This is not exactly a rags-to-riches story, because no one here is getting rich. But if the new version of the American Dream involves making a decent living doing something you really love, then Sharon Stiteler can check that one off her life list.
A few years ago, Stiteler, better known as Birdchick to the birdwatching world, was ringing up thistle seed at a bird food store. At the same time, she gave solid advice to customers who had found a baby bird, or whose windows were death magnets to flying birds, or who wanted to ID that oddball at the feeder. Stiteler nearly always had the answer.
That retail job, fueled by a lifelong fascination with the winged world, kicked off Stiteler’s unconventional career as a professional bird watcher. Today, she has three books, an enormously popular blog, keeps bees with Neil Gaiman (she photographs birds in his backyard, too) and travels 40 weeks of the year to spy on birds around the world. Antarctica is the only continent she hasn’t been to — yet.
‘I became obsessed’
“When I was 7, I saw a Peterson Field Guide, and inside was a picture of a pileated woodpecker. I was so fascinated that there was a crow-sized woodpecker out there and I just snapped. I became obsessed with birds,” she said, and she didn’t outgrow the obsession, although she studied theater in college.
“When I was 18, ornithology just didn’t sound like something I could make into a career, so I thought, I’ll go into theater!” she says, laughing uproariously. (She does that every few minutes; most birders are as quiet as the tomb.)
After college, Stiteler moved to the Twin Cities from Indianapolis to take a job with the Children’s Theater Company. She didn’t love it, and a year later took a retail job at All Seasons Wild Bird Store, eventually managing stores in three suburbs.
Background comes in handy
Customers still remember her, or at least her rabbit, Cinnamon, who traveled to work with her and starred in Stiteler’s first blog, Disapproving Rabbits, which spawned a book by the same name. (Stiteler’s husband, known as Non Birding Bill, now runs the rabbit site, since the growing Birdchick empire keeps Stiteler busy.) The theater background actually has come in handy, since the very charismatic Birdchick does TV and radio appearances, and leads birding events. “Most naturalists aren’t the most exciting speakers,” she says, so she makes sure to put on a good show.
Stiteler’s second book, “City Birds, Country Birds,” was written for people who were already immersed in birding. But Birdchick’s blog, which is funny, irreverent, and features her tart insights on the latest bird video making the rounds (Eagle snatching baby? A hoax.), has won her an audience that includes plenty of non birding readers — or hopefully, new birders. So Stiteler’s new book, “1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know” (Running Press) speaks to an audience that is just beginning to learn about the endlessly fascinating world of birds.
“My first attempt was too technical. So I did the sex chapter and [my editors] loved it,” says Stiteler, who notes that this book is PG-13. “From there, I looked back in my email archives to review the most common questions I get from blog readers, and I did some crowdsourcing on Facebook and Twitter to find out what people wanted to know more about, and built the book from there.”
The 1,001 secrets are illustrated with dazzling bird photos, about 85 percent of which Stiteler took using a birding telescope and an iPhone camera — a technique called digiscoping that she teaches in birding workshops. It’s an unconventional method that is frowned upon by traditional wildlife photographers, but it works awfully well, and Stiteler is an unconventional birder who relishes opportunities to get a younger, more wired, more diverse group of people into birding.
“I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve sat in where a bunch of gray-haired white people are sitting around trying to figure out why they are all so old and white. They know young, diverse people are needed to take birding to the next level, but when I tell them to get online, they brush that off. Meanwhile, young people and people who aren’t white are into birding; they just do it on their own terms, with their own tools. And I see them avoiding birding groups like the plague.”
Birdchick may poke gentle fun at traditional birders, but she’s anxious to help them increase their numbers, because in our human-shaped environment, birds depend on people who like birds to plant native trees, preserve open space, keep their cats inside, and give up lawn chemicals (or lawns altogether).
“Not everyone has to join the Audubon Society. If someone notices a warbler for the first time, or gives money to the Raptor Center, or plants something native for birds, then I’ve done what I set out to do.”
May 7, 7 p.m. Book Release Party. Glam Doll Donuts.