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Interview: Actor Ian Harding talks about rediscovering his passion for birds

Pretty Little Liars star Ian Fleming keeps his optics ready. Photo by Sophie Hart.
Pretty Little Liars star Ian Harding keeps his birding optics at the ready. Photo by Sophie Hart.

Odd Birds, a recently released memoir by actor Ian Harding, caught our eye not only because it mentions birds in the title, but also because the author writes with sincerity and depth about his interest in birding. Harding is one of the stars of the popular TV series Pretty Little Liars, which is ending after seven seasons. Indeed, it was the show’s end that prompted Harding to write about how his life as an actor dovetailed with his love of birding, even comparing the former to a pelagic. The August 2017 issue of BirdWatching includes an excerpt from his book — the chapter Rediscovering Birds — in which he chronicles the rekindling of his appreciation and passion for birds.

BirdWatching’s publisher Lee Mergner talked with Harding while he was in the midst of a short eight-city book tour during which he read from his book, signed copies, and posed for innumerable photos with fans. It turned out that he, in turn, is a real fan of birders like Kenn Kaufman and David Sibley. The interview, conducted in two sessions, was edited for clarity and space.


You’re a little young to write a memoir, but because of the theme it really works. Still it’s not a small thing. Only people who haven’t written a book think it can be a breeze. Why did you decide to go the distance with it?

There were multiple reasons. Some of it was just the mere challenge. It would make sense to write something in a magazine and build that credibility instead of writing a book. Perhaps presumptuously, I wanted to go straight to the hard part, which was to compile a series of personal essays with a theme and a lens through which to view a blossoming life. I want to make it very clear that I understood how presumptuous it was to write a memoir at 30. It seems to be in vogue right now, especially with Hollywood types. I didn’t want to write a tell-all. I wanted to find the heart and the meaning behind things, and also process that I was on this television show for seven years and maybe what that means and going back and living old moments. And I wanted the experience of book tours. My dad [author and editor Stephen Harding] has done multiple books, and you know what – I wanted to be able to mock dad about that. And I did. It was a multi-faceted decision.

It’s not over-written, and it’s humorous without relying on jokes or gags. It’s not easy to write with humor. What experience did you have with writing?

I had done some. I mainly wrote for myself. Probably the most extensive humor writing I did was actually when my friends and I would write emails to each other and it was usually about wanting to hang out. They were very extensive and we’d usually pick one person to pick on and we’d write these epic emails. I suppose a possibility for another book is just publishing these emails, but then I’d probably go to jail. [Laughs.] I wrote in college and I wrote for myself. My father was a writer and although that doesn’t necessarily translate into doing what you want to do, it wasn’t a gigantic leap. Directing would be a bigger leap, because I’ve never done that, especially in the context of film.

Where and when did you write? On the set? At home?

I started about a year or year and a half ago. Sometimes I would get a week or so off when I wasn’t in an episode, and I’d get 10 days of just having nothing. And I just cleared my schedule to be a hermit. The issue is not necessarily volume, but quality. I was able to surpass the desired word count. Then my editor Sara Goodman and I had these discussions. I would write at completely random times, like on my lunch break or at night or even on the set sometimes, but those tended to not be so great.

It reminded me a little of Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up. That memoir was about this period in his life when he became a stand-up comic, and there’s a narrative arc to it, which yours has too. I hadn’t put it together that the chapters were discreet essays until you mentioned that.

That was the game plan. And it shows the glories of having an editor.

It’s good that you were able to accept that editing. Many new writers don’t know how important that is.

At first I felt like a fraud, like when she said, “What if you moved this paragraph to the end and sort of build up to that moment, because it feels like you’re killing yourself dramatically.” And I thought, “Oh, no, this is my story.” But then you realize that you need to shut down the ego. One reason I wanted to write was that this was my own thing. With acting you need other actors, and writers and producers and with music you need other people. I wanted to be independent and do something on my own. And, yes, it is a much more solitary pursuit than acting, but at the same time, you’ve got an editor and other people weighing in. And I realized that that is fantastic. My dad told me, “Yes, your name is on the cover, but about 100 people wrote this book.” The same way that if you stand up at the Oscars and thank people, you would not be at the podium if it weren’t for those people.

Odd Birds_Cover

There is nothing better than a good editor and nothing worse than a bad one. I like your friend John, who reminds me of Bill Bryson’s friend Katz in A Walk in the Woods – sort of a cranky companion reluctantly along for the lark, but who also gets the best lines.

Well, Bill Bryson is an inspiration for the book, because I loved A Walk in the Woods. I think I read it in a day. Those are usually the sort of writers I’m moved by. I love the experiential writers. They’re almost long-form journalists, but in a comedic way. I love David Sedaris and Bill Bryson. There’s a writer named Sam Sheridan who wrote The Disaster Diaries. It’s fascinating because he responded to his fear of being a new father and what happens when you feel powerless and out of control. And he had these worries of apocalyptic scenarios. He addressed that fearful projection he was having by going out and learning all these skills that would be useful in the apocalypse. As if suddenly he needed to provide for everybody and the worst scenario. He was a recent transplant to LA so he was worried about the earthquake. “How do I hot-wire a car?” Those are the people I look up to. John McKetta, whom I thanked in the end and who went along on all those adventures, is a real person. He is a character in and of himself. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of everything, and yet would probably die after 10 hours in the wilderness. Like Katz. That was the feel I was going for. Walter [Heymann] and John are real people. They’re great friends to have.

One of the tricky things about memoir writing is how to talk about people close to you. And in your case, you have all those actors you’ve worked with.

It’s one thing to say something about your family and friends who are not public figures. But with actors people need to believe that they’re like the characters they play. So you can’t out them for anything untoward.

Did you run any of it by your family? You talk a lot about your relationship with your sister.

I did reach out to Sarah [his sister] to tell her that I was writing this book, and she said, “As long as you don’t make me out to be a total monster or a total idiot, I don’t care.” I sent it to her, and she said, “This is great, I love it.” Sarah has been out and proud for many years so she’s not worried about any backlash about being a lesbian. There was one character that I mentioned — my first college roommate Joe — and I talked about how he would sleep naked and had this knack for sleeping in a child’s pose. Let’s just say that I’ve seen a lot of Joe. And Sara [his editor] said, “Can you ask him about that – if it’s okay with him?” I emailed him and he was fine with that, but he said, “Talk about the music, man.”

You did that. I also appreciate how you describe the acting life as akin to a pelagic. The jazz writer Whitney Balliett, who was known for his metaphors, used to say that the best ones come quickly and they can’t be forced.

Birding is different for different people. For some it’s an OCD compulsion where they have to check off the list. Great, you’ve seen the Pileated Woodpecker. That’s not been it for me. It’s very much a meditative thing for me. I wanted to make that comparison because there is almost a celebrity element. Like I’ve never seen a Painted Bunting but I’ve had so many close encounters and I know that there was one here in Brooklyn. I’ve seen so many pictures. I have this image of it in my mind and you can make the argument that that is its own form of celebrity. So when you see it, you’re shocked by that moment. “Oh my God, that’s it.”

It’s like seeing a movie star on a plane. “Wow, he’s got legs and eats peanuts too.”

Right, and maybe they have bad breath. There’s this whole thing about being present and being in the moment. In acting, between “Action” and “Cut” you have to get very focused and very much so with birding. I was just in the Ballona Marsh. I get very focused. Your eyes and ears are open and you’re taking in everything around you and you’re very present. That’s another comparison that’s easily made between the two worlds. I don’t think it was too much of a stretch. I think the bridge between the two topics was my inner thoughts. Hopefully, it came off as sincere.

I think the metaphor works well and ties the two worlds together at the end. Has the reaction to the book so far surprised you?

Through a mutual friend I was able to get hold of Kenn Kaufman and he read it. When I sent him a copy, I thought, “Oh God, I hope he likes it.” And I was happy that even though he has never watched a single episode of my show, which he shouldn’t, he was able to get it and understand it and enjoy it. He said, “With very little knowledge of what your television show was about, I was able to see the heart of the scenarios and get the general gist of the inner workings of a television show.” That’s what I was going for. There have been a few reactions. Especially with birding, though many people don’t go out once a week with a pair of binoculars and go looking for something, people have a mythical or personal folklore when it comes to birds. That was one of the things I wanted to address.

Just in last night’s signing alone, at least half of the people who came up said things like, “You know my mother always loved Blue Jays.” One woman was tearing up when she said, “I know that you said your family has a thing with cardinals, [in one chapter Harding writes about how his family is convinced that the cardinals that appear in their yard are reincarnations of loved ones who’ve died] but my family has the same thing and I can assure you that your family is with you, because my family is with me in that very same bird.” It’s very moving. People really believe it. One young woman asked me, “What was the last sandpiper you saw?” I said, “What a wonderful question — actually the other day I saw a Least Sandpiper and I was not expecting to see that.” And she went, “Oooh, really?” Of course, there are some people who ask what it’s like making out with Lucy Hale for a living. It’s interesting that for a subject like birding that some people don’t want to acknowledge that they love or know a lot about, a lot of people do have a real connection to it.

Speaking of your cardinals, I have a cardinal that wakes me up nearly every morning with its cheep-cheep call. It’s like a digital alarm clock. But maybe it’s my late mother or father telling me to get up. “Are you going to sleep all morning?”

Right, get up and do something with your life. My mom is not an avid birder by any stretch of the imagination, but she knows that call by heart. We’ll be sitting in our house in the DC area and we’ll hear it. And she usually hears it before me. Then we’ll stop and walk outside and they’ll be sitting there. It’s marvelous.

Like me, you got into birding when you were young and also like me, you got out because other things seemed cooler. For me, it was sports and music and the idea of girls.

For me it was that it was a hobby that was seen as odd. Even now as an adult with no shame with it, I keep a humorous lens on anything I do and it’s interesting to see people get genuinely angry about a hobby like that. I do it now because the hobby is very centered and mindful. Once you get out and about, you get into a practice that is bordering on meditation.

You really outed yourself as a birder, geeking out over seeing new birds and even admitting to being starstruck by a Red-cockaded Woodpecker. One thing you referenced is the communal and sharing aspect of birding. It’s not a solitary pursuit at all. That came across in the book with the alerts and the comparison of rare bird birders to paparazzi.

As I mentioned, I was just in the Ballona Marshlands of LA, which is a place where West Coast migration happens. Being out there, you’ll mention a bird you thought you saw and another person will say, “Yes, I think that was reported today.” You have a nice time sharing with each other and afterwards you say, “Best of luck to you,” and they say the same thing. It’s a wonderful thing.

When you were young, you liked to draw birds. Have you gotten back into that?

Not as much. When I see something special, I do write it down.

We have a section in our magazine called Hotspots Near You – pointing out different locations to check out birds. Going on location for film shoots must afford you the opportunity to see new and different birds in wholly different locations. Any locations come up recently for you?

I really think the Ballona Wetlands in LA is an interesting spot because [it’s] surrounded by multi-million dollar apartments and you’ll see planes taking off from LAX airport, but yet you’ll see birds there that you would have trouble seeing elsewhere. And having grown up in Northern Virginia, there are various parks that all you need to do is log on to eBird and you’ll see alerts come up. For instance, I was in my childhood home in Springfield, Virginia. We went down to this little place and saw a Great Crested Flycatcher. My go-to spots are anywhere I happen to be.

Do you use field guides? What guides do you like?

I definitely use Sibley’s guides. And I use Kenn Kaufman’s Advanced Guide to Birding. Me being a millennial there are all these apps that I’ll use, like eBird and Sibley for keeping track of things.

Do you keep a life list?

I do, both domestic and international. If I happen to be in Europe, it’s great because pretty much everything is new to me. So you look around and see what you can. I’m in the 200s somewhere. And being meticulous as possible is far more exciting than I thought it would be.

What apps do you use for songs and calls?

I use that Sibley app that has the recordings already. I do think that I should sit down and really learn the calls and songs, and making my own connections. Maybe it’s because I’m used to Hollywood pitches where they describe everything as a cross between two things. When I see an Ovenbird, how do I remember what this thing is? To me, it’s a thrush meets a Golden-crowned Kinglet. That’s my way of remembering it.

As you know, the songs and calls of birds can make such a big difference in discovering them.

Especially with the migrations, depending on where you are, everything may be in bloom and these forests are very hard to penetrate. When you get into spotting warblers, so many of them are so quick and are in the higher canopies, that really the best way to know if you’re even in the right place is to hear them. If you can say, “Yes, that’s the Chestnut-sided Warbler, I know that call.” That’s my next challenge. It’s the audio that I have to brush up on.

I remember our former editor Chuck Hagner and I were at Conowingo Dam in Maryland where Bald Eagles gather in large numbers and he pointed out the unusual call of that bird, which is not what most people expect at all. Hence all the complaints about movies substituting a different bird’s sound when showing eagles.

Right, the Red-tailed Hawk call. Because an actual eagle sounds like if you go to a basketball court and turn off all the sound except for the shoes on the court. That squeaking is more like what an eagle sounds like and that is not what people expect from our national bird.

Have any people in the TV and film community told you that they too share a love of birding?

I’ve had a few people talk with me about it. I think it’s interesting to find out about people’s various bird things. I found out that Will Ferrell has an $8 million aviary at his house, where he has rescued birds that have been injured. He owns a Turkey Vulture named Gregory but because of the Migratory Bird Act, he can’t legally own it without a permit, so to do that, he must have gone through all sorts of hoops to get it. And that’s amazing. I’m someone who could be in a leading man role, which I hate saying, but I’m that type in some way. For some reason it’s believed that birding isn’t sexy. But, hey, I really don’t care. I want to do what I’m passionate about, and the people that I find compelling and interesting are the ones that say that “I’m deeply passionate about this thing and I’m going to grow with it and learn as much as I can about that art form whether it’s jazz or writing or birding or pottery or …” Tom Hanks collects typewriters. Fantastic. It’s silly that people don’t want to admit it because it might hurt their image. What a useless notion. The more that people come out and be who they are, the better, in whatever aspect that is. I’m going to do what I love and if it means I won’t be in the next Marvel film, then that’s fine. What would be hilarious if in one of these Batman films, I come in as a Robin. That would be the richest irony.

We’re doing a bird survey trip to Cuba with David Sibley. What is on your bucket list for places to see birds?

Cuba is certainly one of them. I think most people in the field of birding and ornithology would say that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is extinct. There is that myth that it’s in the rainforest there. I would love to go and check out parts of Africa. I have a friend who is from Costa Rica, and he says that from his family’s house if you walk a mile into what would be the equivalent of their backyard, you’ll see things that you’ll never see in the United States. Right now I’m taking, with varying degrees of success, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online class and it’s been a very humbling experience. In their chapter on sexual selection they highlight the Birds-of-Paradise and why they have such intricate and seemingly useless but beautiful plumage. To get to see these birds…they’re found nowhere else in the word. I’d love the idea of going on a trip to see a bird that’s only seen in that one spot in Papua New Guinea.

Have you read those two books – Good Birders Don’t Wear White and Good Birders Still Don’t Wear White – with really clever essays about birding? Kenn’s essay in the latest edition is about not being snobby.

He sent me this thing he was working on. He was talking to me about the Blackburnian Warbler and the beauty of this bird. And he was at a stop along the migratory path and he overheard very young birders who had made it into a competition. “If I don’t check 25 species off my list today, then it’s a bust.” And he overheard this young birder say, “Oh, another Blackburnian, let’s go.” And Kenn said that he thought, but didn’t say: “Did you know that the bird, who weighs less than half an ounce, has traveled from the Andes Mountains to here? And the fact that it can be spotted from hundreds of feet because of the radiant chest that it has. All of this beauty and marvel in this one little thing. And you have the audacity to say, ‘Ugh, another Blackburnian?’” I’ve seen four or five at this point, and I still get a little teary-eyed when I see them.

And of course, Kenn wrote an essay in the first book called “Question Authority: Sometimes Good Birders Wear White.” You’re very fortunate that you’ve gotten to know a noted birder and author like Kenn, who is also someone with a real moral compass.

He’s a man who is a true genius when it comes to birding but will admit to seeing a cardinal and at first thinking it was a tanager. Having that humility. This passion that we share is such a metaphor for life and I think that’s what I was going for with this book. I hope that people who are not fans of my television show but love birding will get something out of it.

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Lee Mergner

Lee Mergner

Lee Mergner is BirdWatching’s editorial consultant and former publisher. In addition to his work with BirdWatching, Lee also contributes reviews, columns, news features, and profiles to JazzTimes, and he’s the host of JazzTimes Spins & Riffs, a weekly podcast available from iTunes. Born and raised in the Philadelphia area, Lee obtained his BA in psychology and math from Dickinson College and an MBA in marketing from Temple University.

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