Mya-Rose Craig interview: Birdgirl takes flight

In Birdgirl, Mya-Rose Craig has written one of the most eagerly anticipated environmental reads of the year - but it's also a much-needed portrait of growing up with mental illness, she tells Diyora Shadijanova.

Diyora Shadijanova

Mya-Rose Craig insists she is not a morning person. “I just about make it to lectures on time,” the 20-year-old author says, describing her first year studying Human, Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge University. This is a surprising fact to learn about someone who has spent most of her life waking up before dawn to catch a glimpse of the rarest birds found in the world. “It’s different when it’s for birds. On the birding holidays, [my family and I] become more in tune with the sun. We go to bed early and wake up at four or five o’clock in the morning, and it feels natural.”

I meet Craig for a sunny afternoon stroll around Cambridge University’s Botanic Gardens. Her long, straight black hair drapes over a knitted cream jumper, with a black skirt over black tights, white trainers and large silver hoops in her ears. Fitting the young and eco-conscious stereotype, she carries a canvas bag on her shoulder. I can immediately tell she’s feeling shy when she gives me a small wave by the entrance, but by the end of the two hours we spend together, she has opened up; there’s a new confidence in her words. 

It’s Craig’s first time at the City’s Botanic Gardens since she moved to Cambridge last autumn. The whirlwind of university life, though, hasn’t distracted her from birding too much. “I saw a Kingfisher that I thought was really cool and there’s a pair of swans building a nest outside my window”, she says when I ask her what birds she has managed to spot on campus - she’s studying at St John’s college. “I’m still very aware of the birds around, but they probably play a smaller role in my day-to-day life at uni.”

The British Bangladeshi ornithologist, environmentalist and diversity campaigner is exceedingly impressive. Craig is the youngest person to have ever set their eyes on five thousand different birds (half of the world’s species), has an honorary doctorate from Bristol University and is on the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) committee. The accolades don’t stop there. She is the founder and president of the award-winning social enterprise Black2Nature, which campaigns for equal access for marginalised communities, and she is known for holding the most-northerly climate strike on an Arctic ice cap. Considering all this, it should be surprising that she has found the time to write a memoir – one of the most anticipated environmental reads of the year – but it’s not. Craig is determined, ambitious and has the work ethic of someone who has broken several world records.

In Birdgirl, an insightful story of a unique adolescence, Craig writes about her unconventional childhood and the birding adventures she has been on with her family. Margaret Atwood has called it "lyrical, poignant and insightful". The book's title refers to the nickname the twitcher has adopted since the inception of her blog. The author recounts her birdwatching experiences from almost every corner of the planet, excitedly tallying up the numbers alongside her mother and father. Though Birdgirl will be a delight for bird fanatics, the book is accessible for readers who can just about point out the pigeons looking for scraps on the street. From yellow-headed Picathartes to Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Craig carefully documents different physical features and qualities unique to each species. 

Mya-Rose Craig. Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin. Styling by Anna Eastman.

Yet things are not all they may seem. The birding trips weren’t just environmentally conscious family holidays, but a means of providing temporary relief for Craig’s mentally unwell mother. The family don’t know it at the time, but she has bipolar disorder. This is something the travelling trio struggles to deal with as a proper diagnosis isn't given for years. “Was she always going to be like this: energetic, happy and essentially Mum one week or month or year, and despondent, unfocused and miserable the next?” Craig asks in the book, reflecting on a period when the family didn’t know what was wrong.

'I have never really read anything that’s honest about something like that. And that’s the only way things will change – if people put their stories out there'

Mya-Rose Craig

Writing about such raw life experiences has been cathartic and eye-opening for Craig. “When a lot of these things happened, and I was eight, I didn't have an understanding of what was going on,” she says as we walk around a water fountain. The sound of the trickling water feels refreshing in the warm weather. “I think connecting everything into a wider story allowed me to see the bigger picture and understand more about what my parents had been dealing with.” 

So often, mainstream discussions of mental health issues focus on the personal experience of anxiety and depression, and told through the slick gloss of social media, whether from influencers such as Love Island’s Dr Alex George or household celebrities such as like Fearne Cotton. But for Craig, it was essential to write about the dynamic of a family coping with a much less commonly understood condition. “I have never really read anything that’s honest about something like that,” she tells me. “And that’s the only way things will change – if people put their stories out there.”

The author finds the discussion of mental wellbeing as important as writing about bird-watching. If anything, the two are closely linked. “Birdwatching has always been mindful to me,” she says as we cross over to a rising path giving us a full view across rigid Victorian flower beds sprawling below. “As I've gotten older, my enjoyment of just being outside and absorbing in nature and just enjoying what comes across my path has grown.”

With the climate crisis significantly worsening without drastic action, and humanity heading towards the sixth largest extinction, bird populations are gravely threatened. So it was perhaps inevitable that Craig’s childhood hobby would steer her into environmentalism: “Having had the ability to travel and see the impact of environmental issues in different places – deforestation, pollution, and climate change – I think that has shaped all of my activism,” she says. During COP26 in Glasgow, she gave speeches alongside other impressive women like Emma Watson, Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg. 

While Craig’s love for birdwatching and climate campaigning wasn’t something she felt comfortable sharing with her friends at school – because she found it deeply intimate, personal and most of all embarrassing – it’s impossible to keep it on the down-low today. “[These things] are cringe when you're younger because you desperately don't want to be different. Yet suddenly, you turn 18, and they are what make you interesting,” she explains. She didn’t plan on telling people at university about her environmental campaigning, but they found out anyway. “During Freshers’ week, I had agreed to do some diversity stuff with The North Face. It was meant to be very internal and I didn’t realise or maybe had forgotten that there was a big Instagram advertising campaign alongside it. So loads of people just saw my face pop up on their phones with no context. Even if I had wanted to, I couldn’t keep it secret.” She was mortified at the idea of her peers seeing it and had wrongly assumed that they would tease her for it or think she was a bit too earnest, but instead, her friends have been encouraging, affirming her environmental passions.

Aiming high: Mya-Rose Craig. Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin. Styling by Anna Eastman.

As she grew up spending so much time outdoors, Craig developed an awareness about who gets to be out in nature and who doesn’t. She started questioning why there were hardly any other people of colour on her birdwatching trips from a young age. “Being part-Bangladeshi is what made me realise what a lack of diversity there was in the first place. Young people need to see someone like them who is into nature” she told The Guardian in 2020. In the UK, the conservation and environment sectors are infamously white. Of environmental professionals, only 0.6% are non-white and the conservation sector has failed to monitor the percentage of its non-white membership, volunteers or trustees.

'I don't think I am capable of being offline. I have been accused of being chronically online'

Mya-Rose Craig

These issues were highlighted even more when the Covid-19 pandemic enforced lockdowns, cutting off many marginalised communities from green spaces. Since then, Craig has spoken at climate conferences, using her expert bird knowledge and experience as a woman of colour to advise organisations in the nature sector on how they could improve their commitment to climate action and pledge to better diversity. Her social enterprise, Black2Nature, runs nature camps and activities for young people of colour, organises race equality in nature conferences, and campaigns to make the nature conservation and environmental sectors ethnically diverse. Craig also acknowledges many other groups paving the way in this sector. “There have been so many organisations pop up, such as Black Girls Hike and Flock Together, both of which are brilliant. It’s so nice that Black2Nature has gone from a very lone voice to being part of a collective of groups that champion diversity in the outdoors. Though it’s slow, change is happening.”

Increasingly, the piling pressures of climate activism aren’t easy to deal with for Craig, especially on social media. “I don't think I am capable of being offline. I have been accused of being chronically online”, she says. “I have spoken to a lot of other people my age who feel the all-encompassing need to be constantly championing the movement, and I suppose, it feels like if I just stay in my niche of what I talk about, there's not enough time to talk about everything else.” Having seen other people burn out, she is desperate to avoid the same fate by making a real effort to stay out of the “activism Olympics”. Craig feels there is a push to make climate justice an individualised movement, “when in reality, it’s a collective movement”. 

And how does she find hope in such bleak times? “I think [being hopeful] is part of the job description because otherwise, what’s the point?” she reflects. If anything, campaigning has lifted Craig out of anxiety and despair. “Fossil fuel companies are actively putting money into campaigns that fuel nihilism,” she insists. Understandably, the climate activist believes this would be the worst time for people to give into doomism. 

Whether it’s pressuring world leaders to act on the climate crisis, preserving natural habitats to fight bird extinction or being candid on mental health, Craig intends to keep using her voice, which is only growing louder. “Campaigning is driven by frustration, it has its own momentum,” Craig writes in Birdgirl. “The more I [do], the more involved I [become], the more compelled I [feel] to push harder, to add to the conversation. My activism [feels] instinctive and powerful.”

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