Mya-Rose Craig is a birder, environmentalist, diversity activist, and board member at Creative UK. We speak to the author in the lead up to the release of her new book, Birdgirl.
Author Jess Holland
When Mya-Rose Craig is studying she has to face the wall, so she doesn’t get distracted by the birds outside her window. “I’m watching them all the time,” she says. “I literally can’t stop. It drives my mates nuts a little bit.” The 20-year-old has just finished her first year in human, social and political sciences at Cambridge University. She grew up near Bristol in a family obsessed with birdwatching, and moving away from home, she says, “has really solidified for me [the fact] that birds are something I care about really deeply.”
At such a young age, Craig already seems to have amassed a lifetime’s worth of experiences and achievements. Her memoir Birdgirl, published by Vintage at the end of June, tells the story of her round-the-world birdwatching adventures and the role she’s taken up fighting against climate change, biodiversity loss and structural racism. It’s her second published book; The first is a collection of interviews with indigenous and people of colour environmental activists called “We Have a Dream.” She’s an ambassador for Greenpeace and Survival International, the recipient of an honorary doctorate, and the founder of a non-profit focused on equal access to nature.
Craig’s father was the first in the family to devote his free time to spotting birds. When Craig was seven, he dedicated a year to seeing as many species as possible, and she threw herself into the challenge too. From seeing a sandhill crane in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland to an albatross flying near a cliff on the southwestern tip of Cornwall, they spent every weekend “twitching,” and managed to spot 325 species by the end of the year. (Twitching is the name for this quantitative approach to observing rare birds.)
It’s not easy to explain why someone would get up in the middle of the night and spend hours in the car, followed by hours staring in silence, just to cross a bird off a list and then go looking for the next one. Part of why Craig wrote Birdgirl, she says, is to explain this appeal, and although it’s hard to do so comprehensively, the community around it is key.
One of her favourite twitches ever involved being woken at 3am, during that year she was seven, driving across the country to the coast of Durham, and staring at a “scrubby bush” until a little green bird was glimpsed. It was an eastern crown warbler, a species that had never been sighted in the UK before, and thousands of people had turned up to spot it.
“Even the waiting was fun,” she says now. “You’re chatting to your mates and there’s this atmosphere of excitement. The feeling in this golf course when the bird finally appeared, and you turn to each other and celebrate, I can’t even explain it. It was so exciting.”
When Craig was 11, she started a blog, also called Birdgirl, which has since racked up millions of views. She’d seen 3,000 bird species by this point, travelling with her family to places like Ghana, Ecuador, Peru and Queensland, Australia, and her story was featured in first the local and then the national press.
As her blog’s readership grew, she began writing not only about her own adventures but also about conservation issues: deforestation in South America, an oil spill in a Bangladeshi mangrove forest. The following year, she campaigned to save the endangered spoon-billed sandpiper, and addressed the Bristol climate change rally to mark the Paris Climate Conference.
Her mother, who helped Craig develop her path as an activist and organiser, is another important part of the book’s story. Raised by parents who had relocated from Bangladesh to Bristol, she ended up falling in love with birdwatching just as deeply as Craig, her father and her much older sister Ayesha. She was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder when Craig was young, and the book documents her struggles to manage her mental health, and the way, Craig says, the whole family “used birds and nature to cope with that.”
At 13, Craig travelled with her mother to Bangladesh, a trip that made her realise just how much she stood out in the UK as a birdwatcher who wasn’t white. Soon afterwards, she and her mother organised a summer camping trip for teens to address the lack of diversity. By the following year, they had launched the non-profit Black2Nature to help equalise access to nature.
“It started from the fact that I wasn’t white, I lived in the countryside, and I never saw anyone who looked like me or my family in the countryside,” Craig says now. “That made me sad, because I liked spending time in nature, so I wanted other kids to have those opportunities.”
Investigating why this would be the case, she was awakened to systemic inequalities. “It went from ‘Let’s get more kids outdoors,’ to ‘how are we tackling institutional racism within the nature and environmental sector, and within the climate movement?’” Now, she says, she spends “a lot of time talking about global climate justice and the need for equity within climate change campaigning.”
At 17, she addressed a crowd of 40,000 alongside Greta Thunberg at a Youth Strike event in Bristol and received an honorary doctorate from Bristol University for her work raising awareness of environmental issues. She spent her gap year travelling to the Arctic with Greenpeace, where she held the world’s northernmost Youth Strike. By this point she’d already seen half of the world’s bird species and travelled to every continent.
“I’m part of that generation that has always been aware, to some degree, of environmental issues and climate change,” she says. “And then I’ve been lucky enough to travel loads, and suddenly I was seeing all these issues with my own eyes. It really did stick with me. I was seeing deforestation and forest fires and ocean pollution and palm oil plantations, and it was all really striking. I had an online platform, and it seemed very natural to me to very quickly start talking about this.”
These kinds of huge systemic issues — racial inequality, climate change — can feel too big and complex to tackle. One of the reasons talking to Mya-Rose Craig is so energising is because of her determination to keep taking action, big and small, to make a positive difference in the world.
“It’s definitely hard to keep optimistic,” she acknowledges, “but you have to be an optimist to be an environmental activist. What’s the point in fighting to make things better if you don’t think there’s hope for the future? You can look at the science; we have the solutions. It’s just figuring out how to put them in place. There’s a community aspect too. I look at activists from around the world and I do just think, yeah we’ve got this.”
With first-year university exams out of the way, the summer ahead involves some book-promo events, and plenty of time to go birding. She’s no longer quite so obsessed with ticking species off her list, but there’s a certain family of birds she’s always eager to see. “I think I was 8 years old when I was like, ‘I want to see every hummingbird in the world because I love them so much,’ she says. “I think I’ve seen just over half and I’m working on it slowly but surely. I love them so much. They’re so beautiful, and so cute.”
Birdgirl is published by Vintage, part of Penguin Random House. Order your copy here.