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A young birder’s passion started with a flock of chickens

Zita Robertson’s interest in her family’s chickens led to a hobby and then a national award.

Zita Robertson looks for birds during an outing with the Missouri Birding Society in September 2022. (Kornelia Robertson )

Zita Robertson set a goal to see 175 bird species this year. The 13-year-old birder from Canton, Missouri, reached that number in May. She has since raised the bar several times — to 190 species, then 200, then 210. She is now aiming for 220 species and is four birds away from accomplishing her mission.

“This is my best year yet,” said Zita, as chickadees chirped outside her window on a recent October morning.

The personal-best bird count isn’t the only highlight of her year: This summer, the American Birding Association chose the home-schooled eighth-grader as the Young Birder of the Year for the 10-to-13-year-old division. The organization based its decision on her submissions for the “modules” that the program’s 55 participants work on between July 2021 through February. The five categories are field notebook, writing, illustration, photography, and conservation and community leadership.

“Zita really stood out as a shining star in her birding community,” said Laura Guerard, the association’s young birder programs coordinator. “We want her to be a voice for the birds.”

Most birders have a “spark bird,” a species or sighting that ignited their passion for the feathered creatures. Zita’s spark bird was a chicken.

“I didn’t get interested in wild birds at first,” she said. “I had a flock of eight chickens when I was 7, and I would sit in the yard and watch them for hours. Then I started noticing all of the other birds around them.”

The American robin was one of the first wild species she observed on her family’s farm. She would watch the chickens chase away the red-breasted visitors, which the fowl considered competition for the worms.

Since 2019, she has registered 351 species on eBird, an online database run by Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology. She spotted more than half of the birds in northeastern Missouri and nearby Illinois and Iowa. She also documented 140 birds in Hungary, where she lived and attended school in 2020-2021. (Her mom is from the Eastern European country.)

“The interesting thing I learned there, is that the birds aren’t all that different,” she said. “You’ve got woodpeckers and chickadees and harriers and hawks. The same groups of birds, just different species.”

To identify a bird, Zita uses field guides (Peterson is her favorite) and Slack channels run by the birding association. On the messaging platform, young birders from across the country share photos and expertise to uncover the name of a mystery bird.

“When they see something in California, I can’t really say if it’s a Hammond’s flycatcher or a Western Wood-Pewee, because I’ve never seen those,” she said. “But if they’re asking if this is a summer tanager or a scarlet tanager, I can answer their question, because we have summer tanagers and scarlet tanagers in my backyard.”

Zita said one of the most important lessons she has learned from birding is that she is not always right. For example, she once thought she saw a Bay-breasted Warbler, but the bird turned out to be a Blackburnian warbler. “It’s not good to identify a bird and stick to that and not be more open-minded about it,” she said. “I can be wrong, and that’s humbling.”

Zita still hopes to glimpse a Bay-breasted Warbler. For the fall migration, the songbirds flew over Missouri in September. But she will have another chance to catch them in the spring, on their return trip north.

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