Mya-Rose Craig: Most northerly climate protest
British naturalist Dr Mya-Rose Craig has been an avid birder since the age of three, travelling to all seven continents in pursuit of her passion. But in 2020, she ventured to the Arctic with another goal in mind: to draw the world's attention to the climate crisis.
There are more than 10,000 species of bird around the world, with some experts estimating as many as 18,000. It’s no wonder then that, for the average ornithologist, tracking them all down is a lifetime’s pursuit. Even across a lifetime, it’s a goal that most accept will never be fully accomplished. However, the young naturalist Dr Mya-Rose Craig (UK) – known to many as her alter-ego “Birdgirl” – has already proven beyond doubt that she is far from “the average ornithologist”.
Her parents – Chris and Helena – took their daughter on her first birdwatching outing when she was just nine days old, and she has been on an epic journey of avian discovery ever since.
Birdgirl takes off...
By the age of three, Mya-Rose was keeping a record of the birds she had observed in the wild, both around her home turf in Somerset, UK, and on family holidays in the British Isles and in more exotic climes. At 11, she began the Birdgirl blog that would put her on many people’s radars. It was a place not only to share her latest sightings and photos from the field with fans, but also a space to spotlight conservation projects and environmental issues that had sparked either her inspiration or indignation.
As for where the persona “Birdgirl” came from, it was a fairly pragmatic origin story: “I came up with the name when I was eight… I was going birding in Ecuador and needed an email address. It just stuck after that!”
By the age of just 13, while trekking through the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil, she reached a milestone that others might spend decades aspiring to, logging her 5,000th species.
What made it all the sweeter was that it was a bird she had been seeking for five years, emphasizing just how early this became a serious vocation for Mya-Rose. The monumental sighting was a fittingly monumental bird: the harpy eagle, which itself is a record-breaker as the strongest bird of prey. It is able to lift quarry, such as sloths and monkeys, that weigh in excess of 9 kg (20 lb) – greater than its own body weight – assisted by its Velociraptor-like 13-cm (5-in) claws; these are, not surprisingly, also the longest eagle talons.
“I had been trying to see [a harpy eagle] since I was eight years old and so was over the moon to see one, sitting in a huge tree just above me. They are the tallest eagle in the world, live off monkeys, and could have swept me away!”
It wouldn’t be the only milestone that Mya-Rose marked in 2015. Later that year, on her first visit to the Antarctic, she became the youngest person to birdwatch on every continent, arriving to the frozen land aged 13 years 234 days old. See table below for a summary of her debut birding adventures on each of the seven continents.
MYA-ROSE'S BIRDWATCHING ODYSSEY, CONTINENT BY CONTINENT
|Example species observed
|Europe: Somerset, UK
|European robin (Erithacus rubecula), great tit (Parus major)
|Africa: Cape Town, South Africa
|Southern double-collared sunbird (Cinnyris chalybeus), Cape bulbul (Pycnonotus capensis), forest canary (Crithagra scotops), rufous-breasted sparrowhawk (Accipiter rufiventris)
|Bronze-winged jacana (Metopidius indicus), grey-headed fish eagle (Haliaeetus ichthyaetus), Asian openbill stork (Anastomus oscitans)
|South America: Ecuador
|Andean condor (Vultur gryphus), foothill screech owl (Megascops roraimae), Napo sabrewing (Campylopterus villaviscensio), giant antpitta (Grallaria gigantea)
|North America: Atlanta, Georgia, USA
|Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis), white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)
|Oceania: Queensland, Australia
|Wedge-tailed shearwater (Ardenna pacifica), providence petrel (Pterodroma solandri), fairy prion (Pachyptila turtur)
|Antarctica: Brown Bluff, Antarctic Peninsula
|Emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) – the largest species of penguin, snow petrel (Pagodroma nivea), Antarctic shag (Leucocarbo bransfieldensis)
Mya's standout birds
Of all the thousands of birds she’s seen, it is some of the record-holding species that most stand out: “When I was eight years old, I saw a sword-billed hummingbird in Ecuador, which has a bill longer than its body!” With its beak reaching up to 10.2 cm (4 in) long, this is the longest beak relative to body size in the animal kingdom. “It was so amazing that I decided that I wanted to see all the hummingbirds of the world and have seen over half now.
“My favourite bird is the southern cassowary from Australia [and south-east Asia]. They are around 6 ft [1.8 m] tall, look like a dinosaur and can kill with one kick!” There have been several fatal injuries inflicted by these powerful birds, most recently in 2019, making them arguably the most dangerous bird alive today. (It’s worth highlighting that cassowaries generally prefer to avoid contact with humans, and will only lash out if they feel under threat.)
Wannabe birders: just do it!
While Mya-Rose has already ticked off more birds than most of us ever will, there are many others still on her to-see list.
“I would love to visit Papua New Guinea and see the birds-of-paradise such as the superb and Raggiana birds-of-paradise,” she mused.
One of the best things about birdwatching is its egalitarianism: no matter where you live – whether it’s in a city or the countryside, inland or the coast, at northern latitudes or in the tropics – there are always birds to see.
“Just have a go,” Mya-Rose recommends to any would-be birders. “You don’t need any special equipment, just look into the sky and see what’s there. You don’t even need a field guide as you can download free apps onto your phone or check them out for free online.
“Going out with a friend or family is safer and more fun too.”
Making the nature, conservation and environmental sectors ethnically diverse is something that organizations need to work hard at, starting with making race and equality a core value
- Mya-Rose Craig
Nature for all
Ornithology isn’t the only thing that Birdgirl is passionate about.
In her early teens, Mya-Rose – who herself is British-Bangladeshi – began to notice first-hand the lack of diversity in the wildlife-watching community.
“When I was 13 years old, I decided to arrange a weekend camp for young birders. Lots of people signed up, but they were all white boys mostly from the countryside. This is when I had my lightbulb moment: there were almost no VME [visible minority ethnic] people out in nature.
“I worked hard to find five VME boys to come to my camp and managed to get them all engaged, which made me realize that VME communities would be interested in nature and visiting the countryside but just did not have the opportunity.
Determined to do something to remedy this, she founded the charity Black2Nature to rally for greater equity in naturalism and to organize rural retreats, particularly for city kids: “I set up Black2Nature to fight for equal access for nature for all, especially VME communities.”
"[The industry] needs to engage with VME children, teenagers and parents about careers in the sector, immediately ring fence support jobs for VME people whilst creating paid internships and opening up the professions to all."
Mya-Rose is a firm believer that, if the nature industry is to change, the media needs to lead the charge on diversity and more inclusive representation. Asked about her inspirations growing up, she said: “I think it’s really important to have people who look like you to act as role models. My older sister, Ayesha, was a passionate birder and my first role model.
“As a teenager, I was inspired by Liz Bonnin, a fantastic naturalist and TV presenter who is also a POC [person of colour].”
I also grew up watching Steve Backshall’s Deadly 60 which made loving animals normal. I used to watch [that programme] on repeat and wanted to be Backshall, travelling to remote places to look for rare and dangerous species.
- Mya-Rose Craig
A doctor in the house...
Her advocacy work to democratize birdwatching, in addition to her conservation efforts – e.g., she has volunteered at the local Chew Valley Ringing Station since 2011, caught the attention of the University of Bristol. In early 2020, they awarded Mya-Rose with an honorary Doctorate of Science; aged 17 at the time, she is believed to be the youngest person in the UK ever to receive this prestigious accolade.
“Being awarded with an honorary doctorate was unbelievable,” Mya-Rose said. “When I received the email, I thought it was a hoax from my friends! It was fantastic to be highlighted... but more importantly for my work as founder of Black2Nature to be brought to the forefront. To be the youngest Brit to receive an honorary DSc was the icing on the cake.”
Championing climate action
Mya-Rose’s love of nature has not only ignited her determination that everyone today should have an equal chance to enjoy it, but also future generations. She has become an avid supporter of the anti climate-change movement, lending her voice to marches such as the Bristol Youth Strike 4 Climate demonstration in early 2020 that was also attended by Greta Thunberg, a fellow inductee to the Guinness World Records Hall of Fame.
“I think that Youth Strikes for Climate give autonomy to young climate activist groups, giving them the ability to protest effectively in their area. It’s important to campaign for global climate justice and to move away from colonialist environmentalism.
“I have a book, We Have a Dream, coming out for which I interviewed 30 young POC environmentalists from around the world, fighting for change. It’s incredible to see what they are achieving, despite very little media attention.
"We have managed to get climate change on the agenda but policy makers are still trying to get away with as little action as possible.”
Mya-Rose’s environmental activism has led her to the ends of the Earth, quite literally, and also to another incredible record. In Sep 2020, she embarked on a voyage to the Arctic on board the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise to draw attention to the rapid decline of sea-ice. In 2020, sea-ice was at its the second-lowest extent on record, only surpassed by 2012.
Dropped off on one of the many fragments of floating ice in the Arctic Ocean that once would have formed a solid year-round ice-sheet, Mya-Rose staged the most northerly climate protest, waving her banner at a latitude of 82.4° N.
“Going to the Arctic lived up to all my expectations, though it didn’t feel as cold as I expected, even at -17°C [1.4°F], as I had plenty of warm clothes. There were three birds that I really wanted to see – the Brünnich’s guillemot, little auk and ivory gull – and I was really happy to see all three.
“As I stepped out on to the ice floe, I was really excited but also water was flowing fast under the ice and I could hear [it] cracking as it melted. I was sitting on the ice for several hours and so felt pretty cold [by the end].
“The ship was close-by with everyone on board looking out for polar bears, but the possibility of a polar bear appearing from nowhere was still quite scary!”
A global issue
Mya-Rose is at pains to highlight that climate change isn’t just something that happens far away in places like the Arctic, though – it’s already having a huge effect on people’s day-to-day lives around the world, including her own relatives.
“My mum’s family are from northern Bangladesh. In 2018, there were unseasonal flash floods in my grandfather’s village, which swept away the crops leaving them with no rice to plant for the next harvest.
“Bangladesh is [one of the countries] that will be most impacted by climate change, causing a lot of the land to submerge, increasing the strength of cyclones, and making millions homeless and landless. There are already 4 million climate refugees in [the capital] Dhaka.”
According to Mya-Rose, nowhere is averse to the climate emergency, including the UK. “We live in the Chew Valley south of Bristol and after heavy rain, we get flash floods. Our land turns into a river and the roads become impassable.”
What the future holds...
She may already have achieved so much, but there’s no resting on her laurels for Mya-Rose. In 10 years’ time, her sights are set on being “a leading environmental, anti-racism and human rights campaigner fighting for those around the world who do not have a voice.
“I hope to also be a broadcaster, writer and speaker using the media to get my messages across.”
Given the sheer number of bird species and the inherent difficulties in reaching them – let alone that there are never any guarantees when it comes to seeing wild animals – the very notion of spotting all the world’s birds might sound like a pipe dream.
But, once upon a time, the same could have been said of aspiring for equality and an acknowledgement of climate change. The realms of what is and what isn’t possible are constantly shifting. But for someone as driven as Birdgirl, you can guarantee she’ll do everything in her power to make the impossible a reality.
I am really proud to be listed in the Guinness World Records book. It’s such an honour and hugely important to have my trip to the Arctic highlighted, so that more people hear about the important issues behind it…
- Mya-Rose Craig