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
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
|Gracie McMahon's hand-painted bird rocks
served a conservation and public awareness
purpose in the Rockford area.
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 sandbluff.org, the website of the Sand Bluff Bird Observatory, where Gracie volunteers.
|Snowy Owl painting by Stephen Hurst
“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
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
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 illinoisyoungbirders.org to learn more and perhaps buy
a membership ($10) for the future ornithologist in your life.
Copyright 2020 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.