“Slowly it [the white-necked rockfowl] picked its way through the trees, and finally, it strode into sight, perching on a low branch while we stared at it open-mouthed. We could only share our wild excitement through eye contact; the pressure not to scare the bird was huge.” (89) There are lots of similar events in Mya-Rose Craig’s Birdgirl, for this is a birding family, but this book is much more than one more story of obsessive birders managing lists. Young Mya overcomes vividly described obstacles to become a leader in bringing birding and nature to what she calls “Visible Minority Ethnic” (VME) communities. This book describes her path, beginning with a birding trip when she was nine days old.
However, the family of the author has a problem, a problem that becomes more and more severe, one that the family itself only gradually understands, and one that illuminates this book. It is a problem that profoundly shapes Mya’s young life and one that long, intense family trips around the world to see rare birds seem to treat, if only temporarily. The problem ultimately reveals itself to be with the mother. Her illness was finally diagnosed as bipolar disorder and worsened as Mya grew older.
Her father announced he was going to do a Big Year, something that listing birders love to do. In a Big Year, a birder commits to seeing as many birds as possible in a given calendar year in a given region.
Mya takes the story back to her parents’ childhoods in England. Her father, Chris, was the birder, beginning in his early childhood near Liverpool. Mya’s mother was from Bristol, but her parents were Sylheti Bengalis from Bangladesh. Her life was that of a city dweller until she met and married Mya’s father. Into the relationship she brought her six-year-old daughter Ayesha. Mya was born later, and the book really takes off when Mya is six and her then eighteen-year-old sister announces she is pregnant.
Families have many reactions to such news, but for Mya’s family, the response was a familiar one for them: more birding. Her father announced he was going to do a Big Year, something that listing birders love to do. In a Big Year, a birder commits to seeing as many birds as possible in a given calendar year in a given region. Mya’s father decided to limit his Big Year to the UK to stay close to family. But it meant that every time a rare bird was sighted and publicized, he would drive hours to see it. He also took time to see all the easily-spotted common birds across the British archipelago. His wife and six-year-old Mya joined in, with Mya planning what her mother suggested she call a little Big Year.
Mya-Rose Craig was only twenty when this book was published, so it is remarkable how expertly she weaves stories of their birding trips together with her mother’s advancing illness and her own growing awareness of the lack of diversity in the birding community. Did her insights on mental illness make her open to the lack of diversity in the outdoor community? First, I’ll describe the mental illness challenges and then how Mya brought the outdoors to a larger community.
This is the most vivid account I have ever read of what it is like to live with someone with bipolar disorder. Though Mya was very young, she came to know the signs of a coming manic phase when her mother did not sleep, made many unachievable plans, and could be very irritable. These were the hard periods, though those of depression, when her mother slept constantly and her father struggled to keep her mother from dying by suicide, were also challenging to young Mya.
Mya-Rose Craig was only twenty when this book was published so it is remarkable how expertly she weaves stories of their birding trips together with her mother’s advancing illness and her own growing awareness of the lack of diversity in the birding community.
The first big trip they took—an ill mother, an exhausted father, and then eight-year-old Mya—was to northern Ecuador. It would be the kind of trip where they moved from place to place looking for rare birds. This sentence tells us what kind of an eight-year-old Mya was. “I didn’t sleep for a single minute on the twelve-hour flight, unable to tear my eyes away from my guidebooks, poring over the descriptions of tropical birds, imagining them perched high in the trees of the lush jungles I had seen on TV.” (57) She also made a notebook which she entitled “My Top Birds of Ecuador,” and for these birds she had decided she would give up food and sleep. Tops on that list were the sword-billed hummingbird, the harpy eagle, and the Andean cock-of-the-rock. This was an early sign of the dedication that young Mya would apply to other life goals. It was on this trip that young Mya says she became a fully committed birdwatcher, making the commitment to herself after seeing so many hummingbirds at the Guango Lodge near Papallacta, Ecuador. She writes of these hummingbirds: “In the low sun, they sparkled in shades of luminous turquoise, emerald green, and deep velvety violet. I once again puzzled over how such colors could exist in nature.” (61)
The birding trips continued, including a six-month trip to Colombia. Some might read the book just for the news of these trips, vicariously enjoying the first sighting of a new hummingbird or a brilliant tanager, or the harpy eagle Mya finally saw. For these are also adventure stories with tales of altitude sickness, vehicles stuck on precipices, landslides, and much discomfort, with 3 am drives, night owl walks, and ever-present mosquitoes. These parts are well told and they made me want to return to places in the neotropics I have not seen since the pandemic began.
I would be remiss not to mention problems with the way Mya’s family approached birds, at least as described in this book. These problems are much discussed in the birding community. They pit the interests and needs of birds in increasingly small patches of habitat against the interests of obsessive birders who want to see every bird. Birders should never play the songs or calls of a target bird. It is extremely disturbing to birds, for it tells them an avian intruder is nearby and takes them from their other activities as they hunt for the intruder and come into view of the tourist. Unfortunately, in this book, there are lots of accounts of playing the songs of target birds. Professional birding organizations have long struggled to protect birds from these intrusions and scientists have documented their detrimental effects on birds. It is also unnecessary because hearing a bird counts just as much for a list as seeing one does. Bird societies require that birders follow an ethical code limiting playbacks. Captive or tame birds cannot be counted, though thousands of people, including me, count the antpittas in Ecuador that Angel Paz has trained to come for mealworms.
Some might read the book just for the news of these trips, vicariously enjoying the first sighting of a new hummingbird or a brilliant tanager, or the harpy eagle Mya finally saw. For these are also adventure stories with tales of altitude sickness, vehicles stuck on precipices, landslides, and much discomfort, with 3 am drives, night owl walks, and ever-present mosquitoes.
These are small negatives and not something a child birding with her parents could be expected to realize. On another point, I am in full agreement with Mya. Ecotourism done properly is vitally important for providing economic alternatives to extractive enterprises like gold mining for local people in the world’s least tamed areas.
Mya’s mother sometimes managed these trips well, perhaps soothed by tropical beauty and distracted by the rigors of seeing a target bird. But her illness often flared up, making it harder for her to see the birds. Sometimes she even blamed the family when she missed seeing one. She either slept too much or not at all. Her medicine often degraded in the heat. Mya’s descriptions of her mother’s illness are mercifully without judgment or criticism, though it must have been very hard on the youngster as she adjusted her expectations of parental support and worried about the burdens on her father.
In a way, Mya’s birding and ill mother are a backdrop to Mya’s biggest accomplishments. For Mya-Rose Craig has become the person who has made Britain aware of how excluded VME children are from nature and conservation activities. When she was seventeen, she started an organization she called Black2Nature which runs camps for children, organizes family day trips, and more. As @BirdgirlUK, she has more than 28,000 followers on X (formerly known as Twitter) and nearly the same number on Instagram. Her active social media presence is making a big difference for inclusivity in nature in the UK and beyond.
Mya’s journey to activism was not an easy one. In this book, she shares her concerns about becoming visible and viewed as different by her school friends. After all, how many eleven-year-olds have a blog? At first, she imagined she could keep her growing social media presence separate from her school life where she was a normal student with friends and school concerns. The book makes it clear how that changed and how she gradually realized that her schoolmates knew all about her online presence and were proud of her.
Mya’s mother sometimes managed these trips well, perhaps soothed by tropical beauty and distracted by the rigors of seeing a target bird. But her illness often flared up, making it harder for her to see the birds. Sometimes she even blamed the family when she missed seeing one.
It is not everyone who would have the insight to both see the problems of minority exclusion and the vision to do something about them. Perhaps her international experiences from when she was tiny and her ability to learn on her own helped her achieve the independence and motivation to start Black2Nature and all her other endeavors. Or perhaps it was her mother’s illness that helped her see a way to take charge herself.
Birdgirl: Looking to the Skies in Search of a Better Future is inspiring for those looking to change the world, for those wanting an adventure story, and for those concerned about mental illness. I loved this book.