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Birding gets new life in this YouTube nature series

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When Jason Ward does it, birding certainly isn’t boring

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Jason Ward (right) and Jeffrey Ward (left) birding in Central Park.
Jason Ward (right) and Jeffrey Ward (left) birding in Central Park.
Photo: Birds of North America/topic.com

Jason Ward brings the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it world of birding to YouTube in the new video series, Birds of North America. The series follows Ward as he tracks birds through New York’s Central Park, talks bird-themed tattoos, and studies the preserved remains of extinct birds at the American Museum of Natural History.

The video series is only three episodes into season 1’s 12-episode run, and it’s hosted on the YouTube channel of digital storytelling brand Topic.com. In the videos, the camera shakes as it chases Ward to bird sightings, where Ward brings a lively approach to what’s often stereotyped as a stodgy pastime. Ward compares speedy peregrine falcons to sky Lamborghinis, and the hard-to-describe call of the rose-breasted grosbeak to the squeak of a basketball shoe on hardwood. The camera alternates between views of Ward, and his views of tiny birds hiding in branches.

Ward’s view of nature isn’t all peaceful bird-watching. “People occasionally think we live in this Disney-inspired world, where all the songbirds are just singing and getting along,” he says. “But no, these birds are all attacking each other.” Raptors eat smaller birds, songbirds shove each other off food sources, and hummingbirds? “Hummingbirds will attack everything,” he says.

Born and raised in Bronx, New York, 32-year-old Ward now lives in Atlanta. There, he works as the community relations and outreach coordinator for the National Audubon Society and leads bird-watching trips for Audubon Atlanta. He’s always been a fan of birds, but his gig as host of Birds of North America is a new one — and it’s thanks, in part, to Twitter.

Ward tweets about birds a lot, and runs an animal identification challenge on Twitter called Tricky Bird ID: he posts photos of birds, challenges his followers to identify them, and then explains how they could identify that bird in the wild. Anna Holmes, editorial director of Topic.com, began following Ward on Twitter, and eventually, she got in touch about working together. “His curiosity and engagement with the natural world was very contagious, even over Twitter,” Holmes says. She wants the show to inspire people to look up at the world around them. And both she and Ward, who are African American, hope the series will reach folks who might not normally feel included in explorations of the natural world — like young people, people of color, and people who live in cities. “He upended stereotypes of who birders are — middle aged, caucasian people,” says Holmes.

Now, viewers can watch Ward explore the world of birds: each new episode airs on Sundays at 3PM ET. The Verge spoke to Ward about dinosaurs, sky Lamborghinis, and flying feathers.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

How did you first become interested in birds?

I am a life-long bird nerd. I used to go to the library and stack my desk full of animal books. We grew up very poor in the South Bronx, so that was my form of entertainment — learning about all these animals that live in different parts of the globe, and transporting myself into their environments and getting lost in all that information. We would also occasionally visit the Bronx Zoo, where I could actually see some of the animals.

Then I had this one moment where I watched a peregrine falcon just dismantling this pigeon right next to the window that I was looking out. When birds are eating another bird, they pluck the feathers first. So I’m watching all these feathers flying. And I realized at that moment that I’m watching a nature documentary unfold right in front of my eyes. And I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to bring that excitement that I felt that day out in other people, and trying to share the passion I have for wildlife with as many people as I can.

How have you translated that early obsession with birds into a career?

For years now, I’ve been tweeting about birds and hosting bird identification games on Twitter with no goal in mind, other than just to share birds with people. Last year, Anna Holmes, who’s the editorial director at Topic, reached out to me via Twitter DM. That idea turned into them hiring a director, and months later we’re filming.

I remember vividly growing up and watching Jeff Corwin and Steve Irwin, and other guys on Nat Geo and Animal Planet, and wanting to be able to do what they do. And next thing you know, one snap of the finger, and I’m in the middle of Central Park and I’m walking toward the camera introducing the web series to everyone. And I realized that all of my life, when I was dragging my parents to the Bronx Zoo and interpreting different animal facts with them at each exhibit, this is what all of that was for. All of that was practice, and now, I get to do it in front of a camera. So it’s been a wild ride so far, and we got a chance to travel to some amazing locations within the US to film season 1, and we’re going to do the exact same thing for season 2 coming up as well.

Jason Ward
Photo: Birds of North America/Topic.com

What’s the most amazing thing you’ve seen as you’ve hosted this series?

In an episode that you all will see pretty soon, we go to Cape May. Cape May is this peninsula that juts out of the southern edge of New Jersey. During spring migration, it is the worst traffic jam you can imagine — but throw birds in the air instead of cars. We have tons of species, billions of birds that are migrating overnight. Since they’re migrating south, they’re being assisted by the wind. And some of them realize when the sun comes up, “I’m over the Atlantic. I’ve been blown off course. Let me reorient myself and find land.” And when they do that, they typically land right there in Cape May, New Jersey.

There’s also the fact that there’s a gap over the Delaware Bay, and the birds have to make a business decision at that point as they’re migrating south: they get to that tip and they say, “Okay, either I can make this journey across this bay or I’m just going to circle back around and find more land and keep making my way south.” So you have all of these things converging at once, and there was hardly ever a point during the three days I was there where I did not look up into the sky and see birds. Sometimes a hawk will just be migrating along and decide to stop for a snack and dive down at another bird. It’s pandemonium, but it’s amazing at the same time.

What do you hope to accomplish with all the outreach that you’re doing? With this video series, with your identification game #TrickyBirdID on Twitter — what’s the goal?

I want to pull people out of that mind frame that conservation or being a bird nerd isn’t for them. And I want to blaze trails for those who maybe didn’t have access to this field before and allow them to come on through and fall in love with animals the way that I have. I want to reach kids out there, and be the Steve Irwin for them as they’re growing up, and looking for a figure that looks like they do, or someone that they can relate to, so that they themselves feel more inspired to pursue a career in conservation. So essentially, I’m doing this for the kids.

What do you think digital media allows today that wasn’t available when you were a kid learning about birds, nature, and conservation?

It opens doors. There are so many special, talented individuals out there. And the digital space allows for these individuals to showcase their talents. In previous times, that talent would have only be known to people in their immediate circle — their family, their friends. And if they weren’t granted an opportunity, that would have been it. In today’s age, you get a chance — and here comes a bird cliché — to spread your wings, and to share your love and share your talents with people you’ve never met before, who live on the other side of the country. And it allows for opportunities to present themselves, whereas 20, 25 years ago, that may have not been the case. I tell people all the time that we are so lucky to be born in the time that we were born in. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I’m not going to name names, but some of my colleagues don’t like birds at all — like, not even a little bit. What do you say to people who hate birds?

I actually run into this often — people who either tell me they hate birds, or that they are scared of birds, which I find to be surprising, but again, I am biased. How could anybody dislike these magnificent creatures? I always tell people birds have feathers, their feet are scaly, and they walk around upright with their feet underneath their bodies, and they’re bipedal. Those characteristics mean that they are not related to dinosaurs, they are dinosaurs. So if you go back hundreds of millions of years ago, the roles were reversed. Mammals were scurrying underneath the feet of big giant theropods, so there may be some prehistoric fear ingrained in us of these feathered creatures that were once able to eat us. I think that manifests itself today as either dislike or fear. I understand, I have irrational fears as well. As long as they don’t try to hurt the animals, I think it’s okay to have phobias or fears, or to dislike something. But try not to dislike birds, because they’re amazing. Without them, this world would be ridiculous — it would be overrun with insects or rodents. No one wants that. Birds are to thank for so many things.

What’s your favorite bird?

Falco peregrinus, also known as the peregrine falcon. First, look at the latin name — Falco peregrinus, which translates to wandering falcon. It’s a bird that can be found in six of the seven continents. It’s also the fastest animal on the planet. I call it the sky Lamborghini. It can dive at 240 miles per hour. That’s lightning fast. So if you’re hunting prey and you’re able to dive that fast, you probably don’t want to hunt things that are on the ground because if you miss, that’s the last dive you’ll ever take. So since they are able to achieve such speeds, they’re hunting birds, and if you’re diving that fast, you must have a special unique way to capture your prey or at least to kill your prey. And peregrine falcons do.

They have this technique called knuckling. They’ll fly really high into the sky, fold their wings back and dive. When they get close enough to their potential food item, they’ll take their talons, ball them up into a birdy fist, and literally punch their prey out of the air. If you’re a falcon diving by at about 200 miles per hour and you punch something, it’s not going to live.

There’s a really weird way to know that peregrine falcons live around you. If you live in a big city, and there are tall buildings in this big city, walk around in the morning around those tall buildings. If you spot a bird’s head — just a head — then you know that a peregrine falcon lives nearby. Peregrine falcons have what we call a tomial tooth. It’s not an actual tooth, it’s a notch in their upper bill and it’s there to allow them to sever the spinal cord of their prey. They bite down on the back of the neck of their prey, and that’s usually the killing blow that peregrine falcons utilize once they’re able to carry their prey. Sometimes they bite too hard and they not only sever the spinal cord, but they sever the head, and the head falls down to the ground underneath. So if you ever found the head of a bird just sitting on the ground, or a headless bird, then you know that’s usually the work of a peregrine falcon, the fastest animal on the planet.