually any living thing.

Kaufman closed the event with an inspiring talk that reached beyond birding to show how everything in nature is connected. The kids were mesmerized, the way Little Leaguers would be if Anthony Rizzo showed up to their baseball practice. Everyone on the Zoom, it seemed, had read Kaufman’s “Kingbird Highway” at least once.

White-eyed Vireo by Simon Tolzman
“Birds unite us,” he said, and “Birds will lead you to everything else in nature.”

Kaufman reflected on growing up in Indiana and how, at age 6, he learned to put a name on the blackbirds grazing in his yard. They were common grackles and European starlings—not the most exciting “spark birds,” he admits, but they were enough. The challenge of finding other birds to identify hooked him on birding.

Not surprisingly, as a teen, Kaufman’s favorite book was “Wild America,” the classic bird-finding travelogue by Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher, published in 1955. A few of the ILYB members had read it as well, which thoroughly impressed me.

Kaufman wrapped up his virtual visit with a call to action, encouraging everyone to share their knowledge and passion with others.

“We don’t have to make people into rabid birders,” he said. “If you can get them to care about birds, to have some interest, then they are likely to support bird conservation in the future. We need a lot more people like that.”

The message resonated but was hardly necessary. Not with this group. Young birders, the serious ones, are among the hobby’s best ambassadors. We need a lot more of them, too.

Visit to learn more and perhaps buy a membership ($10) for the future ornithologist in your life.

Copyright 2020 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.