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Interview with Danny Buccelli

Name: Danny Buccelli

Pronouns: He/Him/His

Location: Tampa, Florida

Occupation: Team Leader at Target and Occasional Bird Keeper for ZooTampa at Lowry Park

Tell us a bit about yourself:

I was born in New Jersey, I am a 32, almost 33-year-old, living in Tampa, Florida. I have always loved birds my entire life, being a zookeeper was my identity. Over the years I realized it was affecting my mental health, so I moved away from that career although I do go back occasionally to help. I started birding to fill the void that I felt after I left the zoo.

Why were you interested in participating in the Birder Brain Project?

I have had a lot of mental health issues throughout my life. What drew me to the project was that birding saved me during the time after I left the zoo.

Could you share with us more about your mental health?

In middle school, I suffered a lot, like many kids do through middle school. I was being made fun of and I felt isolated. I had suicidal thoughts, general and separation anxiety. I was an only child and though my parents were great at checking in on me and being there for me I had a constant fear of losing that. I was afraid to be alone and I still feel that way sometimes.

My anxiety became more prevalent during and after college. The negatives and ‘what ifs’ always had a chokehold on me. I always thought of the worse case scenarios, but I hid it well most of the time. I was praised for my helpfulness, my care, and my passions but deep down I was a giant ball of anxiety. It impacted my relationships and my career.

When I was a full-time bird keeper at the zoo the expectations for myself were top tier. I was finally the person I always wanted to be. I was well liked; I had a cool job! My former classmates would always tell me, ‘You must love your job! You followed your passion!’ My job became my identity and that’s when anxiety struck me again. It took me a long time to learn I was not my job. I am Danny first, I have emotions, a personality, and a future. The job didn’t define who I was, I defined the job. The job itself was amazing and rewarding, I was raising awareness and contributing to conservation, but it took a toll on my mental health. I elected to leave my passion behind me to become healthier and to learn who I truly was.

When did you become interested in birds or birding?

I grew up loving dinosaurs and I think that’s because my parents took me to see Jurassic Park when I was a child. That really started my love of birds, I really liked reptiles first. I wanted to be a reptile keeper because I liked snakes and crocodiles which led me to do the internship at the zoo.

I like weird birds, like secretary birds, hornbills, cranes, and storks. They reminded me of dinosaurs, and it drew me to birds and grew my love of birds.

I started birding while I was still employed full-time at the zoo in 2018. I got more serious when my career was ending. It helped ease the pain a little. I had worked as a bird keeper for 7.5 years and my relationships with the birds flourished. I was able to train birds to do natural behaviors, watch them play with enrichment, and inspire others to care about the world around them. Being around birds 40 hours a week made me love them on a different level. One thing I’ve always tried to do each day is instill my love for birds on others. That’s the part that really mattered to me. There is so much to love about birds, and I truly feel that’s what impacted me most.

Tell us about a couple of the birds you worked with.

I have two birds that truly impacted my life. At the zoo I met a Cuban Amazon Parrot named Cubie. Cubie and I had a terrible relationship along with everyone else who interacted with him. He put a hole in my internship shirt without me knowing, he would fly at hour heads, scream etc. One day I was asked, ‘Why don’t you train him?’. That thought never crossed my mind. Why would I take the time to train a bird that wants nothing to do with me? That was exactly the problem, he wanted attention. Cubie taught me so much as a person and a keeper. He taught me patience and challenged me to be a better trainer. He was taught how to voluntarily go onto a scale to weigh himself to improve his welfare, to do flights from one area to another, and kenneling behavior for when he needed to go to the vet or brought inside during inclement weather. The most important thing he was taught me was trust. We had a beautiful relationship that proceeded to be passed down to other keepers. I love that bird!

Crescent, a Great Indian Hornbill is another bird that left an impact on me. She is a very intimidating, large beaked bird that had spunk. When I first started working at the zoo, she was a bird that commanded respect. As I worked closer with her, the bond between us became more of a relationship. She would allow me to come into her habitat and would offer me fruit in her beak or extend her neck to be scratched. I remember I was raking her habitat and she hopped onto the ground and asserted herself into a pile of leaves and looked up at me with the most darling face as if she thought the pile was a present for her. I got down on her level and she just let me sit next to her for a while. She started to pick through the leaves and let me scratch her neck. Working with Hornbills is truly a blessing.

How has birding helped you in processing or healing your mental health?

When I’m birding, I take hours and I think that boils down to two things, one, my love for birds and two, trying to escape reality. Even when it’s scorching hot, I will still go out. I like to escape; I don’t want the time to end. It helps get the thoughts out of my head. Everyone wonders how I stay out so long when I’m birding, it’s because that’s where I’m most happy and most at peace.

When I left the zoo, I was a wreck. I lost my purpose and identity. I needed something to fill the niche of being around birds. That’s how birding really saved me and my mental health. The only time my mind is completely shut off and without any external forces impacting me is when I’m birding. It’s sweet isolation and I feel a connection that I always yearned for in nature. It has impacted my moods greatly. I have not a care in the world when I’m watching birds. The impact birding has brought me is unthinkable, I am so grateful to share my passion with others but more importantly, with myself. It’s such an emotional experience when I see a new life bird or watch a behavior I haven’t seen before. Every moment is cherished and that’s what makes it so worthwhile for me.

I am my best self when I am birding. I am calm, engaged, and most importantly, happy. It’s improved my friendships and has helped reduce my anxiety. It also challenges me to redirect my thoughts in a more meaningful avenue. It’s also forced me to go outside and explore when the thought of getting out of my comfort zone terrified me. I had to trust myself to go and experience new things and it really opened my perspective, my mind and shaped me for the better.

Do you think there are barriers stopping people from finding birding as an accessible tool for improving their mental health?

I think people may not know where to start or where to go to bird, are barriers. Having birders who gatekeep is another issue. I know I’ve been a victim of that when people don’t want to share locations of birds they post online or just not responding to general comments. I think if those birders were more welcoming it would help others who are just starting out. It can be very discouraging.

A lot of people also miss out on opportunities due to age or physical abilities. Many places are difficult or can get flooded during wet season making it harder to access.

What is your favorite way to bird or go birding?

I have gotten skilled at sunset birding. It’s tricky because the light is not great at times, but there are less crowds. The birds do more natural behaviors like foraging when they feel safe which I love to watch. There’s a park that’s nearby my work that I will go to when the sun is just right, and the tides are out. I’ll see Plovers, Marbled Godwits, Reddish Egrets and sometimes Oystercatchers. It’s great having that habitat near my work. I like the peacefulness of sunset birding. All the birders seem to leave before it’s dark when the birds are getting active. I always thought you had to get up early to bird but at sunset you often see birds you

won’t see in the morning. One time I remember walking up the beach and seeing a Reddish Egret. I was watching it dancing around, fishing and those are experiences you could miss if you wait until morning.

Nothing beats waking up super early and traveling cross county to see a multitude of more rare birds that I haven’t seen before.

Do you believe there is something specific birds have to teach us?

Birds have taught me patience. It has helped me be able to take a step back, be patient, and wait for something to happen. It has helped me calm down.

Does birding ever effect your mental health negatively?

I think it can when I see things I don’t like, that other people do. I’m not a big fan of playback during breeding seasons, especially during migration. I’m not a big fan of people harassing birds. I’ve seen people literally throw sticks to get a bird to fly so they can get a flight shot. I will be feeling at peace watching a bird forage and then suddenly someone throws a stick. It makes you start thinking negative thoughts when you just wanted to watch the bird and be relaxed.

How has the changing climate and the significant challenges these shifts pose to the natural world affected your experience of birding and, in turn, your mental health?

When you go to a place several times for birding and notice the changes in the environment it can put a damper on your mental health. Many places in Florida are being over built, habitat loss is prevalent. The coast lines are riddled with red tide and the influx of coastal birds being admitted to rehab is soaring. The sense of urgency due to being so helpless can cause anxiety spikes. I find myself asking, ‘Does anybody care?’. It’s a weird feeling because you know people care about the environment but at what level?

Is there a birding story that instantly makes you smile?

It was a very misty day, and it was hard to see any birds. The sun was coming out and baking off the mist and fog while we walked in one of my favorite places called Bahia Beach Preserve. It’s loaded with ducks all the time. A couple of my friends were behind me looking for a specific species of duck and I just kept walking. A female Northern Harrier flushed and flew super close to me. She was less than 5 feet in front of me just gliding. I turned around and my friend had the camera out and took a photo of me. I ended up ordaining her wedding and she used that photo in her pamphlet.

Another time I was at the same spot on my own in a different season and another female Northern Harrier (possibly the same one) came flying straight towards me on the path. I grabbed my camera, but I missed the shot. It was unbelievable to see her that close because I usually see them at a distance, hovering.

What birdsong immediately lifts you up and why?

*Side note! When I asked this question Danny thought I meant a song about birds and hilariousness ensued. We finally figured out that we were both talking about something different. He first answered ‘You know, to be honest, I don’t really listen to that many bird songs. I listen to a lot of death metal’. I then went on to explain the joy of hearing and learning birdsongs… that’s when it dawned on Danny what I had meant with that question.

My favorite birdsong is the Prothonotary Warbler. You hear them but don’t know where they are and then you see a flash of yellow and they are in front of you singing.

What advice would you give to someone just starting to use birding for their mental health?

Go slow. It can be very overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Take your time, bird for fun and don’t be afraid to ask questions. I guarantee you can find peace in nature and watching birds. If it brings you joy, talk about it.

If you could give a message to mental health care providers about birding and why they should recommend it to their clients, what would it be?

It’s a way to encourage people to get out of their houses. It’s peaceful. It’s a healthy hobby that helps keep people active. It helps with negative thoughts and helping you think outside the box.

My former therapist did ask me to continue to find solace in birding. She noticed a change in my behavior each session. I highly recommend anyone to spend at least 15 minutes of solitude watching birds. Shut off your brain, concentrate on the world around you.

If you could convey one message to the birds, what would that be?

Thank you. They don’t know the impact that they have had on me. Throughout my life whether it be zoo birds or the wild birds I see every day when I look back at photos it creates such positive memories for me. I know that’s where I’m happiest and continue to be happy because of the joy they bring me. The everyday things that they do are for survival and birding is part of survival for me. They just carry on with their daily goings on without caring what anyone thinks around them, that is the dream.

When I’m birding I am truly free, like the birds around me.

*Danny leads walks around the Tampa Bay area, to find out how to join walks when they come up give him a follow on Instagram. @xdannyx130

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