Birdchick in Alaska: Meet Sharon Stiteler

Birdchick in Alaska: Meet Sharon Stiteler

There are a lot of voices out there in the world of birding podcasts, blogs, vlogs and other media, but few so unique as our guest interviewee today, Sharon Stiteler, AKA Birdchick.

Mix three parts detailed information, matter-of-factness, and direct opinion with one much larger part of disarming humour and insight tinged with healthy sarcasm, and you have yourself a perfect birder companion already beloved by many since she began giving out bird facts and advice all those years ago in the late 1990s.

Lawrence's Goldfinch. Courtesy of Birdchick

Mix three parts detailed information, matter-of-factness, and direct opinion with one much larger part of disarming humour and insight tinged with healthy sarcasm, and you have yourself a perfect birder companion already beloved by many since she began giving out bird facts and advice all those years ago in the late 1990s.

Up North

With that ‘e’ after the second ‘t’, Stiteler is pronounced like bite, white, or the Old-World passerine, twite; and definitely not like tit, spit, or a certain dead dictator known for his small moustache and wholesale ethnic cleansing. In late September 2022, Stiteler meets me over the ether from her current base in Denali National Park, Alaska, her at one end of the day with her morning in full swing and me at the other, evening darkening my skies.

Prior to this move to the northwest extremity of the US, Stiteler was living and working in Minnesota as a park ranger for a good number of years; so how did she come to be in Alaska?

Bobolink. Courtesy of Birdchick

“In the Park Service, you can sign up for details to try out different jobs and different parks. And I just thought, you know what, there's been a pandemic, I got a divorce; I'm going to do something weird. And I really loved it up here. So, when the permanent job came up, I applied for it and got it.”

Her role as a public affairs officer entails essentially telling everyone what’s going on at the park.

“If there's any news, I'm the one that releases it. If somebody gets mauled by a bear, I do the press release. If there's a landslide, I do the press release. That's the big part of my job, but I also do the staff newsletter, as well as newsletters out into the community, letting them know what's going on. I also review any kind of communication that's going to go out just to make sure nobody sounds like a jerk.”

Courtesy of Birdchick

A blog is born

This plain-spoken manner is Stiteler’s trademark, and has earned her a dedicated following across social and traditional media. Her moniker that most people are more familiar with is Birdchick, a name she chose after a remark from a tattooist who recognised her from the local news.

“Way back in 2004, I was trying to get published as a writer specifically about birding, but it wasn't happening, and my husband at the time said, you know, you should do this thing called blogging, and I'll show you how to set it up. I was already doing TV segments in Minnesota as a birding expert, and when you're a woman and you talk about birds, they call you bird lady.

But there were other bird ladies, and I was getting confused with them. One day when I was getting a tattoo, this guy said, “Hey, you're that bird chick I've seen on TV” And I was like: well, there you go. That's my new handle. That's the name of my blog, and it just kind of exploded from there.”

American Avocet. Courtesy of Birdchick

Also at the time, Stiteler was running a very successful bird feed store, handing out all manner of avian advice to her customers, which is what led to the TV stints.

“Back then, there really was no birding information on the internet, so it was kind of a sweet spot, people knew to come to me to find out what they needed to know. Somebody on the local news reached out and said ‘Hey, could you come on and talk about bird feeding?’ Being a theatre major, I was a natural at it, and they asked me a second time.

But when they put up the phone number for people to ask more questions, they put up my personal number and not my work number. I pointed it out at the end of the segment, and they were very apologetic, and said ‘What can we do to make this up to you?’ Well… You can have me on more often! And they said, how about we have you on every other Monday?

Birdchick - Sharon Stiteler

Not long after, Minnesota had an insane great grey owl irruption, thousands suddenly came into the state.

It is the only time in my life taking people out I've ever been able to guarantee an owl – I was regularly able to show somebody 30 to 40 individual great grey owls.

NBC Nightly News came to Minnesota to cover it, so there I was on NBC Nightly News. That's when I really started getting a lot more TV and radio, and my blog site really took off.”

Giant Woodpeckers

This knowledge of birds has been gleaned over the years ever since Stiteler laid eyes on a Peterson’s Field Guide at the age of seven.

Woodpecker. Courtesy of Birdchick

“I saw this thing and I snapped. I was like, this is cool. I had a basic idea of what a cardinal was, what a sparrow was, what a woodpecker was; but this book talked about woodpeckers that were crow-sized, the pileated woodpecker, and I thought, there's a woodpecker that big?! I want to see that. And then once you start noticing birds, you start noticing all the different ones in your backyard. Then my parents thought, OK, this is kind of educational – let's get her more books! So, it all grew from there, but I never anticipated it being a career.

Barn Swallow. Courtesy of Birdchick

It just struck my imagination that there were gigantic woodpeckers out there. No one in my family was into birds, but they encouraged it. I eventually went to college as a theatre major, and in my first couple of years after college, I worked as an actor, which left me with odd amounts of free time, so I volunteered with bird banding programmes, then that led to being taught how to do point counts.

Picking up these skills puts you in a really niche area, and it turns out a lot of companies need this. I’d get calls from energy companies saying, ‘Hey, um, we have to do these surveys, would you be able to do that?’ So, I kind of fell into it through volunteer work and then eventually it became actual work. And next thing you know, I'm in a plane flying over the Mississippi River for the park service counting thousands of ducks and swans!”

Common Cranes. Courtesy of Birdchick

Birding with a difference

Stiteler’s attempts at getting published as a birder soon ceased to be fruitless, too – after sending out unsolicited articles, she did have some published in a few magazines, and recalls getting some lovely feedback from Birdwatcher’s Digest who sent her a note explaining that whilst what she had written didn’t fit their vibe at the time, they wanted her to know that they liked her style and by all means send something else, so she felt vindicated: she knew she had a voice, just not yet where it fitted in.

Thus, the blog became her remedy, as well as writing the content for a newsletter for the bird food store.

She started visiting bird fairs, meeting a lot of like-minded people, getting to know those in the industry. When the Minnesota park ranger job came along, Stiteler put her talents to developing a slew of birding programmes, such as kayaking along the Mississippi, leading the Big Sit events and so on. Birding in all manner of aspects became her life.

Blue-winged Teal. Courtesy of Birdchick

Say that to your average non-birder and you’d maybe see a stifled yawn and the eyes would glaze over, but with Stiteler, birding has a happy face, one that smiles at the wonder of it all.

Her approach to everything is to have fun with it if you can, and nothing is done without humour. It’s that open, straight-talking attitude that has become her signature style.

For many of us, birding used to equate to grey, wet, bleak and silent afternoons, usually spent surrounded by older men of a similar disposition. I try to picture going birding in England, where I’m from, with someone like Stiteler, and it feels thrilling and a little bit wrong, like having a dram of whiskey in a hot drink.

I ask her if she ever felt her approach was taken less seriously by any stoics in the birding community.

Pied Kingfisher. Courtesy of Birdchick

“In the US, women do generally outnumber the men when it comes to birding, but in the UK, and if any of them are reading this, I know not all of you are like this, but they are a bit more serious, ‘twitchy’. Whereas in the United States, it's more of a holistic experience. When I started, I didn't feel like I got flak for being a woman, but I felt like I got flak for my age. If I would mention to a man about a bird that I saw, he'd be like, ‘Oh, that would be interesting...’ And I’m like, [gasps] you don’t believe that I just saw a bird! That's amazing!

I also feel like people think that I got things easier in the world based on my looks; but I just don't have time for that, so I ignore it. Birding has changed so much in the last twenty years, though, and especially in the last three years with the pandemic, at a time when there are all these tools available that you don’t have to interact with the ‘old guard’ of birding.

White-throated Kingfisher. Courtesy of Birdchick

New groups have started up full of people who have never interacted with, quote unquote, experts and things like that. And I think that's lovely – that's the dream that we always wanted, we wanted more birders. They're not doing it in the ‘traditional’ way, but who cares? They're caring about birds. And they'll be there when birds are in trouble.”

But the old guard can still persist; Stiteler has her ways when that happens too. One of her passions is digiscoping, where you use a camera and a spotting scope to take bird photography, but she uses her smartphone instead.

This has drawn some furrow-browed ire in the past, and she’s had her fair share of encounters with people, often men, telling her how she’s doing it wrong.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Courtesy of Birdchick

“The line that I give now is, ‘I love a man telling me how to use equipment I've had for the last 10 years, Thank you!’ I’ve written articles for magazines about smartphone digiscoping, and one year there was a bird fair where they were doing a special digiscoping supplement; the editor said ‘could you send us some digital scoped images for us to use as examples?’ I was doing both SLR and smartphone at the time, and I asked which one he wanted. He said don't bother with smartphone ones, they’re not going to be nice enough. And I said … OK … so I submitted ten images, five from a smartphone and five SLR. The smartphone shot of a willow warbler ended up being on the cover of the supplement”. Stiteler beams wide at the memory.

Aracari. Courtesy of Birdchick


Stiteler also writes books about birds, with a recent one providing the source for a viral meme, sparked from a line she left in as a joke but appears to have been either missed during editing or retained on purpose in the final edition.

North American Bird Watching for Beginners is a bird-a-page field guide with ID notes, facts and birdwatching hints on 150 species. Turn to the section on waders and shorebirds, and you’ll learn that the range of a Canada goose is “Everywhere.

They could be inside your house right now”. Her next book will be about birds in folklore across many cultures, called The Complete Language of Birds, due for publication in Spring 2023.

Barnacle Goose. Courtesy of Birdchick

“It’s been a fun book for me to research, about 300 species and not just North American birds, birds from all over, and what their symbolic meaning is, a little bit of folklore and some facts. It's not a hardcore accurate book, but it's just some of the more fun mythology and folklore parts, it's fascinating to get a chance to talk to some Native Americans about it. It's interesting to see how some species have a similarity even though cultures evolved in completely different continents.

There are some bizarre things people think about pelicans! Years ago, I was on a radio show and someone was bragging to me that his family's coat of arms had a pelican, and the motto was, ‘we die for our own’, and he proudly told me how these noble pelicans pierced their own breasts and drew blood. And I was like, ‘um, nope, that can't happen, pelicans don't do that: their beak isn't strong enough. They do vomit on you, though!’ He was really crestfallen”.

Chaffinch. Courtesy of Birdchick

What the future holds

I mention a short story that came out late 2021 from author Karen Russell, called The Ghost Birds, whose central theme revolves around a father taking his daughter ghost birdwatching: humanity has managed to finally kill off all extant species, and there are people who claim they can still see their spectral signatures. It’s a beautifully written and jarringly bleak tale, and one that Stiteler feels is too close to home.

Snowy Egret. Courtesy of Birdchick

“I do feel like there are common species that you and I grew up with that will go extinct in our lifetime. I'm especially concerned about the insect issue. My last year in Minnesota, there was a terrible drought and the insect population was non-existent. I was out in August, and I should not have been able to sit outside in August without bug spray, but I was.

Just look at your car, you don't have bugs on your car as much anymore. I happened to be in the state when the Texas Deep Freeze happened, and that was detrimental to a lot of birds, all the fruit and insects died.

Shrike. Courtesy of Birdchick

The birds coming back from migration didn't have those insects that they needed as soon as they’d crossed the Gulf to then travel further north. Bluebirds in particular took a real hard hit. Ones that came to Minnesota for breeding, there weren't enough insects to raise chicks so there was a lot of nest failure there.

I think there's a bigger thing going on, more than any of us can comprehend because we don't study them enough, and that we are going to see a huge crash in the next five to ten years. I can see us losing something like Meadowlarks in the United States in the next 10 years.”

Creasted Caracara. Courtesy of Birdchick.

What’s the solution, I ask.

“Well, if I knew that, I would win the Nobel Prize! But really, I mean, with anything, I think we could just be reasonable. Be reasonable about pesticide use; and be reasonable about our pursuit of happiness and how it affects other people and the world around us. I think there’s a risk that we get, you know, ‘everything is terrible, I'm going to do this one thing because it brings me comfort, I don't care if it kills off a bunch of other things’, you know, ‘my little overuse of this pesticide isn't going to be a big deal’. It's like, well, yeah, it is a big deal, because a lot of us think that way; if you're thinking that, thousands of other people are too.

Barred Antshrike. Courtesy of Birdchick

We need everybody to do something simple, put more native plants in your yard that don't require pesticides, that would be a huge benefit right there. I'm really hopeful with this new generation that's coming, and maybe someone's already out there working on it, that we get some kid that wants to be an architect and figures out the way to design windows so that birds don't hit it as much, or an economical way to treat windows that are already out there that prevent bird strikes. You know, that's the kind of thing I'm hopeful for. But that's going to take years to fix and hopefully it's not too late.”

Pied Kingfisher. Courtesy of Birdchick

During the pandemic, Stiteler acknowledges she had a rough time, drinking just a bit too much, and she also had a severe bout of writer’s block, but now with the divorce out of the way and making Alaska her home, I ask if things feel more settled now that’s she’s writing again; will this be her base for a while yet?

“I’m permanent full time for as long as I want to stay here, but … I don't think Alaska is going to be the rest of my life. It's definitely a fun adventure for the next few years for sure, but the thing that's really weird about Alaska, and this is how I know it's not the rest of my life, is it's strangely quiet. Like, in August, all the birds stopped singing, and most of them left. We don't even have katydids or cicadas or crickets. And I don't know if I can live with silence like that for many months…!

Palestine Sunbird. Courtesy of Birdchick

I'm just taking the year to see what Birdchick is, post-pandemic and in Alaska, and I’m just really enjoying writing. I'd love to perform again, if that happens. But I'm also just kind of enjoying right now. That's all we can do.”

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