Other Animals

Welcome to Birdpunk: A Subculture of a Subculture

It’s the evening golden hour at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. A whirlwind of swallows swims through the soft light, chasing midges into a frenzy. Nearby on a platform a handful of birders scans the dimming sky, exposed to the marsh and its blood-thirsty elements.

In plain T-shirts and khakis, the group blends into the woods-y backdrop—with two exceptions. Caleb Hunt, a bookkeeper for an adult-entertainment boutique, rocks a Philly Punx tank top with a fanged, horned Benjamin Franklin splashed across the front. Next to her, Tony Croasdale, the leader of today’s walk, sports an aviary of skin art. A Swallow-tailed Kite, Belted Kingfisher, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Scarlet Tanager, and three types of vultures bedeck his legs, collarbone, and arms.

Croasdale’s tattoos pay homage to two of his biggest life passions: birding and punk rocking. He plunged into the first as a kid when his father took him to Philadelphia’s Pennypack Park to learn about kingfishers. The music came later at age 19 when he launched the vegan thrashcore band R.A.M.B.O. under the stage name Tony Pointless. The collective quickly hit fame with two full-length albums and tours on five continents; but when it broke up in 2006, Croasdale came back to his home city and turned his focus to environmental activism. He eventually went on to found the BirdPhilly education program, which is how he and Hunt, who identifies as a committed punk, met in 2015. 

Though his moshing days are behind him, Croasdale says he still feels connected to punk culture. If anything, he’s found more space for expression by building birding into his practice. The hybrid approach has strengthened his resolve to tend to nature and fight oppression with personal action—a sentiment shared by his many “birdpunk” friends around the country.

The overlap between birding and punk might seem strange to outsiders, but for birdpunks like Croasdale, the Do-It-Youself (DIY) values that shape punk living feed perfectly into low-frills activities such as birding. The DIY aesthetic and mentality is a core philosophy for punks, who thrive on independence and individualism. Their music bucks the profiteering industry of labels and promoters and travels over a homegrown network of venues and websites. The ethic also spills over to visual media, politics, economics, and social philosophy. Hospitality, trust, and authenticity are key traits in the community.

When you consider these principles, it’s clear why many punkers are drawn to birding and its rustic qualities. Or vice versa: why their early love of birds steers them straight into the throes of the punk scene. It’s a two-way street that draws out the best of both worlds, forming a distinctive subculture that’s holistic, aware, and expressive. 

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unk shows are typically loud, fast, and aggressive—a stark contrast to the calm, meditative experience of birding. But punk culture is as varied as the avian world itself: It’s broken up into subgenres to highlight distinctive values and personalities. “Queercore,” for instance, is the celebration of sexual and gender identity, while “Riot Grrrls” is a cross section for feminists. “Anarcho-punk,” on the other hand, is more in line with Croasdale’s self-governing, anti-capitalist vision.

While London and New York get credit for birthing punk in the 1970s, few other cities have embraced its diversity like Philly. The 215 area fosters a prime punk ecosystem, Croasdale says, mainly because it’s less expensive than Manhattan, D.C., and the West Coast. That enables bands to find affordable practice spaces and performance venues.

“Philadelphia has so many row homes with basements,” Croasdale adds. “That fosters a vibrant show scene.”

It was in those basements that Croasdale formed R.A.M.B.O.—an acronym for “Revolutionary Anarchist Mosh Bike Overthrow”—in 1999 as lead singer. In their eight years together the band toured 38 countries, allowing Croasdale to go birding in Southeast Asia, Europe, Australia, Peru, and all over North America.

Ultimately, that double lifestyle didn’t work out. Before a show in Malaysia, Croasdale and the band’s bassist, Bull Gervasi, went birding in Kuala Selangor, 100 miles away from where they were taking the stage. They gave themselves 10 hours to get back by bus, but it took 12 and they missed their call time.

“It was kind of a big deal,” Croasdale says. “It occurred to me that my head was not in the band; it was with the birds.”

Today Croasdale is the site director for the Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Education Center where, in addition to BirdPhilly, he’s started a backpack-lending program for city libraries that includes a Stokes field guide and a pair of binoculars.

The BirdPhilly program reaches punks and non-punks alike. But it has helped Croasdale foster a love of ornithology in the younger residents of the city. Photo: Mark Makela

Working in conservation in West Philadelphia has helped Croasdale resolve a childhood dilemma. When he was 12, he realized that the government, and in general, society, couldn’t be trusted to steward the planet and its resources. But it wasn’t until he fell into the punk scene that he was fully able to share that anxiety. “I found out there was music, a political ideology, and a counterculture that spoke to these issues. It provided me with like-minded peers,” he says.

One of those peers is Bull Gervasi, R.A.M.B.O.’s bassist and Croasdale’s birding partner on that fateful Malaysia trip in 2006. Gervasi now works as an electrician at a solar company in Philly and sometimes bunks in a co-op on the west end of the city. The basement has a practice space that’s always in use.

“Punk introduced me to environmentalism,” Gervasi says. Like Croasdale, he notes that it taught him “about the extent of corporate and government misdeeds.”

Gervasi grew up exploring the outdoors with his father and grandfather. But he got into birding during his R.A.M.B.O. years as he traveled all over the world with Croasdale and worked a seaweed harvester in the off months. One of the first species to catch his fascination was the Double-crested Cormorant. He would watch them sun on the New England docks each day, green eyes glittering and glossy wings spread.

Gervasi cites the DIY ethic as one of his biggest takeaways from punk. It provides the drive to try something bold and new, without the pressures of failure or success. “You could start a band, put out a fanzine, or teach yourself about birds with your friends,” he says. Croasdale agrees. Inspired by the city’s Mid-Winter Bird Census, in June of 2016 he and a science buddy turned the ethic into practice by organizing the inaugural Philadelphia Breeding Bird Census. Their results, published by the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club, have since spurred on a new tradition for the region’s rich birding scene.

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housands of miles away from Croasdale’s beloved city, birdpunk also has a presence on the West Coast.

Chris Warlow, a cabinet maker living near Olympia, Washington, is married to Croasdale’s friend Emily. He moved to the United States 15 years ago from England, where as a child, he spent much of his time roaming the northern countryside. Warlow would often go birding with his mother, getting up early to peek on a Black Grouse lek or hike to the Haweswater Reservoir to spy a Golden Eagle. When he left home, he moved to the urban milieu of Edinburg and subsequently crashed into the whole punk scene

Looking back Warlow realizes that like most punk birders, he’s melded those stages of his life together to get where he is today. “The positive interpretation is that there’s a natural progression from the gritty and angry side we lived as young punks,” he says. “People get hung up on the spikes and loud music, but the important part about punk is the issues and values. Birding fits into that for me.”

Croasdale and Hunt head up the local birdpunk scene. Nationwide, however, there are dozens, maybe hundreds, more like them. Photo: Mark Makela

Raquel Reyes, who lives in San Francisco and knows Croasdale through both punk and birding, points to the same misnomers. She’d always been interested in biology, but she credits her volunteer work at a wildlife hospital with making the discipline more personal. Like the others, Reyes discovered punk in her teens; she found self-esteem in a community where being a “weirdo” was a badge of honor.

“Mainstream views about punk culture characterize it as self-absorbed and nihilistic,” Reyes says, “but there are many sub-categories immersed in ecological concerns.” The rejection of capitalism and mainstream consumerism spurs the need for self-sufficiency and self-discovery, through sewing, carpentry, gardening, and, of course, birding. 

“With that mindset, birding makes a lot of sense,” Reyes says. “You can be poor and still pack a beat up Sibley and a pair of binoculars that time forgot and have the best day.”

Pair that with a thirst for activism, and you’ve got the makings of a punk revolution. “There’s definitely an environmentalist’s streak of taking care of the world around you,” says Hunt, Croasdale’s Philly birding pal. “It has that do-it-yourself ethic. If you see something’s not being done, just take care of it; you can’t expect people to do it for you. That carries over into conservation.”

After all, individualism is one of the defining features of punk. But that individuality adds up to a larger movement, just like it does in birding.

As the sun sets over Tinicum, Croasdale’s group bids goodbye to the swallows and heads down the trail. Though the day has been steeped with surprises—an Osprey, a Peregrine Falcon, a Little Blue Heron—perhaps the biggest curiosity to other birders passing by is Croasdale himself: a tattooed punk star turned conservation leader. But once you understand how he and the birdpunks see, and celebrate, life’s rich pageant, the sight doesn’t seem so strange at all.

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