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Interview with Will Valentine

Name: Will Valentine

Pronouns: He/Him

Location: Gardiner, Maine

Occupation: Professional and Financial Regulation for the State of Maine

All photos copyright: Will Valentine

Tell me about yourself:

I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, but have lived a good portion of my life in Seattle, Washington. I currently live in, and work for the State of Maine. I'm 28 years old, and have a wonderful cat named Miri.

I have a degree in political science. My goal in life is to make other people’s lives better. I host a podcast called Will’s Birdbrain where I share facts about birds. I put a lot of effort into learning about how to produce it and immediately I loved it. I want people who didn’t care about birds like me a few years ago to find that one fun fact or the one cool thing about a common bird that would get them excited and infect people with the birding bug. Every episode is about a very common North American bird like crows, pigeons or gulls. If people can learn to appreciate those, even birders, the whole world of birding gets more colorful and accepting.

Ever since I can remember I loved animals and I think a big part of that came from my grandparents. My grandmother on my mom’s side loved cats and through her I became obsessed with cats. As a kid, I didn’t care about birds at all, I thought they were boring and weird, they’re everywhere, why should I get excited about them? It wasn’t until a few years ago I realized birds are awesome and now they are such a key factor in my life. I distinctly remember I cared about two birds, owls and penguins. They were the exceptions to the rule. When I was a kid, it was cats, I was going to be the ‘cat boy’, all my clothing had to have cats on them, but I couldn’t have a cat because my dad didn’t like them.

What made you interested in participating in this project?

I was interested in the opportunity to reflect on the impact birding has made on my life. Ever since you sent the initial questions, I’ve been continuously thinking about them and the more I think about them the more I appreciate the role that birding has played for me, and I think it’s more impactful than I realize sometimes. Birding isn’t just a hobby, it’s a way to connect to people and with nature. To give myself space, to feel okay when the world does not feel okay. I wanted to share because I hope that other people find birding as rewarding as I do or find a way to gain a benefit from birding.

Can you share your Mental health diagnoses/conditions?

I’ve been going to therapy for 4 years or so and I remember before I started, I went to the doctor, they had me fill in a form and told me I had severe depression. They recommended I start with therapy. I’m prone to depressive episodes, I display symptoms of panic attacks and anxiety disorders where I shut down and I’m unable to leave my room, step outside or do daily tasks like talk to my boss. I think of myself as someone who lives with these things as part of me, but they aren’t me. I feel good, strong and at ease right now, but it doesn’t mean those parts of me have disappeared which is why I continue with my therapy.

What factors contributed to you developing your mental health conditions?

My therapist and I have talked about in sessions are my upbringing and my expectations of relationships either friendships, family or romantic based on the role models I have had. Growing up I never felt like I had a stable living environment, so I never committed myself to anybody or anything besides my two sisters. My sisters and I were close and most of my social interactions were with them, I never had much interest in making friends because it didn’t come easy, I was so introverted. It’s something I had to work on because now I enjoy sharing with people what I care about and getting others excited about it too. We were always moving houses or changing schools, I’d be lucky if I had one friend. My sisters and I were raised by my dad, and he was under a lot of stress that he took out on us, he was stern and did not feel very loving, strict and would ground or spank us. He has tried to reconcile that as I have gotten older, but these experiences have played into my feelings of self worth and what it meant to be a good person, good kid or even successful. I was hard on myself and didn’t give myself room to make mistakes. If I did make mistakes, I would retreat into myself. When I experience hardship now as an adult I have been known to hide or stay frozen and unable to make decisions. The feelings of being alone for so long, even when I wasn’t, I was still lacking deeper connections which affected my self esteem and self worth. That led me to always feeling blue and not hopeful. I was never going to be good enough.

Because I never stayed anywhere long enough to make strong interpersonal connections, as an adult, I became an anxiously attached partner. When I first discovered birding, I was in a serious albeit codependent relationship. I wouldn’t engage in birding without her. I would always check in with her before posting to social media and I wanted her to come with me every time even though she didn’t really care for it. Birding became indicative of the entire relationship so when that ended, I felt my entire universe had ended. I felt aimless and I didn’t care about anything, including birding. I slowly lost most of my interests and started secluding myself. Eventually I decided to buy a digital camera and started to remember how much I loved it. I began to realize I could do it without her and I liked to.

When did you become interested in birds and birding?

In 2018 in the spring, I was walking around Green Lake Park in Seattle. I had been there maybe a dozen times after living in Seattle for about a decade. This time I saw a crow with red on its wings. I did a double take; I was like that crow is different! I was telling everyone I found about this crow and it was a genetic mutant and I’m going to be famous for finding it! Finally, I ran into a birder, and she said, oh yeh, that’s a red-winged blackbird, they are one of the most common birds in America. I felt like my whole world just shattered. My perception of reality shifted. How could it be the most common bird and I hadn’t seen it in 20 something years? I’m the animal guy! I love animals! And I never noticed this bird. After that I went to Goodwill and got a 3-dollar bird book and these cheap plastic binoculars and decided to go find it again. I went back and there were tonnes of them but from there I felt like the whole world of possibilities were open and I was noticing birds like American Robins and House Finches that were blowing my mind! I had never noticed them or cared to pay attention to them. The Red-Winged Blackbird at Green Lake Park, that’s why I say it’s my favourite bird. I love them, they are so close to my heart. There’s a place in British Colombia where you can buy bird seed and they eat out of your hand and sit on your head. I went there once and fed the red-winged blackbirds, that’s where I got my inspiration for my podcast coverart.

How has birding helped you in processing and healing?

I misunderstood how to build meaningful relationships or connections. I didn’t know how to be in a romantic relationship, I would just dive in headfirst instead of being reserved like I am in my other relationships like friendships. I later discovered there is the anxiously attached and the avoidantly attached relationship type, I felt like if that person wasn’t always with me all the time they must hate me, or if they don’t respond to me in a day, they are done with me. It took a lot of time and therapy to figure out how to have healthy and meaningful relationships.

I didn’t know how to connect with birding organizations or talk to people. I tried doing FB groups and I thought it was toxic and I decided birding wasn’t for me. It took me intentionally engaging in birding on my own from a purely positive space to find its value. I told myself I wouldn’t take my binoculars, my list, and I’m not taking any photos, I’m just going to listen to birds. I’m going to watch the Red-Winged Blackbirds at Green Lake and see if this is something I find valuable. After doing that a few times I realized I loved where my heart was while I was doing that, I loved how it felt to be in nature and just to listen to the birds. Watch a pigeon bop it’s head while it’s walking around. From there I grew slowly back into the more complex part of birding, I started trying to identify things again, adding things to my local list and taking photos. It taught me that I have worth alone, just me, I don’t need someone else to constantly be giving me encouragement or affirmations whether it’s in birding or my life in general. After that breakup I thought I wasn’t good enough for anything, I didn’t deserve my job or my friends, what am I even bringing to any of these things. When I learned I could do birding on my own it gave me the strength to value myself. (deleted) Just finding the peace and the value in the birds, not just what I am taking from them or benefitting from them but just appreciating their existence.

I grew up in a small hard-core Presbyterian Church in Seattle and I remember my first crisis of faith. I asked if there would be cats in heaven because I loved cats and I was given a resounding no because animals don’t have souls and you won’t need to worry about cats when you are in the glory of the lord. That immediately turned me off the whole thing. Recently I have had the opportunity to come back into that spirituality aspect of faith through birding. Birding gives me space to clear my head and my heart and appreciate things that are bigger than me. I know that this little Nashville Warbler has its own complex life, these are bigger than any man could possibly comprehend. It has become a way to keep my mind active. It’s been nice to be able to consider faith on my own terms and not just “there’s not going to be cats in heaven,” so I don’t care about that.

Birding has helped me find purpose and wonder in life which is very valuable when life feels overwhelming. It has given me an outlet for creativity like photography, art and even comedy. It has also helped me physically; I get distracted by animals and scenery and it doesn’t feel like tedious exercise.

Are you involved in your local birding community and has that helped or hindered you in any way?

The first thing I did when I landed on Maine soil was contact the Audubon society to volunteer. I volunteer there every other Saturday; it was a great way to meet people. I work at the marsh center where we rent out kayaks and do tours. Most of the staff aren’t really interested in birds so when guests come, they send the people asking about birds to me. It’s fun to be able to talk to birders from all over during my shifts but also to get the staff excited about birds.

What do you think about the Seattle Audubon changing their name?

I love that the Seattle Audubon is moving away from centering people in birding. Even outside the problematic history of the man John James Audubon I think it’s worth centering the birds. This is an organization for birds. I have a good friend who has known me my entire life, when I told him I was volunteering at Audubon, and he asked me what that was, if I had said I was volunteering with Birds of Maine or something that probably would have made sense to him. I am proud of Seattle for making that effort. I really hope it’s not about the face value of doing that, I really hope it’s for the sake of the birds and the organization.

What do you think are some of the barriers are that are keeping people from being able to use birding to improve their wellbeing?

The scope of birding that we as birders have projected onto the hobby is the main barrier for people to use it as a skill to better their mental health. When I began birding, I thought it was a lot of work. So much learning, how is this fun? It didn’t seem like something I could afford either, I had to buy a book, then binoculars, a camera and hiking boots. When people see these accessibility barriers when it comes to money or locations it doesn’t become a rewarding hobby it becomes something they have to work for and it’s not benefitting their health. I would drag myself out of bed in the morning to go to a birding spot or spend money I didn’t really have to get a nice book then wait for it to be rewarding. Conveying that you don’t have to put all this work and stress into birding to make it rewarding could be really beneficial to people. That’s what I am trying to do with the podcast, show everyone that birding happens when you look at the pigeon or the gulls on the beach or in a McDonald’s parking lot. You can just walk around your block and you’re birding! No cameras, books or cars, just a window.

There are so many barriers but that shouldn’t discourage people from finding value in birding. The barriers are different for everyone so I can’t speak for others, but birding is worth overcoming those barriers.

What is your favorite way to go birding?

With dedicated expeditions. Driving around to a new place, I did it a lot in Seattle, but everything is new in Maine. I like waking up at the crack of dawn and getting my snacks and boots and going somewhere new. Even if I don’t find many birds it’s exciting to have a plan of adventure. I feel like an old explorer with my map (on my phone) and I park my car and go to a trailhead to walk, and it just gives me a sense of wonder from a hobby that can sometimes feel repetitive going to the same park or seeing the same cardinal for the thousandth time this week. But seeing a cardinal somewhere else is exciting.

I’m a water baby, I need to be near water wherever I live. My favorite place to bird is at oceans, lakes or rivers. The rhythmic serenity of water calms any intrusive thoughts or inner turmoil and leaves nothing but space for the birds to fill. I love water species like ducks and cormorants. They have funny personalities and make cool sounds.

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

Birds can teach us that life is short and that we should appreciate every season. I see more

passed away birds than other animals and its probably because most of them have very short life spans. Little birds sometimes don’t even survive through winter. Finding the value in time is a lesson that birds can teach us. Just stopping and appreciating sitting next to a flower like this bird, it seems totally content to be sitting on a branch, resting. Or the chickadees jumping and flying at breakneck speed. They always seem purposeful no matter what they are doing. Whenever I see a bird, I know there’s some meaning behind its presence. So just stopping and being mindful is a lesson.

Does birding ever effect your mental health in a negative way and how do you deal with it?

It’s not really birding but the auxiliary hobbies like photography, social media, the podcast and things like that I get in my head a lot. I’m not good enough, my photos aren’t getting enough likes… the social media disease leaks into birding. That’s when I really need to disconnect and go to a park without tools to ground myself and remember why I bird and why I’m so passionate about it. It’s not because I think I’m going to get a whole bunch of followers or think I will become some sort of famous birder I just love animals and birds so much I want other people to love them too. I want to influence people to go out and look at those House Sparrows, it makes me happy, but it can be crushing sometimes.

I'm anxious and introverted. I have very intentionally tried to use birding to grow personally and meet people, because of this, accessible and inclusive birding has been a priority for me. Unfortunately, when I started out, I found the community to be unwelcoming. One of the most frustrating barriers for me is gatekeeping of locations and bird sightings. There is a lot of elitism, ageism and racism too. I would get the feeling that if you can’t take national geographic level photos or if you don’t have a life list of 500 birds that you’re not worth the time. I go out of my way to be the nicest, most engaging and welcoming birder I can be. I talk to everyone in the field. I encourage people to bird where they feel happy, comfortable and to not judge others for the tools they use.

Like I mentioned, one of my most frustrating barriers is gatekeeping locations and birds. It’s all these elitist birders or photographers that say they are doing it for the sake of the animal when in reality I feel like they just don’t want me to go there. They don’t trust I can be respectful, or they don’t want someone else to get a photo of that Snowy Owl. I post where I am going on purpose so other people can also go birding there. If there’s a sensitive bird I’ve found I make sure to ask people to DM me for details and always reiterate the importance of respecting wildlife. I trust people.

I moved away from FB as a whole because people were judging new birders for their ID’s. Laughing at them while the newbies were trying to genuinely learn. I think it’s harmful when people ridicule beginner birder’s online like that. Sometimes they say it’s because they are trying to teach them it’s a learning experience but when someone feels unsafe in that environment that will turn them off from birding.

Is there a birding story that instantly makes you smile?

I heard about the Steller’s Sea Eagle when it was in Massachusetts, and I was debating or not

to drive down to go look for it because it was 3-4 hours away. I ended up not going because I couldn’t justify driving all that way and possibly miss it. Then a couple of weeks later it ended up coming to Maine and the whole birding scene exploded. People were coming from multiple states away to see it. The day after it was reported I went down on New Year’s Day, and it was a super gray dreary day, and I was excited because I thought I would have the whole place to myself because of the rain. I was as wrong as you could possibly be. There was around a hundred people at this one spot and cars all up the street. I parked and I ran down this hill to the congregated birders and immediately I was welcomed with open arms, birders were offering me to look through their scope to see it and more. Everyone was sharing in the joy of this once in a lifetime opportunity to see this bird and it felt like my dream for birding in general, I thought, this is what I want everyone to always be like when we are birding. I felt so much joy looking through the scope. It was interconnected with the people and the bird; the icing on the cake was it wasn’t a nice day, and no one was getting good photos, but everyone was still so happy. It felt like the negativity in birding was gone for just one day. I will never forget it.

What bird song immediately lifts you up and why?

I’d say the Common Yellowthroat. It’s also connected to a positive birding/birder experience. I was at a rather secluded park in Northern Washington, and I ran into another birder. She was very nice, and told me she frequented that park, and she told me about the Common Yellowthroat song, I had never seen one before and she taught me how to recognize it. I spent half an hour/hour with her listening to it and searching the bushes for it. It was a wholesome interaction so every time I hear one now it reminds me of that friend I made.

What recommendation would you give to someone who is just getting started using birding as a skill to improve their mental wellness?

I would recommend not putting too much pressure on yourself. Birding can feel like it’s dependent on numbers or skill of identifying or auxiliary skills like being able to hike far or take great photos. Try and enjoy the hobby without the pressure and if you find pleasure in the other aspects of the hobby then add them on. If you like checking things off a list, do a life list. When I feel judgement or self judgement weighing me down, I just take the pressure off. It’s not about the likes or the list, it’s about the birds and being able to share life with them.

If you could give a message to mental health workers about birding and why they should recommend it to clients what would that be?

Birding is a practice in mindfulness and mindfulness is necessary for acknowledging the deepest parts of us and healing the deepest parts of ourselves. I would say see the value in mindfulness through birding.

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

I would want to convey that you are perfect. Like every bird, maybe I’m anthropomorphizing but when I see the birders ignore the Pigeon or the Robin, I just want to pick them up and cuddle them and say I love you, you’re amazing, you’re worth it. You don’t have to be the Steller’s Sea Eagle to have purpose and value in life.

Would you like to add anything else?

I would like to reiterate the importance of being a positive example in the birding community because its everyone’s responsibility to make a difference. If you are out there and you see someone struggling to identify something or asking for help, be a positive influence. Don’t be the person that does a reaction laugh emoji to the person struggling to identify because we can’t expand the community in a positive way without showing up for everybody.

Thank you Will for sharing with us so openly about birding and your mental health!


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