11 Rules for the Twenty-Something Birdwatcher

By Marissa Ortega-Welch

J. Drew Lanham wrote an excellent piece in the latest Orion Magazine called “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher” that uses humor to draw attention to the lack of black birders and diversity in general in the birding world. There are more young birders than black birders, but twenty-something birders could use a few survival tips too. Here goes:

1. Don’t worry about being mistaken for another birder, since you will always be the only twenty-something birder on any bird walk. (However, no one will remember your name, no matter how many times they’ve met you, and they may actually think that you are lost and have joined their group by mistake, so just smile at them and flash your Eagle Optics.)

2. Be prepared to answer the following questions even as you rapidly approach your thirties: Are you in school? What are you studying? Did your parents bring you on this pelagic trip? Just be flattered that you consistently appear ten years younger in age than you are.

3. Always bird in a hoodie and jeans. (Unless you are young and black. Then see J. Drew Lanham’s “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher.”)  Do not adopt the fashion sense of the senior birders around you. No pocket vests or zip-off pants tucked into socks. You will look even weirder to your non-birder peers than you do now with those binoculars hanging around your neck.

Juvenile Western Gull / Photo by Bob Lewis

4. No matter how good a look you got at that Sabine’s Gull – and you got a great look – you will be questioned on your ID by birders who don’t know you. Try not to let it get to you.

5. You cannot claim fledgling birds as your mascot. You’re not that young. You could more closely identify with something like a third-year Western Gull. Is there a bird that is closer to middle age than teenage years and is constantly being asked by its dad when it is going to get a “real” career instead of just seasonal field work and part-time environmental education jobs? Yeah, that’s your totem bird.

6. If you bring your non-birding friends along on a bird walk, prepare them ahead of time not to laugh out loud when the birders talk about the “jizz” of the bushtit they just saw. Or let them laugh. Somebody needs to let these people know how they sound to the outside world.

7. Don’t spend all your free time birding. You’ll never end up hanging out with people your own age. This doesn’t mean never go birding, just try to mix it up now and then. Don’t always miss out on late-night dance parties to wake up early and go bird banding. Try to do both sometimes. Coffee is your friend.

8. Try to do something besides birding that your non-birding friends will remember you for. Otherwise you will henceforth be known as “that person who is into birds.” This does not help your reputation. Not that you have much of one. But still.

9. Hear that high-pitched Golden-crowned Kinglet calling? Don’t mention it. No one else on the bird walk can hear it. Don’t make them feel bad. Enjoy the fact that you can still hear it, because someday you won’t be able to either.

10. Begin brainstorming what age-inappropriate hobby you will take up after you retire instead of birding (if you ever can afford to retire). Playing in a heavy metal band? Skateboarding? But then just admit it to yourself: You will always be a birder. Hopefully since you started young, you’ll be a good one.

11. You are a rare species – along with birders of colors, low-income birders, and disabled birders. As Kenn Kaufman wrote in his intro to John C. Robinson’s Birding for Everyone, “Those of us who are birders should be the first to acknowledge that diversity is a good thing…. Considering that, it is ironic that diversity within the birding community itself has been a long time coming.”

As an individual, you’re not dying out any time soon. You’ve still got another half of a lifetime to work on your life list. But if all of us birders don’t begin to encourage young people from all races and backgrounds to become the next generation of birdwatchers, it’s birding itself that is going to go extinct.


Marissa Ortega-Welch, who is twenty-nine and a half,  is Eco-Education Coordinator for Golden Gate Bird Alliance. She was inspired to write this post by J. Drew Lanham’s piece in Orion on “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher.”

“Biking to work today, the piece got me thinking about my own experience as a young birder,” Marissa said. “While I am often able to bring down the average age of a birding group by a few decades all on my own, it’s important to acknowledge that there are still more of us young (and still by and large white) birders out there than there are black birders or birders of color of any age. Us young birders are the Goshawks of the birding world, while black birders are the California Condors…. 

“Kudos to J. Drew Lanham for writing this piece and Orion for publishing it,” Marissa added. “It comes as good timing as the third Focus on Diversity: Changing the Face of American Birding  conference takes place next week in Texas.”