Steve Howell, whom many young birders have met or will meet through Young Birder Conferences, has authored and co-authored numerous books including A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America , Hummingbirds of North America: the Photographic Guide, and the Peterson Reference Guide to Gulls of the Americas. Howell’s writing also appears frequently in the ABA’s magazine Birding. He has birded extensively in Mexico and resides in California, where he pursues his love for seabirds. I know you will enjoy his thorough and witty responses. The interview will be released in parts over the next few days.
When and how did your interest in birds develop?
“When” was in my childhood, sometime before the age of 9 (when I have my first memories of specific birds and of taking notes). And because “when” is a vague memory, I’m not sure exactly “how” my interest started. There wasn’t some catalyzing moment, such as seeing a brightly colored bird, or a spectacular aerial chase involving a Peregrine, or huge flocks of wintering waterfowl; at least, not that I remember. Both of my parents were interested in birds, and they would point out this or that – a dipper feeding under a bridge, a Green Woodpecker calling from a woodland – whenever we were in the countryside. And we had bird feeders in the garden, with the usual suite of garden birds – “the” Robin, “the” Blackbird, and so on.
We had a few bird books at home, which had colored pictures of the common British birds and put names to them and told a little about them. I memorized the books cover-to-cover and was always keen to see new birds and to learn more. My parents’ holidays usually involved traveling to some quiet part of Britain, not the usual crowded seaside resorts, and I wandered around the fields and riversides happily on my own, learning the birds, other animals, trees, and whatever there was to see. I was also fortunate that we lived on the edge of a city, so that I could bicycle or even walk only a mile or so and be in farmland and at an estuary with lots of birds. In hindsight, one “nice” thing about growing up in Britain is that it’s basically a small island with limited biodiversity, so the birdlife and other wildlife were not overwhelming. The theme of manageability is, I believe, an important one for learning birds, although for me it was an unintended consequence of where I lived. For example, gulls aren’t so hard when there are only five species!
What university did you attend and what was your area of study?
I went to the University of Wales, in Cardiff, in part because of the subject and in part because there was good birding nearby. My bachelor’s degree (abbreviated to BSc and not the BS of American universities) was in Maritime Geography. Basically, geography encompasses everything – economic geography, political geography, physical geography, biological geography, and so on – and I grew up on the coast and was fascinated by the sea. Not that I’ve ever used my BSc for anything specific, but the process and experience of learning were valuable. Basically, I think that high school teaches us to conform (or it should), and university teaches us to think (ditto). What subjects we study are almost academic (pun unavoidable), at least beyond English language and Mathematics, which are basic subjects that serve us well throughout life. But why didn’t I study biology, or ornithology, if I was interested in birds? Well, I tried, but the British school system required that for any student to study biology in university, they had to pass a chemistry exam in high school. I took chemistry three different times and gave up three times. The curriculum and the way it was taught in high school were so boring and so uninspiring – and, I guarantee, of absolutely no use or relevance to studying birds (or so I thought then, and I don’t think much different now). Lesson: if you really want to do something, don’t let schooling get in the way of your education. Just do it.