Special features

Rediscovering birds

A star of TV’s "Pretty Little Liars" explains how he fell back in love with birding
By Ian Harding | Published: 8/18/2017

Pretty Little Liars star Ian Fleming keeps his optics ready. Photo by Sophie Hart.

Pretty Little Liars star Ian Fleming keeps his optics ready. Photo by Sophie Hart.

This article is an excerpt from the book Odd Birds by Ian Harding. Copyright © 2017 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.

I’ve played a handful of different roles in my relatively short career as an actor. I’ve been a French aristocrat, a jellyfish, a heroin-addicted pornographer, a Roman centurion, a cat burglar, Pfizer trainee #1. At a summer theater program, I once played a pair of haunted cowboy boots.

Most of all, though, I’ve enjoyed getting to play America’s most beloved pedophile [on Pretty Little Liars].

The role of Ezra Fitz — despite the creep factor and the obvious ethical issues of dating a minor who happens to be one of my students — has been an incredible learning experience. I’ve played the part for seven years now, longer than any other role I’ve had, and I’ve grown substantially as an actor and as a person.

The first few seasons were a wild ride. I strapped in and hoped to God that I wouldn’t fall off. The show turned out to be a hit — I was even getting recognized on the street. The whole experience was exciting and surreal, and every day was something new. I felt like I’d really made it.

Odd Birds_CoverBut, as with everything, after a few seasons, the newness began to fade a little. I love my castmates and the crew — they are some of my favorite people on earth — but there were days on set when I counted down the hours until I could clock out and head home to see my girlfriend and play with my dogs. There were days when the job felt like a have-to instead of a get-to.

I knew I was in danger of becoming jaded. I was beginning to act like what Dustin Diamond might have called a “douche nozzle.” I knew that I needed to shake the feeling off posthaste or I was going to start losing friends.

Nobody wants to hang out with a douche nozzle.

* * *

IT WAS WINTER. Or the Los Angeles version of winter, elsewhere called “autumn.” We were on break from filming, and I was going on a ski trip — a welcome chance to duck out of town for a few days and clear my head.

Every year since we graduated, a big group of my college friends and I have rented a cabin up in Big Bear Lake, a small town in the mountains about two hours northeast of LA. I studied acting at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, and I’m still close with a lot of my classmates. It’s a tight-knit group, and the annual ski trip is a lot like a mafia summit — except instead of checking on business and figuring out whose kneecaps to break, the major goals are skiing and inebriation.

That year, we’d rented a cabin that could comfortably sleep six. There were two dozen of us, but we’d all gone to school together, so we were used to sharing beds.

The real problem was that it was only mid-December. We’d scheduled the trip a bit early that year, thinking nothing of the suspiciously low rental prices. There wasn’t much snow yet. In fact, I’m pretty sure the only powder on the mountain was man-made. There were just two runs open in the entire resort: a bunny run for beginners, and a longer, intermediate-level blue.

Read our interview with Ian Harding

The first day, we said screw it and decided to ski anyway. It was shorts and T-shirt weather on the mountain, not a cloud in the sky. The snow was the consistency of a Slurpee.

My friend Jack had never skied before, so I skied down the bunny slope with him a few times to help him with the basics. He got the hang of it pretty quickly, and after four or five times down, Jack decided he wanted to try his luck on the more difficult blue.

About a hundred yards into the run, Jack skidded over a rough patch of snow and went down. Hard. He reached out to catch himself and broke his arm — really shattered it.

I was above him on the mountain and didn’t see him wipe out. I came around a bend to find several of my Carnegie compatriots huddled around him. At first I thought he was more shaken than hurt. But then Jack lifted his arm — it was bent at an unnatural angle: something was very wrong.

Jack had to be taken down the mountain in a paramedic snowmobile, and then we drove him to the emergency room in town.

In the ER, an unhygienically musky doctor came up to us. “What seems to be the problem here? Got a hurt arm?” he asked.

Before Jack could respond, the doctor reached out, grabbed his arm, and gave it a hard squeeze, shaking it up and down. Jack screamed and jerked his arm back. The doctor whistled. “That’s definitely broken,” he said.

“Yeah, you think?” Jack spat back.

For future reference: people with broken arms don’t like having them squeezed and shaken. Just so you know.

Eventually a different doctor splinted Jack’s arm and loaded him up with enough pain meds to knock out a small elephant. I offered to drive him back to LA, but Jack was a total champ and said he wanted to stay the rest of the weekend with us.

Unsurprisingly, the next morning nobody felt like skiing. While we all tried to figure out what to do, my buddies Nick and Frank, both from New Jersey, both of Italian descent, made us all a massive breakfast. Nick and Frank are always the chefs on these trips. They never ski. They just come to hang out, drink, and cook, like the Italian grandmothers they secretly are.

My girlfriend Sophia and I loaded up our plates with eggs and pancakes and Italian sausages, and sat down at the breakfast table to feast.

Sophia and I have been together for six years, the longest I’ve been with anyone. We went to college together but didn’t start dating until we’d both moved to Los Angeles. She has the looks of Audrey Hepburn and the comedic timing of Buster Keaton. She’s also an exceptional photographer and artist.

One of our group, a friend from Carnegie we all call Wiggy, shuffled into the kitchen, half asleep, carrying an electric guitar and an amp. He was wearing boxers and an American flag T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. He grunted good morning to no one in particular and sat down on top of the table. He leaned over to plug in the amp and then proceeded to strum out a series of death-metal arpeggios.

I reached over and unplugged the amp. Wiggy continued to play as if nothing had changed.

After breakfast, I took a couple of people into town to the grocery store. We needed to stock up on provisions since we weren’t going back out on the slopes. Mostly I think we were getting beer for a little day drinking. Maybe marshmallows and chocolate bars for s’mores.

On the drive to town, I started feeling irritable. The weekend was beginning to seem like a total waste. It wasn’t my friends’ fault. It was me.

I’d been craving activity — something to take my mind off everything. Instead, I found myself once again worrying about my work and the ever-lengthening to-do list I’d left back in Los Angeles.

Driving into town, to the right of the car, there was a massive, shimmering body of water. Big Bear Lake is named for a lake, after all. The late-morning light glittered beckoningly off the surface of the water.

Sitting shotgun was a guy named Walter — a childhood friend of my CMU buddy John. We’d just met the day before. He was one of the only people on the trip who hadn’t gone to Carnegie — he may well have been the only person there who hadn’t studied theater or taken an acting class. For most of the drive he’d been looking out the window, which I assumed was because he was new to the group.

Walter was on the lake-side of the car, and as we drove along, I glanced over to look out at the water. Looking over, I could see that he was focused intently on an object floating on the lake.

I craned my neck forward to look past him. Close to the shore was a duck, floating serenely on the glittering blue. It had a low, sleek profile, and a thin bill. Not your normal duck profile, if that’s the kind of thing you pay attention to.

Something about that bird drew me in. For a moment, I was at a loss. I kept driving in silence. A word lodged somewhere in the depths of my brain bubbled up into consciousness: merganser.

That’s what it was, a type of duck called a merganser.

I braked for a stop sign, then drove on. But I couldn’t get the bird out of my head. I looked at Walter. He’d definitely seen that duck. But did he know what it was?

“Merganser,” I mumbled. There was a good chance he’d have no idea what I was talking about.

Walter looked over. A big smile spread across his face. “Yeah, dude. That was a Hooded Merganser!”

“Wait, for real?” I said. “How’d you know what that was?”

Turns out Walter, who’d grown up in Texas, had been a birder since he was a little kid.

I was a birder when I was a kid, too. I just hadn’t thought about it in a really long time.

* * *

WHEN I WAS younger — way younger, like back before elementary school — I loved looking at birds. It was one of my childhood passions. Right up there with Pogs and poop jokes.

Hooded Merganser by Kameko Walker

Hooded Merganser by Kameko Walker

I was born in Heidelberg, Germany. My parents were both in the U.S. military, and they were stationed there when I was a baby. When I was three years old, they got called back stateside, so we moved from Germany to Springfield, Virginia.

Our first home back in the States was a red-brick town house with forest-green shutters. It was a picture-perfect middle-class suburban home. I had a best friend who lived three doors down, and my sister’s best friend lived next door. It was a safe place for kids to play out front in the street. One time some high-schoolers had a knife fight on a basketball court nearby and the cops showed up, but nothing else exciting ever happened.

Behind our house, a path led across a little creek to a playground in the woods. There were swings, a slide, a merry-go-round. And beyond all that, the forest stretched out endlessly.

There were squirrels and deer and foxes. Crawfish in the stream. And lots and lots of birds. I’d chase the robins that were perched on the ground. I don’t know what I would have done if I’d ever caught one. But I liked following them. I wanted to get as close as possible.

At some point it occurred to me that instead of going out and chasing them, I could get the birds to come to me.

I went through the trash at home and pulled out all the empty plastic soda bottles. I cut holes in the sides and filled them with birdseed. I then tied strings around the necks of the bottles, and hung them from low-hanging branches in our backyard. For neighbors walking by, it must’ve looked like some low-budget human sacrifice cult. The whole setup was pretty Blair Witch-y.

Once the feeders were hanging from the trees, I went up to my bedroom on the second floor and waited for the birds to arrive. I had a cheap pair of binoculars with plastic lenses, and over the coming weeks I’d patiently focus them on the nuthatches, woodpeckers, sparrows, and goldfinches that came in to feed. It was like Rear Window, except without any murder. Unless you count the murder of crows.

Sorry. That was just — I’m sorry.

The point is, I really liked birds. I had notebooks full of drawings of them that I copied out of an Audubon field guide. And in second grade, I once threw a tantrum when my science project group wanted to build a model volcano instead of a bird feeder.

But then I graduated to middle school. Puberty happened, as it does to many people. I became far more self-conscious and felt a strong need to fit in with the other kids. Birding is often a solitary pursuit. It’s not something you need to share with others. For as much joy as it brought me, I was afraid it would come across as weird, outsider behavior.

Also, middle-schoolers think about sex a lot: like, all the time. To my 13-year-old mind, birding was the equivalent of a vow of chastity. I couldn’t risk it, so I very willfully set birds aside.

There’s a book I read recently that reminds me of my middle school experience. Before J. M. Barrie wrote Peter and Wendy — the classic tale of Peter Pan and Captain Hook and the wonders of Neverland — he wrote a book called The Little White Bird. This book is the first time Barrie ever wrote about a boy named Peter Pan. Before there was a Neverland, before there were pirates or mermaids, there was just a little boy locked in a park at night after the gates had closed.

Barrie talks in the book about how all children used to be birds: “They are naturally a little wild during the first few weeks, and very itchy at the shoulders, where their wings used to be.” Children only become fully human when they forget how to fly. And forgetting how to fly is easy. It just takes doubt. The moment you first doubt whether or not you can fly is the moment you lose the gift of flight forever. The moment when you cease to be a bird and become a human, destined to grow old and dull and unimaginative.

In my adolescence, I took this odd interest I had, and I hid it. Buried it. I was afraid of getting picked on, of getting made fun of by the opposite sex, by anyone really. It was easier to be normal and try to fit in — and wash my face three times a day to prevent breakouts. As long as I tried to be like everyone else — as long as I tried to look normal — I had a chance at being cool. And it’s embarrassing to admit it, but being cool meant a lot to me. I wanted to be friends with everyone. Birding seemed like the opposite of all that. If anything, it just seemed like a way to be friends with old people. And everyone in middle school knows that old people aren’t cool.

When high school rolled around, I’d forgotten that I’d ever even liked birds in the first place. My attention and interests were elsewhere. I switched from a public middle school to a private high school called Georgetown Prep. I wasn’t used to the rigorous academics, and I had to work a lot harder in class.

In high school I also discovered acting, which was a whole new creative outlet for me. I spent all of my free time in Figge, the school’s theater building. I would often set up a table in the middle of the stage to do my homework, the auditorium otherwise empty. Sometimes the janitor would kick me out — I would walk around the building and sneak back in.

Now, sitting in the car in Big Bear, looking at the Hooded Merganser, I felt a familiar excitement rising in my chest, a connection to my childhood — back to when I’d stared out my bedroom window, learning the names of the birds that were eating from the bird feeders I’d made.

I had forgotten that just looking at birds — simply watching them, observing their idiosyncratic behaviors and colorful beauty — could bring me such joy. I felt inspired, light, and totally in touch with a part of me that had been lying dormant for almost 15 years.

* * *

“WHAT THE HELL is a merganser?” someone said from the backseat.

I looked at Walter: “You want to tell him?”

Walter tried to downplay it. “It’s a kind of duck,” he said.

I suddenly felt a flash of defiance — not at Walter, but at the entire situation. I’d stopped birding as a child because I’d felt judged by my peers. Here I was, 25 years old, an adult, and I was feeling embarrassed by birds again? If I didn’t stand up for myself now, when the hell was I going to start?

I half shouted, “It’s not just a duck!” I had no idea where I was going with this, but I had to set the record straight. “It’s got a serrated bill! It’s a f—— awesome duck!”

Yeah, that’d show them. That would make them understand. From the backseat, a bored voice said, “Whatever,” and then went back to what they’d been talking about before the merganser interlude.

When we got back to the cabin with provisions an hour later people were getting antsy. It was downright balmy outside — a ridiculous, global warming-induced 70 degrees. Someone suggested to the group that, since we couldn’t ski, we all go for a hike along Big Bear Lake.

A handful of people wanted to stay back to get drunk and eat marshmallows, and Wiggy was still strumming his unplugged guitar, but the rest of us piled into a couple of cars and drove back down to the lake. We parked near a bridge.

As we were getting out of the cars, putting on sunscreen, I noticed that Walter had a small pair of binoculars hanging around his neck.

“Do you always have those around?” I asked.

“Yeah. Actually, I keep them in the glove compartment of my car,” he said. “It might be crazy, but you never know. I’ve seen a lot of birds in places I wouldn’t have expected to find them.”

The group set off, tromping around the lake. I was suddenly aware again of the world in a different but oddly familiar way. Birds were outlined in silhouette out on the water. They were chirping overhead in the trees and in the bushes along the shore. I was paying attention to every sound.

I wasn’t in my head, worrying about work, or thinking about how I needed to watch what I ate over the holidays. It might sound like some hippie California nonsense, but I felt very, very present.

A flock of birds fluttered between trees off to the side of the trail, gorging themselves on tiny red berries. Walter passed me his binoculars. I raised them to my eyes and adjusted the focus knob with my index finger, trying to get a bird to come into view.

The birds were moving targets, and I was out of practice. I lowered the binoculars and looked for them again. I could hear them: their call a single high-pitched note, barely noticeable unless you were listening for it.

Cedar Waxwings by Lorraine Hudgins/Shutterstock

Cedar Waxwings by Lorraine Hudgins/Shutterstock

Suddenly there was a flurry of wings as one hovered to snatch a berry. I quickly raised the binoculars and adjusted the focus: a little brown crest, a black mask, a dab of yellow at the end of the bird’s tail. Very sleek, very elegant. A Cedar Waxwing.

I made a mental note to invest in a pair of binoculars when I got back to Los Angeles.

In the bushes along the shore, another bird called — it sounded like the avian version of an old-timey phone ring. I could swear I’d heard that call before, but I couldn’t place it.

“That’s a Red-winged Blackbird,” Walter said, as it flew out and landed in the branches at the top of the bush. It was a glossy black, with red and yellow epaulettes on its wings.

Farther along, coots were paddling close to shore. We scanned the lake — no sign of that merganser. I noticed a bird twisting its way up a tree. A Downy Woodpecker? It spiraled back around the trunk, coming into view. Not a woodpecker after all, but a White-breasted Nuthatch.

It was the same type of nuthatch that had come in to the feeders I’d set up in my backyard in Virginia when I was a kid. Here I was, wandering around a lake in California, the same boy that used to play in the woods, chasing robins.

In the far distance, Sophia and my friend Michele were skipping stones, trying to hit a floating log. The rest of the group was out of sight down the path.

I didn’t mind being left behind — it was like I’d found a key to a room that hadn’t been opened for years, and I was just beginning to explore what was under all the dust that had accumu­lated. It was slow work, but I was ecstatic. Yes, that’s the word. Ecstatic. It was like reconnecting with a long-lost friend. I couldn’t stop smiling.

Walter pointed out birds as we walked along. A lot of them were different from the ones I’d grown up with. I had a lot to learn, and a lot to relearn. There was a childlike sense of wonder to the whole experience: I was a birder again.

Of course, the trip had to come to an end. As I drove back to Los Angeles at the end of the long weekend, there was a lump in my throat. My mind kept jumping back to the merganser, and to all the other birds we’d spotted around the lake. I didn’t know when I’d get another chance to go birding like that again.

Later that week, I found myself back on the Warner Bros. lot, wandering past the sound stages where Pretty Little Liars is filmed. The show was on hiatus, but I had a casting session for a horror film.

Driving onto the lot, I was feeling irritable again. I wanted to be back in the mountains. And just being in the physical location of where I work made me a little anxious — for something different, for something more. Looking to the mountains in the distance, I felt completely cut off from nature.

I parked and got out of the car. Just then, a pair of swallows darted by, spiraling over and under each other as they shot up into the sky and vanished overhead. I was stunned. I stood there in awe, trying to see where the birds had disappeared to.

An assistant with a clipboard walked up. “Everything okay?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said, still looking up at the sky. “Just trying to see where those swallows went.”

The assistant scratched his head. “I know there are a couple of birds that live up in the WB sign,” he said, pointing toward Stage 16.

Right above the load-in doors on the soundstage, the iconic WB sign beamed out over the lot. Nestled in the shade below the W, a nest made of mud clung to the side of the sign.

“That’s it!” I said. “Those are Cliff Swallows.”

I smiled. It felt good to be back. I’d left the mountains behind, but birds — birds are everywhere. I just hadn’t been looking for them.

Ian Harding is an actor best known for his role as Ezra Fitz on the television show Pretty Little Liars, for which he won seven Teen Choice awards. Follow him on Twitter.

Read our interview with Harding