Birding Is Hollywood’s New Form of Meditation
By Hadley Meares,2023-06-06
“I was at the premiere of The Little Mermaid a couple of weeks back,” says Kean Almryde, a marketing manager at Disney. “Scuttle, the bird in the cartoon version, was a seagull. In the new movie, it’s a northern gannet. I’m like, ‘What’s that about?’ So I did a little bit of research. I made a TikTok video explaining the decision behind changing Scuttle from a seagull to the northern gannet that ended up going viral! It has like 420,000 views.”
The reason for the change? Animators wanted more underwater scenes, and unlike the air-bound seagull, a northern gannet can dive around 70 feet underwater. This research dovetailed perfectly with Almryde’s passion for birding, which was sparked during the pandemic and he says provides a respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. “You’re forced to slow down,” he says. “You’re forced to listen, pay attention to your surroundings a little bit more closely.”
These moments of clarity and contemplation are one of the reasons birding is an increasingly popular activity in Los Angeles, reportedly counting celebrities including Daryl Hannah and Cameron Diaz among its fans. It’s also the subject of the new National Geographic show Extraordinary Birder with Christian Cooper , which debuts June 17.
“They’re survivors,” says birder Kevin Mullican, director of technology at VR and AR technology studio Magnopus , explaining his fascination. “They are essentially the descendants of the dinosaurs, and somehow they made it.”
Comedian Tig Notaro, a casual bird-watcher, does most of her watching from home. In an effort to attract birds — especially hummingbirds, her favorite — Notaro and her wife, actress Stephanie Allynne, have surrounded their house with feeders and birdhouses. “I’m amused by the fact that they just move into birdhouses,” says Notaro. “That’s really amusing to me.”
On many mornings, after dropping their children off at school, Notaro makes a point to sit outside and eat breakfast among the birds. “We have a back patio upstairs that we let our cats out on so they can safely be outside and bird-watch as well.”
For Notaro, birds make her think of freedom. “It just really blows my mind,” she says. “That’s what I think about whenever I look at them.”
For actor Ian Harding, birds have been a passion since childhood. His 2017 memoir is even named Odd Birds and centers on his love of birds. He credits bird-watching with saving his sanity when his starring role on Pretty Little Liars turned him into a heartthrob to teens everywhere.
“I knew people looked at me differently or I was viewed differently, but I didn’t feel any different. And that sort of tension can be very unmooring,” Harding says. “Looking at birds, these things that truly don’t give a shit about your career and sometimes defecate on all of your belongings, had a weird, roundabout way of keeping me grounded.”
He also found that it is an excellent way to sort out potential friends at industry events. “It’s an awesome litmus test,” he says. “If someone is like, ‘What are you working on?’ And I say, ‘Actually, I’m really into birding recently,’ and if they don’t immediately walk away, then I think I’m going to get to know you; you’re cool.”
The past few water-drenched months in Los Angeles also have been a boon to the area’s bird population. “The heavy rains this past winter produced an abundance of insects, flowers, fruits and seeds,” says ornithologist Sean Lyon, who leads customized birding tours in L.A. “This abundance of natural resources helps to sustain birds. Some individuals and species may spend more time in Los Angeles as a result of this additional food.”
Los Angeles has long been known as one of the best places to bird in all of North America, though, as “542 species have been recorded in Los Angeles County, which is more than any other county in California,” says Alexander deBarros, who bills himself as The Hollywood Birder and hosts a YouTube channel that showcases local birds, set in popular filming locations like Bronson Canyon.
According to Lyon, while the development of Los Angeles has had countless negative impacts on the environment, it also has made it a magnet for bird species. The millions of trees planted on what originally were grasslands, along with the irrigation water brought to the once-parched landscape, have drawn and sustained birds from places as diverse as Southeast Asia, Africa and South America.
For birders without benefit of a guide, there are popular apps like eBird and Merlin Bird ID to help find and identify birds. Everyone has their favorites from the colorful (Steller’s jays, Lewis’s woodpeckers, Western bluebird) and the cute (tiny bushtits) to the non-native (such as an estimated 11 species of introduced parrots). “The lazuli bunting is this beautiful bright blue bird that has this orange throat. That was an L.A. grail bird for me,” says Carlton DeWoody, a graphic designer and branding expert who started a birding club, Painted Feather , in 2022 that happens to include a number of composers. Outings are led by birder Benny Isaac Jacobs-Schwartz .
DeWoody likes using the eBird app because “it aggregates the information of all the birders so you can use that to see [the latest updates on] where activity is happening.” When a snowy owl made a rare appearance in Cypress in Orange County late last year, roosting atop a house, “People found out about it through eBird before it got picked up by the local news,” says DeWoody.
There are countless places to spot birds in L.A., with the Malibu Lagoon, the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Preserve, Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, the Whittier Narrows, and Griffith Park among the most popular. Some birders also enjoy walks hosted by groups like the local Audubon Societies and see it as a bonding experience. Says Lyon, “It’s an extremely vibrant, very diverse group of people — people who will hop on a boat and head out to the Channel Islands to see oceanic species or do hikes up into the mountains at Chilao Flats to see mountain species.”
The thrill of the chase is what draws many. “As a kid that grew up in the ’90s, I was a big Pokémon player,” Harding says. “You learned all the different Pokémon. Now I just learn a bunch of different birds, which just happen to be real and not digital monsters. It’s sort of the adult version of Pokémon.”
For many, birding is a solo, meditative activity, starting early in the morning, when birds are most active. “All you have to do is listen carefully,” says birder Sandi Hemmerlein, a digital producer for Public Media Group of Southern California. “You’re not only listening for birdcalls but also the sound of leaves rustling, wings flapping. Then in terms of what you’re looking for, you’re just looking for movement and variations in color.”
There are also few barriers to entry. “The great thing about birding is you don’t really need any equipment,” says Eric Kelly, an L.A.-based photographer and a birder. “You can go outside and just do it.” Adds birder Michael Busse, “I think that it really forces you to pay attention to the world around you, which is something that we could all use more of in L.A. We have such a go, go, go culture here. It’s easy to miss some of the things that are going on around you, outside of your phone, outside of your email inbox, outside of social media.”
For pro and amateur birdwatchers alike, it’s L.A.’s vast population of birds that can make every day a joy. “Being in that constant process of discovery is really exciting to me,” Hemmerlein says. “The cliché is stop and smell the roses, but for me, it’s slow down and find the birds.”
A version of this story first appeared in the May 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe .