On Capitol Hill, Bird Walks Help Politicians Find Common Ground

Since 2019, a series of monthly bird walks on Capitol Hill has offered a low-key way to put birds on the minds of Congress and provide common ground in a place that’s more partisan than it’s ever been.

Story by Ariel Wittenberg; photos by Chris Linder

It’s a busy morning on Capitol Hill when the gaggle of congressional staffers and their boss, U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal, gather on the back lawn.

At this moment in early October, Congress is locked in negotiations over the biggest-ever boost in federal funding to fight climate change. But this morning’s meeting isn’t about legislation in the House of Representatives. It’s about three visitors perched atop the chamber’s roof, backlit by the Capitol Dome’s soft gold glow.

“Will you look at that, House Sparrows sitting on the people’s House!” exclaims Tykee James, the government affairs coordinator for National Audubon Society, eliciting a muffled chuckle from the dozen legislative aides and interns assembled.

James often makes dad jokes as icebreakers on the bird walks he leads monthly for staffers from both Congressional chambers and political parties. He started the walks in 2019 as a way to forge connections with lawmakers and their staff who might work on bird-related legislation. But the coronavirus pandemic, and then Capitol Hill security concerns (when much of the National Mall was fenced off following the Jan. 6 riot), put the bird walks on a yearlong hiatus. Now the walks are back, and James says they serve another purpose: building common ground in a place that is perhaps more partisan now than it’s ever been.

“If you take down the political barriers and you just bird a little bit, if you calm down, smell the flowers, and look for some feathers, then I think that you can genuinely find where people are coming from and that gives you a better opportunity to find where you can meet in the middle,” he says. On this crisp October morning, James explicitly avoids talking politics: “I do no kind of lobbying on these walks.” Instead, he gives pointers on using binoculars, fields questions about the difference between male and female House Sparrows, and mimics the different caws of Fish Crows and American Crows. It’s all part of a strategy. “It’s not about me being an expert, it’s about me trying to find ways to connect people with the excitement of it all,” he says. “Being present for moments like this makes you feel connected to birds and to their issues.” Congressman Lowenthal is no stranger to bird policy. He (a California Democrat) joined with Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (a Pennsylvania Republican) to coauthor the Migratory Bird Protection Act that’s being considered in the 117th Congress. The Act would permanently codify protections for migratory birds that were rolled back during the Trump Administration (but recently reinstated by President Biden). Reps. Lowenthal and Fitzpatrick have also reintroduced legislation calling for the U.S. to join the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels, a conservation treaty that covers 31 species of seabirds.
But this is Lowenthal’s “first bird walk,” he says, and he is genuinely surprised when James tells him that American Robins aren’t actually robins at all, but a type of thrush. “Where are the robins, then?” Lowenthal asks. “They are in Europe,” James says. To Lowenthal, participating in a bird walk is a means to escape the grind of the Capitol, where later in the day he will pay his respects to victims of the Covid-19 pandemic at a ceremony near the Washington Monument before returning to the House chamber for more debate on spending bills.