Illustrated portrait of Edward Warden, AB’18

(Illustration by John Jay Cabuay)

How to start bird-watching

Chicago Ornithological Society president Edward Warden, AB’18, offers some tips.

In April 2020, lifelong birder Edward Warden, ABʼ18, became president of the Chicago Ornithological Society. (The organization was founded at UChicago in 1912—“a nice little point of pride for me,” he says.) Warden holds that position alongside his work as a conservation stewardship coordinator for the Shedd Aquarium. His comments have been edited and condensed.

How did you get interested in birding?

In the birding community, thereʼs a term—“spark bird”—for the bird that sparked your interest. For me, my parents took me to Illinois Beach State Park for a camping trip when I was seven. We went for a hike and saw these cool birds burst up out of the marsh and fly away. We had a beginner field guide, and I looked it up and said, “That was a common loon.” I was stoked about that, and Iʼve been hooked ever since.

Hereʼs where it gets funny: my spark bird is a lie. As I learned more and got better at birding craft, I slowly realized, wait, thereʼs no way that was a loon. I donʼt know what it was, and it definitely was not what I thought it was, but it still got me to the same destination.

One study found that the average US birdwatcher is 53 years old. Were you a bird-watcher during your teenage years?

We joke amongst ourselves that once youʼre a birder, you never stop being a birder. We all have our ups and downs, but once you open your eyes to that world, even when youʼre not trying to notice or look for birds, youʼre always registering what youʼre observing.

In high school and college, I dropped off for a bit. It was actually during the latter half of college that my interest was reignited. I was at a friendʼs party, and we were hanging out on the balcony, when I heard this very strange sound somewhere in the night sky. It was one of those things where youʼre busy nerding out about something and everybody else is like, OK, Edward is doing his thing.

I later learned it was a common nighthawk. I discovered over time that thereʼs at least one pair that comes back to Hyde Park every year. Every summer, like clockwork, they show up at the same place and hunt all summer long. It just became part of my routine—Iʼm walking back to my apartment, can I hear the nighthawks tonight? Thatʼs what really brought me back into the birding fold. To this day I tell everybody thatʼs my favorite bird, partly because they are so darn cool—look them up!—but also because that personal connection brought me back to birding.

Why are people so intrigued by birds?

Thereʼs a deep fascination with these living dinosaurs—though we havenʼt always known them as such—that take to the skies. Theyʼre in ancient literature and art and mythology; birds are part of early pictographic languages. For most of history, people didnʼt know the global dynamics of migration, but they knew birds would come back or pass through every year at the same time. Thereʼs something remarkable about that to the human mind.

Has there been greater interest in birding since the pandemic?

Without a doubt. I did an interview early in the pandemic where someone asked, “Where are all these birds coming from?”—because people were seeing so many birds in their yard or on their street. The assumption was, this must be a crazy year for birds. And donʼt get me wrong, it was a fantastic spring, but that really wasnʼt it. It was that people simply werenʼt paying attention before.

What are some fun birding terms?

Hereʼs a very irreverent one: “giss.” Itʼs a term we use when we canʼt explain exactly why we know what a particular bird is. It stands for “general impression of shape and size.” Thereʼs “pishing”—if you ever encounter some weird person with binoculars by a bush somewhere making a kind of raspy sound like, “pish, pish,” thatʼs what that is. Thereʼs a “nemesis bird,” a bird you have tried and failed to see many times. I just conquered my most recent nemesis bird, a type of falcon called a merlin.

Whatʼs your dream bird?

There are several on my list that are possible to see in the city of Chicago. One is the upland sandpiper. Itʼs very, very goofy looking. Itʼs like a little periscope of a bird—it runs around in short grasses and then pops up its long neck and tiny head and looks around. Itʼs unfortunately a species in decline due to grassland habitat destruction, but occasionally theyʼll show up. I missed one a couple of weeks ago on a bird walk. Somebody reported it at a park literally one mile away from where we were that day.

What does it feel like to see a bird youʼve been wanting to see?

It mixes a whole lot of emotions. Certainly, thereʼs the thrill of the chase. Thereʼs also a degree of fascination with what seeing the bird means. In the case of the upland sandpiper, being able to see one here is representative of the rarity of the habitat and the species. And sometimes the bird is just a stunner, and you think, “Wow, I share the planet with that fascinating organism.”

How do you grapple with the sadness of so many bird species being under threat?

Iʼd be lying if I said it doesnʼt eat you up. Thatʼs a reality of this world in the times we live in. The thing that helps me deal with those feelings is under-standing thereʼs still a lot to be excited about. There are good changes happening. There are a lot of people working really hard to try to make the world better and reverse these things. And there are a lot of examples not only of where weʼre succeeding but of where weʼve already succeeded.

One of the most common birds around here is the ring-billed gull. We joke about them: they poop on our beaches, they eat our Doritos. But there was a time when they were rare and in serious trouble. And over time, between laws regulating hunting and habitat conservation, theyʼve become one of the most abundant birds and theyʼre here to annoy us. Thatʼs a conservation success story.

Whatʼs your elevator pitch for birding?

Itʼs the easiest thing in the world to do. Birds are everywhere. You donʼt have to work for them. You donʼt need fancy binoculars or telescopes. You donʼt even really need a field guide to be able to see and appreciate birds. All you have to do is look. I think thatʼs pretty incredible.