Words Sarah Callard
Photographs Linda Brownlee
For Mya-Rose Craig, a tweet is so much more than a message on social media. The young environmentalist and birdwatcher is on a mission to make nature accessible to those least likely to experience it and to see half the species of birds in the world by the time she’s 18. No wonder they call her Birdgirl…
‘I love it when the dinosaur in a bird just pops out and you can see it really clearly,’ enthuses Mya-Rose Craig, the 17- year-old bird watcher, naturalist, environmentalist and diversity campaigner. Craig has already received a clutch of awards for her birding blog, called simply Birdgirl, and her environmental campaigning efforts, which have led to her speaking at various events and conferences including Chris Packham’s People’s Walk for Wildlife which took place in London in 2018.
While many of her peer group are planning a weekend of catching up on the latest Netflix series and hanging out with friends, Craig is much more likely to be heading down to Chew Valley Ringing Station (CVRS) in north Somerset , to help rig up mist nets for bird ringing – a practice used to monitor the survival, productivity and movement of birds and provide data for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).
‘I was nine when I started going down to the station. I didn’t get involved out of scientific reasons; I just wanted to have closer contact with the birds,’ she says.
‘You learn how their joints and wings work so you can move them around without hurting them – that’s why the training is so important’
Craig was awarded her C permit, a licence that allows someone to bird ring, when she was 16, but she has been taking an active role in their conservation from a much younger age: ‘I’ve been taken out to look at birds since I was a baby, so it’s always been a really important part of my life,’ she says.
Craig’s parents are both keen birders – her dad, Chris, still has his collection of notebooks where he logged his sightings before the advent of digital birding – and birding has been something they’ve done together for as long as Craig can remember.
‘It is still something I do with my family and that’s one of the reasons I enjoy it.’ Bird ringing relies on there being lots of ringers in different locations who catch the birds and report on the data. In order to be awarded a C permit you need to demonstrate that you are able to handle the birds without damaging them. The training is a lengthy and involved process taking at least a year, depending on how much time the person can commit to it.
‘You learn how their joints and wings work so you can move them around without hurting them – that’s why the training is so important. If you’re not willing to take the time to learn the skills to keep the birds safe then you really shouldn’t be doing it,’ she says.
Once a bird is caught the ringer puts a little numbered metal band around its leg. ‘Lots of the birds we ring, like dunnocks, don’t travel far, but that’s useful because you can see how old they are. Ringing is used for documenting age, survival numbers, movement and all sorts of things.’
The little village where Craig lives is chocolate-box pretty and the perfect location for bird and nature enthusiasts. The Somerset levels stretch out from this lush, green landscape and provide a fantastic environment for wildlife. Lakes, reed beds and wet woodland attract huge populations of waders, starlings and rare breeds such as bitterns.
Craig’s passion for birds and wildlife and the impact of climate change on their habitats and behaviour has led to her becoming more involved with environmental campaigning. She took part in the direct action organised by the Extinction Rebellion group in London earlier this year and then set about establishing a local group to raise awareness of climate change and, specifically, to campaign against the expansion of Bristol airport. However, birding has always been her primary passion.
She has already seen an incredible number of birds in their natural habitats by anyone’s standards, let alone someone so young, and has set herself the challenge of clocking up 5,400 birds – half of the world’s total number of bird species – by the time she’s 18. So what is so fascinating about them, and what drives her to keep doing it?
‘Seeing birds in their natural habitat is a real adventure. I have a vivid memory from when I was very young of going to the Lake District to see golden eagles. It was quite a long walk, especially with little legs, but it was an amazing experience.’
She is also not averse to the odd ‘twitch’ – for the uninitiated this is when word gets out among the birding community that a rare bird has been spotted and the ‘twitchers’ drop everything and head to that location in the hope of spotting it.
‘It can be really good fun,’ she says. ‘About a month ago we went to Yorkshire to see a black-headed bunting. It was five hours there and five hours back and tipping down with rain, but it was worth it to see this little bird huddled up in a hedge.’
Craig talks a lot about the ‘little brown birds’ and you get the distinct impression that, while the glamour of exotic birds like the southern cassowary – a six-foot-long bird with dagger-like claws and a reputation for aggression, found in Australia (and one of Craig’s favourites) – is exciting, she is just as impressed by the delicate beauty of the common species found in the hedges and reed beds of her local environment.
‘I just think birds are amazing – there is always an interesting feature that I like about them, for example, I really like crows because of how incredibly intelligent they are.’
This desire to see birds in their natural environment has led Craig and her family to travel the world in pursuit of more exotic species. One country that has a particular draw for her is Bangladesh, which is home to her mother’s family, and a country that is already feeling the effects of climate change in the form of extreme weather.
When she was 14, Craig became involved in a campaign run by the Wildlife and Wetland Trust at Slimbridge, to raise awareness about the spoon-billed sandpiper, a critically endangered bird that summers in Russia and winters in Bangladesh, where it was being targeted by bird trappers.
While she was in Bangladesh Craig saw first-hand the benefits of conservation groups reaching out to the local community: ‘I met a guy who had been given support from a conservation organisation so he could stop hunting and start up a shop,’ she says, before adding that unfortunately this isn’t always the case. ‘All too often conservation groups go into an area to protect animals but with minimal interaction with the people who live there and that’s just not going to work.’
‘It’s a holistic thing: if you want to help anything you’ve got to help everything: it’s very hard but very necessary.’
It’s easy to see how Craig’s passion for birds has led her to become more concerned about climate change and its impact on people, particularly those living in countries where its effects are being felt more acutely. So does she think that the West has a responsibility to try to help those communities?
‘Yes, because it wasn’t the people in those countries that caused the climate change, it was us, and we’ve known about it for a long time and done nothing about it,’ she says, adding, ‘When climate refugees become more of an issue people will start taking it more seriously.’
This crossover between birding, climate change and its impact on people is where her passion really lies, alongside a desire to increase the Visible Minority Ethnic (VME) community’s engagement with nature and the environment.
In 2015, with the help of her equally passionate parents, Craig set up Black2Nature, which hosts nature camps for VME kids from nearby inner city Bristol, as well as conferences and other events to improve their access to and engagement with nature.
‘Some of these kids have never been to the countryside and never even seen a sheep or cow so it’s a completely new experience for them. They also benefit from spending time away from home which gives them a bit more independence, and it helps them to have an interest in nature.’
She is also an advocate for promoting the benefits that exposure to the natural environment can have on people suffering with mental health problems: ‘There are higher levels of mental illness among the VME community and there is lots of evidence that going out into nature and the environment has been found to really help with mental health,’ she adds.
Craig also makes the obvious point that people are far less likely to care about climate change if they think that it isn’t relevant to them. ‘People can’t be expected to care about saving something that they just don’t know.’
Her work in this area led to her involvement in Chris Packham’s People’s Walk for Wildlife, in September 2018, when she was invited to be the minister for diversity, which involved speaking to a crowd of 10,000 people about the work she’s doing. Even Craig says she felt a bit daunted by addressing a crowd of that size.
So what’s next for this impassioned teenager? ‘I want to take a gap year to travel and get a more international perspective. I’ve recently become interested in indigenous peoples’ rights and I’ve started working with Survival International. I’d love to do some more work with them.’
For the immediate future, however, she’s juggling school work with preparations for the next Black2Nature conference – Race Equality in Nature: The Next Gen 13-30 – which takes place in October. You will also find her, like most teens, in her natural habitat of social media, tweeting loudly about everything from climate change to diversity and living up to her growing reputation as someone who is set to be a real force for change in uncertain times.