Calgary university student Fisher Stephenson said his mornings are often dedicated to class — and the afternoons to birding.
“Going to lakes, or driving back roads or whatever, looking for birds. Sometimes if I’m at school and someone reports a particularly rare bird in Calgary, I’ll leave to find that,” Stephenson said.
The 21-year-old recently took up bird watching, a hobby commonly thought of as a pastime for retirees. Stephenson said the outdoor hobby caught his interest when he was taking classes online during the pandemic.
He said younger birders are often at the forefront of using group chats, social media and digital photography as a way to share and stay connected with others who are into the hobby.
“Any of my best photos I share on Instagram … and I follow a ton of other birders and bird photographers on there,” Stephenson said.
“Some people are out there with huge cameras, huge lenses, trying to get the best shot, and other people just share the cool photos they get of birds.”
Gavin McKinnon, 20, who runs tours through his company, Meadowlark Birding Tours, also fits birding in around his classes. The Lethbridge College student has been passionate about birds since he was a kid, he said, after his dad passed his passion on to him.
McKinnon says he typically hears about rare birds through WhatsApp and Discord.
“Which really, really connect people together and help people stay informed about what birds are being seen in the city,” he said.
The hashtag #birdwatching has generated 1.9 billion views on TikTok — and the developers of apps that aid in bird watching have seen a user boom.
One such app is Merlin. Over the past four years, the app has seen an explosion in users, from about two million in 2020 to more than eight million in 2023.
In Canada, app use has increased in that same time frame from 160,000 users to 710,000.
Alli Smith, Merlin project co-ordinator at the Cornell Lab, said the increase in use is in part due to the app introducing sound recognition.
But there’s also another reason — “it’s becoming more of a cool thing to do,” Smith said.
Another app commonly used by birders is eBird. Users add their bird observations to an online database, which is used by scientists and researchers.
Drumheller resident Jody Allair, director of community engagement at Birds Canada, said eBird becomes more popular each year.
And, he said, Birds Canada runs the Young Ornithologist Workshop at the Long Point Bird Observatory in Ontario. Registration has tripled, Allair said, and they have to run the program twice a year to keep up with demand.
“I think there was always the perception that birding is something you did once you retired.… I feel like that perception has changed a lot where people are realizing that birds are just such a great gateway to learning more about the natural world,” he said.
Allair said there’s been an increase in the number of social media influencers and podcasters dedicated to birding, and the hobby has also undergone a “sea change” of how it’s perceived as a hobby.
In the past, it was generally thought of as something for people looking for a hobby later in life, and that’s still true to an extent, he said.
“Birding is something that’s accessible and actually quite fun and engaging for people that are a lot younger,” he said.
“Now there’s newer clubs that are focusing on the gen Z or millennial age, like the Feminist Bird Club,” he said.
He said he’s glad it’s different from when he first started the hobby, and all the young birders knew each other.
“It’s amazing how much that has changed to the point now where birding has really become mainstream. And you get a lot of people in all different generations now are into birding. And I think that’s just really fantastic.”