Adam Betuel loves birds. He loves birds so much, he works at Atlanta Audubon for a living. TSIBV caught up with him to learn why he loves birds so much, what he does at Atlanta Audubon, and how he uses Cat Crap.
What’s your background, and how did you end up getting into birding?
I am originally from Columbus, Ohio (specifically a neighborhood called Clintonville that is just north of Ohio State’s campus). My parents divorced when I was very little, but I was fortunate to have two amazing step-parents. I have two siblings and a large familial network with all my step-relatives.
Growing up I was really into sports, geography and the idea of exotic places, and of course video games. As long as I can remember, I was interested in animals and science, and I attribute this primarily to my time spent at the Columbus Zoo. My mom used to do in-home daycare, and during summer break from school, her group of kids would grow. In attempt to entertain a large group of young kids, she would often take us to the zoo. Luckily, the zoo didn’t charge more for an annual pass based off of the number of children you “had” so we fully took advantage of this. During these frequent trips I became obsessed with the animals, drawing exhibits when I was bored, and hoping one day I could be the next Jungle Jack Hanna.
My interest in animals narrowed down to birds thanks to a Columbus Public Schools initiative called “I Know I Can”. This program was designed to help students get into college by being more active with their counselors or by enrolling in college courses while in high school. During an assembly, I reviewed the course manual and noticed Ohio State had a few ecology courses. I don’t know why, but I chose an Intro To Ornithology course as my top choice. The ten-day course was located on an island in Lake Erie, and I loved everything about it. Leaving that field station, I was changed forever and completely bird obsessed.
You currently with Atlanta Audubon Society. What do you do for them, and what responsibilities does that role entail?
I am the director of conservation for Atlanta Audubon. My duties are pretty diverse, but in general I am working as hard as I can to make Atlanta as bird-friendly as possible. The really cool thing about my job is that it is extremely rewarding and I get to tackle my tasks in a variety of ways. With Atlanta being such an urban place with an incredibly fractured ecosystem, many of my programs have to deal with birds and the built environment. Many people don’t think of birds existing in the city, but in reality hundreds of different species have been found in metro Atlanta. Throughout the year a countless number of birds are using urban parks, waterways, back yards, and other small patches of landscaping for breeding, overwintering, or for a migratory stopover.
One of my primary responsibilities is to manage a program called “Project Safe Flight Atlanta”. This program, as well as its sister initiative “Lights Out Atlanta”, are focused on reducing the number of birds that die each year from colliding with buildings. Shockingly, up to 1 billion birds die each year from colliding with buildings because of bright lights or reflective glass.
To determine the extent of the problem locally, volunteers help me monitor parts of Atlanta, collecting dead and injured birds. With this data, we approach building owners, local politicians, and architects to try to reduce the threat. Though we have a ways to go, we are starting to make progress through retrofitting problematic buildings, reducing the glow of our city through Lights Out, and having new construction projects be bird-friendly. My position permits me to manage other data driven programs that center on climate change, habitat restoration, avian monitoring, and bird banding which allows us to understand the movement of specific individuals.
Another large portion of my job is educational. I teach workshops that cover everything from the threats to our native birds, tips and tools to become a better birdwatcher, and bird identification. My audience for these ranges from children to adults and from complete novices to experienced nature lovers. I enjoy trying to communicate to these different audiences. Lots of my teaching occurs outside of the classroom. I lead field trips across metro Atlanta but have also helped develop our tour offerings further afield. I guide at least two domestic trips a year, typically to the Georgia Coast and Merritt Island Florida, as well as an international trip. These trips expose our members to new birds, new locations, exciting opportunities to learn, and a deeper understanding of the ways birds connect us to far away locations. In the past few years, I’ve taken groups of birders to Paraguay and Guatemala with my next trip scheduled for Costa Rica.
What’s been your most rewarding experience working with Atlanta Audubon Society?
Our education director Melanie Furr manages a program that exposes elementary students in Southwest Atlanta to the world of birds. Melanie, and other Audubon team members, have done an amazing job crafting a curriculum that allows us to bring birds into the classroom. Through this program, funded by a generous donor, Melanie is able to donate binoculars to multiple classrooms, install a bird-friendly garden on campus, and teach about birds and why they matter. As part of this program, I am able to tag along with Melanie and set up my bird banding nets. During my portion of the program, I am able to talk to young children about careers in science, discuss with them how I do my job, and with some luck, I can show them a bird in the hand. Nothing has brought me more joy then showing a bunch of third graders a Golden-Crowned Kinglet up close.
What are some everyday things people can do to help birds?
The bad news is that many of our birds are in real trouble.
The good news is that there are numerous things people can do to help them without much effort.
If you are a coffee drinker, I would urge you to purchase shade-grown coffee. Many of the birds that breed here in the United States or migrate through actually spend the majority of their time in the tropics. Shade-grown coffee farms, while not the same as protected native habitat, provide many more resources for wildlife than the all too common sun-grown coffee. Sun-grown coffee destroys the forest, utilizes more herbicides and pesticides, and provides no real value to bird life in the most bird rich region on the planet. More and more shade-grown coffee options are available and you can find them online, at Whole Foods, Fresh Market, and of course at Atlanta Audubon.
The right coffee choice helps birds when they are from the states, but here at home there are still steps you can take to help.
Keep your cat inside or on a leash. Outdoor cats result in more avian death annually than everything except habitat loss.
If you have birds colliding with your windows at home, consider putting some film or bird-friendly stickers on your glass. It doesn’t have to be expensive or unpleasing aesthetically to be effective. You can find out more about available products at our website (atlantaaudubon.org) or at the American Bird Conservancy’s page.
Install more native plants in your yard. These are vital for our native bugs, which provide the majority of food for our birds. It is also very easy for the wrong plant to escape your patio or garden and completely compromise our wild places.
Participate in citizen science. There are so many programs out there that allow interested parties to help researchers investigate our birds and their threats.
Support your local Audubon chapter or other environmental non-profit.
Of course there are other steps we can all take that are vital for the environment and extend beyond birds such as reducing our carbon footprint, recycling, and voting for people who are pro science and value the environment.
When birding, what gear do you recommend?
One thing that worries me is the perception that you need a whole bunch of special or expensive equipment to be a bird watcher. While there are tools that can improve your ability to enjoy birds, you honestly can head outside and enjoy birds without anything. The best thing about birds is how ever-present they are. I can walk around and see birds up close and hear birds singing without any fancy tools.
That being said, the first thing you should purchase if you want to get more into birds is a pair of binoculars. Most bird people like 8×42 or 10x42s. These numbers refer to the magnification and field of vision of a pair of binoculars, and these options are best for general bird watching.
If I am out doing an all-day bird count, I normally have the following items with me: Binoculars, spotting scope and tripod for distant birds, camera, lens cleaner and wipe to keep things clear, smartphone with various bird watching apps, a field guide, portable phone charger, comfortable clothes, water, snacks, notebook and pen, and if I am looking for owls I’ll have a flashlight and Bluetooth speaker.
Sibley is my favorite field guide and essential for someone learning their birds. The Crossley Guide is a great resource as well. The eBird app on your phone is also a must for me.
Cat Crap is something I also love to have. It keeps your lenses super clean.
Editor’s Note: Adam doesn’t put actual cat crap on his lenses. He uses this:
How would you describe birding culture to an outsider?
Birding culture in general is pretty inclusive. Birdwatchers vary a lot in their skill level, how they like to enjoy birds, and their background, so it lends itself to a diverse group of personalities. Most bird people I know are welcoming, are genuinely excited to expose people to birds, and love to meet new birdwatchers.
However, we birders are prone to jealousy, can be very competitive, and often think other bird watchers are full of it. Birders love to share stories of what they have seen and do some humble bragging and only occasionally like being on the other end. Some aspects of birdwatching are explicitly competitive, but most people do not actively participate in these parts. However, everyone likes to see birds others haven’t or have a higher list of species in a county or state than their friends. Birdwatching requires a person to police himself or herself and have some restraint when identifying a difficult bird. Some of us are better at this than others, and people can easily get a reputation for not being trustworthy if they force an identification or frequently report sketchy sightings.
Birding culture is also contradictory in a few other ways. We are often thought of as old, yet we are quick to embrace technology and new science. We will work hard to protect birds and follow a relatively green lifestyle but then drive 3 hours one way to see a single bird. We love to travel and see exotic new birds but also take extreme pleasure in knowing our local patch and each individual bird in it.
What’s some advice you’d give to somebody just starting birding?
The absolute most important thing to remember is that you have to just leave some birds unidentified. New birders, and some experienced birders, hate so much leaving birds unidentified that they will take a guess. This is against the spirit of the hobby and the data that is often collected with it. This type of behavior will also put you in the undesired group I mentioned above. We call these people “Stringers”. Birds and birdwatching can be hard. That is what makes it fun! Some birds just won’t cooperate or you didn’t get a good enough look and that has to be ok.
Besides letting some birds go, I recommend getting a good field guide and really study it. Get outside as much as possible to practice. Always look at the bird thoroughly and then the book. It is tempting to quickly look at the book to try and figure out what you are looking at, but often times when you do this the bird is long gone by the time your lift your eyes again. Study the bird completely and then reference the field guide. Utilize all the newer tools like eBird and Xeno-canto. Have fun and enjoy birds however you want to.
What’s the bird you got most excited seeing?
I am always excited when I see an owl, regardless of the species. Barred Owls are pretty common here in Atlanta, but they are still breathtaking.
Purple Martins and White-Throated Sparrows are very common birds that have a special place in my heart. I have worked on projects studying both of these species, so they are always a welcomed sight.
Blackburnian Warbler, Winter Wren, Blue-headed Vireo, and Wood Duck are all common species that I just find beautiful and interesting to watch.
What birds top your wishlist to see in the wild?
Honestly, the list is pretty long. Any new bird to a birder is exciting regardless of the birds appearance or behavior.
However, there are definitely some that stick out and are my top targets. In the Eastern United States, where I have done most of my birdwatching, I would say that the Black Rail is at the top of my wishlist. This is a species desired by most birders. Black Rails are small, well camouflaged, prefer a habitat that is hard to access, and extremely shy. Lewis’s Woodpecker, Black-capped Vireo, Northern Hawk Owl, and Northern Goshawk are other U.S. birds high on my list.
Most of my other wishlist birds live in Central and South America with Torrent Duck, Hoatzin, Snowcap, Bare-Throated Bellbird, and Marvellous Spatuletail standing out.
What’s a cool thing about birds most people don’t know?
I think most people know that birds migrate, but the details of this migration is beyond cool and often unknown.
First, many birds migrate at night. I think this would surprise most people. On a clear night you can often here the soft chips and tseets of birds overhead. This nocturnal migration is why lighting can be a problem for birds.
In the spring Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds (and many other birds) will fly nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico. This fact is hard to believe no matter how many times I recite it. Some shorebirds will migrate from the southern tip of South America all the way to the Arctic. And, if their nesting attempt fails, they will turn back south almost immediately.
A recent study described how a species of bird called the Veery can predict the severity of a hurricane season months in advance. They will shift the timing of and investment in a breeding season so that they can migrate earlier in years with more severe hurricanes. This shift in timing makes it more likely that the bird can safely migrate south, avoiding hurricanes that will come weeks later.
The majority of migratory species have their own unique story regarding migration and they all baffle my mind. Migration is the coolest.
What is the best bird? The worst bird?
I am going to try and be clever here and say that the best and the worst bird is actually the same species and its name is Brown-Headed Cowbird.
Brown-Headed Cowbirds are common, not the most beautiful, and have a simple and shrill song. The females are incredibly difficult for new bird watchers to identify. All strikes against this species.
However, Brown-Headed Cowbirds display some badass behavior and really make an ornithologist like me think. Cowbirds are nest parasites which means they do not build a nest but instead dump one of their eggs into the nest of a different species. The Cowbird egg tends to hatch earlier then its hosts’ eggs, and the young then outcompetes the other chicks for food. For some this is a big reason to put them in the worst bird category, but I think it is just an amazing and clever tactic.
One thing I always wonder is, “How a Brown-headed Cowbird knows it is a Cowbird? How does it identify a mate correctly once it reaches adulthood?” Super cool questions.
Cowbirds will sometimes demonstrate what has been quoted as “mafia” like behavior. If a host ejects the Cowbird egg, sometimes the female cowbird will then crack all of the other eggs. This forces the host bird to renest and once again decide if it will keep the Cowbird egg. However, this time it can choose to accept its adopted young and hope things work out or it can eject the egg again and possibly be the victim of another attack. This is another one of those polarizing behaviors, but I think it is awesome.
Less clever me would say House Sparrows are the worst because they have invaded most of the world, hang out in parking lots, eat all sorts of junk, and on occasion hurt native species. Best species would go to Andean Cock-Of-The-Rock. They are crazy looking, have an amazing breeding display, and a funky name.
If you had to be obsessed with an animal that wasn’t a bird, what would it be?
For a brief period of time I was really interested in marine biology. Rays, especially Manta Rays, astonish me. They are so amazing when they are gliding through the water. Octopi and sea turtles are also obsession worthy.
I’m personally annoyed that the iconic Eagle cry we all know is actually that of a Red Tailed Hawk.
What are your thoughts on how television shows or movies represent birds?
Television and movies do a horrible job when it comes to accurately portraying the birds that should be at a given place or time. There is a blogger named The Birdist who loves to discuss this topic.
I have come to forgive any movie or television programs that use living birds. These birds are often from other continents but that is because of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Our native species are heavily protected which makes it difficult to have them on a set. So, if a movie set in California has an owl species appear that is actually native to Africa, I give them a pass. The audio on the other hand is unforgivable. It would be so easy to insert the correct sounds into a show. I remember the movie Blood Diamond with Leonardo DiCaprio incessantly using the song of Black-Throated Green Warbler (a bird of the Americas).
A few months back I was watching a documentary about someone who was trying to break the Appalachian Trail speed record. During one of the shots, they showed a Red-Tailed Hawk but played a Bald Eagle cry. It made me so happy, and obviously they had a bird lover on their staff.
You recently became a father. How are babies like birds?
For me they both take up the vast majority of my time. Babies and birds are both fragile yet amazingly resilient. They can be loud when they want or need attention but can also be extremely quiet and difficult to find, especially when my 11 month old is trying to sneak away and eat cat food. The speed at which babies and birds grow is astonishing. Birds do this at a much faster rate obviously, but it blows my mind how quickly my daughter seems to be growing. Neither of them have teeth and will defecate wherever and whenever they would like.
What did you think of the Academy award winning best picture of 2015 Birdman?
I enjoyed the movie. I liked the way it was shot as if it was all done in one continuous take. Zack Galifianakis surprised me, and I almost always enjoy Emma Stone and Edward Norton. That being said, Whiplash would have been my pick for best picture that year, and Boyhood blew my mind with its concept.
Adam just recently started a new tour company called Teal Birding, and his first trip will be to Paraguay in November. If you have interest in joining him, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. A website and social media accounts are coming very soon!
If you want to see pictures of beer, Adam’s new life as a dad, and of course birds, you can check out his personal Instagram account @adambetuel.