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Birds, Brains

Ornithologist, bass player, mother. Erin Youngberg is up at dawn counting birds—and up late at night as the singer/bass player for FY5, a popular bluegrass band.

So, you like birds, eh?

I’m the Community and Outreach Biologist for Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. This region is so unique—we have a mountains-to-plains ecosystem with high quality shortland grass and, in a few areas,  native tallgrass—good breeding grounds for grassland birds.

You’ve made an excellent discovery lately!

Yes! We have a confirmed breeding of the Baird’s sparrow at the Soapstone Prairie Natural area. This is a big deal—they’re only known to breed in Montana, North Dakota and Canada, so this is hundreds of miles south, indicating a breeding ground expansion. This is the first record of a Baird’s sparrow breeding in Colorado.

Okay, that’s cool.

Yes, because that’s an indicator of healthy grasslands. Healthy habitat for birds is healthy habitat for humans. When birds start to decline, we know we’re in trouble.

Are they hard to see?

Very. They’re so little—they weigh 16 grams—and blend in so well and run around the ground like a mouse. When I find one, I feel like I’m in on a secret. I find them by listening—they sing when they’re higher up, on thistle, for example.

And speaking of listening . . . do spotting birds and music have anything in common?

What helps me excel at bird counting and music . . . I guess it’s having a keen ear. I memorize bird songs, I memorize melodies. Also, there’s the connection of just, well, an appreciation for beautiful things. I guess it’s also that birds don’t pay attention to boundaries. They do what they need to do. I’m up there playing, doing what I need to do, and there is freedom found in that. Birds and nature aren’t predictable. Not formulaic. Same with music.

I sometimes have trouble explaining the band’s music to friends—there’s something very unique about it. How do you describe your music?

We play original acoustic music with folk, bluegrass, old-time and country influences. Neither Mike’s or my voices are particularly “traditional” bluegrass sounding—which gives us folksy/ bluesy full and blended harmonies. His unique phrasing is his alone—people comment on it all the time—and listeners are held to the story of each song. He has won the Chris Austin Songwriting contest at Merlefest twice! He’s a badass.

Cool people flock together, I suppose. Speaking of, what’s the best part of your musical life?

The thing I love about this band is that we’ve all done the sweaty, gross, weary road touring, playing in loud stupid bars for no money and no audience. Sleeping on random couches, floors, in tents and motels for the love of making music, and we have made an incredible network of friends and colleagues from those years that allow us to now tour smarter. We play in clean, nice and often beautiful listening rooms. We’ve worked hard for music, and now we are making the music work for us. —Laura Pritchett

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