Flying Colors cofounder Stetson Hundgen and his ornithologist father talk about a lifetime of birding

Flying Colors cofounder Stetson Hundgen and his ornithologist father talk about a lifetime of birding

The Hundgens talk about Stetson’s childhood behind-the-scenes at the Bronx Zoo, and how birding brings them together as adults

December 13 2023 Jillian Anthony

When Stetson Hundgen was a child, he got to hang out with creatures of all kinds, Where the Wild Things Are-style. His dad, Kurt Hundgen, worked as an ornithologist at the Bronx Zoo for 20 years, so Stetson spent his days getting nibbled on by parrots, inspecting Ostrich eggs, and rounding up Canadian geese for seasonal tagging. Kurt grew up surrounded by animals, and he raised his own kids with the same enthusiasm for animals, especially birds. Stetson’s childhood of zoo visits and camping trips turned into a deep love of bird watching in adulthood, and he and his dad have traveled to Belize, Costa Rica, and Italy just to add exotic birds to their list. Here, the father and son share memories of growing up with winged friends, and why they both care so much about protecting our environment—and the future of birds on this earth—today.

Kurt Hundgen (KH): My interest in animals really started at a really, really young age. I grew up in Blauvelt in Rockland County, [New York]. I was always outside as a kid. Growing up I had alligators, iguanas, frogs—my room was a menagerie. So I always knew that I would be working with animals. 

As a young kid, I would put my bird feeders out and watch it from my kitchen window. But it really wasn’t until I went out to Colorado [for school for wildlife management and helped trap sage grouse] that my appreciation for birds started to grow. I decided to come back to New York after two years of graduating college, and I went to the Bronx Zoo. I applied for the bird department position, and I got it [in 1984]. And after that, there was no looking back. I’ve been with birds now for about 30 years. Right now I am at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, and I am the director of animal collections and conservation programs.

Stetson, he’s a lot like me, he’s attracted to the outdoors. In his younger years we always went down to Sarasota and Lido Beach for vacation. Every morning I would go bird watching, and he would come with me and gradually he picked it up. I enjoyed bird watching as a kind of release or recreation activity. We bird watch together now, but he picked a lot of it up himself.

​​Stetson Hundgen (SH): Yeah, [we did] a lot of camping trips, a lot of bird watching. Days at the Bronx Zoo were definitely a big part of my formative years. My dad used to take me to work. I was cleaning the cages and the exhibit, just helping out, but those were always really fun days—just experiencing behind-the-scenes of what a conservation effort looks like. 

My dad played a prank on me one time. He sent me in there to go feed this exotic chicken, and it was a really aggressive chicken. And so it just started flapping and coming after me—I was five years old or something. That was really a funny yet traumatic experience. And then they used to have these Lorikeets, and they were so playful and friendly, and they would just crawl all over you and kind of nibble on your ear. It felt like hours I would spend in the cage with them just hanging out and having fun. 

KH: Yeah, I forgot about that! you used to come down to the zoo a lot.

SH: And then going behind the scenes on the exhibits, like the cheetah exhibit—I remember that being really, really cool visiting them—and the ostrich house.

KH: The ostrich house and the storks, the birds of paradise. For about 10 years, I oversaw the breeding program at the Bronx Zoo for birds. There were a lot of good things that Stetson saw. That’s all behind the scenes. 

We used to have Canada geese roundups at the Bronx Zoo, we had a program where we would gather them up once a year during the molt to band them. And it was an all-day affair. We would probably collect anywhere from 60 to 80 Canada geese. I would bring Stetson in once a year just for that. 

SH: You’re chasing around these little baby Canada geese. And the big ones too. They can’t fly during molting, so you have a big advantage to capture them, but they bite and they hiss. Catching birds is definitely an art. 

KH: One of the things which was great about the Bronx Zoo is it always gravitated toward programs that nobody was doing and that were really challenging. We got involved with a lesser adjutant stork that was not well established at all, and we built a habitat for them. We had three pairs, and we had difficulty getting to successful chick rearing. So I went over to Nepal for a month and looked at the lesser adjutants in the wild and what they were feeding their chicks, and I was able to bring that information back to the Bronx. Basically, we were just lacking vitamin E in the chick diet. The storks in Nepal were feeding their offspring frogs, and it turns out frogs have a high vitamin E level to them. So those kinds of things always impressed Stetson. 

SH: Yeah, totally. Like, Oh wait, nobody’s been able to breed this bird and you just figured it out? That was always cool.

At the outset, bird watching can feel like a pretty benign or boring activity, but it’s actually quite a thrill. When you’re looking for something, and when you see something that’s rare—it’s like hunting, in that sense. We actually took a trip to Belize last year. 

KH: 2019 we did Belize, 2018 we did Costa Rica, and then we did Italy. 

SH: The Belize trip was the bird-heavy trip—we ended up identifying almost 180 different species over the two weeks that we were there.

KH: The Belize trip was when I really saw Stetson as a bird man. He’s a birder. You always want your kids to have some part of you. And I always found birding so relaxing and so enjoyable to do. It’s just a great self-interest hobby to have. 

SH: It stems from the love of being outside. I like birding because it is very calming to just go out and appreciate what’s around you. But then there’s so much learning. And it’s never ending. If you know 10 different bird calls, each of those 10 birds have 10 different variations. It wasn’t until probably about 10 years ago that I started bird watching with my ears rather than my eyes, and that’s really cool, because you can’t really turn it off once you have it. What used to be beautiful noise in the woods is now your brain trying to identify what you’re hearing—it’s a little bit of a curse in that way, if you’re trying to meditate or have a quiet mind. I like pretty much everything about birding.

KH: Some people are so passionate about it, it’s like religion to them. I like the big birds, but walking through the woods and seeing the small birds, all the different warblers—it takes a commitment to know all that. 

I think association with birds provides a higher quality of life for people. But the really important thing is that birds are pretty good environmental indicators. Look at the bird populations and how pesticides have impacted them, and what’s happened with the peregrine falcon populations now. When they go down, basically they’re telling us there’s something wrong with our environment. When we went down to Belize, you can see that it’s a healthy environment, because of the bird diversity. The [eagle populations coming back to the] Hudson River is another good indicator. You see more waterfowl on the Hudson River during the migration season, which to me indicates that the Hudson River estuary has improved from when I grew up.

SH: Birds are having the same kind of effects from neonicotinoids as bees are. It’s harmful to them. On the land-use front, organic farming is much better and more sustainable for our environment. And there are birds that are in those environments as well, where pesticides are being used. [Finding out] that there’s no organic bird seed out there, from a philosophical standpoint, was pretty shocking. So our impact at Flying Colors will come down to how much [demand we can create to help push the seed] farming industry towards organic, especially when it comes to bird feed and livestock feed and helping to create that demand. Our hope is to generate enough sales to move the needle as much as we can towards more organic and sustainable farming practices.

KH: One of the positive things that came out of the pandemic is that bird watching is on the rise. Since the spring, all of our bird watching tours are maxed out. And that can only have positive effects for long term conservation, because in order to get the general public to conserve something, they first have to appreciate it.