Paul Riss: DDB’s punk rock birder

Here’s a sneak peek at our Jan. 31 issue On New Year’s Eve 2010, Paul Riss kissed his wife at midnight, then went outside to look for a pigeon. Riss, associate creative director at DDB Toronto, owns nine birdwatching field guides, has five bird watching apps on his phone and is a member of a […]

Here’s a sneak peek at our Jan. 31 issue

On New Year’s Eve 2010, Paul Riss kissed his wife at midnight, then went outside to look for a pigeon.

Riss, associate creative director at DDB Toronto, owns nine birdwatching field guides, has five bird watching apps on his phone and is a member of a bird hotline that sends him the locations of birds across Ontario twice daily.

He’s a hardcore birder. He’s also a big punk rock fan. The pigeon he spotted on Jan. 1, 2011 was outside of the music venue Lee’s Palace in Toronto, where the likes of Nirvana and Canadian punk veterans D.O.A. have played. It was the first of 234 different birds he would see that year.

It was the start of his “Big Year,” a challenge birders give themselves to see as many birds as possible within one year and specific geographical borders. Inspired by Kenn Kaufman, a famous bird watcher who wrote Kingbird Highway about his Big Year in 1973, Riss documented his year on a blog. He also recorded his birding adventures with a videocamera and plans to make the footage into a documentary which he is currently trying to finance using the crowdfunding site IndieGoGo.

Set to debunk the myth that bird watching is for “tiny old ladies with blue hair and Tilley hats,” Riss says his documentary will combine his love of bird watching with his other passions – punk rock and tattoos. He already had several bird tattoos, like the flock that runs down his right arm and reproductions of his two favourite birds (a brown thrasher and a marsh wren), but he decided to indelibly commemorate his Big Year by tattooing the names of each of the 234 birds on his body.

“It’s kind of like advertising,” Riss says. “You do something crazy on television, people pay attention to you, then you make your point.”

Growing up, Riss spent a lot of time birdwatching with his father in a forest near Whitby, Ont. Birds would fly in from Florida across the lake during migration season, so hungry from the trip that they would fly in low to the ground to feed. He still goes to the spot and says the bird watching there is so good that binoculars aren’t even necessary.

He’s hoping his Big Year and the documentary, called Punk Rock Big Year, will inspire a new generation of young birders to take up the hobby. “Maybe they will identify with a guy like me who still goes to punk shows, is covered in tattoos and doesn’t look like their mom or dad or grandparents,” Riss says.

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