I enter the trendy coffee shop looking for a telltale pastel pink bob cut. After a whole lap around the café, I finally see the pink peeking out from beneath a black beanie. The owner of the hair is already settled in, doodling away and sipping a cup of fragrant, spicy tea.
As we exchange pleasantries, she continues to flesh out details on her drawing of a demonic-looking rat. After a couple of minutes, she says, “Sorry, I should probably put this away,” and gives her full attention to the topic at hand: birds.
My interview with Holly Conrad could have gone a number of different directions. Conrad graduated with a degree in medieval history and also designs costumes, especially cosplay for conventions like Comic Con. Her actual career is as a YouTuber, where she primarily uploads videos of herself playing video games under the moniker Commander Holly.
But one of her first passions was always birds.
“When I was a kid, I subscribed to Audubon magazine religiously,” she says. “I would get the magazine, and I would go through every page and draw every bird in the magazine.”
She had posters next to her bed of all the bird bones and muscle groups, and would try to memorize all of them. One of the highlights of her middle school career was when she saw a tree full of Cedar Waxwings for the first time.
“I wanted to be an ornithologist,” she says. “I guess later in life I just realized I was too bad at math.” Jokingly she adds, “So I just became an internet clown.”
In addition to her internet antics, she is the loving mother of 45 rescued pigeons. She readily admits that they’re not exactly America’s favorite bird, but finds this judgment a bit shallow.
“I love how they’re survivors,” she tells me. “Their species has survived here [in North America] despite all odds and people treat them like vermin. And they’re not vermin. They’re a product of humanity interfering with nature, really. And they’re intelligent and they’re funny and they’re weird, and I just really like them.”
She got started rescuing the birds in what she describes as her “interim phase” – after she had graduated from college (“So like, once you just don’t know what you’re doing with your life you kind of panic and flop around in the street for a while until finally you find your own bearings”).
She saw a listing for a pigeon on Palomacy, a San Francisco-based pigeon and dove rescue organization. “And I don’t know why, but I was just like, ‘I need to give this pigeon a home.’ And so I drove up to San Francisco [from Los Angeles] and picked up this pigeon and gave him a home. That’s how it started. That sounds absolutely ridiculous, but that’s what I did.”
For a while, there wasn’t much overlap with her interest in birds and her role in the gaming/YouTube communities. But one day, she just decided to start talking about them on her channel. To her surprise, her followers and viewers loved it. And her relationship with the online bird community flourished.
She’s given vlog tours of her backyard pigeon loft and talks about the importance of adopting birds rather than buying them from pet stores. She also encourages people to go out and do bird walks if they don’t think they can keep them as pets. Her most viewed video is a conversation about birds with fellow YouTuber and avian appreciator, JonTron. And her fans, who she fondly refers to as tweethearts, send her fan art depicting her with cartoonish peeps.
And Conrad loves getting people interested in birds. “I’ve had people tweet at me, and be like, ‘I was afraid of birds until you talked about them!’” she says. “They just don’t have any way of associating with them, until someone shows them.”
She believes that sharing her love for birds also sparks interest in the environment, and that using her platform on one corner of the internet is important. “You can either use the reach you have for good, or you can use it for selfish reasons, and I try to be good to people, because I can … The only way that we’re going to keep people caring about the environment is people like YouTubers and people who have large audiences at this moment to just keep advocating for conservation.”
In addition to this eco-centric perspective, she sees how birds can help inclusivity for humans. When she was younger, her mom was handicapped, and she found that going birdwatching was one of the few handy accessible ways to enjoy nature together.
Conrad also says birdwatching is really accessible for people with anxiety because it encourages them to go out and do things. “It really does help to be able to go out and connect with nature like that, even if it’s a domestic bird or in your backyard,” she says. “Because eventually, they might be able to go someplace, and go to the ocean and see some cool seabirds or go to the forest to birdwatch.”
So Conrad continues to interact with the online bird community, trying to help people and nurture interest in nature. And while these people aren’t your traditional birdwatchers – they don’t call themselves birders nor do they add sightings to a life list – they definitely care about birds.
“It’s not about ‘gotta catch ‘em all,’” Conrad says. “It’s not like Pokémon birdwatching. It’s more about just appreciating them for their quirks, their weirdness, their antics, their funny beauty.”
By Elise ChenAugust 17, 2016
Your gift goes farther, now through #GivingTuesday
Thanks to a generous matching gift, your gift will be matched now through #GivingTuesday, November 28th. Please make a gift now to protect birds and habitat throughout the Golden State.