Birding on Capitol Hill: An Audubon expert gathers a bipartisan flock – The Christian Science Monitor


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Tykee James calls himself a “bird lobbyist.” And his work as the National Audubon Society’s government affairs coordinator finds him striding the halls of Congress as well as strolling, binoculars in hand, on the paths of the Capitol Hill grounds.
Mr. James conducts a monthly “Birding on the Hill” walk for legislators and their staffs. His aids in the effort? Robins, starlings, yellow-rumped warblers, and Cooper’s hawks.
An Audubon Society “bird lobbyist” levels partisan politics with Capitol Hill bird-watching walks. He brings legislators and staff together over a shared, calming activity.
The relaxed tenor of the gatherings is a “very rare thing” on the Hill, says Shane Trimmer, a legislative aide. He adds that since COVID-19, this might be the only real bipartisan, in-person gathering he’s aware of.
“Coming to these bird walks, ” says Jo Stiles, a Democratic legislative aide, “has shown that it is a great way to put politics aside.” She stresses her participation is personal, not a part of her job.
“I’m trying to make a birding community for [congressional] staff,” says Mr. James. “Birds are a way to just bring us to a shared purpose, a shared history, a shared humanity so that some of these more difficult conversations … can happen with that shared ground … and the joy of birds.”
Some people look at the Capitol dome and see an icon of democracy; others see an architectural wonder. But on this unusually warm December day, Tykee James looks up at the Statue of Freedom crowning the dome and sees something different – a hawk.
“It’s my first time ever seeing a bird up there,” says the National Audubon Society “bird lobbyist” and new president of the local D.C. Audubon Society, looking through his binoculars from beside the Capitol Reflecting Pool. The hawk, perched at the base of the statue positioned in 1863 during the Civil War, peeks out from beneath the inscription “E pluribus unum.”  
In a sense, Mr. James is on a mission to see that national motto, Latin for “out of many, one,” fully realized. His aids in this effort are often robins, starlings, sparrows, and yellow-rumped warblers. He conducts a monthly “Birding on the Hill” walk for legislators and their staff members, a program he’s led since 2019.
An Audubon Society “bird lobbyist” levels partisan politics with Capitol Hill bird-watching walks. He brings legislators and staff together over a shared, calming activity.
“I’m trying to make a birding community for [congressional] staff,” he says. “Birds are a way to just bring us to a shared purpose, a shared history, a shared humanity so that some of these more difficult conversations … can happen with that shared ground – humanity, history, and the joy of birds.”
Early on his December walk, Mr. James pauses to point out a Cooper’s hawk in flight.
“I never thought I’d see a Cooper in downtown D.C.,” one Hill staffer on her first walk says, discovering the surprisingly fruitful experience of urban birding.
So far, about three dozen members of Congress have been on a Tykee James-led walk. A typical outing has between two and 12 Hill staffers or legislators, Democrats and Republicans. The hourlong early-morning expeditions provide an opportunity to learn basic birding techniques, identify bird species, and just talk outside the halls of Congress, away from intense policy discussions.
The relaxed tenor of the gatherings is a “very rare thing” on the Hill, says Shane Trimmer, a legislative director who has worked for Reps. Alan Lowenthal and Jared Huffman, both California Democrats. He adds that since COVID-19, this might be the only real bipartisan, in-person gathering he’s aware of.
Jo Stiles, the legislative director for Rep. Joseph Morelle, a New York Democrat, is one of the regulars. She has been on nearly a dozen walks led by Mr. James, but this December walk is her first since the pandemic started.
“Coming to these bird walks and the opportunity that [Mr. James] has created has shown that it is a great way to put politics aside,” says Ms. Stiles, who has worked on the Hill for six years and notes that birding is a personal – not official – activity. On a January 2020 walk with Mr. James, she spotted 22 bird species, but she says the outings also have led to connections with other Hill staff and on legislation.
He is “clearly combining this passion for birding and bringing people together with a clear talent for educating,” Ms. Stiles says. “That just makes it a very positive experience.”
For Mr. James, bringing people together through birds and linking them to a sense of place is nothing new. He’s been doing it since high school when he worked as an environmental docent at a park near his home in Pennsylvania.   
Back then, birding was a way of connecting with his neighbors, and getting them to the park where he worked, he says. The difference now is that the people he brings together work in Congress, and the place he forms these links is around Capitol Hill.    
“He’s out there doing the thing that he’d probably be doing on his off time anyway,” says Mr. Trimmer, of the excitement that the Audubon’s government affairs coordinator brings to the walks. “We’re experiencing him seeing birds that he’s excited to see. … You’re kind of with him on this journey.”
In October, Representative Lowenthal, and the majority of his Washington staff, went on a walk with Mr. James. The congressman, a co-sponsor of the Migratory Bird Protection Act, got hands-on education about some of the birds he’s legislating to protect. Despite the occasional connection of policy and birds, Mr. Trimmer says of the walks with Mr. James, “They’re not there to have an ask.” 
“It provides an opportunity for spontaneous situations,” says Mr. James. “I’ve had one [Republican] staffer say to [a Democratic staffer], ‘Hey, nice to meet you. I don’t think your boss is on my boss’s bill, and I think you would really like it.”
Legislation aside, birds also can break the barriers of title, says Mr. James, recalling a conversation he had about purple martins with Indiana Republican Sen. Mike Braun: “To have that shared human, shared empathy, shared purpose, it was really fun.” 
But the bridge-building, new president of the D.C. Audubon Society didn’t always imagine birds as part of his professional life.
In college, Mr. James wanted to be a math teacher. An unexpected call from a state representative looking for a scheduler opened the door to the world of public policy. His background as an environmental educator led him to a position advising the representative on environmental policy instead of being a scheduler, and birds were a key tool in that work.
“Every person I’ve met has a story about a bird,” says Mr. James, interviewed on a Botanic Garden bench near the Capitol. “Some of their stories are, ‘I used to see this bird a lot; now I don’t anymore.’” Connecting those stories to climate change or environmental degradation was a part of that job as an environmental policy adviser, and Mr. James brought those skills to Audubon a few years ago.
Mr. James is “the perfect educator,” Mr. Trimmer says. “Like any good teacher [he’s] able to have a lot of fun with [the walks] and his excitement is really contagious.”    
As the last walk of 2021 winds down, Mr. James stops to point out what he calls the most abundant bird in Washington. The group strains through binoculars, looking for the species, and he drops a trademark pun. “The construction crane,” he says, pointing out one of many across a capital city constantly under renovation.
The same year that Mr. James started “Birding on the Hill,” the Audubon Society published “Survival by Degrees,” a study that showed nearly two-thirds (64%) of the 600-plus North American bird species are at risk of extinction from climate change.  
“To get people to that data,” says Mr. James, “you can’t lead with the data. You got to start with the bird.” 
For him, birding is an activity that “slows things down” and requires one to be
“humble-minded” – that, and “having a beginner mind opens the way to problem-
solving,” he says. Relationship-building also, he says, is critical to addressing climate challenges.
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“I’m not the only one who can be doing this,” says Mr. James, “A lot of people can and should be doing this on any level, doing it in their community with their environmental advisory council.”
As for the credit of educating and bringing people together in Washington, Mr. James defers to his aides. “The birds do all the work,” he says, modestly. “The birds do all the heavy lifting.” 
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A selection of the most viewed stories this week on the Monitor’s website.
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Hear about special editorial projects, new product information, and upcoming events.
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