The Warblers by Birds Canada

The Art of Birding with Paul Riss

February 21, 2023 Season 3 Episode 2
The Art of Birding with Paul Riss
The Warblers by Birds Canada
More Info
The Warblers by Birds Canada
The Art of Birding with Paul Riss
Feb 21, 2023 Season 3 Episode 2

 “One day a black-capped chickadee landed on my hand and a birding monster was born.” 

Paul has been an active birder for decades and he has dedicated himself to changing how the hobby is perceived, what people picture when they think of birders, and how to connect more people to birds through art and gaming.

In 2011, Paul cut his hair into a mohawk and embarked on the Punk Rock Big Year then tattooed the latin name for each of the species he spotted on his body. He caught people’s attention and changed how we think of birders. And he hasn’t stopped! Paul is an artist who has contributed t-shirt artwork to the ABA, Kaua’i Forest Recovery Project Birds Not Rats, and our Birds Canada Birdathon.

Paul was also featured in the CBC documentary Rare Bird Alert where he journeyed across North America and explored how the climate crisis is affecting birds, from the viewpoint of birders. More recently, he helped create the game BRDR BATL and illustrated portraits for over 400 birds!

Check out this fun conversation that covers a lot of ground!

Paul Riss Creative, Punk, Birder, Father of twins. And sometimes a good husband.

Jody Allair is an avid birder and naturalist who enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for the natural world. He is the Director of Community Engagement at Birds Canada and has written numerous articles on birds, birding, and connecting with nature. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram at @JodyAllair.

Andrea Gress studied Renewable Resource Management at the University of Saskatchewan. She pivoted towards birds, after an internship in South Africa. Upon returning, she worked with Piping Plovers in Saskatchewan and now coordinates the Ontario Piping Plover Conservation Program for Birds Canada. Follow her work at @ontarioplovers

Additional Mentions:

Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway – order it from your favourite local bookstore!
PRBY Art is where you can buy some cool bird shirts and merch designed by Paul

Show Notes Transcript

 “One day a black-capped chickadee landed on my hand and a birding monster was born.” 

Paul has been an active birder for decades and he has dedicated himself to changing how the hobby is perceived, what people picture when they think of birders, and how to connect more people to birds through art and gaming.

In 2011, Paul cut his hair into a mohawk and embarked on the Punk Rock Big Year then tattooed the latin name for each of the species he spotted on his body. He caught people’s attention and changed how we think of birders. And he hasn’t stopped! Paul is an artist who has contributed t-shirt artwork to the ABA, Kaua’i Forest Recovery Project Birds Not Rats, and our Birds Canada Birdathon.

Paul was also featured in the CBC documentary Rare Bird Alert where he journeyed across North America and explored how the climate crisis is affecting birds, from the viewpoint of birders. More recently, he helped create the game BRDR BATL and illustrated portraits for over 400 birds!

Check out this fun conversation that covers a lot of ground!

Paul Riss Creative, Punk, Birder, Father of twins. And sometimes a good husband.

Jody Allair is an avid birder and naturalist who enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for the natural world. He is the Director of Community Engagement at Birds Canada and has written numerous articles on birds, birding, and connecting with nature. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram at @JodyAllair.

Andrea Gress studied Renewable Resource Management at the University of Saskatchewan. She pivoted towards birds, after an internship in South Africa. Upon returning, she worked with Piping Plovers in Saskatchewan and now coordinates the Ontario Piping Plover Conservation Program for Birds Canada. Follow her work at @ontarioplovers

Additional Mentions:

Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway – order it from your favourite local bookstore!
PRBY Art is where you can buy some cool bird shirts and merch designed by Paul


The Art of Birding with Paul Riss

Tue, Feb 21, 2023 5:52PM • 56:38


Jody Allair, Paul Riss, Andrea Gress


Paul Riss  00:00

Just drinking,


Andrea Gress  00:01

just drinking.


Jody Allair  00:03

We're gonna do Paul's...


Paul Riss  00:05

Water. Yeah, we're gonna


Andrea Gress  00:13

You're listening to The Warblers a Birds Canada Podcast. I'm Andrea Gress. Join me and others as we travel on common flight paths with our guests gaining insights and inspiration from the world of birds and bird conservation in Canada. Hey, everyone, welcome back to a another episode of The Warblers Podcast. Today we're getting into kind of a fun topic, looking at bird conservation through the lens of art and technology and thinking outside of the box, how to get more people engaged in unique ways. So we've got a really cool guest, Paul Riss joining us, and he happens to be pretty good friends with our producer Jody Allair. You've heard from Jody before on the podcast, and it's always fun to have him on. So Jody is joined for this discussion. How're you doing, Jody?


Jody Allair  01:02

I'm doing great. Andrea, how are you?


Andrea Gress  01:04

Great. Yeah, awesome to have ya. So Paul's a good friend of yours. He's also a well known North American birder. He claims to call himself just a decent birder, but I think he's a bit more than that. He's an active board member of the American Birding Association. And he's appeared in a CBC documentary called Rare Bird Alert, which I just watched the other day and I gotta say, I recommend it.


Jody Allair  01:29

Yeah, I love that. I love that documentary. I was really excited when it came out and watching it again recently. It's such a fantastic, fantastic doc. Everyone should be watching it.


Andrea Gress  01:40

Yeah, absolutely. Check it out. We're going to talk about so many cool projects throughout this episode. And of course, everything will be linked in our bio. Paul is also the co-creator of a new birding app called BRDR BATL. That's BRDR BATL extra trendy, I love it. And it features some of his bird paintings. So everything Paul does in the Birding world is to promote it to a wider audience and kind of change the way people think about birding and birders and to overall promote bird conservation. So Paul, thank you so much for joining us. What do you been up to? And have you seen any cool birds lately?


Paul Riss  02:18

Hey, thanks for having me on. It's super. It's super exciting to be on this podcast. I'm I listen all the time. And it finally I get to be on it. And in fact, yes, I have seen a very cool bird recently. Not too long ago, it was my birthday. I'm not gonna say what day it was. But I became 52 years old. And I saw that Lewis's Woodpecker that's on Manitoulin Island. Oh, yeah, it was, oh, my gosh, what a lovely bird is such a nice one, too. I just went there for a few days, because I have a camp on Manitoulin Island. A quote unquote, Hunt camp. I'm not really a hunter, but they call it hunt camp, you know. And I also found a Canada Jay up there five minutes from my camp, and those haven't been found too much on Manitoulin. So that was pretty darn cool. 


Jody Allair  03:17

Yeah, that's a great, great combo. 


Andrea Gress  03:18

Lovely birthday tree. Yeah.


Paul Riss  03:21

Yeah. And you know, so many people are like, you went there for your birthday. Like, with your family? Nope, just by myself. I stayed in a small cabin in the woods for four days, completely alone. And I loved it. It was great. Yeah, my family knows my family knows what I like. So they were fine with me going.


Andrea Gress  03:42

Yeah. Manitoulin such a nice place. Yeah. Jealous.


Paul Riss  03:48

It's lovely.


Andrea Gress  03:49

It is! Yeah. So before we get into all of the really great projects that you're involved in, how did you get into birds? Like, do you have a spark bird story you could share with us?


Paul Riss  03:59

I sure do. It's not very exciting spark bird, in terms of, you know, there's 10,000 amazing species roughly on the planet. And my spark bird is a Black-capped Chickadee. So,


Andrea Gress  04:11

Everybody loves Black-capped Chickadees. 


Paul Riss  04:14

Yeah. And they're friendly, and they're easy to see. And though they don't have a problem with physical contact with human beings. So that's like, it's, I can see how it's a could be a popular spark bird for lots of people. When I was younger, I guess it was like around 10 or 11. My dad in the 70s. Of course, as so many dads did back then he worked a lot. And he traveled a lot for work. And he was at work a lot. And I think, you know, my mom was the main person that raised me while he was, you know, working all the time. And she just said to him, you know, you got to find something to do with your son. Like, because he's just, you know, you're you're not going to have a relationship with them later if you're not careful. And he he did sort of like the 70s Dad thing and went to his buddies and said, Hey, this is like, what my situation is, anybody got any ideas and one person there said, Oh, just take him to Cranberry Marsh. We lived in Whitby at the time, take them to Cranberry Marsh, the chickadees will land on his hand, if you bring some birdseed, he'll love it. Kids always love that. And so we went there, and I, I can remember that feeling. So it was so striking for me when that bird landed on my hand, you know, you can feel it's tiny little claws. And it was winter. And you're thinking like, how is this thing living outside when I can't be outside for very long, I gotta go in and it has no end. I don't know, I just the whole experience was just mind blowing to me as a such a young kid. And I like always tell people that one day a Black-capped Chickadee and landed on my hand and a birding monster was born. And that's what it is like, as you know, I spend well it led to me at 52 years old, spending four days in the woods by myself with birds only, and whiskey,


Andrea Gress  06:06

Birds and whiskey 


Paul Riss  06:07

Birds and whiskey


Jody Allair  06:09

So, Paul, I first heard about you, like years ago, because a friend of mine birding friend of mine was telling me about this guy who was doing an Ontario big year, and then was tattooing the names of every bird species he finds on his body. And that of course, is you and how I got to meet you. Can you tell us more about the punk rock big year? And what motivated you to do that?


Paul Riss  06:37

Yeah, sure. You know, I would I was a birdwatcher, and well, as you know birders kind of call themselves birders, but you know, people would always say to me, you don't look like a bird watcher. You don't look like a bird watcher, like a birder. And I kept thinking like, Well, what exactly does a birder look like? There is no, there isn't one. But if you ask people there is and it's like a blue haired person in a Tilley hat with goofy binoculars and field guide in their in their hip pocket, right, which is totally fine. There are those birders and there's nothing wrong with them. But I kind of wanted to see how, see if I could change how people saw birders. So, you know, I read Kingbird Highway. And there's a story that Ken talks about, specifically in that book where he gets picked up by a person. This is like 1974 when this happened, or 73 or something like that. And, you know, like funny enough, not too far. Before I got into birding, but like, This person was like, where Why are you going to a dump? You know, why do you want to go to a dump? And he said, I'm going to see some crows right. You know, the I always get the name of those crows wrong. 


Jody Allair  07:53

The Tamaulipus Crows. 


Paul Riss  07:54

Yeah, yeah, Tamaulipas Crows. He was going there for his big year to see the Tamaulipas Crows. And this person that was driving him was like, you don't look like a birdwatcher, because if you saw pictures of Ken back then, you know, he was like a high school dropout who had long hair. He was like, he was a hippie, right? Like, I mean, look 


Jody Allair  08:11

Yeah, like totally awesome. 


Paul Riss  08:12

Yeah, amazing, right. And so back in 74, people were saying, you don't look like a birder if you didn't fit the stereotype. And I had this idea, like around 2010. And the same thing people were saying to me, so I was like, I work in advertising. And it's about getting people's attention and trying to do things in a way that makes people not be able to look away. So I just had this idea. I was like, had the whole entire idea. It formulated itself on a bike ride to work. One day, I was riding on Harbord Street, because it was the safest street to ride a bike on a Toronto had a dedicated bike lane. And I had the whole idea there who was just like, What am I going to do? How am I going to change people's opinions? Oh, I know, I'll do a big year. And it's like, I'll cut my hair into a mohawk like, and then I'll tattoo tattoo all these Latin bird names on my body. And maybe that'll make people pay attention. And so that's just what I did. Just decided that was what I was going to do. And so many people were like, Yeah, but what about you know, Latin names are changing all the time. And I actually emailed Ken Kaufman and said, Dude, I got this idea when just saying it's inspired by a book and he was like, do the Latin names you will be a snapshot of Ontario's ornithological outlook in 2011.


Andrea Gress  09:41

Yeah, there's something nice about the time element it's a snapshot. Yeah. 


Paul Riss  09:46

Yeah, exactly. Like, like the a bunch of them on my body have changed. Already, like the Latin names have changed. But like, I am what Ontario thought about what science thought about birds in Ontario in 2011.


Jody Allair  09:59

And people paid attention, right. It garnered lots of attention too, right? So I think it was successful and I think has turned in turned into so much. But I think maybe before we get into more stuff and shout out to Kingbird Highway and Ken Kaufman like that book is, like, definitely on my short list of most influential books I've read. I love that book so much. So I want to ask you there just as a follow up it because it's was a punk rock big year. Do you think punk music and birding have a connection in your opinion?


Paul Riss  10:32

Oh, absolutely. Because, like, the connections the way I make that connection, you know, back then, and I say back then because like 2011 was quite a while ago. Now, right? I'm not a young man anymore. I was a young man when I did that. 


Jody Allair  10:50

All relative, Paul. 


Paul Riss  10:51

Oh, yeah, totally. Well, my dad's 92 and still kickin, so like very relative, but like, you know, back then, like punk being a punk and being a birder. They were both kind of fringe. Things to do, right. Like people didn't know a lot of birders people didn't know a lot of punks. You know, it's like, I think punk is still that way. There's like all ages punk venue in Hamilton that I go to with my son all the time. And it's called the kill room. And like, there's no address, they don't tell the address on any of their social media things. They just say, show up Friday night show bands on at seven at the kill room, ask a punk, and that's it. So it's like, you know, it's not as you got to be into it. Right. And it's the same with birding, you got to be into it. And, you know, it's just sort of like, if you if you think about punk music, it's not on the radio, it's not in your face. You got to find it, you got to go look for it. You got to search you got to dig. Right. Same with birds and birding, right. Like, you can't just walk out on the street and go, that's a birdwatcher I'm gonna ask them what to do. You know what I mean? Like, they're just you don't know, necessarily. So I kind of think they're similar in that way. But birding I think, is less niche. Now, it's a little less fringe, because I think COVID got a lot of people into it. And I don't know, I'd like to think a little bit that some of the work that I've been doing that you guys have been doing that, you know, Ken and Kim are doing at the biggest week and all these kinds of festivals and all that. I think it's bringing more people into it. Like when I was a kid, I don't I didn't read the New York Times much back then. But there was no stories about birdwatching. There's stories in the New York Times about birds all the time. The other day, I read one about window strikes, like just two days ago, they had a story about window strikes. And it's just like, it seems to just be having a moment. And it's like lasting, this moment is lasting. It's not a flash in the pan.


Jody Allair  12:58

So good. It's so good. I change is like as a former child birder, and now like at an adult birder, I think things have changed a lot in my time, for sure. And mostly for the better, which is, which is great. Yeah, Paul, before we move on to another topic, what is the most punk bird in your what do you think?


Paul Riss  13:22

That's funny. People ask me this question all the time. All the time, which birds the most punk? And I'm like, you know, I pick a different one every time. I kind of take the moment and go, Okay, what's punk about this species? What's punk about that species, and I just look like, think about like, now let's talk about a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Those tiny little things fly down to Mexico and back twice a year like they do it all by themselves. They lean on nothing but themselves. It's so DIY. Like, that's kind of as punk as it gets. I think you know, and then some people will be like, Well, what's you know, in another situation, someone asked me that question. And I'll say, Well, I don't know maybe like check out a Red-breasted Mergansers got a mohawk. You know, so it's like, you can look at it that way. Or you can look at it in like the Ruby-throated Hummingbird thing. It's like, small but mighty.


Jody Allair  14:20

Yeah, for sure. I think just appearance wise. I've always thought like breeding plumage Eared Grebe is like a pretty intense it's a pretty metal bird. I think. 


Paul Riss  14:29



Jody Allair  14:29

And, and, hey, you know, Belted Kingfisher, right. It's hard to get more hardcore, also, ABA bird of the year, which you had some involvement in and we'll talk about that a little bit later, but


Andrea Gress  14:43

I'm just gonna take a moment though to plug the Piping Plovers because they are so feisty. You don't mess with a Piping Plover. They're pretty


Paul Riss  14:51

totally totally those guys are so punk like, I mean, they kind


Jody Allair  14:56

of look sweet. But But


Paul Riss  14:58

exactly. And And I just think about them and how they were gone for so long from the Great Lakes, and now they're back. And they're just like, we're helping them. But they're doing the hard work.


Andrea Gress  15:09

Absolutely love it. Yeah. So, Paul, beyond punk, you're also a really good artist. Like, I actually can think of multiple things in my home that has your art on it, you know, from some T shirts to some coffee packaging? When did you get the idea to start creating unconventional bird art?


Paul Riss  15:31

Honestly, for first, I should say, thank you. It's nice of you to say that, about my work. You know, artists just do what they do. And you know, people like it, or they don't. It's just that simple, I think sometimes. But honestly, that kind of came out of the whole punk thing, too. Like it's not as separated. Because when I was younger, I was wearing metal and punk T shirts, like with bands on it, right? So that was more my style, right? Like I'm actually wearing a misfits hoodie right now. That's just that was my style. I just liked the look of those things like the, you know, two colour printing, screen printing, all that kind of stuff. It just felt like cool. And the bird shirts that I was seeing, were usually not awesome. They were mostly what they were, they were not my style anyways, they were like an awesome painting that was never created to be put on a shirt. And so the reproduction was never that great. So it's like a beautiful painting poorly executed on a shirt. They just I don't know, I didn't think they were cool. You know what I was looking for? For cool. So I just started making them for myself. Like I was doing like one off things. And people out there. We're going, where'd you get that? Where did you get that? Like, why made it? Alright, can I get one? Would you make me one? So started doing one offs for a few different and then I was like, There's got to be a better way to do this. So a started PRBY art so that I could just get them out to more people. And, you know, I don't make a lot of money doing that stuff. I just do it. Because I like doing it. And because it makes other people happy and maybe more interested in birding. And like if you wear a shirt that has a banding code on it, and, and a cool picture of a bird people ask, right, and then it gives me a chance to talk about bird watching.


Andrea Gress  17:35

And I bet it builds on the sense of community too, because you're gonna get people who are in the know, right? And that sure it'll catch their eye.


Paul Riss  17:43

Yeah, exactly. Right. So like, I'll be in a place as actually, I was in a grocery store. I was in like, Loblaws or something. And I was just checking out, like, with my food, right? I was paying for my stuff. And the person that was the young man that was working behind the counter was like, Are you a birder? And I said, I am. Are you a birder and he said, I am and I love your shirt. That turned out, I turned out I think that moment was Ezra, the young man who just he just didn't big year last year. But he's a Hamilton birder, you know, local to me, and yeah, like, I've never known him before. That's how we met because he saw my shirt. And he asked me the question, and then we talked, and then I go, Oh, cool. You're a young birder in the neighborhood. That's awesome. And yeah, so I birded with him on and off when we see each other in the field and some of his friends as well. And it was just like, it started the conversation. It was cool.


Jody Allair  18:46

So, Paul, you've made, you know, you know, birding designs for shirts and all sorts of things for years. But you've also done them in conjunction with some, you know, charitable organizations like the American Birding Association. I know you do their bird of the year T shirts, and I have many of them. You also have done and have been Birds Canada's Birdathon shirt designer for several years. I'm actually wearing the Thick-billed Longspur shirt today, which I love, love that shirt. And one of the things that you do that I think is really amazing is that you regularly donate designs to conservation projects to help them to help them fundraise and, and I'll pull it one example. The Kaua'i Forest Birds Recovery Project, which was specifically their Birds Not Rats campaign. I know you donated artwork, and it's one of my favourite hoodies that I own the design for that and and it makes a big difference. And that campaign was actually very successful at raising money to buy good natured traps to help reduce rat predation on Puaiohi around Kawaii so, you know art that's really really made an impact on on a conservation project. So When did you get the idea of starting to start sharing your artistic talents to support conservation?


Paul Riss  20:06

Yeah, you know, I started getting a little bit like, I'm using air quotes here known in the wider birding community for my bird art. And the fact that it was like, it was quite different from most of the stuff that was that was sort of seen in the past. And it was not my main source of income. As I said, I worked in advertising as an art director, Creative Director. And so I was making a little bit of extra money with it. And then I just wanted to see oh, you know, I could just be giving back a little bit because people are, people were buying things that I made and putting money into my pocket. Most of that money went to buying records. Until I was like, somebody a birder out in Seattle, I think, was the one who reached out to me and said, I know somebody that's working on this project in Hawaii is his campaign for Birds Not Rats. And I'm asking you if you'll make a shirt for them. I don't know how much of a budget they have. And I was like, Huh, okay. So I was like, I had just had twins. That's really expensive. I gotta tell you is like, you know, we went from double income, no kids, to we made, we made that my wife and I made the decision, my wife, Rachel, and I made the decision that she wanted to stay home and raise the kids. So I was like, okay, cool. So I was we were pretty strapped money wise back then. And so I couldn't donate money to things, but I could donate my skill. Because I knew that I could turn that into cash. But I didn't necessarily I was doing okay, financially. So I didn't need the cash. So what if I just gave it to people? So then it just started doing that stuff. And that was the I think that was like one of the first ones I ever did was the Kaua'i Birds Not Rats campaign. And it was, it was so fulfilling. And I have to say the bird that's on that shirt. My wife drew that bird, not me, because Rachel does a lot of this too. And if you look back at some of the other Birdathon shirts that I've done for Birds Canada, the the Barred Owl, that was also one of my wife's drawings. So we kind of started out, yeah, like, I love that picture, too. We started like doing this stuff together, which was, you know, fulfilling from a creative standpoint, for both of us. And also, we knew we were raising money for a good cause. So we felt good about that, too. I think some of those bigger ones, like you say, it was like successful. I don't actually know how much money it made them, but I think it made them a bunch. And I do know that the bird of the year shirts for ABA, and I do know that the like the ones that I do for the biggest week in American birding, I, like biggest week sells a lot of those shirts. And I kind of have an idea of what they cost to make, I kind of have an idea of what well, I know what they charge for them. So I kind of have an idea of how many they sold. So it's like, it's it's a significant contribution. And from my perspective, all it takes is me doing what I really like, and just giving it away.


Andrea Gress  23:20

And not to mention, like we live in a really visual society right now, social media is all about like the best images. So even if someone doesn't buy a shirt, they might see it promoted online and learn about the project. Right? So just leads to more awareness too


Paul Riss  23:38

Yeah, and the other good thing about that is, you know, my advertising agency does lots of stuff for nonprofits, and I do as well, just on my, my personal artwork, but like that money is unrestricted. And if you work in the nonprofit world, that that's an important word, unrestricted. So some donations, they come with caveats, right? They can only be used for this or only do that. But unrestricted funds, they can be used however, the organization deems the most important way to use them. Yes, that's that's something that I really like, is that the donations that I'm making through that it's not tying, there's there's no restrictions, they can just do whatever they think is most important for the organization. That's powerful. 


Andrea Gress  24:24

It is.


Jody Allair  24:25

I think the the conversation starter I think, I think that's actually a really important element to this. I I've had so many conversations when I wear you know, well, several of your shirts, but the Birds Not Rats one, it's like you know, black hoodie, you know, covered in in rat skulls on the front, and, and one tiny 'Akeke'e in the middle. And so many people ask about what is going on and what does that even mean? And then I explained to them the story and then they're like, oh, like wow, that's actually This sounds like a really important thing that needs more attention. You know, it's it's that the conversation starters are to the shock value of the shirt. I don't know, even maybe more valuable than the money in some cases, you never know what that can turn into.


Andrea Gress  25:14

Gotta say, like, very punk designed too


Paul Riss  25:20

right? I mean, I was trying to push it with them, I was really trying to push it. I had other ideas for that, too. I gave them a few options. But I was like, Do this one, because this is the one that people are just what you said, God, like, for me. It's like, if I'm wearing that thing people be like, what is that? And that that question, what is that you're wearing that question can lead to support for the organization, whether it be financial or just knowing about the issue. You know, I think that's the way to that's it's really important.


Andrea Gress  25:58

Yeah. So Paul, changing subjects just a little bit here. It sounds like you've made a real personal challenge throughout your life out of changing the way people view birders and birding, why is that so important to you?


Paul Riss  26:13

Well, I gotta say, I'm flattered that you say that because it's the only reason I ever did this stuff. Like just changed the way people think about birding, and birders, you know, and really, in 2011, I was a decade younger, so I felt like I could bring younger people into it, because I myself was sort of young. I don't know if I was I wasn't young, young. That wasn't like cool to high school kids, but, but kind of, could be, you know, what I mean? The like, the punk ethos, the Mohawk those kinds of things, made them look at me and say, Oh, that guy's not like my parents. And, you know, not trying to diss other people's parents. I'm just saying that sometimes. It takes a person who's not a parent, to get through to somebody, right. And there's of an actor, a famous actor, birder by the name and Lily Taylor. I'm sure you guys know her, you know, she was on Six Feet Under she was in Mystic Pizza as like a really well known actress. I met her in Ohio at the biggest week, one time when we birded a bunch together, like year after year, we try and meet there and, and bird together. And when she was shooting a show in BC, I was out there doing I was out there working, she was out there doing working and we went birding, you know, a couple of times. And she used to say birding is the gateway drug to the rest of nature? Yeah, yeah, there's like such a powerful sentence it is like, slightly annoying that I didn't think of myself as a writer. But it's like, so true. And I want people to get hooked on birds, because you protect what you love. I mean, we, you hear this a lot in our community, love the birds, you're going to protect what you love, and Birds Canada, more than most, you guys know, birds need to be protected, they need protection. So if we can get people to care, caring equals protection. And not only that, it's good for the birds. But it's good for people. And you know, the more and more we're hearing these scientific stories about how having 10 different species of birds come to your bird feeder in your backyard, and you experience them can be more satisfying than a pay bump at work. Like pay raise. Like, I think that stuff is is like really powerful. And I just think that's like, it's just so important for people to like, protect them. And if you look at you know, I just feel like I'm going in circles, but you get what I mean. So yeah, that relationship with people and birds is good for both of us.


Andrea Gress  29:06

So getting the more the more people who are interested in birding and don't see it as just some you know, they're their grandfather's hobby, gets more people involved more people hooked more people caring about nature, beyond birds, just caring about nature, in general. And in your art is kind of a way of just pulling it all together, bringing people into it.


Paul Riss  29:30

I was gonna say, you know, like, historically, art and technology are behavior changers, like they drive behavioral change, right? And, you know, if we want to bring more people into birding, we can do it. I mean, I've shown that we can do it through art and technology. Some birders might not like and I've openly heard people say, you know, I don't like it when people use Merlin to just you know, tell me what they saw in the you know, you upload a semi crappy picture, and it just tells you what it might be, are you, you know, with a new sound ID thing, you might be able to know what's around you without even looking, but always jump down those people's throats and say, Listen what like, Why do you care? This person loves interacting with birds that like, that's the for me, that's the full stop. As long as it's positive for the people and the birds, I don't care that they will never be able to learn the chip calls of the different sparrows that we see throughout the migrations season. Like, for some people, that's amazing. That's great. But for someone who doesn't care about that, they're not any worse a birder. I think, again, I know we, you know, we talked about Ken Kaufman earlier, but he always has such a great way of like, he's a really good writer, and thinker, and he brings things in, and he says, like, you know, if you're interested in birds, then you're a good birder. That's all it takes. But that's that, that's all it takes. And I think that's so amazing, you know, and there's like the, you know, there's like, the people that think there might be, there might be still some woodpeckers down in Louisiana that are ivory-billed. And there's people that are saying, Come on, no way. But when you look at that, like when Ken looked at that, he was like, I don't know whether they're down there. I can't say for sure. Maybe not. But what I what he'll, what he said was I liked that somebody believes, because if nobody believed, then there'd be no chance. I just thought that was like he just ties things up. He's such a good writer.


Jody Allair  31:49

Yeah, awesome. Oh, boy. There's so much we could we could dive into off of that. I will say I really wish when I was growing up and learning my birds and trying to learn my bird sounds and there was really not much out there. That was great and easy to access. I sure wish I had Merlin bird ID and the sound and the sound ID feature when I was a kid. That would have been saved so much time. Yeah. Yeah. And I love that people use them. I love it.


Paul Riss  32:17

Yeah, me too. Even just walking. Like even if I'm not birding. I'm just going out for a walk. Sometimes I'll turn it on. And I'll just like glance at it every once in a while and go Yeah, I heard that one. Cool. Yeah, I heard that one. Cool. Yeah. Oh, wait a minute. I did not pick up on that. And then sometimes, much to my wife's chagrin. She's not a birder. She likes birds and paints them all the time, but she's not a birder by any stretch. And so I'll be like, you can carry on. But I need to go back a little bit. And I need to look for something. You know what I mean? It's just like this that Oh, my God, I can't believe I missed that. You know, and it's so it's not bad. It's just another tool. That's all it is.


Jody Allair  32:58

Yeah. Paul, let's talk about the documentary the 2021 documentary Rare Bird Alert. This was on on CBC. It was and you can still you can still watch it online, which is great. It's, it's, I always find it super cool to have, you know, a documentary or film like the big year, like about your thing, right. Like to get to watch something on primetime TV slot about your about birding about your thing is, I think it's, it's still really cool. And I think it was extra special because you were in it. And it was really centered around you and the people that you met in the stories that were brought up. And I think there's all sorts of things I loved about the documentary. And I think one of the big ones is that just showing such a great diversity of birders from all different backgrounds, and sort of breaking the stereotypes down even further right of what it means to be a birder. Can you tell us a little bit about how that project came about? And how do you feel about Rare Bird Alert now that it's been a couple of years?


Paul Riss  34:11

I'll answer the first question. Or the last question first. I feel like I wish I could just do that all the time. I had so much fun. It was the most fun I think I've had.


Jody Allair  34:21

It looked like you were having fun, for sure.


Paul Riss  34:24

Yeah. I mean, what somebody was, you know, they're like, you don't get like with that when CBC makes a documentary you don't like I was not paid for that. I just did it. And I was working the whole time. So that was a little bit of a challenge here and there. I had been approached several times by different production companies about doing a birdwatching TV show, because the way those production companies work, they go what's neat, what's interesting, what's weird. What's this, what's and birding always comes up because of that study that talks about how many birders there are in America. It's like the number is astronomically high. You know, everybody from just looking at their backyard feeders to people that travel the world, they'd all watch it. So that like everybody thought there was a, there was a niche that could be exploited. I don't mean that in a negative way. But I will say that many of them, you know, in my initial conversations, and back then it was Skype with my initial Skypes with people, I'd get, like, a feeling that they were poking fun, or that they're enforcing stereotypes. And they were, you know, there's one group that wanted me to be something that I'm not, and I was just I so it just turned them all down. It was like, No, I'm not doing that. I'm not doing that. That's just gonna make us look like Kooks. I'm not doing it. It's too important of a community to me to throw them under the bus to get a TV show, which is you know, I guess people like having a TV show. Until I met Rick LeGuerrier, who is the producer. For this for this documentary, Rare Bird Alert. I can tell right away through the questions he was asking and things. I was like you're a birder, right? And he said, Well, I don't think I'm a birder. But I like birds and I I'm like, then you're a birder. So you're a birder. And that's why you were doing this. And I feel like you guys want to do the right thing by birding. And so I was down with it. And I was like, Okay, let's, let's, let's do this. And the way I thought about it was, you know what, I had these conversations with my wife, like, what if they want me to do things that are bad for birding? What if they want me to do this or that or the other thing? And she was like, hon you're the one who's in control on this situation, because you're in front of the camera, they're behind it. They can ask you whatever you want, but you will only deliver what you feel is right. So that made me say okay, for sure. I got to do this. And also, I was going to meet a bunch of new cool people that we're birders, some of them young, some of them not so young, and we're gonna get to travel across the country and even go into Cape May and down to Florida. And you know, you just can't turn something like that down. This was some people they found, like Melissa out west. They found her I didn't know her before, but her and I are friends now. And she's a lovely, lovely person. You know, I can't wait to get West again to see her and go birding with her. But she does so much. And Christina Bale who last years bird of the year. She did the Burrowing Owl work and her artwork is like, like makes mine look super tame. The way she approaches it. It's just craziness. But beautifully done. Like she's just got this way about her. And, you know, birding kind of like she found the person she found her person through birding. And she found her career through birding. And I think that stuff is fantastic. She was also in the doc. And yeah, she's great.


Andrea Gress  38:13

Yeah, I mean, so to just summarize for folks go and watch it Rare Bird Alert, we'll have links in the bio, it's a really cool insight into what birders can look like, across North America. And you get to kind of experience it. I felt like I was going on a road trip with you, then meeting a bunch of cool people and seeing some cool birds and some cool habitats. And it's just it's a lot of fun. It's a good watch. 


Paul Riss  38:42



Andrea Gress  38:43

So I want to ask you about another project because you're involved in so many different things. The birding app called birder battle. Tell us all about it.


Paul Riss  38:56

Yeah, so this one, I mean, this, there's lots to tell you about this. But I do have to say Birder Battle, like, I named it together with my partner, Dustin, who is a birder from Ontario. The app itself, like what it is, was totally his idea. It's funny that the story of how it came to be is, I was just painting birds. Like I'd gotten back into it again. I was just painting bird portraits and bird pictures just because I was looking to get back into it again. I used to do it when I was younger, and I stopped to build my career. And it got more about advertising than about painting birds and all that stuff. And I just was like my wife, I bought my wife, an iPad for Christmas when you're an iPad Pro and a pencil. And it changed the way she worked. And she was like, Dude, you gotta get one of these things. Like so expensive. She's like, Yeah, but you could paint again and you wouldn't have to like mess up. The House and like, you know, painting is like if you're painting painting, it's a whole thing, you need a whole room. So, you know, I was like, Okay, I'll get one. And I started doing these paintings. And then this random guy, Dustin, who I'd never met before he reached out on Instagram and said, Do you want to help with this idea that I have, and I loved it straight away. Like the idea when he said what the app does, I was like, this is kind of a perfect game, because you cannot play without being out in the field and having a meaningful interaction with birds. And for me, that was like, tech in nature, like a one of the headlines I wrote about it in the beginning of the advertising campaign was like, you know, technology and nature's love child is this app, because you're just like, you're using tech. But you're not doom scrolling. You're not at home, you're not you're out, you know, you're walking around doing stuff. And then I kind of found out from him what my contribution would be, which was painting all the birds in the ABA area. And I stupidly said yes. Oh, I can? Yeah, sure. I'd love to do it. Not even knowing if I could do it.


Andrea Gress  41:09

How many birds are we talking about here?


Paul Riss  41:12

Currently, we're up to like, I think 400 or something like that four, or 425 or something like that? Because we're expanding into the states now.


Andrea Gress  41:24

And how long does it take you to do one bird painting?


Paul Riss  41:28

like hour and a half to two hours, and there's like, I've done like, over 400, so a lot of time, but I just started, like when I made the commitment. I just had to do it, right. Like, there was no backing out. This guy was depending on me. So I just did it. And then I because I'm a designer, I designed the brand too like the logo, the BB logo and all that stuff. And originally it was going to be called Birder Bingo. And then you know that like because the gameplay was a little more like bingo. And then we changed it as we were working and talking. So then we were like, Ah, it's kind of like a birder battle. And I was like, Oh, dude, we can make those words with two banding codes, BRDR BATL 


Andrea Gress  42:09



Jody Allair  42:10

That's perfect. It's perfect. 


Paul Riss  42:11

Yeah, yeah, it's like everything just kind of like, fell together, right. And in terms of how it works, it is such a simple idea. His idea was so simple. It was like, you create account, an account and a user name. And you select, you launch the app, you log in, you select your game mode, and then it your location of where you're going to be playing because you know, you can play it here, or you could play it in Vancouver, or you could play in Saskatchewan, or wherever you happen to be east coast, wherever. And it just built a small grid of nine birds for you to go and find. And you can like, you know, you can choose like when I say a mode, it's like you can do big day mode, which drops 50 birds for you to find. Or you can do a battle mode, like a bird themed battle mode, where it drops nine birds for you to find. So it was just fun. We started going what are the battle nodes? And like, you know, we're like backyard buddies. Those are like, simpler birds to find, right? Like it's a chickadee. It's a cardinal, it's the stuff that's going to hit your feeders, right. So you can play it that way. And so that was like, all of a sudden, I could play while I'm at work. And I'm sitting in my office right now looking at my feeders and there's a there's a House Finch on it. So like, that's one of those feeder birds one of those backyard buddies, right. So then there's another one called Duck Duck Goose, which is great for the winter in Hamilton, because, man, we got good ducks around here. We got good waterfowl around here. So we started going, Oh, you could build in in the spring, we're doing something with the biggest week and it's gonna be of course all about warblers and migrants. So you kind of just pick your thing and it says go find these birds. So also had some people reach out and say, How dare you make it all about competition? And I'm like, okay, fair. It's about competition. But you don't have to compete with somebody you can compete against, you can just challenge yourself. You can start a game, not invite a friend and still play and it says go find these birds, which to me was like, all of a sudden I'm scouring the lake shores to find a black duck an American Black Duck. Or I'm like going specifically to find a Black-capped Chickadee like as an experienced birder. When was the last time you went specifically to find a black duck? Like never. So I'm birding in a way that I didn't before right? Normally those birds you kind of like you see them sometimes even just out of the corner, your eye or your peripheral vision. And you go oh, there's blacked up there and eBird it but I'm like going to look for these common species. So I kind of tweaked the way I birded sometimes. And then you know, as a new birder, you know, you hear people going like I'm interested numbers. But how do I get started? How do I birdwatch? Like I'm interested in it, but I don't know what I'm doing. So with this app, it'll tell you what to go find. Right? Kind of tells you where to go find it too, because of the game mode you chose. And it's just, I think, a way for new birders to get into it as well. So it's, it's not just for hardcore birders, it can be for, you know, less experienced ones too, because all of a sudden, I'm like, I need to find, Good. God, I can't find a Blue Jay this will drive me insane. I haven't seen a Blue Jay in five days. Right. And you don't think about the fact that you don't see a Blue Jay for five days as an experienced birder very often.


Jody Allair  45:45

I like I like the idea that it gives you an excuse to just go out and look for stuff, right? It's like, it's, it's sort of in a way sort of like bird bingo, right? It's sort of, you know, here's your here's your list. And if you need that bit of motivation to get out and and go around your local patch to look for White-breasted Nuthatch or Hairy Woodpecker, then that's the way to do it. I really like that. It is something that inexperienced or beginner birders can can use. And it's a great tool to help beginner birders start to learn their birds and, and get outside and find things. I like that it doesn't have to be a competition amongst, you know, between birders and birders, right. I think it's really important that it is also something that beginner birders can use and embrace and have fun with. And I think that's really that's, to me, that's kind of the best part.


Paul Riss  46:40

Yeah, you know, I totally agree with you. That's how I use it too. But there is something like my daughter is you saw her in the documentary, she's bird interested, but I wouldn't call her a birder per se, like, she'll sometimes go with me. But, you know, when I was like, Hey, I'm gonna go up to the island and see this really rare woodpecker. Do you want to go stay in the island with me for four days? No, dad I'm going out with my friends tomorrow. Right? It's like, I get it. She's 15. And has that. You know, that's more important right now. Who knows? Maybe she'll come back to birding? I hope so. But if not, it's not the end of the world. Yeah, but like, she'll we have so much fun, because she'll play birder battle with me, because she's got a friend at school whose father is a professor. And is bird interested. He's a backyard birder. He's even went, he went to Hawaii to see all the birds there. Before. And so she, when she goes to his house, he lives in I live right downtown Hamilton. So like, it doesn't get too exciting, except during migration, on what I see in my backyard. It's not that exciting. But their house is in a place that's got more green space around it, and they get better birds than I do. So when she goes over there, I'll it's inevitable that I'm going to get a battle request from Georgia. And she kicks my butt every time because their feeders are better. And I'm like, so the one time though it served up a Purple Finch. And I was like, she ain't getting that. And I know where I can go get one in Hamilton very easily. I know exactly where they always are. So that one time I was able to win. But like, I'll get a text message from her saying, you're going down Birdman. And then like, we'll like smack talk each other back and forth and text messages. So much fun. Like, sure it's competitive. But like, it's just fun. The stakes couldn't be lower. Right? You could absolutely cheat. Because I don't know that you didn't see it. But you know, birding is that it's based on. You know, people being honest. So we felt like, you know, Dustin, I felt like, we don't need to prove it. We don't need to have people prove it. It's just for fun. That's all we're doing. We just want to make it fun. For anyone. And if you're interested, I can give you a hint on a couple of features that are coming. 


Jody Allair  49:10

Oh, yes, please. 


Paul Riss  49:13

Yeah, so we have one that's, like, a lot of people have gotten to us and said, I want to choose the birds. Because when I when I challenged my friend to a birder battle, I want it to be difficult. I want us both to struggle. I you know, you get to the hardcores. And they want to do that. So one of the things we're going to be making is that you'll be able to select the birds for your battle. So you can set it up. So it's real tough for you and your friends to to be the winner. Right? So that's one of the new modes that we're thinking about, including, and then another one is all about. You know, like when I'm sitting in the doctor's office, not in the office, but in the waiting room, or I'm in a lineup somewhere. And you know, you inevitably pull your phone out and you start, what everyone calls doom scrolling, right, where you launch your social media of choice, and you just turn into a zombie. Like, like, Dustin was like, Is there a way we can deal with that? Like, can we get people to give people something more fun and somewhat, like less waste of time, you know, something more meaningful in those moments. And so we're considering a thing where a bird picture will pop up, and there'll be four banding codes to choose from. And then you got to figure out which one's the right one. And there's no competition there. It's just you, like sharpening your skills, right? When I pick up my kids from school, and I arrive 15 minutes early. I'm gonna band code. I'm gonna band code battle myself for 15 minutes. And just get better.


Andrea Gress  50:58

Do you think you could like set a timer? Like so you could do a minute and just see how many correct ones you could get in a minute? And then try to beat your record?


Paul Riss  51:07

Exactly. You're getting it! Yeah, that's that's how things are coming along. There'll be a timer. There'll be like a little thing. And then you then because then it's like the tech. It's like data, right? So I can I can say you had a streak. Wow, that was a streak, right? You can try beat your streak. And, you know, it's compete against yourself. And it's learning and it's just fun. That you know, that's that's the thing. Dustin, I just want to make birding fun for more people. That's all.


Andrea Gress  51:35

Yeah, I like it. I love it. I'm really excited that this is a new app that people can play with. And I'm excited to see where it grows. It sounds like there's lots of cool features coming down the pipeline.


Paul Riss  51:47

Yeah, we got lots of ideas. But you know, we only got so much finances. So we got to like, pick and choose what we want to make. And we only have so much time to paint birds. That's on me. But yeah, so we got lots of ideas. But we you know, we gotta have to do it a little bit at a time. But I've had people reach out from Malaysia, and I've had people reach out from India, and from South America, and they're like, when are we getting birder battle? Am I gonna have to paint 10,000 birds, you guys?


Andrea Gress  52:17

Yeah, maybe?


Paul Riss  52:20

I'm down for it. If only I could turn it into a full time job.


Andrea Gress  52:24

Yeah, I mean, you know, apps can be pretty valuable. You get the right person interested. That could be a pretty cool thing to see. Just spiral into something huge.


Paul Riss  52:35

Yeah, I hope so. It'd be so much fun. If some day down the road. I can go on a work trip to South Africa to do a shoot and people challenge me to a birder battle on my day off. Yeah. How cool would that be? Like? If on my tombstone, it says, Here lies Paul Riss. Punk, birder, father, husband, creator, co-creator of birder battle? That's pretty good. That's a pretty good tombstone.


Andrea Gress  53:06

Absolutely. I love it. On the topic of your death, let's just switch it up here. Are you? Are you feeling optimistic about the future of birding and conservation in Canada?


Paul Riss  53:19

You know, I am, because I don't think you can feel any other way about it. So, you know, there's a lot of depressing stuff in the news. And I think you got to remain positive about the environment. Now I read a really interesting story like three days ago, I was at the gym. And I was thinking, I was just reading New York Times. And there's a story about, you know, how like, all these tech companies are laying off slash firing, you know, 10 to 20,000 people at a go. Like, these are really smart people that are losing their jobs. Some really smart people are going to be migrating from that world into working for these climate change startups, and how do we fight the biggest problem on Earth? And it's about to get an influx of super smart people thinking about it. So how can you not feel good about that? You know, yeah, I think that's awesome. There's lots of good stories out there like that. And it keeps me hopeful for not only the environment and birds, but also for humans. Because let's face it, if Turtle Island wants us gone, it's gonna get rid of us. But, you know, in that case, we have no choice but to respect it. And saving birds means saving the environment and biodiversity. And that means saving the Earth. And it's just like, you can't have one without the other.


Andrea Gress  54:47

Yeah, so just like going back to how birding used to be this counterculture kind of punk thing. And in recent years, it's picked up so much popularity and so many more people are into it in a big way. And it's accessible through art through technology through new games. We're maybe kind of hitting some momentum for some big positive change for our environment as as a result of birds. It's kind of cool. 


Paul Riss  55:17

Yeah, I think it's awesome. 


Andrea Gress  55:19

So folks, you can see Paul's work in action by visiting the American Birding Association website. That's You could check out his online store prby apparel on RedBubble. You can download the birder battle app of course. And of course, you can go check out that CBC documentary Rare Bird Alert that we mentioned, all the links in the show notes. Thank you so much, Paul. This has been a ton of fun.


Paul Riss  55:44

It's been a real honor being on your show. Thank you.


Jody Allair  55:46

Thanks for being here, Paul.


Andrea Gress  55:54

The Warblers is a podcast of Birds Canada. Our goal is to bring you the information you need to discover, enjoy and protect birds. If you like what you hear, please subscribe, leave a review and share this podcast with everyone you know. Birds Canada relies on the support of donors like you visit to make a donation today. The Warblers is produced by Jody Allair, Ruth Friendship-Keller, Kate Dalgleish, Kris Cu and Andrea Gress with music by Jose Mora and art by Alex Nicole. Until next time, keep birding.