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A Leftist Birder Tells Us About the Most Socialist Birds

'They care for each other. They share the wealth. It is literally the most socialist bird ever.'

The acorn woodpecker.
Ryan Mandelbaum // Flickr

Here at Discourse Blog, we love socialism and we love birds. There’s honestly few things we love more than socialism and birds, to be honest. So it was only a matter of time before we asked ourselves the extremely on-brand question: What are the world’s most socialist birds?

Obviously the starling, our fearless mascot, is a strong contender, but it’s certainly not the only leftie in the skies. There’s a recent Bird of the Week, for example, the inspiring, trouble-making, cop-hating kea. There’s also the Brazilian Tanager, which Jack rightfully renamed the Antifa Bird some weeks ago. Or the smart and adaptive Australian Raven. The number of potentially radical avians is gloriously, but overwhelmingly, endless. And so as we started to ponder this blessed query, it became clear fairly quickly that we’d need to enlist the help of a proper birder to do our feathered friends justice. 

Thankfully, our old pal and coworker Ryan F. Mandelbaum was up to the task. Ryan is a birder and science writer, who also volunteers at the Finch Research Network. I spoke with them about this positively bird-brained idea, and more generally about bird watching, the most helpful tools of the trade, birding in New York, and how to get the best fowl photos. Reader beware: consuming this interview will immediately make you want to walk outside, look up, and never do anything else. Enjoy! 

The following interview was edited and condensed.

So, we had this idea for a blog about socialist birds. Off the top of your head, do you have any contenders for birds that might fit? Either like shit-starters or, you know, birds that care about seizing the means of production or sharing wealth?

Ryan: Yeah, I will start by saying that my knowledge of birds is mainly limited to United States birds, so I can’t speak for the world’s birds. However, we do have an incredible example of a socialist bird here in the United States, the acorn woodpecker. They’re incredibly awesome. They live in these beautiful communes that are centered around acorn caches. Basically, they devote a lot of their life to collecting acorns and they stuff them into tree caches, which are quite hideous. If you have trypophobia they’re really horrible to look at, but they’re just trees loaded to the brim with acorns. And they live in these like communist societies where they raise the kids together and there’s a ton of them living together. They care for each other. They share the wealth with these acorn caches. It is literally the most socialist bird ever. 

Wow I’m kind of stunned, honestly. I never thought in a million years that there’d be a bird that so perfectly fit the brief! 

Ryan: As a fellow leftist I’ve thought about this question myself; I haven’t had an outlet to really make this connection, but yeah! Let me quote an encyclopedia. This is from Cornell’s Birds of the World encyclopedia: “It is probably best known for its highly social habits and unique method of storing acorns in specialized trees known as storage trees or granaries, although group living and acorn storage are not characteristic of all populations . . . this woodpecker is a cooperative breeder and lives in family groups of up to a dozen or more individuals. Birds in social units store acorns communally and cooperatively raise young.”

Amazing. I can’t wait to look it up and see what it looks like and see these nut caches. It all sounds great. 

Ryan: Yeah, they’re quite a clown-y looking bird too. They’re really, really silly-looking. 

Even better. Okay, so you’ve thought about this prior to me bringing it up to you. Do you have any other socialist birds in mind? 

Ryan: Other birds in the acorn woodpecker genus, Melanerpes, apparently also do this. Also finches. I’m a little biased because in my free time I volunteer for a nonprofit that funds finch research, but a lot of finch species are very social. I wouldn’t say that they really distribute the wealth, but live in really tight flocks and they’re very social. There’s a lot of birds that live in flocks, right? Like starlings live in really big flocks where they’re always traveling together and working as a unit. Cedar waxwings and Bohemian waxwings are also a really good example of this.

Cedar waxwings are like these big, chattery flocks that fly around looking for berries and something about the nature of their food source requires them to work together. Cedar waxwings are a great example of this community-focused, socialist ideal. And Bohemian waxwings and Cedar waxwings share all the same behavior, it’s just that Bohemian waxwings are very chunky looking and thus a little cuter. And the transient nature of their food source also makes them very social to each other in other ways. Like, they don’t really have a concept of space. So, you know, as a birder, I know I’m encountering a flock of Cedar waxwings when I see that they’re flying super close to each other in the air. They almost bump into each other in the air. And they cuddle really close to each other when they’re standing in trees, and their courtship display is literally passing a berry back and forth.

Cedar waxwings. (Susan Young/Flickr)

I love that. It’s funny too because when I was thinking about this question myself, I was thinking about how we obviously see birds, in passing or in flocks, but we don’t get to see these specific behaviors in them very often. Especially if you’re not into birding. But it’s fascinating to know that it’s happening. It’s out of sight for most of us, but the birds are taking care of each other. 

Ryan: Cedar waxwings are actually a really great example of this one that you can observe, especially in late spring or early summer. Going into June, Cedar waxwings are like one of the most common birds in New York City. I guess people don’t realize that because they hang out in the treetops and you’d have to know to look up. People don’t really look up, they just look at the birds that are right in front of them. But if you go to any city park and you listen for their call, they’re pretty ubiquitous the entire summer, and you can pretty easily catch them. In the earlier part of the summer, you can actually catch them doing this weird feeding behavior and pass-back behavior. Even without binoculars, just with my naked eye, I’ve seen Cedar waxwings feed each other many times. 

I have to ask: I saw that your favorite bird is the red crossbill

Ryan: Yes it is!

I’m wondering if you could just tell me a little bit about that bird. I’m just interested since you name it as your favorite. 

Ryan: I like them because they’re really interesting from a biology perspective. Well actually, first of all, did you or do you like Homestar Runner? Are you familiar With it? 

Yes, extremely familiar.

Ryan: Okay so with their wacky underbite and expressionless face, they look like Homsar [Ryan is right]. So that was the first thing that alerted me to the red crossbill when I was first getting into birds. But since then, I realized that there’s just so much to learn about them. They are intricately tied to the ecology of conifer trees to the point that there are specific populations that seemed to have their bill shape evolved specifically to different conifers, which is pretty tight. They are very nomadic and can randomly show up in different places at different times based on whether there are pine cones for them to eat. So for example, this past winter there were a ton of red crossbills in New York City. Basically, if you went to Green-Wood Cemetery or Floyd Bennett Field, you could see them all through December—just like these big flocks of them.

I’m also very interested in the boreal, the kind of the high north and far Northern areas of the continent and they’re sort of associated with them. They are a little socialist, too. They travel in really big chattery flocks. They look like parrots as they sort of dangle from pine trees. I’m also really into bird sounds and they have all these different populations that may or may not be separate subspecies of the bird. And the only way you can tell them apart is either if you’re holding it in your hand and measuring the beak, or if you are listening to their flight calls that they use to talk with one another. 

Wow, incredible. That’s so specific! I’m looking at a photo of them right now and they’ve also got very good brown and red coloring. 

Ryan: Yeah, so there’s actually two species of crossbill—well three technically—but two main species of crossbill in the U.S., as well as a few other species in the world. But in the United States there’s red crossbills and white-winged crossbills. There’s also the Cassia crossbill, which looks exactly like the red crossbill, but is its own species. So white-winged crossbills are actually all around far northern New England and the upper Great Lakes right now. Like I was in Minnesota visiting my spouse’s family this past weekend and there were white-winged crossbills all over the place. I haven’t seen red crossbills as much, but yeah, last year there were red crossbills everywhere. White-winged crossbills are just not as interesting to me. They’re also funny, but for some reason they don’t light that same spark that the red ones do. 

Red crossbill. (US Forest Service)

I mean, that seems fair. How did you get into birding initially? 

Ryan: I’ve actually written a story for Gizmodo about it. It was kind of a two-fold thing. One, I was a journalism student and I’d always kind of been into the outdoors, but I didn’t really like birds that much. But then I wrote a story about how the New York City Audubon society was painting lawn flamingos to white to attract egrets back to some island off the coast of Staten Island. And I’m always down with weird shit so that was probably the first thing. And then my spouse is from Northern Minnesota and their really close friend worked at the Audubon Society. So when they moved to New York, they were like, “Hey, what if we had a couple’s hobby that was birding?” And I was like, “Sure, that sounds fun.” 

I love that. It’s funny actually because I feel like over the course of the pandemic, birding as a hobby has become way more prominent. And I have no idea whether that’s specific to me and my spouse, or if it’s actually happening more generally. Have you noticed it at all? 

Ryan: Yeah, I think a lot of people were really looking for something to do during the pandemic that didn’t require being social and inside, or just didn’t require being inside. So a lot of people have definitely started birdwatching. I mean, a lot of the people I go birding with now are pandemic birders. And it’s really awesome because a lot of them are really excited and eager about this. There are a lot of nature people in New York who are used to going upstate to go hiking or go on nature walks where they’re from, and maybe they moved to New York and missed the nature aspect of it. I think when the pandemic came around, people started to realize that New York is actually really great for birds. And it’s not just like, oh, you know, we’re here, we should just look at whatever birds are here. New York is actually an internationally recognized migratory flyway area that is really important for birds. It’s a really great place to see them. So, you know, just this year, I’ve probably seen 300 species of bird in New York state and 260 species of bird in Brooklyn. There’s a lot of animals that fly through here.  

Woah, I fully had no idea that New York was an especially good place for birdwatching. 

Ryan: Yeah, it’s on this migratory pathway called the Atlantic Flyway. There’s a ton of different habitats. New York has forests and woodlands, like in Prospect Park, Central Park, Cortland Park and Pelham Bay Park. Then it also has these really vast—well it used to be vast—but it does have these salt marshes in Jamaica Bay and also in Pelham Bay Park. It has grasslands in Staten Island and Brooklyn. It’s also built on an estuary, and where saltwater meets freshwater is usually a very productive area ecologically. So it’s like, yeah, of course there are birds like pigeons and Peregrine Falcons and stuff. But we have birds that breed here, like saltmarsh sparrows and clapper rails and piping plovers. Piping plovers don’t make it, but some of them breed here, they just don’t often survive. But we also have, you know, huge black skimmer colonies and common tern colonies as well. So there’s really just so much important habitat. All in one place. It’s pretty neat. 

Saltmarsh sparrow. (Ryan Mandelbaum)

Do you have any tips or tools for people who are just getting into bird watching? In some ways it feels very accessible, but are there things that can elevate someone from casual to a little more serious? 

Ryan: I think the first thing is like, you should probably go in knowing what kind of bird watcher you want to be. It’s fine if all you want to do is just go out and look at birds all day or be a photographer or whatever. You don’t have to be a traditional, “Oh, I’m chasing rivers around the city” kind of birdwatcher. So there’s that, and I would also say that eBird is a website run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and it’s free and it’s this huge database. It’s a citizen science database that collects bird sightings and everybody uses it as their lists. So like, I know the numbers of species I’ve seen because I report all my sightings to eBird and then eBird lets me use the reporting features to find that all out.

They also have really good exploring features. Like there are these bar charts, for example, that will tell you what species have been seen in your county over the course of the year. So you can be like, “Okay, it’s November, I’m going to look up this bar chart to see what birds will be around.” And then you look up Kings County, New York and you see, like, “Cool, at this time of year I should be looking for ducks and sparrows.” And the bar charts show you the abundance maps for each species. So it’s a really awesome tool for new birders. It kind of gets you up to speed, at least knowing what to expect and when really quickly. 

Nice. I’ve used the Merlin Bird app just because that’s what everyone suggested to me, which I like, but I mostly just use it to ID birds I see. I really like the idea of having that broader data to work off of and find out what I can expect to be seeing wherever I am, and to see what other people are seeing. 

Ryan: Yeah, for a lot of birders eBird is a lifeline. For example, when I was in Minnesota last week, there were some birds right over the border in North Dakota and I just opened up the bar charts. I was like, “I don’t know what kind of birds are around here during this time of year. I’m just gonna pop open the bar charts.” And then there were two birds I had never seen whose abundance maps were reasonably high for the last week of October. So I was like, “Great, I’m going to go try and see these two birds.” And I saw them both, it was great. It also shows on the map the most recent sightings of the birds. So not only did I know like, okay, these are the bird species I should look for, but I was literally like, “Oh, here’s a GPS coordinate of where that bird was seen and to the date that it was seen.” It was really easy. 

Your bird photography is so good that I have to ask: Do you have any tips for photographing birds? I have such a horrible time trying to do it myself. 

Ryan: Okay the first thing is, you have binoculars and a cell phone, right?

Yeah. 

Ryan: Have you tried the cell phone through the binoculars trick? 

What? No. 

Ryan: Yeah you could just do that. 

Oh my gosh, I had no idea that would work. Okay, wow. Well that’s so much simpler than I was expecting. 

Ryan: Yeah I mean, my photos aren’t that, but I would say that like, there are days where I forget my camera at home or I can’t carry it with me. And the cell phone through the binoculars trick usually gets me a photo that’s like 60 to 75 percent as good as my camera equipment can get me. Like, it’s often very surprising how good they come out. 

Returning to the birds themselves, because you have such a vast knowledge, are there any birds that you like have been particularly digging lately or all-time faves that want to shout out? Either socialist birds or otherwise. 

Ryan: I told you about my crossbills, but I also have such a soft spot for gulls, or seagulls as I call them because I’m from here and that’s what we call them in New York. 

Wait, what? I do too. It’s a weird thing to call them seagulls?  

Ryan: Well, like really seasoned birders will get mad at you because they’re not all seafaring. Like one of the birds that I went to see in North Dakota breeds on the prairies and spends the winter at sea. So you know, if you want to be accurate, it’s more like a prairie gull. But the other thing is that I’m pretty sure that all gulls evolved the ability to live on salt water and drink salt water. So they’re basically all seagulls. It’s fine. It doesn’t really matter. Pedantics are like gatekeeping and I don’t like them. 

Interesting, yeah I mean I guess that makes sense but it won’t change what I call them.

Ryan: Right, it’s whatever. But I love seagulls. They’re so cool and they’re very fun to watch. It was actually a Gizmodo story that inspired me to like them. I interviewed this Australian kid who was obsessed with seagulls and came to the U.S. just to see them. After writing that story, I was like, “maybe I should start looking at seagulls.” And since then I’ve been fricking hooked. They’re so much fun. 

Okay I have to look up that story. That’s really funny. 

Ryan: Yeah, so because New York is on the sea and there’s a lot of garbage dumps and parking lots and stuff it’s like a really good place to see them. I’ve probably seen like 10 species of gull in New York City? I’d have to count. But I like birding experiences where you just sit there. Like, I don’t really want to go slogging through the mud or hiking, I’d rather just sit still. With seagulls you usually sit in like a parking lot or at the edge of a landfill or something with a telescope and you just look at them and that’s it. You try and see if there’s any interesting, different seagull species mixed into the common ones. That’s what it is. And if not, they’re still fun to watch. 

Laughing gulls. (Ryan Mandelbaum)

It’s kind of blowing my mind to know that there are so many different varieties of gulls actually. That’s the thing I love about birdwatching—just all the things that you would never even have thought about. It never would have occurred to me that there’d be that many different types of gulls. And to know that that’s true just in the New York area is so cool. 

Ryan: Dude, it’s so cool. Bird watching the bomb and I would say everybody should do it. The more birdwatchers there are, the more people I get to excitedly talk about birdwatching with. And also, if more people are excited about nature and wildlife, then we need to protect more areas for nature and wildlife. So there’s nothing bad that comes out of more people excited about wildlife, to be honest. 

It also just seems like birdwatching people, from my experience anyway, are just great people in general. 

Ryan: I think this is maybe because of the big influx of younger, cool, hip birders, but I think that for a lot of people, especially in areas that aren’t as full of vibrancy and diversity, I think that birdwatchers kind of get a bad rap as these like old white people who are really grumpy. And, I think that a lot of people have been redoing a lot of really hard work to get rid of that stigma and also get rid of that energy. So there’s like the Audubon Society, the Feminist Bird Club, there’s queer birders, there’s clubs for Black birders, I mean, it’s just been an incredible explosion of people being like “nature is for everybody.” Birdability is a group that promotes accessible birding, you know, places where there are accessible trails and stuff. And ever since learning about that, I’ve started to say before I leave for walks, like, “Oh, this is how strenuous it will be and this is what sort of accessibility features this walk has.” And just asking the organizers or the park, for example, if they have accessible trails or things like that. 

Yeah. I mean, I guess I didn’t fully think about this before this moment, but I think part of the reason this blog/interview idea even came together is that the birdwatching community does seem to be more and more progressive. Even if not like, explicitly socialist, it definitely feels more lefty and progressive than it did when I was younger. 

Ryan: Yeah, I mean, I love talking about birds, but honestly I’m relatively new to it. I am mainly just somebody who tweets about birds a lot, not necessarily somebody who knows about them a lot. But there are a lot folks at the Audubon Society or the Feminist Bird Club, who could speak even more on that. I know a lot of radical leftist birders who would be eager to answer these same questions. 

[Yes reader, this is a teaser. A bigger, badder socialist bird blog is coming! Stay tuned.]