Specifically, the bird feeder that Judy Kappler attached to her fifth grade classroom’s window at Oak Hill Elementary School in Eugene. Every time a new bird came to visit that feeder, she paused the class to observe it.
One of her students, Noah Strycker, was riveted. So much so that he built his career on birds, writing books about them and pursuing them all over the world.
Strycker has just published his third book, Birding Without Borders, about what’s known in the birding community as “The Big Year” – a competition to travel far and wide to identify as many bird species as possible, whether by sight or by sound.
His first exposure to the Big Year was at the age of 12, when he picked up Kingbird Highway, Kenn Kaufman’s memoir of dropping out of high school to do his own Big Year in the 1970s. Strycker says he “read that book over and over,” but the goal to embark on a Big Year of his own coalesced when he was a student at Oregon State University, writing for Birding magazine alongside his coursework.
After graduating in 2008 with a Fisheries and Wildlife degree, he made birds his full-time career, working on field projects with various universities. One of his first such projects out of college saw him camping out in Antarctica with a colony of 300,000 Adélie penguins – which became the basis of his first book, Among Penguins.
When Strycker finally started his Big Year in January 2015, he’d hoped to identify at least 5,000 birds around the world. His grand total by December 31 was 6,042 – at the time, a world record – and he estimates he was able to identify 95% of them by sight. His travels took him to all seven continents (only one of which, Africa, he’d never previously visited), to both remote and surprisingly mundane locations such as cities, farms and landfills.
He jokes that he speaks three languages: “English, about 80% Spanish, and Bird.” That came in handy when traveling across 41 countries, sometimes with birders who spoke no English; the only language he had in common with them was that of bird names and bird calls. The sheer size and scale of the global birding community was a welcome surprise to him.
“Birds are universal creatures,” Strycker says. “Birds are so universal that they break down our human borders … it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, birds are around you. They connect people more than other things [in nature] … anyone can watch them.”
Strycker’s not one to sit still for long – having just wrapped up a multi-state book tour for Birding Without Borders, he’s now off to work in Antarctica as the resident bird expert for Quark Expeditions, which leads sightseeing tours of both polar regions. When he’s not on a Quark voyage, he works as the associate editor of Birding.
Outside of that, Strycker says he prefers to focus on one project at a time. In this case, that’s his next book: an upcoming collaboration with National Geographic called Birds of the Photo Ark, slated for April 2018.
And, of course, his upcoming TED talk. The subject: how birds connect the world.
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