An Interview With Bird-Watching Blogger Mark Bilbrey

Mark Bilbrey is a writer who runs the bird-watching blog, Aberrant Plumage; here is a link to his website:


Q: What made you interested in birds?

A: Procrastination, actually. I was studying for comprehensive exams as I finished my PhD in the English Dept at the University of Georgia—impoverished, over-worked, stressed out—but I had huge windows in the home I was renting, so I welcomed the distraction of watching the birds outside. I put up feeders to attract more of them. The next thing I knew, I’d purchased binoculars and a field guide and would go on long walks just to watch birds. It was escapism, no doubt—but I got a lot of pleasure out of it, even though it probably caused me to delay my exams.

I think there was one bird in particular who cemented my love of birds by giving me a sense of their unique personalities and the hardships they face on a daily basis. He was a male Northern Cardinal covered in scars, his feathers always a patchy mess. This guy was intense—the first bird singing in the morning and the last one to call it quits at night—and he had a bad habit of attacking his own reflection in windows and car mirrors. He would defend his territory (from himself, mostly) with inexhaustible fury. He nested in a tree just outside my bedroom, where he fed and raised a single fledgling. The other cardinals in the neighborhood would sort of come and go, but that guy was a stalwart.

I started the Aberrant Plumage blog many years later to celebrate what’s fun and humorous and silly and entertaining about this hobby, while also educating readers. Most of the writing I find about birding is surprisingly serious. That’s fine, but let’s face it: unless you’re a scientist, watching birds isn’t an especially austere endeavor. When I’m watching birds, I’m usually giggling—and that’s the angle I try to communicate in the blog.

Q:  Why should the average Joe or Jane reading this article take up birding?

A: I don’t know if they should, frankly, and I’m no proselytizer, but if someone were looking for encouragement, I’d say this: A) All the cool kids aren’t doing it. Get to it before the hipsters do! B) It’s your best excuse yet to wear a fanny pack and a big sun hat. C) Your newfound knowledge will really impress the ladies at the assisted living facility. D) It’s better than Netflix.

It’s just fun for me. It’s fun at all levels, from beginner to expert. If you like a very chilled-out, easy-going hobby that’s a distraction from work, this fits the bill. But it’s also a great hobby for Type A folks who take their hobbies seriously and want to read hundreds of books about it and travel the globe and buy expensive equipment and develop unprecedented expertise and pick up a few degrees in ornithology.

Q:  What are the startup costs of birding?

A: It would be fair to say there aren’t any. Look out a window. Go outside. Done.

But, in reality, you’ll probably want binoculars. I think mine were seventy bucks. Feel free to spend $300 if you prefer, but it’s not necessary. You might want to shell out another twenty or thirty for a good field guide, or save money by picking up a used copy or just using free online resources. If you want to attract birds to your yard, you’ll spend a good bit on feeders and seed—perhaps $100 to start with a couple of feeders, a pole, and a couple big bags of quality seed, but the equipment is hardy and will last for years. The seed, on the other hand, is a regular expense. If it’s too costly or you don’t have a yard, just go to the park. Problem solved.

Q:  What kinds of birds does one find in the Pacific Northwest?

A: This is my question exactly. I’m new here, having just moved from Tennessee. Some species like American Crows and American Robins live all over the country, but many species live either in the west or the east of the continent, which is why so many field guides are labeled as western or eastern. I have a lot to learn about the birds here in Oregon. So far, though I haven’t had much time for birding between all the unpacking and IKEA trips, I’ve been fascinated by the Black-billed Magpies, Common Ravens, Oregon Juncos (a subspecies of the Dark-eyed Juncos with which I was familiar), Stellar’s Jays, House Wrens (we had Carolina Wrens back east), Song Sparrows (they live in the east too, but seem to be much more abundant here), and Red-breasted Nuthatches. There’s a long list of western birds I hope to see and learn about soon. I’ll definitely make a trip to see the puffins and other shorebirds, and I plan to check out the Vaux’s Swifts this month at Chapman Elementary School, where they apparently put on quite a show.

Q:  What is the worst day job you ever had in your life? (why was it so bad.)

A: I can think of a number of jobs that have been difficult or exhausting, but most of those have been rewarding and worthwhile. Only a couple of them were truly bad, in the moral sense. One was a telemarketing job. We were supposedly soliciting donations for the Fraternal Order of Police, but I doubt that’s where the money was going. It was a real scuzzy operation. We were encouraged to be very aggressive and it soon became clear that the people who were actually making decent money (the more donations a caller got, the more he or she was paid) were doing so by flat-out lying to anyone with whom they spoke. There were no consequences for doing so. No one could call us back or submit complaints. They didn’t even know who we were, so who would they complain to? I remember speaking with an elderly woman who very reluctantly decided she could spare some money out of loyalty to her local police department. I wanted to tell her not to do it, but the manager was listening in. I quit after two weeks, when the scam became irrefutably clear. My manager’s response: “Okay. Bye.” Looking back, I wish I had investigated, asked around, and spoken to law enforcement, but I was young and didn’t have the wherewithal to do so at the time.

For a couple summers in Iowa City, I graded essay responses for standardized tests, which I also found to be morally dubious. Some kids would write brilliant, thoughtful, creative answers that didn’t score well according to the rubric; others would write garbage but manage to tick off a few of the boxes we were looking for and score well anyway. Being a part of that racket didn’t feel good at all, nor did it feel good to look around at an enormous room full of dedicated, experienced, highly-trained professional educators reduced to $10/hr peons in this business of for-profit testing. Meanwhile, kids’ educational futures were on the line.

Q:  You have a business doing freelance writing called Paragraph Doctor. What is the most typical kind of writing people request?

A: Unfortunately, many of those who contact me are looking to have their undergraduate papers written for them. I don’t do that. I offer to tutor them instead, but I imagine they just laugh and go find an essay-mill somewhere to do their dirty work.

I get a fair amount of work writing web copy for businesses. A politician hired me to work on his speeches, web content, and press statements. A musician hired me to write his bio and web profiles. This surprised me, but twice now I’ve been asked to write or revise wedding ceremonies. You just never know what might come along.

Most of my work is in editing, though, and I’d say the majority of that has been for scholarly work. Professors and graduate students hire me to edit work that they intend to submit for publication or to a dissertation committee; undergraduates hire me to edit theses and application letters and that sort of thing. The ethics of editing for an undergraduate or high school student are a little tricky to navigate, so I have to determine on a case-by-case basis if what I’m being asked to do is ethical. (I’ll spare you the laborious details—I could write a book on it). Some of those clients are not native English speakers, while others are dealing with massive projects and just need another set of trained eyes. I’ve also edited a great deal of fiction, non-fiction, and—just recently—a graphic novel. It’s most fun and rewarding when I can build a collaborative relationship with a client and we develop a level of comfort with each other’s honesty. Seeing a writer get the most out of their work and learn along the way is a thrill.

Q:  What was the most challenging writing job you ever undertook?

A: Writing for a politician was tough. I’m not a politician, nor do I understand much about politics (which I made clear to the client before accepting the job), but I do know a great deal about rhetoric and audience awareness and writing a clear, effective argument. Ultimately, he appreciated my fresh perspective, and I appreciated the opportunity to contribute to the political discourse. He knew that, at least, I would provide something new and unique. It wasn’t my job to come up with his position on any given topic, nor did I need to agree with all of his positions—my job was to make his ideas clear to voters. Had his positions been abhorrent in some way, I would not have done it, but they weren’t. And if there’s anything we need in politics it’s a higher level of clarity and discourse, so I was proud to contribute to that effort, if only in a very small way.

Q:  What is your opinion of Jonathan Livingston Seagull?

A: My opinion is that I might read it (or watch the movie) given enough incentive (say, free drinks or a cash sum). The Neil Diamond soundtrack I might listen to on a lark.

Q:  What do you think of Portland so far?

A: It’s lovely. Any place that cherishes its doughnuts, beer, and weirdos the way this town does is okay in my book. Plus, they call porta-potties “Honey Buckets,” so that’s a win.

It’s nice to be so near the mountains and rivers and the ocean. Folks are friendly but not intrusive. I hope I can tap into the creative energy of this place. But I’m really going to miss Northern Cardinals.

Q:  Of all the famous cartoon ducks, which one do you believe would have the best chance of surviving in the wild? (why)

A: Donald is too incompetent and prone to self-destruction to last very long in the wild. Birds face a lot of dangers, from habitat loss to predation to competition to environmental pollution, not to mention the monumental task of migration and surviving extreme temperature fluctuations. I don’t think he could handle it. Rubber Ducky has no legs and is incapable of autonomous movement, so he’s out too. Also, he’s not really a cartoon, so he’s ineligible anyway. I think Daffy would do fine, though. Daffy Duck can take a shotgun blast to the face without any permanent damage. He just puts his bill back on straight, mutters a few curses, and goes along his way. He’s a tough bird.

Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects:)


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