‘Birds taught me to see in a completely different way’

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Julia Zarankin *04 framed her memoir, Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder, around a passion she developed over the past 10 years for birding. At first she could identify little more than pigeons, but over time she’s banded snowy owls, participated in major bird counts, and learned much about life — and about herself. “What I really learned from birds,” she says, “is to pay attention to what’s in front of you.”



Liz Daugherty: Welcome to the PAWcast. I’m Liz Daugherty. Birds arrived in Julia Zarankin’s life at a moment of change. In her memoir, Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder, she writes that the career she worked so hard for had become unfulfilling, and her first marriage had fallen apart. Her search for meaning took her to a birding group in Toronto, where she fell hard for the red-winged blackbird. That sighting began a decade-long love affair with the avian world that took Julia to many places to find birds, including a sewage lagoon, the first of many, and to a rain-soaked tent on Straten Island, Maine, to count black-bellied plovers. Along the way she learned life lessons, including how to really listen, how to leave perfectionism at the door, and how to cultivate a sense of wonder. Julia, thank you for joining me.

Julia Zarankin: It’s such a pleasure to be here, thank you for having me.

LD: So tell me. How did you first discover birding, and how did your interest build from there?

JZ: Well, you know, I was sort of in this kind of in-between zone. I was transitioning between careers, and I was auditioning hobbies, actually, kind of trying to see what would stick. And I wanted something that would make me feel at peace, and would exercise my patience, without ever having to get into, you know, yoga and downward dog pose. I had always sort of been fascinated by — not by birds, because I didn’t grow up in a very nature-oriented family, like we never camped, but I had always been fascinated by bird watchers, because I thought they were just so peculiar and so bizarre. So as I was auditioning hobbies, I thought, OK, why don’t I try that? And it was mainly in order to watch the bird watchers, and not for the birds themselves. And then I saw that red-winged blackbird, and that moment, it just — it changed everything. 

LD: How so? Like, can you describe what it felt like when you saw it?

JZ: Absolutely. So up until that point — you know, often when people say that they’re beginners, what they mean is that they have a hard time distinguishing between a bay-breasted warbler in fall plumage and a blackpoll warbler in fall plumage. When I say I was a beginner, I mean, the only bird I knew was a pigeon. Like, I thought owls were mythical creatures. And so, I went out with this birding group, and we were looking at ducks for about two hours and it was awful, and I was like, OK, I’m leaving, sorry guys. And then just as we were walking to the parking lot and I was preparing my exit speech, I saw this red-winged blackbird, and first of all, it was easy to see, and it was so beautiful that I initially thought it was a rare migrant from Peru or something. I had never seen red that bright, and I was just — I was so shocked to find out it was one of the most common spring migrants in Ontario. And at that moment, I just thought to myself, what else have I been missing?

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LD: So you are not the first person I’ve met who is just wild about birds. So, can you tell me, who’s a non-birder, why people find birds so captivating?

JZ: Well, first of all, they can fly. They have the greatest superpower in the world. So there’s that, and also, I think watching birds, it’s as close as we’re ever going to get to dinosaurs, as well. So there’s that kind of evolutionary time as well that makes them magical. And I think for me, birds just taught me to see in a completely different way, to really look at the detail of things, to examine the nuance, and the more you become attuned to looking in that kind of way, the more you see, and the more you want to see. And it becomes this truly obsessive pursuit.

LD: I can see that.

JZ: It’s insatiable. It’s — it’s very — it’s very emotionally draining. 

LD: I believe it! Well, and physically draining, too.

JZ: Strangely, yes, that was the surprising thing for me. Birders — they go a really, really, really long time, and it also gets quite competitive, which is sometimes — sometimes fun, and — but really, I love learning, and you know, the more you see, the more you want to see, and the more you realize how much more you have to learn, and I just — I find that process so exciting. 

LD: In your book, you describe your family background and your childhood, and you describe yourself as a migratory species. Can you tell a bit of that story?

JZ: Absolutely. So, I was born in the former Soviet Union, and my family emigrated when I was about four years old. But even, you know, even before we emigrated from the former Soviet Union to Canada, even before that, like I come — my family is Jewish, and you know, during the Second World War, my grandparents were evacuated to the Far East, so I do come from this long line of — of migrants. And as I — as I started learning more about birds, and learning more about their migratory journeys, I started to do this thing that scientists would probably be horrified by, but I started anthropomorphizing, and sort of finding myself in the birds, and connecting their experience to my own. 

And the migratory journey is something that has been such a huge part of my upbringing, and you know, my family’s stories, and suddenly this was a way that my life intersected with birds that I hadn’t — I hadn’t been expecting. And then once we got to Canada — we left the former Soviet Union, spent a year in Vienna, and then came to Canada, initially to Edmonton and from there moved to the West Coast, to Vancouver, and from there to Toronto, and then, you know, my migratory journey continued, I went to Brown and then did graduate work at Princeton, and then lived in California and Paris and Missouri, and then finally kind of came back to — to Toronto. 

And I think this whole birding journey has really made me think differently about home, and about what that is to me, and about how, you know, Toronto can feel like — now that I’ve discovered birds, Toronto feels more like home to me. It’s turned into an anchor for me.

LD: Over 10 years of birding, you’ve learned an awful lot about birds, but you’ve also learned from birds and birding. What are some of the life lessons you’ve picked up along the way?

JZ: Yeah, thanks, thanks for that question. Definitely. Well, you know, what I — what I really learned from birds is to pay attention to what’s in front of you, because the mistake that — I still make this mistake — but the mistake that really beginner birders make is that they believe that everything they’re seeing is some kind of rarity. So instead of looking at what’s in front of them, they look at what they wish was in front of them, and I think in a way, that lesson has really helped me in my quest for love. And in my marriage, the marriage that is working very well, because it’s so important when you’re sort of with your partner to really pay attention to who that person is rather than who you wish that person were. 

So that’s kind of one of the big lessons, but another really important lesson is to become comfortable with failure, and to feel OK about it, because identifying birds is — it involves a tremendous amount of misidentifications until you get it right. And some of my misidentifications have been spectacular, and I’m constantly humbled by birds, so in a way, birding is an antidote to smugness for me, because even when you think that you know exactly where that bird is going to be, or you know exactly how that bird is going to behave, it will surprise you, or it will fly away, or it will do something different and you’ll realize that you were wrong, and that these moments of failure are really — they’re moments for growth. So in a way, birding for me has been an apprenticeship in failure, and I think a very, very valuable one.

LD: I think that a lot of people in our readership here would probably identify quite a bit with that feeling, given that this is a community of very high achievers. Am I right?

JZ: Yes, you are. Yeah. And that’s often sometimes that we’re — something that we’re not too comfortable addressing, or it’s something that, you know, makes us feel ashamed, at least in my case it definitely did, and I think being around birds and other birders and just learning to be comfortable making mistakes, that’s part of the learning process. I think that’s a really important lesson for me to constantly be reminded of. And as a writer, too, when I sit down to write, it doesn’t come out well the first five times, and that it’s OK, and certain projects — eh. You know, they’ll — you toss them, and that’s OK, too. 

LD: So let me ask you — you mentioned a few spectacular misidentifications. Could you tell me about one?

JZ: Yeah, this one’s really bad. So, it was spring migration season, and we were in one of the migratory hotspots, this park called Long Point, and when you go to a migratory hotspot in May in southern Ontario, it’s basically you and a couple hundred other birders, and when somebody shouts out an identification, you know, 50 heads will just turn. And I looked up in a tree, and I thought I saw a hummingbird, and I was like, “Hummingbird! It’s a really, really big one, it’s the biggest hummingbird you’ve ever seen, it’s gargantuan!” And I was going on and on, and everybody was searching for this hummingbird, and then my bird guide, who is so lovely and so compassionate, he just tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Um, Julia, it’s actually a green heron,” which is, you know, about, you know, a hummingbird is what, like, five centimeters big, and a green heron is probably 200 times that size. So it was — it was completely humiliating. But then, you know, he was so nice about it, he said, “Oh, you know, size is relative and it’s sometimes hard to…” (laughter)

LD: Nice. That’s great. So because I’ve read your book, I know not to ask what’s your favorite bird. Instead, could you name one of your favorite birds, and just explain why it’s meaningful to you?

JZ: I love American woodcocks. They are absolutely fascinating. They’re pouty, and they’re about pigeon-sized, and they’re brownish-grey and really nothing to write home about, and they’re actually really funny looking, almost like an accident of nature, and their eyes are super close together, and they have a really, really long bill. And this bird that really doesn’t look like all that much, it turns out that it is one of the Don Juans and Casanovas of the bird world, because during spring migration, so every day, for a period of eight weeks, this bird, they— you know, they breed twice a day, and it has this aerial mating dance. It flings itself up to the sky and does these amazing aerial — flies in these amazing aerial circles while sort of peenting, it’s this very strange sound, and then it plummets to the ground and the ladies just go wild. And it does this over and over again, and you would never expect this pouty, stocky bird to be able to perform these acrobatic feats, and it is absolutely stunning.

Birds are really weird. They are bizarre, they have the strangest behaviors ever, and this is — I guess I’m drawn to stuff like that, that was just — yeah. One of those. 

LD: So, not long after the pandemic began, articles began cropping up saying that birding was on the rise as people sought the outdoors and became closer to nature. Have you seen that happen, and do you think birding has something particular to offer right now?

JZ: Absolutely. Actually, in May, I published a piece in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, that was all about how the pandemic is turning all of us into unintentional birders, because with everybody cooped up inside their homes, I think looking to the outdoors kind of gave us this sense of promise, or this sense of hope. And you know, part of the beauty of birds is that they don’t care about us at all. You know, like, COVID doesn’t exist for them. Even as our worlds were shrinking, COVID sort of coincided with bird migration — with spring migration — so our worlds were shrinking but these birds were coming back, and they didn’t care about anything we were witnessing, and I think, initially it seemed like just anecdotally, more people were looking outside, but also, with — because there was less and less noise pollution, suddenly people were hearing the birds, and people were actually asking, are they louder this year? And I was like, no, you’re just paying attention. 

But I think people started looking, you know, if they live in houses, just looking outside, observing what they saw at their feeders, and what they noticed was that birds — birds are spectacularly interesting. There is drama in the bird world, and I think just taking the time to look made people want to see more, and also, birding is one of the easiest sort of pandemic pastimes, because you can do it easily in a socially distant way. But initially, I thought it was just anecdotal evidence, but then, eBird, which is the big citizen-science data sort of accumulation program out of Cornell University, they published their numbers, and it wasn’t just anecdotally. More people had been recording bird sightings than ever before in April and May. So, yeah. I think birds and nature in general offer people a sense of hope.

LD: I wanted to ask you about eBird, because it didn’t exist when you began birding. So can you tell me what it is, and how it has changed birding?

JZ: Yeah, so eBird is a citizen-science program run by Cornell University, and basically, you log all the birds you’ve seen, and it’s worldwide, so it’s an extraordinary tool, both for tracking populations, and also it’s an extraordinary tool for, like, when you travel somewhere and you want to know what else is out there. So it has also changed people’s engagement with birds, and I think with a lot of millennials, it has made birding a little bit more tech-y, so perhaps a little bit more interesting in that way. But I have to be really careful with eBird, because it gives me so much FOMO, you know, fear of missing out, because you can see what everybody else is seeing, which means you know what you’re missing, and this is where birding becomes really, really emotional. I am on the verge of starting to use eBird. It feels like a really big commitment to me. But I love the contemplative aspect of birding, and I love just going out, and, you know, sort of just abandoning myself to the birds, and whatever I see will be wonderful. But, you know, other times I also love going out in search of concrete birds, and that’s what eBird really facilitates, in a way.

LD: It struck me as a piece of technology that might, as technology so often does, change the fundamental nature of something in a way that we hadn’t predicted. So it goes from it being just you and the birds to suddenly being almost competitive. Competing with other birders through this medium that didn’t exist before.

JZ: Yes, absolutely. But you know, birding has always been a little bit competitive. Like the Christmas Bird Count, which has existed since 1900, has always had a little bit of a competitive edge to it, and then there are, you know, big days that people do, and big years. There’s that movie with Steve Martin and Jack Black called The Big Yearabout, you know, these competitive birders who set out to see as many birds as they can in North America within a calendar year. So the competitive aspect has always kind of been there, which is also another kind of funny thing about birding that a lot of people don’t know about. But you’re right, eBird — eBird heightens that, and kind of takes it to the next level sometimes. I find it very stressful, especially during spring migration, because it makes you acutely aware of everything you’re missing. 

LD: So you’ve had a lot of experiences in your life, and a lot of things that you could write about, but you chose to center your book around birding, so can you tell me why you decided to write the book that you did?

JZ: So, when I first started birding about 11 years ago now, everything about the weekly bird outings were extremely strange to me. Like, suddenly for the first time in my life, I — I didn’t understand a word. I didn’t get the shorthand, I didn’t know the acronyms, I didn’t know what birds people were talking about, I didn’t know how to use a field guide, I mean, I was really a blank slate. And, well, because I process the world through language, I immediately started writing a blog about this, and the blog was called “Birds and Words,” and it was about, you know, my misidentifications, and it was pretty funny. Like, it was very jokey, and just about all the things I was getting wrong. And I wrote that blog for a couple of years, and then, actually, the blog disappeared. It just — I don’t know what happened to the server, but it was no longer, suddenly. 

And in a way, that was the best thing that ever happened to me, because that forced me to engage with the subject in a more serious way, and to also start thinking about it beyond just these little jokes and these mistakes I was making. But it really forced me to start thinking about what does birding say about me, and why am I drawn to this, and how do I connect to it? 

You know, there was a specific moment that I remember. We went to chase a bird that had no business being in southern Ontario in the winter, it was a spotted towhee, which is a regular in California. Very common California western bird, that for whatever reason, ended up here in southern Ontario. And we went to chase it, and I remember looking at it and wondering if the bird was cold, it if had ever seen snow, and suddenly looking at this bird, I remembered that I had lived in Missouri for two and a half years, and that that was a really difficult time for me, and that I sort of knew what it felt like to be displaced, or to be outside your element. And when I started writing about material like that, and really thinking about the relationship between my life and this new strange hobby that I was engaging in, I realized that I had a deeper story to tell than just these little jokes and the mistakes I was making. So it went — it went from there. So I’m very grateful to that blog that died. 

LD: If anyone — a complete beginner, like you were — wanted to try birding, how would you suggest they get started?

JZ: The first thing is, wherever you are, just look up. Get a pair of binoculars, the binoculars don’t have to be expensive, it could be a cheap pair of binoculars, and just look up, and start looking at, you know, up into the trees and you will see things and they will surprise you. And there are now amazing, amazing apps and amazing tools, and Cornell Lab of Ornithology came out with this, I think it’s an app, it’s called Merlin, and you can actually just take a picture of a bird and they will ask you a series of questions related to the habitat, time of day, etc. And based on that, with more than reasonable accuracy, with very, very high accuracy, they’ll tell you what you’re looking at. So you can use apps like that. 

I love field guides, I would say get a field guide, David Sibley is probably the best one, and meet other birders. It’s so easy now, either through social media, Facebook, Twitter, whatever, find a bird group in your area. And the great thing about birding is there is nothing birders like more than total beginners, because it enables you to relive that moment of seeing a bird for the first time and going “Oh, my God, it’s a blue jay! That is so beautiful!” So birders love beginners, and don’t be ashamed to say you’re a beginner, but really just start looking up. Start looking at the world around you, and the more you see, I guarantee, the more you will want to see.

LD: PAWcast is a monthly interview podcast produced by the Princeton Alumni Weekly. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Soundcloud. You can read transcripts of every episode on our website, paw.princeton.edu. Music for this podcast is licensed from FirstCom Music.