Mil­len­ni­als flock to bird­watch­ing in age of so­cial me­dia

Calgary Herald - - CITY+REGION -

VAN­COU­VER Yousif At­tia wasn’t ex­actly a typ­i­cal teenager. He had al­ways been fas­ci­nated by birds, and he wanted to par­tic­i­pate in a lo­cal Christ­mas bird count — an an­nual event where people across North Amer­ica note the num­ber of fowl in the Western hemi­sphere.

No one at his Cal­gary high school shared his pas­sion for or­nithol­ogy, but for­tu­nately it was the late 1990s and lo­cal bird­watch­ing groups were just a few clicks away on the in­ter­net.

“I found a men­tor who kind of took me un­der his wing, as far as driv­ing me around and tak­ing me on Christ­mas bird counts with him and then en­cour­ag­ing me to lead walks my­self,” said At­tia, now a 35-year-old tour guide. “It kind of took off from there.”

More young people like At­tia are flock­ing to bird­watch­ing than ever, aided by the in­ter­net, so­cial me­dia and digital pho­tog­ra­phy, avian en­thu­si­asts say. While pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions had to dust off old bird books at the li­brary, mil­len­ni­als have eas­ier ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion and like-minded in­di­vid­u­als.

At­tia is among the thou­sands who have de­scended upon Van­cou­ver this week for the In­ter­na­tional Or­nitho­log­i­cal Congress, a global gath­er­ing of highly re­spected bird sci­en­tists held every four years. It is the first time the sought-af­ter event has been staged in Canada since the 1980s, and con­vener Robert El­ner pushed to bring it to B.C.

“It’s a sense of in­cred­i­ble pride, not for my­self but for Canada to ac­tu­ally host this. This is a real big en­dorse­ment of Cana­dian science and ba­si­cally Cana­dian cul­ture,” said El­ner, a sci­en­tist emer­i­tus with En­vi­ron­ment Canada.

Or­ga­niz­ers part­nered with the Van­cou­ver In­ter­na­tional Bird Fes­ti­val, also be­ing held this week and fea­tur­ing such mil­len­nial-friendly events as fowl-themed im­prov com­edy, a laid-back na­ture walk dubbed “Re­turn of the Hip­ster Birder,” and bird-in­spired out­door yoga.

Fes­ti­val chair­man Rob But­ler has ob­served the de­mo­graph­ics of bird­watch­ing change.

“It used to be the purview of gen­er­ally re­tired people, but it’s re­ally be­com­ing much younger. The av­er­age age is now in the high 40s, early 50s, be­cause the people have a bit of money and can travel,” he said. “But it’s com­ing down.”

Trav­ellers who are en­tirely fo­cused on see­ing rare birds are rel­a­tively few, while most want a broader cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ence that in­volves birds, said But­ler.

Cam Gil­lies, owner of Ea­gle-Eye Tours, which fa­cil­i­tates guided bird tours in dozens of coun­tries, said most clients want a tour that fea­tures birds but also in­cludes other an­i­mals and nat­u­ral won­ders.

More people in their 30s are sign­ing up for his tours, Gil­lies said, driven by the rise of digital pho­tog­ra­phy and web­sites like In­sta­gram and Face­book.

“You can fill the frame with some beau­ti­ful bird, which nor­mally would have taken thou­sands of dol­lars of cam­era equip­ment and a re­ally big lens to achieve,” he said. “People are now able to cap­ture those im­ages and share them on so­cial me­dia.”

Hil­lary Es­daile, 33, and Jennifer Miller, 36, are artists and bird­watch­ers who have cre­ated full, life­like avian cos­tumes, which they wore to the open­ing cer­e­mony of the congress on Mon­day.

Miller said her elab­o­rate cos­tume de­pict­ing a bearded vul­ture is a fun way to spark con­ver­sa­tions about pro­tect­ing wildlife, not­ing: “To let people learn about this bird through this in­ter­ac­tive cos­tume has been very re­ward­ing to me.”

PHO­TOS: YOUSIF AT­TIA/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Yousif At­tia, 35, be­came a bird­watcher back in high school and his pas­sion has con­tin­ued since.

Avid bird­watcher and tour guide Yousif At­tia, 35, of Cal­gary is pic­tured here with a long-tailed Jaeger on a tour of the Arc­tic tun­dra in Nu­navut.

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