Birdwatching is an easy and foolproof way to calm anxiety and connect with nature. | Photo by Lanna Apisukh for Thrillist
Birdwatching is an easy and foolproof way to calm anxiety and connect with nature. | Photo by Lanna Apisukh for Thrillist

Grab Your Binoculars and Your People, It’s Birding Szn

A new generation of urban birding clubs are not just eager to change the perception of birding—they’re building inclusive communities around it.

In 2024, revenge travel is out. Finding peace, and your new passion, is in. This year is an opportunity to pump the brakes—to look up, turn in, get lost, ride along. We’ve collected 12 stories, each of which highlights a pursuit or experience that embodies this mindset. We hope they act as inspiration for the year to come—the beginnings of your very own 2024 mood board.

In the fall of 2020, my roommate set up a bird feeder in our backyard with the hope of catching a glimpse of Boston’s airborne fauna. Stuck inside during our senior year of college, enduring both a pandemic and a nerve-racking election, we were desperate for a little solace and some passive entertainment. After a few days of shooing away ravenous squirrels, we welcomed our first guests: a pair of robins with rust-colored bellies followed by a few plump, peaceful bluebirds. We observed every guest that approached our windowsill with awe, drawing sketches of the birds with colored pencils that we hung up in our kitchen. What we were doing, I realized later, was birding—albeit a pandemic-era version.

We weren’t the only young people fostering this new hobby. “The 2020 pandemic and isolation had a big effect on people our age; it felt like my early 20s were, in a way, stolen by COVID,” says Hannah Kirshenbaum, who co-founded NYC Queer Birders with her friend Anna Kremer. “Birding was a way to reclaim the time that we were ‘losing.’ I think people were starving for the outdoors and community.”

Historically, birding has been associated with groups whose members are older, particularly retirees seeking opportunities to get out of the house. Typically toting $1,000 binoculars and fancy cameras, people (primarily men) between the ages of 55 and 64 make up the largest community of birders, with an average annual income of $150,000 to $200,000. In these circles, gatekeeping rare species and competitiveness around life lists (the number of species a birder has seen in their lifetime) are fairly common and have contributed to the perception of birding as something of a solo hobby.

Groups like NYC Queer Birders and Feminist Bird Club, which lead bird-watching outings throughout New York City, are not just eager to change the perception of birding—they’re building inclusive communities around it. “There’s a lot of elitism in birding, a lot of older white men in Tilley hats and fishing vests, showing off who has the most impressive checklist and gear. Feminist Bird Club was founded as a reaction to that,” says Maxwell Matchim, a member of the club.

Founded in New York City in 2016, Feminist Bird Club has courted members who share a passion for birds, the environment, and social justice. The group, led by Molly Adams, has since expanded, with chapters across North America and Europe, and has raised and donated more than $100,000 to organizations like Honor the Earth, which supports Indigenous communities, and the National Network of Abortion Funds. Feminist Bird Club has also led walks in partnership with NYC Queer Birders. While people of all ages are welcome to tag along to either group’s gatherings, the participants tend to skew younger.

In the past, birders had to rely on physical field guides to identify birds. Now, with the creation of apps like Ebird and Merlin, which map out hot spots around New York City (submitted by birders themselves) and help users keep a running list of their findings, birding is easier and more accessible than ever. The hobby has made its way into social media as well; Feminist Bird Club and NYC Queer Birders both maintain strong Instagram presences where they announce their future outings, and the hashtag #birdwatching has amassed more than 181.4 million views on TikTok. “In reality,” says Matchim, “anyone who appreciates birds in any capacity is a birder.”

At Feminist Bird Club’s monthly gatherings, young birders from all around New York City congregate, ready to catch glances of finches and warblers hiding in the native grasses of greenspaces like Central Park and Greenwood Cemetery. I met up with them on a chilly Sunday morning at Shirley Chisholm State Park in Brooklyn, where members old and new introduced themselves. Experienced birders excitedly let me know that winter is “weird duck season,” where ruddy ducks, Canada geese, scaups, and more flee the Arctic tundra and wetlands for warmer bodies of water.

We entered the park slowly, a cacophony of song sparrows setting the soundtrack. I quickly learned that in birding patience is a virtue. Binoculars raised to our eyes at all times, we stared intently at American kestrels and dark-eyed juncos so long that my arms started to cramp up. The focus has a payoff, though. In a frenzy, we all flocked to the shoreline to watch two bufflehead ducks squabbling. “Are they fighting? Or flirting?” the birders asked, as they imagined different scenarios for what they’d coined the “duck drama.” One of them leaned over to me and said with a laugh, “Birders like to project their feelings onto birds.”

About an hour into my outing with Feminist Bird Club, it occurred to me that this was likely the longest I’d gone without checking my phone since I first got one as a teenager. In a world consumed by doomscrolling social media, spending two hours stalking birds instead of strangers on Instagram proved to be the perfect respite.

“When you’re birding, it’s almost like understanding another language,” says Matchim, who has met multiple friends and their partner through birding. “It’s an incredible way to help ground yourself and develop intimacy with natural spaces and other people.”

Unsurprisingly, studies have revealed that millennials and Gen Z are more prone to mental health problems than their older counterparts, due to a lack of socialization and a rise in screen time. Birding, and the mere presence of birds in urban areas, however, have been shown to improve our psychological well-being, reducing anxiety, depression, and stress. Living among concrete and skyscrapers especially, connecting with nature is not something that necessarily comes with the territory in New York City, nor does the busy lifestyle make it easy to find time for conservation efforts. For these urban birders, though, merely getting acquainted with local birds has empowered them to want to protect their environment.

In the past, both Feminist Bird Club and NYC Queer Birders have collaborated with NYC Audubon, a grassroots community that works to protect wild birds and their habitats in the city’s five boroughs. Along with preserving the biodiversity of the more than 200 bird species that frequent the city, NYC Audubon hosts lectures and guides free birding outings, all with the mission to expose New Yorkers to the city’s plethora of underrated green spaces, like Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, which is more than three times the size of Central Park.

“Millennials and Gen Z have grown up in the context of constantly being aware of climate change and biodiversity loss and all these massive environmental issues, so there’s a real preciousness to being able to experience these birds,” Matchim says. “There’s almost this urgency to be like, ‘Well, if I don’t see this golden-winged warbler, I might not be able to in 10 years.’ Once you have a relationship with the environment around you, you want to protect it.”

Along with their conservation work and programming, NYC Audubon works toward building green infrastructure and making the city more bird friendly, through getting legislation passed that requires city-owned buildings to turn their lights off at night to reduce bird collisions and protecting trees from being chopped down in Jamaica Bay and The Ramble. On an individual level, however, there are a myriad of ways young New Yorkers can get involved. “What’s good for birds is good for people,” says Roslyn Rivas, the public programs manager at NYC Audubon, “[like] planting native plants, buying locally, and not being too disruptive.”

As we made our way back around the park to Hendrix Creek, I paused to take one last look at the shoreline. A flock of ducks was waddling along the grass. A fellow birder told me that an easy way to identify birds was by their markings, but this flock looked pretty standard, with black heads and brown backs, resembling Canada geese. I raised my binoculars to get a better look, remembering that a white neck marking that resembled a pearl necklace differentiated Canada geese from brants—and there it was. I had identified my first bird in the wild, and suddenly it was as if I were seeing the world through a clearer lens. It reminded me of what Kirshenbaum had said: “Once you get into birding, you can never turn it off. It doesn’t matter where I am—if I see a little flutter in the corner of my eye, I’m going to investigate. It just makes being alive very exciting. I swear, it’s going to make us all live longer.”

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Kelsey Allen is an associate editor on the local team at Thrillist.