Birdchick Not Your Grandmother's Birder

  • Sharon Stiteler, aka Birdchick, in her preferred pose for warbler watching, at Presque Isle Audubon's Festival of the Birds in Erie. Photo: J.S. Jordan

May 23, 2014

Like all subcultures, birding has its own set of celebrities. One of the leading voices in the online birding community is Sharon Stiteler, known as Birdchick.  She’s won fame in the birding circles for hosting the playful Bird Chick podcast, writing two books on birding, and a wide-ranging resume in bird conversation that includes working with vomiting pelicans.

The Allegheny Front's Jennifer Szweda Jordan caught up with Stiteler at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center in Erie during the Presque Isle Festival of the Birds.

On doing bird calls

I don’t do those.  And I'll say this, I mean, I always feel when people ask bird watchers to do that it’s like, “Ah ha ha, look at the freaky bird watcher making funny noises.”

How she became interested in birds

You know, I think it’s just the way I’m wired. When I was seven years old I saw a Peterson field guide and I saw  the pileated woodpecker, or PIE-LEE-ATED as some people call it, and I snapped. I thought," Wow there’s a crow-sized woodpecker, that’s so cool."  And then everybody started giving me bird gifts, and I had no idea that I would ever turn it in to a career, but it just turned out that way. And my love of birds have never faltered.

How "bird watching" become "birding"

It was a gradual thing. I think because people who look at birds they don’t just watch them. Often times you’re studying them, you’re learning about their behavior, maybe you are doing some volunteer work to contribute to the habitat. So, it’s not just looking at the bird, you’re also listening. So, that’s where the shift happened.

Bird watching doesn't always mean with your eyes

One of the neat things about Presque Isle for me has been listening to all of the Wood Thrushes. That’s not a common bird in Minnesota. but that song has such special memories for me. My mom wasn’t a bird watcher, but when we moved in to a house when I was 13 we heard this bird like crazy, and she and I spend a Saturday afternoon trying to see what bird was making this beautiful call. So, just the memory of my mom; the song is haunting and gorgeous. It’s a bird that can harmonize with itself for crying-out-loud. I would be really sad if I ever lost my ability to hear thrushes.





On her sometimes "racy" podcast, and whether "Birdchick" is a feminist name

I’m definitely not your grandmother’s birder, and that’s where a lot of the humor in my videos come from. And, I am a feminist, I’m just not the right kind of feminist for certain kid of people. But yeah, when I grew up watching, it was a nerdy thing to do. It was Jane Hathaway [from the TV show "The Beverly Hillbillies"], it was something that you’re grandmother did.  [Hathaway] was the poster child for bird watching. She would go out in a pith helmet. and if you ever watch the Alfred Hitchcock movie, "The Birds," the ornithologist in that is this uptight nut job woman. And so, I wanted people to know that you can be a regular person, you can watch popular movies, you can engage in conversations, and you know have whiskey and still enjoy birds. It’s not just something that the socially inept do. Although, quite a few socially inept people do it.

Impressions of Presque Isle

This is my first time to Presque Isle. I was really excited when the festival booked me as a speaker here. It’s just absolutely gorgeous. And I’ve birded along Lake Erie in the spring, but not this particular area. And I just love that I’m not jam packed in on a board walk and I can walk around. It’s a nice, quiet festival. Some festivals I go to get thousands of people coming. this one’s just nice, low key, laid back. This is a great festival for a beggining bid watcher too, it’s not very intimidating at all.

About her life and her work

I deal a little bit with the park service, but I do avian point count surveys. So some days I’m paid ridiculous amounts of money to sit and watch a Bald Eagle nest all day. I have to do flights over the Mississippi river to count ducks. I do photography workshops. I’ve been barfed on by pelicans.  And on Instagram and on Twitter I’ll post "today’s office." And what I try to do is just post whatever habitat I’m in, just to show you can have different offices besides a desk. You can actually be outside. And most of the time it works, although days when my office is minus 3 degrees Fahrenheit they are not as much fun.