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Punk rock birder Paul Riss tries to bust misconceptions of birdwatchers

Image by Derek Shapton

It is clear from the way he talks about the first time a black-capped chickadee landed on his hand or the way he recalls his trip to Point Pelee during the peak of migration that Paul Riss is a diehard birder. The only problem is you would never guess his love of birds from the way he looks.

His arms are covered in tattoos, his fashion carries a punk rock sensibility and he occasionally dons a mohawk. He is the opposite of what most people would consider the typical birder, and that’s something Riss embraces.

In fact, last year Riss set out to shatter the misconceptions about birders and make birding more accessible to young people by embarking on something he called the Punk Rock Big Year.

“My goal was to change the stereotype of what a birder is thought of—an old person with blue hair, a field vest and a tilley hat,” Riss said. “In the process, the reason I wanted to change the perception of birdwatchers evolved.”

Once he started thinking about the purpose of changing the stereotype, he began to think of his project as a way to encourage young people to get involved in birding by giving them someone they can relate to. It’s easier for young people to proudly proclaim themselves birdwatchers when someone like Riss is prominent in the community.

To be clear, Riss is not disparaging older birders who might fit some of the common stereotypes, but teenagers or children might have a harder time identifying with that image.

“Some of my mentors and great birder friends are that older lady with the tilley hat, and it’s not a bad thing,” he said. “But, if we want to make ourselves interesting to younger generations, we need to have that other side.”

To add some edge and intrigue to his effort, he decided to do a Big Year, which is an attempt to spot as many bird species as possible in one year, with a twist. Aside from going birding with a mohawk and really delving deep into the hobby, he decided he would also get the scientific name of every bird he saw tattooed on his body.

The final count was 234 species. Needless to say, the expensive endeavor will take some time and planning to complete.

“I have 15 of them on me now, so I have an idea of how much of my body this is going to take, and it’s a lot,” he said.

Along his journey, he said one of the most rewarding things about doing a Big Year was meeting an array of birdwatchers. He still enjoyed the thrill he received when he spotted a new bird, but at some point, the experience became more about the people and less about the birds.

Even though the Big Year is over, he’s still working on a documentary about his Punk Rock Big Year. Throughout 2011, a film crew followed him around to document his adventures in the field and his interactions with other birders. He’s planning on releasing the film in 2013 to show at birding festivals or online, but it’s taking some time because he’s funding it himself and working on it as a side project.

In the meantime, you can check out his blog over at Punk Rock Big Year where he writes all about his experiences and gives updates on his life.

Riss is doing a great service to the world and image of birdwatching by putting himself out there and showing that birders of all backgrounds can interact peacefully because of a single interest: a love of birds.

Timothy Martinez Jr. is a writer and freelance journalist. His work has been published in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Remapping Debate in New York City and other publications. He’s been a bird lover since he was young and currently lives in New Orleans, L.A.


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