Gracie McMahon and her mother didn’t have much time. A friend had reported a bird — specifically, a blue grosbeak — hanging out by the airport near their Rockford, Illinois, home, so they hopped into their car and raced over to see it. “It’s unique and special because it’s rare to our area,” Gracie, 14, says of the bright blue bird with a black mask. “It was fun to see.”

Gracie is an American Birding Association (ABA) “young birder of the year,” one of two kids or teens honored each year for their conservation efforts and field work. She participates in the organization’s mentoring program and learns everything she can about local species. She keeps a field notebook with her writings and illustrations of birds.

Gracie was 6 when her parents took her to Sand Bluff Bird Observatory in northern Illinois. Volunteers were busy trapping migrating songbirds in a thin net. They caught and weighed each bird and put a metal band around its leg to identify it as part of their study on migration patterns. Then they released the birds back into the wild.

“I loved the birds and the people. I got hooked,” Gracie says. “I’ve been going there on weekends to volunteer ever since. It’s a big part of my life.”

It’s her job to take the birds carefully out of the net so adult volunteers can record data. She enjoys seeing the warblers and sparrows up-close.

“You get perspective on something so small that can migrate so many thousands of miles,” she says. “Plus, there’s always a chance that you’re going to see something really neat like a pileated woodpecker. They’re cool to take out of the net because they’re so large.”

Gracie tells new birders to grab a pair of binoculars and a guidebook such as a Sibley field guide to birds, then head for the nearest banding station or wildlife refuge and simply observe. Young birders can find each other on Instagram, and through the American Birding Association’s online mentoring program.

The association also runs a summer camp near Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, specifically for teens.

“I think every aspiring young birder should participate,” Gracie says. “You’ll meet new people and expand your knowledge. I’ve learned so much from ABA mentors — people like the editor of Birding Magazine.”

Thanks to her passion for birds, Gracie has a large social circle of teens and adults. She soaks up avian information from everyone she meets.

“Take advantage of the people in your community, and figure out what they know and how their knowledge can help you,” she says. “I’ve even had people take me behind the scenes in museums to watch how they prepare birds for exhibitions.”

While Gracie isn’t sure whether she’ll focus on ornithology (the science of birds) in college, she knows she wants to work in science. For now, however, she’s happy to keep studying birds.

“It’s addictive,” she says. “You never know what you’re going to see when you go outside.”

Resources for kid birders

American Birding Association maintains this list of young birders’ clubs state-by-state:

Audubon offers a website devoted to birding resources for young people:

Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides lessons, activities and virtual bird clubs for kids:

eBird gives young birders information on camps, clubs, colleges and careers: