HBW 14 - Foreword on birding past, present and future – a global view, by Stephen Moss

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For those who practise it bird-watching is not only a sport and a science, but also something near a religion, and after all its externals have been inventoried the essence stays incommunicable. [1]

Max Nicholson, 1931

Today, in the first decade of the third millennium, birding is a truly global leisure activity, carried out by millions of people throughout the developed and developing world. Yet just a century ago it was a minority pastime, practised by a small number of people, and virtually confined to Britain, North America and parts of the British Empire.

This essay aims to show how, in barely one hundred years, birding went from being the preserve of a few eccentric enthusiasts to the mass-participation leisure activity of today.

Following a brief summary of the history and development of birding during the 20th century, I shall review the current state of birding in a number of contexts: including changes in the demographics of who watches birds, how birding contributes to conservation, the influence of new technology, and the economic impact of birding.

Finally, I venture a number of predictions as to how birding might develop in the next fifty years or so, given the potential impact of global climate change, technological, social and political developments, and the nature of leisure.

Inevitably I have had to be selective in my approach: it is simply impossible to do full justice to the massive topic of the history, development and possible future of birding in such limited space. I have therefore chosen to concentrate on the following broad themes:

•  How birding emerged from the disciplines of museum-based ornithology and the collecting of specimens in the field; and how some of that ‘hunting and collecting’ ethos was retained in modern practices such as twitching and listing.

•  How the need to protect birds and conserve their habitats helped recruit people into the pastime of birding: initially through the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in Britain, and the National Audubon Society in the United States, and later elsewhere in the world.

•  How ornithology and birding have developed in parallel: with ornithologists providing birders with ‘scientific justification’ for their hobby, while birders provide scientific data used by ornithologists in their work, through participation in ‘Citizen Science’ projects.

•  How an expansion in global travel has changed the way we watch birds, both in the developed and developing world, and the resulting impacts (both positive and negative) on the conservation of habitats and species.

•  How the economic value of birding has emerged as a key factor in its development as a mass-participation activity, both in the developed and the developing world.

•  How new technology, especially in the field of communications and the Internet, has revolutionised the way we watch birds.

•  How the demographics of birding have changed: from being the pastime of educated, white, middle-class males into one pursued by a more broadly-based cross-section of humanity.

•  How radical changes in the global environment—most notably climate change and its consequences—are likely to affect birds and birding in the 21st century.

Although the practice of watching birds primarily for pleasure goes back at least to the late 18th century (as depicted in The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne [2] by Hampshire vicar Gilbert White, 1789), and arguably even further, I have chosen to concentrate mainly on the period from the beginning of the 20th century to today.

During this period—barely longer than a single human lifetime—birding underwent a profound series of social changes which laid the foundations of the way we watch birds at the beginning of the 21st century.

For a more detailed discussion of the early development of birding, including the way birds were perceived in the era before birdwatching became a recognised leisure activity, I refer the reader to my earlier work, A Bird in the Bush: a Social History of Birdwatching (Stephen Moss, 2004) [3].


Readers of this essay may find the material and examples too focused on the United Kingdom and United States. In my defence, I must point out that virtually all the published surveys, analyses and histories of birding emanate from those two countries; and that even when I have quoted examples of more global initiatives, such as bird tourism, conservation programmes or bird clubs and societies, the impetus behind these—and often the people involved—tend to be either British or American.

There are many reasons for this. First, there is the long and distinguished history of birding and ornithology in those two nations. Second, the far higher participation rates in the UK and US, meaning that in terms of sheer numbers a vast proportion—perhaps 90% of the world’s birders—either live in or come from there. Finally, the social and economic pressures, especially in developing countries, that make birding beyond the aspirations of the majority of the population.

I sincerely hope that over the coming century this situation will change; and that the foundations laid by British and American birders—and many others—around the world will lead to a truly global community of birders. This may already be happening—the wide representation at the annual British Birdwatching Fair certainly gives a basis for optimism—but as I examine in Part 4, there are factors which may stop such progress in its tracks.

Part 1: Birding Today

The entry-level birder… is probably between 40 and 59 years old and is white. She puts in about 10 birding days or fewer per year, trying to squeeze birding into a busy life… This female birder lives in the South in a suburban area, has a modest-to-middle income standard of living, and may not have a college degree. [1]

Ken Cordell and Nancy G. Herbert, 2002

According to the statistics, from a US Fish & Wildlife Service study carried out in 2001 [2], there are approximately 46 million birders in the United States. These represent a substantial minority—more than one in five—of the adult population (those over 16 years old).

Most of these—at least 40 million—are what Americans call ‘backyard birders’, watching birds in and around their homes. But a significant proportion—18 million individuals, representing almost 40% of those surveyed—travelled at least one mile from their home specifically in order to watch birds.

In the United Kingdom, a recent RSPB survey [3] found that there are 2·85 million ‘active birders’, while the number of people who feed birds in their garden has been estimated at almost 30 million—about two out of three of the adult population, and roughly the same as the number who use the Internet. The RSPB boasts well over one million members; television programmes featuring British birds regularly top the ratings on terrestrial channels; while the number of bird books has increased exponentially, with hundreds of titles now published each year.

If one event can be said to epitomise the popularity of birding—not just in Britain but throughout the world—it is the British Birdwatching Fair. Described as “a cross between the Chelsea Flower Show and the Glastonbury Music Festival” [4], the Birdfair is held annually, on a site alongside Rutland Water in the heart of the English countryside.

Since it first began in the late 1980s, the Birdfair has grown into the biggest event in the British birding calendar. Vast marquees house hundreds of exhibitors, selling all manner of birding products and services ranging from optics to books and clothing to exotic foreign holidays. Thousands of people attend the three-day event, coming from all over the world to make the Birdfair truly global in scope. Most importantly, at a time when bird populations and habitats are under threat everywhere, the Birdfair has donated over £1·5 million to global bird conservation projects, making a significant impact on the welfare of birds.

The original Birdfair has, thanks to the efforts of its founders, spawned a number of similar events around the world: in places such as the Netherlands, Israel, India, Taiwan and Australia, as well as many state-based events around the US. Each event helps to encourage birding and conservation in the country where it takes place; and each, too, forms another link in the rapidly growing global birding network.

This is the most significant aspect of the Birdfair: that it provides a central, physical meeting place for the global birding community. Of course not everyone can attend; but at some time or another, a significant proportion of the key people in the birding world do so. Writers, artists, tour leaders, business people, identification experts, publishers, conservationists and amateur enthusiasts can meet each other, exchange ideas, discuss projects, and in doing so help to strengthen and develop birding as a truly global activity.

Elsewhere in the world, birding is thriving as never before:

•  In Australia, Sean Dooley’s book The Big Twitch [5]—an account of the author’s successful attempt to break the Australian ‘Big Year’ record—became an unexpected bestseller, turning the young birder and comedy writer into a national celebrity.

•  Off the coast of California, Debi Shearwater (a woman who loves seabirds so much she changed her name to one!) runs a series of offshore boat trips, known as ‘pelagics’, allowing birders from all over North America and beyond to see rare and elusive seabirds [6].

•  In October 2004, the 7th annual Turkish Bird Conference was held in Izmir, on the edge of the Aegean Sea. Unlike similar conferences held in Britain and the US, most of the birders who attended were under 30 years old, and about one in three were women.

•  The Internet now hosts many ‘bird forums’, where birders can discuss sightings, exchange news and views, etc. One such example is that of the Nature Society (Singapore) [7].

•  Conservationists around the world, often aided by local and visiting birders, have saved at least 31 species from extinction during the past three decades. Birds brought back from the brink include Mauritius Kestrel (Falco punctatus), Chatham Island Robin or Black Robin (Petroica traversi) and California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus).

•  Bird tours, mainly run by companies based in Britain and the US, continue to visit virtually every country and region of the world, where by employing local guides and using local facilities they make a significant contribution to national and regional economies.

•  In Britain, birding is one of a range of ‘life skills’ (also including cookery and financial literacy) which are set to become part of the school curriculum for children aged from eleven to 14, in an attempt to combat disaffection and social problems.

From this eclectic list, it can be seen that birding is no longer simply a pleasant and enjoyable hobby, practised in isolation from the rest of society. Arguably it never was: birding and changes in society have always gone hand-in-hand, and Max Nicholson, amongst others, commented on the ‘classless’ nature of birding as long ago as the 1920s.

But today, as never before, birding is becoming incorporated into a much broader range of activities and lifestyles. This is largely, I believe, because of the nature of modern society, in which the old boundaries between social classes, activities and ways of living are breaking down.

Before I examine the wider implications of this change on birding, in the next section I shall briefly survey the ways in which birding and society developed during the 20th century.

Part 2: Birding Past

Birdwatching is not only an intense aesthetic experience, but also a stimulus to the mind and to the imagination, as one tries to understand the nature of a bird’s world. [1]

H. G. Alexander, 1974

The contrast between the global, multi-faceted and pluralist way in which we watch birds today, and the fragmented, insular and parochial nature of birdwatching which prevailed during most of the 20th century, could hardly be greater. At least until the 1980s, which saw a sea-change in the way we watch birds (mainly, though not exclusively, due to changes in communications, technology and travel), birdwatching remained the preserve of a relatively closed community of like-minded souls. Even as recently as the 1970s, the pastime was largely confined to white, educated males, almost all of whom lived in the English-speaking world.

A generation ago birdwatchers relied on a handful of identification books, mainly illustrated by the great American bird artist Roger Tory Peterson. They used fairly basic optical equipment: a pair of old-fashioned ‘Porro-prism’ binoculars, whose design had remained virtually unchanged since the First World War, and rarely carried telescopes, which were primitive in design and difficult to use.

Feeding garden or backyard birds was limited to putting out a few kitchen scraps or peanuts onto a bird table, while going abroad to watch birds was still in its infancy. Most Britons never even crossed the English Channel, and even the most intrepid travellers rarely ventured beyond the boundaries of Europe. In the US, birders did travel within the lower 48 states, but few went much farther afield.

Half a century before that, in a world recovering from the devastation of the First World War, birdwatching was even less significant. When a young man named Max Nicholson went up to Oxford in the early 1920s, his fellow students were more interested in hedonism and drunken japes than in wholesome, outdoor pursuits such as watching birds. Despite the lack of interest amongst his peers, Nicholson joined the embryonic Oxford Ornithological Society, and went on to become the most influential figure in the development of birdwatching in Britain before his death in 2003 at the age of 98.

During his lifetime, Max Nicholson witnessed the many social changes that together created the world of birding we know today; a process—or series of processes—which I document in this chapter.

The ‘invention’ of birdwatching

Human beings have been aware of birds—from a religious, cultural and often practical point of view—since civilisation began. Peoples as varied as the Aztecs of Mexico, the ancient civilisations of the Far East, and the indigenous peoples of Australia, all had birds at a central place in their culture.

But there is a world of difference between these ways of looking at birds—the cave-paintings made by prehistoric European hunters, the early quasi-scientific studies by men like Aristotle and Pliny, and the wealth of folklore associated with birds in all the world’s cultures—and the leisure activity we now call birdwatching or birding. Indeed, the very term ‘birdwatching’ is a coinage barely a century old.

In 1901, ‘bird watching’ appeared in print for the very first time, as the title of a book [2] by British naturalist Edmund Selous. Selous himself was something of a recluse, living in the shadow of his more famous brother, the big game hunter F. C. Selous. In some ways he typified a public image of the birdwatcher as a solitary eccentric; an image that persisted until at least the end of the 20th century, and lingers on in some places even today.

At the time Selous’s book was published, birdwatching was struggling to emerge from the influences of scientific ornithology and collecting. Both Britain and the United States had a long history of both disciplines, going back at least to the 18th century, and arguably even earlier.

Indeed the two were inextricably intertwined: most early ornithologists were also ‘collectors’, at least in the sense that they either shot birds themselves, or sent someone else to obtain specimens for them. This was not the blood-lust it has often been depicted: in the main, the collectors of the 18th and 19th century were serious men (and the occasional woman) pursuing a genuine interest in extending the frontiers of scientific knowledge [3].

What Max Nicholson called “the Victorian leprosy of collecting” did have its downside: although it greatly increased our understanding of subjects such as bird classification, distribution and plumage details, it also created a climate where field observation was for long regarded as a second-class substitute for studying a bird in the hand—summed up in the oft-quoted mantra, “What’s hit is History, what’s missed is Mystery”.

Yet there is no doubt that between them, the museum-based ornithologists and field collectors laid the foundations for the unprecedented development, during the 20th century, of birding as a leisure activity. One example is Elliott Coues (1842–1899), author of the Key to North American Birds (1872) [4], which ran to four editions, and was later published in Britain as the Handbook of Field and General Ornithology (1890) [5].

Coues’s approach can be summed up in a quote from that work: “How many birds of the same kind do you want? All you can get”. As a committed collector, Coues may appear to have little in common with the birders who came to prominence in the following generation, yet he was one of the three founders of the influential American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) and editor of its quarterly journal, The Auk. Moreover, his unbounded enthusiasm for the pursuit of birds was not very different—in both the impulse behind it and the determination with which it was pursued—from the modern twitching ethos.

The gradual shift between collecting and birding is personified in the life and career of one of Elliott Coues’s disciples, Frank Chapman (1864–1945). Although Chapman learnt about birds primarily through collecting expeditions (even taking his wife collecting on their honeymoon!) he later found fame as a campaigner for the protection of wild birds.

As well as writing a number of popular bird books, in 1899 he founded Bird-Lore, the official magazine of the Audubon movement; a publication which perhaps did more than any other to stimulate and encourage the new-found hobby of birding.

Another driving force behind this new and more benevolent approach to birds had come from a campaign, in both the US and Britain, against the use of bird feathers and skins in women’s fashion. Led mainly by women—mostly from the upper echelons of society—this resulted in the founding of the National Audubon Society in 1886 (and soon afterwards the various local Audubon chapters), and the Society for the Protection of Birds (later the RSPB) in 1889. In the following century these two organisations would have a major impact on the numbers of people taking up birding as a pastime.

Soon afterwards, similar bird protection groups would emerge elsewhere, such as La Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO), founded in France in 1912; Aves Argentinas, founded in Buenos Aires in 1916; and the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society, founded in New Zealand in 1923.

A further impetus to the new hobby came from a revolution in optics. In 1854, the Italian inventor Ignatio Porro had registered a patent for an optical system using prisms; the forerunner of compact binoculars and telescopes we use today. Forty years later, in 1894, the German firm Carl Zeiss brought out the first truly effective pair of prismatic binoculars, following Porro’s original design. By the first decade of the 20th century this type of binoculars—virtually identical to the kind many birders still use today—had become widely available.

So by 1901, when Edmund Selous’s book Bird Watching was published, the scene was set for a new, more benign way of studying birds—using an optical lens to watch them, rather than a double-barrelled shotgun to kill them. A new era—during which birdwatching would develop many of the characteristics by which we know it today—was about to begin.

The early years of birdwatching: 1900–1939

On Christmas Day, 1900, 27 observers—led by the new editor of Bird-Lore, Frank Chapman—took part in the very first Christmas Bird Count in the US. From its humble beginnings, this has since become a national institution, with more than 50,000 people now taking part in over 2000 separate counts from Alaska to Hawaii and from Florida to California, as teams compete to record the greatest number and variety of birds in their local area.

In Britain, too, ‘listing’—so characteristic of the sporting side of birdwatching—was also taking root. Pioneering birder H. G. Alexander and his brother Christopher were the first to document the practice near their home in Kent on New Year’s Day 1905; with H. G. continuing until his death in Philadelphia, in 1989, in his 101st year.

Other aspects of modern birding which either began, or became established practice, in the first two decades of the 20th century were bird ringing (known in North America as ‘banding’), migration studies, and close observation of breeding bird behaviour.

The first official ringing scheme began in Britain in 1909, coincidentally the very same year that banding began in North America. Migration studies had begun with Heinrich Gatke’s visits to the German island of Helgoland in the mid-19th century, but it was the work of English ornithologist William Eagle Clarke and his followers on Fair Isle, from 1905 onwards, that finally solved so many mysteries about the origin and appearance of migrating birds.

Soon afterwards, British birdwatchers turned their attention to breeding birds: studies of warblers (Sylviidae) and the Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) by Eliot Howard, the Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus) by Julian Huxley, and of the Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) by Edgar Chance, revealed extraordinary secrets about common—and previously largely ignored—birds.

With the establishment of Bird-Lore in the US in 1899, and British Birds, founded by H. F. Witherby in 1907, the stage was set for a boom in birding as a popular pastime. Birdwatching was by now becoming popular amongst all walks of life, including the very top: as revealed when, one fine morning in June 1910, former US President Theodore Roosevelt and British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey went for a day’s birdwatching in rural Hampshire. Four years later, in August 1914, the progress of the pastime—and indeed many other aspects of normal life—came to an abrupt halt, with the start of the First World War.

In many ways the Great War stopped the development of birdwatching in its tracks; not least because it killed so many promising young ornithologists and birdwatchers. But in other ways it had a profound and lasting effect on the way in which birdwatching would develop during the years between the end of the conflict in 1918 and the start of the Second World War in 1939. These years would see another surge in the popularity of watching birds for pleasure, on both sides of the Atlantic and throughout the British Empire.

The key factors which shaped the development of birdwatching during the 21 years between the two world wars were very much the product of that remarkable era. This was a time of global uncertainty, during which the horror of the legacy of war, then worldwide economic depression, and finally the impending onset of a new conflict, created a very different world from the essentially stable society of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In addition, technological changes—especially in the fields of transport, optical equipment and publishing—all had an impact on birding, by providing access to birdwatching sites, better quality binoculars and the first truly portable bird identification books. Finding, watching and identifying birds—at least if your income permitted—had never been easier.

In 1934, a young American bird artist named Roger Tory Peterson published his original A Field Guide to the Birds [6], which has since sold more than three million copies. This book encouraged millions of Americans to take up the pastime by providing them with the means to identify the birds they saw.

The original Peterson guide is, by today’s standards, a somewhat modest volume, with a brief text and a series of rather formalised plates depicting the birds of the eastern US. The revolutionary aspect of this work, however, was not the content—there had been field guides before—but Peterson’s approach. He depicted families of birds in stylised positions, with arrows showing key field marks, allowing direct comparison between similar species. It proved a winning formula, and today Peterson guides are still available for a myriad of subjects, from clouds to beetles and mammals to urban wildlife.

Peterson was not just a great bird artist, but an active birder, encouraging major advances in field identification (rare birds no longer needed to be shot to prove their identity) and our knowledge of North American birds as a whole. The breadth of his influence on birding in North America was summed up by his old friend Elliott Richardson, in 1977:

It has been said that… Roger Tory Peterson has done more than any other person to make the field identification of birds a science. I am sure that is true. But it is fair to say that Roger Tory Peterson has also done more than any other man to make field identification a sport. [7]

On May 19, 1984, at the age of 75, he was still fit and keen enough to take part in an event which sums up his legacy, the first annual World Series of Birding, a race to see as many different species as possible in 24 hours, held in the state of New Jersey. And yes, with a total of 201 species, Peterson’s team won!

Despite the lack of a decent field guide to British birds until after the Second World War, birding continued to develop in Britain. It did so largely under the guidance of a handful of gifted, dedicated and far-sighted individuals.

The ‘godfather’ of British birding was H. F. (Harry Forbes) Witherby, who, on top of founding British Birds two years earlier, started the official bird ringing scheme in 1909, and was to be the main editor of the seminal The Handbook of British Birds [8], published in five volumes from 1938 to 1941, which had a profound and lasting influence on generations of birdwatchers for several decades afterwards.

His trusty consigliere was Bernard Tucker, an early member of the Oxford Ornithological Society, who collaborated with Witherby on the Handbook before his untimely death in 1950, aged just 49. Then there was the charismatic, mercurial polymath Tom Harrisson, who instigated the earliest bird surveys, later using what he had learned about observing birds to study the ordinary lives of people, in the Mass-Observation movement of the 1930s.

But the key figure, not just between the wars but well beyond, was Max Nicholson. During a long and distinguished career this extraordinary man either founded or ran most of the key ornithological and conservation organisations in Britain today, including the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), the Edward Grey Institute at the University of Oxford, the Nature Conservancy Council (now part of Natural England) and the World Wildlife Fund (now the World Wide Fund For Nature). He was that rare being, a practical visionary, able to envisage the future and work to bring it about. And like Peterson, he was also a keen and active birdwatcher, whose view of birding encompassed not only the scientific and competitive aspects of the pastime, but the spiritual ones as well, as the quotation at the top of this essay shows.

Between them, these men took birding by the scruff of the neck, shook off the baggage left over from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and embraced a new, modern and scientific approach to the observation, study and recording of birds. Without them, it is unlikely that birding would ever have developed into the global, mass-participation and multi-faceted activity of today.

What allowed all this to happen, more or less simultaneously, in Britain and the US, was that a major social shift was taking place; one which would have a profound impact not just on birdwatching, but on hobbies and interests in general. This was the much greater availability of leisure time—no longer just for the monied classes, but for more or less everybody.

As American sociologist Steven M. Gelber has shown [9], by 1920 industrial workers in the US had eight hours more ‘free time’ per week than their counterparts in 1900. As a result, the concept of having one or more ‘hobbies’ arose for the first time. The combination of increased leisure time and the need to fill it (driven, presumably, by the Protestant work-ethic that dominated US and British society) led to a major upsurge in what became known as leisure activities, of which birding was just one.

By the end of this period, at the start of the Second World War, George Orwell was able to gently mock his compatriots’ addiction to hobbies:

Another English characteristic which is so much a part of us that we barely notice it, and that is the addiction to hobbies and spare time occupations… We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans… [10]

To which he could, of course, have added ‘birdwatchers’. By the start of the Second World War birdwatching had become a socially acceptable and reasonably widespread leisure activity both in Britain and the US. And although it might be imagined that another major global conflict would once again stop the progress of the pastime in its tracks, strangely the very opposite was the case.

War, peace and the birdwatching boom: 1939–1975

Unlike the First World War, which effectively set the progress of birdwatching as a pastime back at least a decade, the Second World War appears to have had a quite different effect.

Many keen young birdwatchers in Britain and North America found themselves posted abroad—for the vast majority, this was the very first time in their lives they had ever left their home country. Moreover, the arenas of conflict were far wider than in any previous war, including North Africa, the Middle East, India, the Far East and the Pacific, giving birdwatchers—and potential birdwatchers—access to exotic habitats and species beyond their wildest dreams.

There is clear evidence that many people took the opportunity of being posted abroad to extend their interest in watching birds. As has often been said, war consists of 5% fear and excitement, and 95% boredom; and if that is the case, then birdwatching certainly provided at least something of an antidote.

What are perhaps the most fascinating accounts of wartime birdwatching come from a single prisoner-of-war camp, Eichstätt in Bavaria. Here, three men who were later to have a distinguished career in the British ornithological establishment—John Buxton, Peter Conder and George Waterston—all used their enforced ‘leisure time’ to make detailed studies of the local birds. After the war, Buxton published his findings in one of the early Collins New Naturalist monographs, The Redstart [11].

But the real legacy of the Second World War was the way in which it broadened people’s horizons, and clarified their needs, wishes and desires. Whether or not one was posted abroad or forced to spend years confined to a restricted local neighbourhood, the desire following the ending of hostilities was the same: to make the most of one’s life.

This manifested itself in a hunger for education; a keenness to explore one’s own country and, if possible, the world; and what Sir Dudley Stamp, writing almost a quarter century after the end of the war in 1969, called “the satisfaction of the less obvious demands of the spirit” [12].

In the decade or so following 1945, birdwatching underwent a major rise in popularity and participation on both sides of the Atlantic. Better—and cheaper—optics, and the first comprehensive field guides (including Roger Tory Peterson’s co-operation with two British ornithologists, Guy Mountfort and Philip Hollom, to produce A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe [13], in 1954) allowed tens of thousands of people to take up birdwatching for the very first time.

From 1950, petrol was no longer rationed in Britain, while in the oil-rich, gas-guzzling US it had never even been contemplated; allowing birders on both sides of the Atlantic to travel further afield in search of their quarry. Access to the British countryside was also made much easier than it had been before the war.

The war brought another, unexpected side-benefit: the use of radar—originally, of course, a military invention—to track the journeys of migrating birds. The 1950s saw a boom in migration studies, as observatories opened on remote islands and headlands all round the coasts of Britain and Ireland.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, as restrictions on foreign travel were gradually removed, British birdwatchers headed abroad on organised expeditions or private holidays in much greater numbers than before. Others were forced to do so: compulsory National Service continued in Britain until the early 1960s, with many young men spending two years in far-flung corners of the British Empire. Like their Victorian predecessors, some of them forsook the temptations of women and strong drink and spent their spare time watching birds.

In North America, once again Roger Tory Peterson was at the forefront of encouraging people to take up birding, and giving established birders the impetus to broaden their horizons beyond their immediate neighbourhood, county or state.

In 1953, Peterson and his British counterpart James Fisher travelled the length and breadth of North America north of the Rio Grande, racking up 30,000 miles in just 100 days, and seeing 572 species along the way—at the time a record annual total. The book and film of the journey, Wild America [14], were both released in 1955, to great popular and critical acclaim. Suddenly, it seemed, there was no limit to the distances a keen birder might travel in pursuit of North America’s birds.

In the following two decades, the sporting nature of birding—largely suppressed since the days of the Victorian collectors—really took hold. The Christmas Bird Count hugely increased in popularity, while North American listers competed to be the first person to break the 600 species barrier in a single calendar year.

This landmark had almost been reached by Englishman Stuart Keith in 1956 (598 species), and amongst birders had gained iconic status, rather like breaking the four-minute mile or the sound barrier. After several people had tried and failed, the 600 mark was finally shattered in 1971, when an 18-year-old college student from Pennsylvania named Ted Parker saw a staggering total of 626 species.

As the number of birders on both sides of the Atlantic grew, so a kind of ‘positive feedback loop’ was established. The more birders there were in a particular community, the more people they were likely to recruit to their interest, in turn spreading the word amongst non-birders.

Birding has always suffered from something of a poor image amongst the general public, with derogatory terms such as ‘anoraks’, ‘nerds’ and the more creative ‘organic trainspotters’ being used to describe its adherents. But from the 1960s onwards, there was strength in numbers: a kid at school or starting college, or someone changing jobs or moving into a new neighbourhood, was likely to simply bump into fellow enthusiasts at local birding sites, or be given details of ‘a friend of a friend’ who was a birdwatcher [15].

Bird-finding guides were also beginning to be published, pioneered by Olin S. Pettingill in the US, whose ground-breaking A Guide to Bird Finding East of the Mississippi [16] appeared in 1951. Once again, Britain soon followed the American example, with John Gooders’ Where to Watch Birds [17] first published in 1967, and rapidly becoming a best-seller.

As horizons broadened, so the opportunity to travel farther afield arose, thanks to the widespread ability of cheap ‘package tours’ from the mid-1960s onwards. By a convenient coincidence, many of the destinations for these trips were also excellent places to watch birds.

So, as the package holiday phenomenon took off, British birders headed beyond their nation’s shores, many for the first time. The most popular destinations were the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, and the Spanish Costas, soon followed by the Algarve in Portugal, and islands in the eastern Mediterranean such as Cyprus, Crete and Rhodes.

In the US, the increased popularity of Florida as a cheap holiday destination also attracted millions of visitors—not just from within North America, but also from Europe, especially the UK. Perhaps because of the relatively recent development of the state, Florida’s birds are exceptionally approachable—so much so that early visitors to Walt Disney World often assumed that they were looking at captive rather than wild birds!

Meanwhile, in various parts of the globe national birding and bird protection organisations were being set up, such as La Lega Italiana Protezione Uccelli (LIPU) in Italy, founded in 1965; and the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, founded in 1957. These joined the more established organisations such as the Bombay Natural History Society, a 19th century foundation, to provide a focus for birders in their respective countries to meet, socialise and exchange information.

Birding joins the mainstream: 1975–2000

During the period from the mid-1970s to the turn of the new millennium, birding underwent a series of important changes, including:

•  The use of surveys, initiated by professional scientists but largely carried out by amateur birders, to highlight changes in population and range of the birds of a particular country or region.

•  A revolution in communications, from an informal telephone ‘grapevine’, via premium rate phone information lines and portable pagers, to the widespread use of the Internet.

•  A great improvement in the standard of optical aids; and a parallel boom in bird books, especially field guides.

•  A much broader information base, firstly via books (especially site guides) and later using the Internet.

•  A major increase in travel to watch birds, leading to a global network of birding areas, sites and local guides, and the huge growth in the desire to see rare birds—resulting in a boom in national twitching and, for a rich minority, world listing.

•  In the latter part of this period, a broadening of the demographic base of birding, to become more socially inclusive than before.

Looking back just a single generation, to the early 1970s, it is clear that much of this could never have been predicted. Nevertheless, the seeds of this phenomenal growth and change were already being sown; and with hindsight we can analyse how these changes came about.


Although formal bird surveys had been carried out in Britain since the late 1920s—and indeed could be said to have begun with a survey of spring migrants carried out by the Finnish professor Johannes Leche as early as 1749 [18]—the very first comprehensive attempt to document the distribution of an entire breeding avifauna did not take place until the late 1960s. The original Atlas survey [19], carried out by the BTO and the Irish Wildbird Conservancy, was very much the triumph of hope over experience.

The organisers, many of whom had serious doubts about the success of the enterprise, had underestimated the sheer dedication of the 10,000 or so amateur fieldworkers, who between them covered almost 4000 10-kilometre squares and produced more than a quarter of a million records of over 200 breeding bird species. As in the 1930s, when the BTO’s earliest surveys of single species had been carried out, the end result was that birding, conservation and science joined forces to create something much greater than the sum of the parts.

During the subsequent decades, the Atlas format was successfully duplicated all over the world, with national and regional surveys of breeding, wintering and migratory birds appearing by the dozen. Each had the welcome by-product of giving thousands of ordinary birdwatchers a sense of purpose and collective achievement in what has become known as ‘Citizen Science’ (see Part 3).

The communications revolution: twitching and world listing

As recently as the 1950s and early 1960s, if a rare bird was sighted in Britain, the finder would often communicate the news to his fellow birdwatchers by sending them a postcard! By the 1970s, almost every home had a telephone, and as a result rare bird enthusiasts organised informal ‘grapevines’—networks of people who would telephone each other to pass on the news of a rarity. The instantaneous nature of this new form of communication gave rise to the twitching boom of the 1970s and 1980s, during which time groups of like-minded enthusiasts travelled hundreds of miles every weekend to add vagrant birds to their ‘British List’.

But the domestic telephone had one major drawback: it was not portable. Then, in the mid-1980s, a revolution in communications created three new ways of obtaining information about rare birds while out in the field.

First, the premium-rate telephone information line, by which twitchers could dial up to get up-to-the-minute news of a rare bird. Second, the portable pager—a device originally designed to alert medical staff about an emergency—was appropriated to send rare bird information, some of which could be personalised to the individual recipient. Finally, the widespread availability of mobile telephones allowed instant communication between fellow birders.

The impact of these new technologies on the way in which birding developed during this period was immense. It is hard to imagine that twitching would have become quite so popular with so many people if the means by which the latest news of a rare bird’s arrival—or just as important, its departure—had not been available.

At its height, in the 1990s, twitchers vied with each other to travel ludicrously long distances—and spend even more ludicrous amounts of money—to see a single rare bird. Return trips from the Isles of Scilly to Shetland, costing hundreds of pounds and involving the chartering of a private aircraft, were not uncommon during this period.

In North America and Australia, the far longer distances involved led to even more bizarre stories, many of which have been documented for posterity in books such as Mark Obmascik’s The Big Year [20] (a gripping account of a three-way attempt on the North American record for the number of species seen in a calendar year), and Sean Dooley’s The Big Twitch [21], a similar story of individual persistence in Australia.

But for truly epic stories of human endeavour, we must look to a tiny sub-group of truly obsessive individuals: those who spend their lives—and copious amounts of money—pursuing the ultimate goal of the global birder, the ‘world list’.

World listing is the logical consequence of the habit of most birders of keeping a record of the different species they see. Until the late 20th century, before frequent foreign travel became the norm rather than the exception, most birders kept a series of lists ranging from the birds seen in their garden or backyard, via a list of those seen in a particular county or state, to their national list, of all the species seen in the wild in their home country (or in the case of many North American birders, their continent north of the Mexican border).

From the 1960s onwards, an elite group of well-travelled birders (mostly professional bird tour guides or international businessmen) began to tally their world list. At the time, only a tiny minority had seen over 2000 of the then estimate of about 8600 species; and just two or three could boast a list of over 3000 species. In 1973, expatriate British birder Stuart Keith, by then based in New York, became the very first person to see 4300 species—half the world total, then considered a seemingly unassailable achievement.

But as global air travel became cheaper and more accessible, and the incomes of the very rich rose exponentially, so a new breed of global birders emerged. Some were top birders themselves; others simply paid local experts to find their birds for them. By the end of the century a handful of these obsessive travellers had reached the 8000 mark (though by then, because of advances in taxonomic knowledge, the total number of species was nearing 10,000).

The best-known of all the world birders was the American heiress Phoebe Snetsinger, who tallied an incredible 8400 species. Having won a long battle against apparently terminal cancer, as told in her posthumously published autobiography Birding on Borrowed Time [22], it was ironic that Snetsinger died in a freak road accident while birding in Madagascar, in 1999.

The technological and communications revolutions: optics, books and the Internet

For the ordinary birder, such feats of global listing were very far from their normal experience. Nevertheless, the wider aspects of the technological and communications revolutions had an important affect on their chosen pastime too.

Perhaps most important was the massive improvement in optics during this period. Back in the early 1970s, the binoculars used by most birders had hardly changed since the Second World War, and the use of telescopes was confined to a hard core of serious enthusiasts. Less than two decades later, it seemed that virtually every birder in the developed world was sporting a pair of high-specification, roof-prism binoculars made by one of the leading manufacturers such as Zeiss, Leica or Swarovski. Even at the lower end of the market, standards had improved radically, with excellent optics available for less than £150 in Britain or below US$200 in the US. The rapid turnover rate as birders vied with each other to sport the latest models had an unexpected knock-on effect to birding in the developing world, as travelling birders began to donate their old (but perfectly workable) models to local guides.

Telescope technology also advanced by leaps and bounds during this period. The old draw-tube brass instruments had been consigned to history, to be replaced by telescopes of astonishing quality, using the latest in optical technology to allow birders to see plumage detail they could only have imagined previously.

During the same period, the number of bird books—especially field guides—increased exponentially. Today, modern, well-researched and up-to-date field guides are available for virtually every region in the world; a result of a combination of greater ease of travel and the improvement in optics which has allowed the authors and artists to study their subjects in forensic detail in the field.

This culminated in the appearance of a definitive series of volumes, one of which you are currently reading. The first volume of the Handbook of the Birds of the World [23], covering the ratites to wildfowl, appeared in 1992, and the publishers have achieved a commendable strike rate since then, with the sixteenth and final volume due to appear in autumn 2011. The standards achieved—in research, writing, photography and illustration—have been quite phenomenal, with reviewers running out of superlatives to describe each new volume. The series has not only provided ornithologists and amateur birders with an indispensable reference tool, but is also contributing to our understanding and conservation of some of the world’s rarest and most endangered species.

Site guides have also enjoyed a boom, with books covering most of the world’s regions, including a recent guide—aimed largely at regular business travellers—to watching birds in and around more than 60 of the world’s major cities, from Addis Ababa to Zurich [24].

But for information on where to find, see and watch birds, most birders now log onto the World Wide Web, where up-to-date information written by birders for their fellow enthusiasts can be downloaded in a matter of seconds, obviating the need to spend time and money tracking down a book. This is, of course, just one aspect of the impact of the Internet, which I shall examine in Part 3 of this essay.

Birding in the developing world

In those parts of the world which had once been ruled by the British, under the Empire “on which the sun never set”, expatriate and local birders were building on the legacy of the departed colonial administrators. In former colonies such as India, Hong Kong and Singapore birding continued to thrive, supported by organisations such as the Bombay Natural History Society, the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society and the Malayan Nature Society, whose very names reflect their colonial past.

In most cases expatriate Britishers dominated, including British servicemen and business people based abroad. In Singapore, the withdrawal of British forces in 1971 led to a major downturn in membership of the local nature society; but from the 1980s onwards birding began to boom again, as ornithologist Lim Kim Seng has noted:

The 1980s through to the end of the 1990s marked a period of phenomenal growth in interest in birding. This was the result of the Malayan Nature Society’s very active Bird Group, which increased its monthly birding trips to twice a month, initiated an annual bird race and started involving members and the public in bird censuses… Membership grew more than six-fold from 300 in 1980 to over 2000 by 1999, by which time the MNS had changed its name to better reflect its objectives to Nature Society (Singapore). [25]

Elsewhere in the world, too, birding has made rapid progress. In a chapter written for the new book, The Birds of Turkey [26], British ornithologist and expert on the birds of the Middle East Richard Porter lays out the recent, but quickly developing, history of Turkish ornithology. In a personal note he describes the major changes that have taken place since his first visit to the country in the late 1960s:

In October 2004 I attended the 7th Turkish Bird Conference, which has now become an annual event. It was held in Izmir, on the edge of the Aegean, with two days of talks followed by two days of trips to marsh and mountain.

I gave a talk on Turkey in the 1960s, when I first visited the country there was just one, or possibly two, birdwatchers. In 2004, there were over 150 Turkish birders at the talks, and on the outings even more…

Most of the birdwatchers at the conference were under 30 (and about one-third were female). Compare this with the mix at the annual BTO conference! At the last one I attended, two years ago, there was hardly anyone below 30…

I happened to ask a young girl, who was active in conservation, what changes she would like to see to help wildlife in Turkey. Her reply? “I wish we were all 20 years older—then decision-makers would take our views more seriously.” The good thing is they will be one day. [27]

The changes witnessed by Porter in a single generation in Turkey have been replicated throughout the developing world. A felicitous combination of visiting birders from Europe and North America, and the efforts of local birders, has led to extraordinary progress.

Other examples include Israel, a favourite destination for British and Scandinavian birders since the early 1980s, where in 1996 the young ornithologist Hadoram Shirihai produced a monumental book, The Birds of Israel [28], a comprehensive avifauna of breeding, wintering, migrant and vagrant birds which matched anything published for more developed nations. Shirihai acknowledged the debt of previous writers on the birds of the Middle East, going back to the anonymous authors of the Old Testament, who had made some of the earliest ever written observations of birds.

Birding in the Middle East developed rapidly during the 1980s and 1990s, thanks partly to talented and committed individuals such as Shirihai, and partly to the support and expertise of visiting birders—including those from the new birding hotspots of Scandinavia and the Netherlands. This relationship was formalised by the founding, in 1978, of the Ornithological Society of the Middle East (OSME), the successor to the Ornithological Society of Turkey. Today this thriving society has expanded to include the Caucasus and Central Asia as well as its more traditional region.

OSME was swiftly followed by the Oriental Bird Club (OBC) in the mid-1980s, and the Neotropical Bird Club (NBC) and African Bird Club (ABC) in the mid-1990s. Given the long tradition of British interest in these regions, it is hardly surprising that all these organisations originated in the United Kingdom, and were, initially at least, largely run by British birders; though there was also an active network of country representatives. As membership expanded to reflect international interest in these regions, so the focus of the bird clubs broadened too: with the OBC holding meetings in the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Malaysia.

Much of the work of the bird clubs has been focused on the conservation of key habitats and species: such as Gurney’s Pitta (Pitta gurneyi) in Thailand and Myanmar, Cerulean Warbler (Dendroica cerulea) in the Americas, and Congo Peafowl (Afropavo congensis) in Africa. Money is raised via sponsors and events, and grants and bursaries are given to conservation organisations and individuals within the region.

The rise of the bird clubs has gone hand in hand with two other factors. On the positive side, the period also saw a massive growth in birding tourism, with specialised trips now taking birders to visit virtually every part of the world.

More worryingly, the period has also seen two negative factors emerge: the rapid decline of many rare and endangered bird species; and the growth in global political (and now economic) instability that has accompanied (and in many cases, helped to cause) these declines.

The role of the bird clubs in alerting governments and other organisations to problems and potential disasters is now crucial; fortunately the individuals involved in the clubs are often also working for BirdLife International and/or national conservation organisations [29].

Part 3: Birding Present

There has been a tremendous renaissance in nature study in recent years; it has been called a form of escapism, and perhaps it is in a way, but not an escape from reality; but rather, a return to reality. [1]

Roger Tory Peterson, 1957

In this section I examine and analyse the current global birding ‘scene’ from a thematic, rather than historical, point of view. This inevitably leads to some overlap, but so it should: none of the subjects covered here exists in isolation, and all impinge, to a greater or lesser extent, on each other.

The subject areas I have chosen to cover are:

•  Who watches birds? Using a combination of statistical surveys (where they exist), and anecdotal evidence (where they do not) I have examined the demographics of birding in the developed and developing world. I also look at the ways birding relates to specific groups in society, such as women, ethnic minorities, gay and disabled people.

•  Birding, ornithology and conservation. How birding continues to interact with the scientific discipline of ornithology, with both groups gaining strength and depth from this relationship. This includes atlases and surveys, ‘Citizen Science’ projects, global and local conservation work, and how new developments in science (notably techniques to analyse the DNA of living creatures) are changing the way we watch and think about birds.

•  Birding and the media. How television, radio and newspapers report birding stories.

•  New technology. How the most recent developments in technology, including palmtop PCs, mobile phones and the Internet, are affecting the way we watch birds.

•  The economic importance of birding. How birding contributes to local, regional and national economies, through expenditure on travel, equipment, etc., job-creation, taxes and overall economic benefits.

Who watches birds?

At the start of the Second World War, British ornithologist James Fisher made a random list of the people he knew who enjoyed watching birds:

Among those I know of are a Prime Minister, a President, three Secretaries of State, a charwoman, two policemen, two Kings, two Royal Dukes, one Prince, one Princess, a Communist, seven Labour, one Liberal, and six Conservative Members of Parliament, several farm-labourers earning ninety shillings a week, a rich man who earns two or three times that amount in every hour of the day, at least forty-six schoolmasters, an engine-driver, a postman, and an upholsterer. [2]

Apart from the rather dated language used, a similar list could easily be compiled today. What both would show is that birding is by no means confined to a single social class. In an era when Western societies, at least, appear to be fragmenting into ever-narrower special interest sectors, birding is refreshingly eclectic in its participants.

Certain groups have always been prominent, however. Politician-birders have a long pedigree, going back as far as Teddy Roosevelt and Edward Grey at the turn of the 20th century, and including at least one Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (Sir Alec Douglas-Home, later Lord Home), another US President (Jimmy Carter) and a British Chancellor of the Exchequer (Kenneth Clarke). Maybe it is the relief from the pressures of the offices of state that impels politicians to seek solace in birds!

Royals, too, have taken a keen interest. Prince Philip became so keen on photographing seabirds on his royal voyages that he published a book on the subject, Birds from Britannia [3]. Until 2004, Queen Noor of Jordan was the President of Birdlife International, after which the role was taken over by Princess Takamado of Japan. Another Asian royal, Princess Sirindhorn of Thailand, has even had a bird named after her: the White-eyed River Martin, (Pseudochelidon sirintarae). Sadly, since its original discovery in 1968 the bird has rarely been seen, and may now be extinct.

While these royal personages may not qualify as ‘birders’ in many people’s eyes, their involvement—and the symbolic value to their subjects—is certainly vital to the continued survival of many of the world’s most threatened birds.

Comedians also have a distinguished track-record as birders, and include in their ranks the best-known British birder, Bill Oddie, and the late Eric Morecambe. Rock stars, too, seem particularly attracted: Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, the late Billy Fury, and new bands such as British Sea Power and the Guillemots all profess an interest. And Jim Crace in Britain, Jonathan Franzen in the US and husband-and-wife Graeme Gibson and Margaret Atwood in Canada all seek escape from the solitary life of the writer by going birding.

In fact almost any profession or calling contains at least some birders; perhaps because the impulse to watch birds is, some would argue, as innate as a love of music or art. Even Saddam Hussein, during his final days in captivity, was reported to have saved crumbs from his meals to feed the birds—an echo of the famous story of the ‘birdman of Alcatraz’.

On a broader scale, there is, unfortunately, very little information on the demographics of birding. Indeed the only full-scale national surveys are those carried out in the US.

The US Fish & Wildlife Service survey carried out in 2001 [4] inevitably produces a broad-brush picture of birding demographics, not least because it includes all those describing themselves as ‘wildlife-watchers’ and not just birders. Nevertheless, it does reveal some fascinating results, summarised here:

•  Age: perhaps not surprisingly, birders tend to come from the older age-groups, with the ‘participation rate’ highest in the 55–64 group (28%, compared with a US average of 22%), closely followed by the 45–54 (26%), 35–44 (24%) and 65 plus (24%) age-groups. The average age for backyard birders was 50, while that of those who took trips away from home to watch birds was slightly younger, at 45.

•  Income: US birders tend to be better-off, financially, than their non-birding counterparts. The income-groups with the highest percentage of birders were those earning US$75,000 or more per annum (27%); while the lowest percentage were amongst those earning less than US$20,000 per annum (19%). This reflects the fact that while birding is hardly an expensive hobby, compared for instance to skiing or photography, it does require some investment in optical equipment, books and travel. Lower-income groups also tend to have less access to transport such as private cars, and are less likely to use commercial flights, restricting their birding horizons.

•  Education: US birders also tend to be more educated than non-birders. Here the statistics were even clearer than for income, with the participation rate ranging from 33% for those with five or more years college education, to just 17% for those who only attended high school.

•  Gender: 54% of those surveyed who described themselves as birders were female, while 46% were male; an interesting contrast to Britain, where the vast majority of active birders are men. However, given that backyard birders make up a high proportion of those surveyed, this figure is perhaps less surprising.

•  Marital status: A significant majority—72%—of birders are married, while 13% have never married, 9% are divorced or separated, and 7% are widowed. This suggests that birding and marriage are highly compatible, given that the percentage of people married in the US is about 66%.

•  Ethnic and racial distribution: As the report notes, “Excepting Native American participation, birders are not a racially or ethnically diverse group”. Indeed participation rates are dramatically lower in non-white sections of the community: 9% amongst Hispanics, 6% for African Americans, and 6% for those of Asian origin—compared with 24% amongst white Americans and 22% for Native Americans. This is broadly similar with the lack of ethnic diversity amongst birders in the UK, and cannot simply be explained by socio-economic differences between groups. Given that white Americans number roughly 181 million out of the adult population of about 235 million, the figures suggest that there are fewer than four million non-white birders in the US.

Evidence from another source suggests that not only is birding in the US very popular, but that its popularity is growing even faster than other outdoor leisure activities such as hiking, backpacking and snowboarding. The National Survey on Recreation and the Environment [5] is a regular snapshot of participation in outdoor activities in the US.

By comparing data from 1983 and 2001, it was found that the number of active birders (defined as those who have watched birds away from their home) increased by more than 230% during the period, and that one in three adult Americans “participated at least at a mild level in outdoor birding at least once in the last year”. In absolute terms, the survey suggests that the number of birders has grown from 21 million in 1983, through 54 million in 1995 to over 70 million in 2001. Of these, 28%, or almost 20 million people, can be defined as ‘enthusiasts’, meaning that they go birding at least 50 times a year.

Although birding is far from the most popular outdoor leisure activity in the US (coming 15th in the survey’s ‘league table’), the rapid rate of increase in participation means that “birding continues to move toward attaining the status of being among Americans’ most-favored activities”.

As birding has increased in popularity, so it has gradually started to become more inclusive. The type of people who watch birds has broadened from a base made up largely of men (of all ages and social classes), to include far more women—though even today the vast majority of what could be termed ‘professional birders’—writers, artists, photographers, tour-leaders and so on—are still male.

Other social groups have found a voice, too. In Britain, the setting up of the Gay Birders Club in the mid-1990s and the Disabled Birders Association in 2000, indicated that there was a substantial minority of gay and lesbian, or disabled people who enjoyed watching birds. More importantly, it also indicated that some of them, at least, did not feel that their needs and interests were catered for by mainstream birding organisations.

But as Bo Beolens, founder of the Disabled Birders Association, points out, the main problem restricting participation for disabled birders (especially wheelchair users) is not attitudes but access. In his extensive experience of travelling abroad with groups of people with disabilities, the best facilities are at bird refuges and reserves in the US and Canada, though the fact that many African game reserves are only accessible by motor vehicle is, as he puts it, “a great leveller” [6]. Ironically, in the developing world, the more simple and basic the accommodation is, the better the access—especially for wheelchair users.

So things are improving for some minority groups at least. But in Britain and North America, one significant sector of society is either absent or very few and far between: Black and Asian people. Interestingly, this even applies to those whose families have been in their respective countries for several generations, and who therefore might describe themselves as ‘African American’, ‘Black British’ or ‘British Asian’.

Several theories have been put forward to explain this, mostly focusing on two factors: a general lack of enthusiasm for ‘outdoor leisure activities’ amongst these ethnic groups, and a related feeling of ‘standing out from the crowd’ if they do attempt to engage in such activities and interests.

Given that birding is an intensely tribal pursuit, in which cliques and sub-groups tend to form, it is likely that the combination of an initial reluctance to take part (or simple lack of interest), combined with a heightened sense of being an ‘outsider’ if they do attempt to take up birding, is enough to keep participation amongst such groups so low. One of the very few black British birders, David Lindo, recalls being taunted by his black peers at school as ‘Whitey’ because of his interest in birds [7].

The authors of the US Fish & Wildlife Service study suggest, probably correctly, that as birding becomes more prevalent amongst the general population, so the demographics will also change, becoming more inclusive:

In the future, undoubtedly, we will see the demographic make-up of the American birder shift and become more diverse, just like the country’s population is becoming more diverse. Women likely will assume a slightly larger share of the birding participant-base, Hispanic and Asian Americans are also likely to assume a higher profile, and more of the birding participant base is likely to be made up of persons under the age of 25. [8]

Whether this optimistic prediction will come true elsewhere is dependent on many complex social factors, beyond the scope of this essay. What can be said is that elsewhere in the developed world, such as Britain, there are factors increasing the participation of minority groups in birding; and other factors (such as difficulties of access, feelings of exclusion and changes in the way children are allowed to explore their surroundings) which may pull in the opposite direction.

In some parts of the developing world, day-to-day concerns such as the need to find food and shelter, avoid disease and simply survive may mean that the luxury of a ‘leisure activity’ such as birding is well-nigh impossible.

Birding, ornithology and conservation

As already discussed in Part 2, birding as a leisure activity not only derived from the science of ornithology, but has retained many links with it, not least through the participation of many amateur birders in large-scale scientific projects such as atlas surveys.

Likewise, birders are generally also keen conservationists: either active, by giving their time and effort to taking part in specific conservation projects; or more passive, as members of organisations such as the Audubon Society and the RSPB.

Of course, many professional scientists and conservationists are also active birders; indeed in many cases their interest in science and/or conservation began when, as a child or young adult, they became interested in watching birds.

Birders as ‘Citizen Scientists’

Perhaps the most tangible contribution that many birders make to our ornithological understanding is through their participation in the simple, large-scale studies known collectively as ‘Citizen Science’.

Because of their size, such projects typically use simple recording techniques to collect information about birds, their behaviour and where they live—providing basic ecological data which can then be used in a variety of ways, for example providing evidence of population changes of birds which can then inform government policy on environmental issues.

When well planned, Citizen Science studies can tackle quite complex ecological questions; for example, a study carried out by the BTO, in association with listeners to BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, revealed the complex patterns that influence the time at which birds begin foraging in winter. Foraging behaviour was found to differ according to habitat, with urban birds initiating foraging later in the morning because of the ‘urban heat island’ effect, which means that the climate in cities may be several degrees warmer than in the surrounding countryside [9].

A number of ongoing, long-term monitoring schemes, for example the BTO’s Garden BirdWatch, Cornell’s Project FeederWatch and the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare’s Garden Bird Health Initiative, rely on ‘Citizen Scientists’ to collect data on birds. Many of the participants in such studies would not consider themselves to be ‘birders’ but their regular weekly birdwatching generates information of sufficient quality to inform conservation policy and support ornithological research through a smaller network of paid professionals.

The power of such schemes can, for example, be seen from the way in which data from the BTO’s Garden BirdWatch and the BTO/RSPB/Joint Nature Conservation Committee Breeding Bird Survey feed into UK government indicators charting the changing fortunes of bird populations [10].

Similarly, it is only because of the backyard birders involved in Cornell’s House Finch Disease Survey that researchers have been able to track the spread and impact of an emerging infectious disease, mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, in the North American House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) population [11].

While science may seem to be becoming more and more esoteric and specialised, the day of the amateur making any useful contribution is far from over. Speaking at the 24th International Ornithological Conference (IOC), held in Hamburg in August 2006, Professor Jeremy Greenwood delivered a stirring account of the contribution of the amateur birder in Citizen Science projects [12]. Greenwood pointed out that, in Britain alone, birders spend 1·6 million hours a year contributing to bird surveys—work that has an estimated value of at least £20 million:

Amateurs make a major contribution to ornithology and bird conservation science. They always have and there is no sign of their contribution diminishing. Though they may have no formal qualifications, they have considerable expertise, gained from many years of devotion to the subject.

For some birders this involvement in science goes much further, with individuals lacking formal qualifications going on to become recognised experts in their chosen area of study. UK birder Mark Constantine and his colleagues at the Sound Approach are a case in point, using their passionate interest in bird songs and calls to stimulate a reassessment of the taxonomic standing of recognised ‘species’ and a wider appreciation of bird calls and their function. They have become the leading experts in the field of avian sound recording, with acclaimed publications to their name and making a significant contribution to our wider scientific understanding [13].

In fact, for many the division between time spent birding and that spent contributing to scientific study has become truly blurred. Records collected on birding trips and fed into BirdTrack (a partnership between BTO, RSPB and BirdWatch Ireland), not only feed through into county bird reports but are also being used to track changes in migration patterns [14].

Additionally, and highlighting the conservation value of birding, the records collected through BirdTrack are also used to target valuable resources towards important bird sites. The Bird Conservation Targeting Project identifies these sites by mapping the distributions of birds of current conservation concern reported through BirdTrack and then uses this information to direct how millions of pounds in grant payments is distributed through agri-environment and woodland schemes within England.

Citizen Science projects are increasingly valued as weapons in the fight against environmental problems, not only because of the quality of their underlying scientific structure but also because they help to draw in a much wider section of society than seen in earlier surveys.

In Britain, the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch [15] (which annually attracts about half a million participants, including many families and, importantly, school children) reaches many people who would not consider themselves to be ‘birders’, thanks largely to widespread media coverage, especially on national radio and in the newspapers. The survey not only provides a snap-shot of birds in gardens but it also engages participants with science and the underlying conservation messages that the organisation puts across.

A similar scheme operating in North America, the Great Backyard Bird Count, annually records more than seven million individual birds of over 620 different species.

Whatever the level of involvement, from the backyard birder to someone who monitors a local patch or participates in nest recording or bird ringing, the role of the Citizen Scientist cannot be overestimated. As Professor Greenwood pointed out in his presentation to the IOC, sceptics have been predicting that the day of the amateur will soon be over for about 200 years! The role of the amateur has never been so strong as it is today and this bodes extremely well for the future.

Developments in science and their effects on birding

In 1990, two books published by Yale University Press caused a revolution in the worlds of ornithology and birding. Their titles—Phylogeny and Classification of Birds [16] and Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World [17]—and their combined weight of several kilos, guaranteed that they would never reach the top of the best-seller lists. But their content, once it had been analysed and understood by the wider birding community, was the ornithological equivalent of a ticking time-bomb.

The authors were a trio of highly respected US biologists, Burt L. Monroe Jr., Charles G. Sibley and Jon E. Ahlquist. Their long study of bird taxonomy and classification, using new techniques to analyse DNA of individual species and related taxa, had reached some extraordinary conclusions. Not only did the authors propose an entirely new ‘family tree’ of the world’s birds, with radical changes in relationships between families and groups; they also revealed that their studies had effectively created hundreds of ‘new’ species.

Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World, written by Sibley and Monroe, produced a revised list of the world’s living bird species—9672 in all—arranged according to the new classification, with explanatory notes on each, concentrating especially on taxonomy at the species level.

Phylogeny and Classification of Birds, by Sibley and Ahlquist, explained the complex scientific reasoning behind these changes. Its subtitle, ‘A Study in Molecular Evolution’, was a clue to the revolutionary nature of the approach. Until then, taxonomists had used a tried and trusted range of methods to classify the world’s birds, including structural (also known as morphological) characters, such as shape, colour and anatomy; and behavioural characters such as courtship display and song.

The problem with these traditional methods was that they often relied on subjective comparisons between species, genera and families; comparisons that could sometimes produce wildly inaccurate results. This is due to two related but opposite factors: adaptive radiation and adaptive convergence.

Darwin’s finches (Emberizidae), a group of 14 species found mainly in the Galapagos, are an excellent example of adaptive radiation: whereby species exhibiting very different appearance, traits and habits have been found to have evolved from a common ancestor. Adaptive convergence is shown by many families of Australian birds, such as the fairy-wrens (Maluridae), which despite their superficial resemblance to Eurasian bird families, are not closely related to them. Both adaptive radiation and convergence can make it extremely difficult to work out the actual evolutionary lineage and relationship of a particular species or individual bird.

The new, molecular-based, approach promised—at least according to its most zealous proponents—to clear away all the doubt and confusion. Based on a process known as DNA–DNA hybridisation, it used biochemical techniques to compare the DNA of one species with another, and depending on the results, to work out the closeness of the relationship between them.

For the ordinary birder, the conclusions were exciting and baffling in equal measure. To give just one example amongst many, the existing order Ciconiiformes traditionally comprises several families of long-legged wading birds, including storks (Ciconiidae), ibises and spoonbills (Threskiornithidae), and herons, bitterns and egrets (Ardeidae)—about 120 species in all.

The new Ciconiiformes expanded this massively, also including such diverse groups as waders/shorebirds, gulls, terns and auks (Charadriiformes); cormorants, gannets and boobies (Pelecaniformes); day-flying birds of prey (Falconiformes); penguins (Sphenisciformes); grebes (Podicipediformes); divers/loons (Gaviiformes) and pelagic seabirds such as petrels, shearwaters and albatrosses (Procellariiformes)—a grand total of well over 1000 species from no fewer than eight existing orders. Incidentally, though many of the new findings have since been accepted by the scientific community, this particular hypothesis appears to have been comprehensively discredited.

At the species level, the new technique revealed even greater surprises, with many species being ‘split’ into two or even more new forms, each a species in its own right. So Bonelli’s Warbler, from southern Europe and western Asia, was split into two new species, Eastern (Phylloscopus orientalis) and Western Bonelli’s Warblers (Phylloscopus bonelli). To add to the confusion, DNA studies apparently revealed that another species, Wood Warbler (Phylloscopus sibilatrix), appears to be more closely related to both the new species than either was to the other.

The major problem with the new approach, from a birder’s point of view, was that by overturning the established order it went to the heart of one of the main ways in which the ordinary birder deals with the birds they see—by listing them as different species.

So if, as was apparently the case, new scientific techniques were going to completely change not only the relationship between families and species, but also effectively ‘create’ a whole new range of species, the potential for confusion was obvious. Would bird books have to be updated every year or two to include new discoveries? Would some species, such as the Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra), be split into so many new species that the ordinary birder would be unable to tell them apart in the field? Might there in fact be as many as 20,000 different species out there, as opposed to fewer than 10,000, as previously assumed?

In fact, after the initial furore, the application of the new science took longer than expected, and had less of an apocalyptic effect than had been predicted. So, for example, the fifth edition of James F. Clements’ Birds of the World: a Checklist [18] (published in 2000) included 9800 species. Moreover, these were arranged in the traditional order, beginning with the ratites (Ostrich and its relatives), and progressing through penguins, divers, grebes and procellariiform tubenoses.

In the Foreword to the fifth edition, William T. Everett defends Clements’ conservatism by pointing out that any attempt to keep up with new findings would be rendered “at least partially obsolete” almost immediately after publication. And while acknowledging the enormous strides made by Monroe and his colleagues, Everett also warns that this might not be beneficial to everyone:

This is how science progresses but it is not particularly good news, for example, to birders who want to keep track of their observations or curators who have to keep thousands of avian specimens properly cataloged, sorted and organized.

Other authors and publishers have been quicker to adopt at least some of the new findings. The most recent checklist, Birds of the World: Recommended English Names [19], by Frank Gill and Minturn Wright (published in 2006) includes just over 10,000 species; and places tinamous at the front, followed by ratites, gamebirds and wildfowl (ducks, geese and swans), before returning to the more conventional order.

Almost two decades on, with the benefit of hindsight, we can look back on the new approach as a major evolutionary step rather than a giant revolutionary leap. As Christopher Leahy wrote in 2004:

The Sibley-Ahlquist phylogeny should not be seen as the new Truth vanquishing a discredited earlier version. It is rather a hypothesis—a bold one—supported by some proofs. Both its experimental design and analysis of the data have been criticised by colleagues…There is no question, however, that increasingly sophisticated methods of DNA analysis have opened a new path of biological systematics that will provide immense opportunities for new research… for decades to come. [20]

Back in the field, one current benefit of the new approach is that it has encouraged birders to take a closer look at ‘odd’ birds—either a well-marked subspecies or perhaps simply something ‘a bit different from the rest’—rather than dismissing them as mere curiosities. However, groups such as the Motacilla flava wagtail complex, or the larger gulls of the genus Larus, appear to blur the distinction between species and even subspecies, by presenting a bewildering range of minor differences between individuals and populations.

Dutch birder and ornithologist Arnoud van den Berg, whose field experience of the world’s birds is more extensive than almost anyone alive, takes a view that mixes inquiry and flexibility in equal measure. He regards every taxon (a term which includes any distinctive group of birds whether or not they merit full specific status, including subspecies) as worthy of interest. In these uncertain times, this seems to be an eminently sensible approach [21].

Birding and the media

For many years, birding was rarely covered in the mass media; and when it did appear, it was usually represented as something rather amusing, peculiar or sad: the widespread use of puns based on the word ‘twitcher’ indicating a rather patronising journalistic attitude towards the pastime.

Indeed, the 2001 tabloid story that US pop star Britney Spears might be a birdwatcher (based on the acquisition of pictures of birds for the walls of her Los Angeles home) was based on the fact that the juxtaposition between the coolest teen pop idol and birding was, quite simply, ridiculous.

Nevertheless, birding (and its sister science, ornithology) not only receives considerable coverage nowadays, but the tone of that coverage is subtly changing. When the Guardian commissioned a major feature on the BBC television event Springwatch, in June 2005, it chose the respected writer and novelist Blake Morrison to cover the story [22]. He, in turn, avoided the usual tongue-in-cheek journalistic style, and instead wrote a thoughtful analysis of why what he called a “real-life avian soap-opera” had become such a hit with the public.

Morrison observed that the series allowed viewers to satisfy (albeit vicariously) “a dream of living in close harmony with nature”, and concluded that its success was another indication that the British public was “quietly falling in love with nature again”.

BBC Radio 4, which tends to attract an older and more conservative audience than does television, covers birding stories less flippantly than its television and newspaper counterparts. The early morning Today programme, in particular, has a long tradition of featuring such events as the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch—something that has undoubtedly contributed to the massive increase in the numbers of people taking part in this annual survey.

More recently, even the advertisers have got in on the act. Fans of Bill Oddie’s wildlife programmes may have been surprised to see footage of thousands of Common Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) indulging in their pre-roost aerial displays appearing in an advert for a well-known brand of lager.

At one of the best-known Common Starling roosts, on the Somerset Levels, the arrival of dozens of visitors hoping to see the evening flight prompted a lively debate on the website of the Somerset Ornithological Society [23] as to the drawbacks and benefits of so many novice birders (and indeed non-birding members of the general public) wanting to see the spectacle for themselves.

The popularity of the Common Starling roost has revealed how quickly an avian spectacle known only to a select few can, with the aid of the media, rapidly become a public event. If more and more people who do not consider themselves to be birders nevertheless begin to visit sites to watch birds, the distinction between ‘birders’ and ‘non-birders’ will blur even more. Eventually, perhaps, birding may simply become something the majority of people do—a bit like gardening or cookery—rather than a relatively specialised pastime.

New technology

One of the main themes of my book on the social history of birdwatching, A Bird in the Bush, was how the development of new means of communication (especially, though not exclusively, those that have allowed a more rapid spread of rare bird sightings) helped to promote changes in the way we watched birds.

The progression went something like: postcards (1950s), domestic telephones (1960s and 1970s), mobile phones and pagers (1980s and 1990s) and the Internet (early 21st century). Without such rapid (and largely unforeseen) developments in communications technology, it is hard to imagine that birding would have developed in quite the way it did.

Today, the keen birder has a plethora of communications aids, enabling them to get up-to-the-minute news of sightings, virtually wherever they are—mobile signals permitting. The widespread use of personal pagers, in particular, has had major changes on the way many people watch birds.

In the old days (actually not so old—perhaps two or three decades ago), people had little or no choice but to go out and find their own birds. Nowadays, it is sometimes said that it is better to sit in one, centrally located, place; wait for the pager to alert you to the news of a bird’s arrival; then dash off to see it.

One British birder has scathingly dismissed those who indulged in this practice as “the prawn sandwich brigade” [24]—itself a reference to a comment made by Manchester United footballer Roy Keane about a new breed of football fans, who want all the benefits of supporting a major team without undergoing any of the discomforts. This fits in with a long tradition in British birding subculture—that you have to suffer the bad times to appreciate the good.

Once our new birder has located the site of a rare bird (using first a pager and then a satellite navigation system), they now have a range of gadgets with which to confirm its identity and create a record of the sighting. Field guides and notebooks are, most definitely, out; electronic guides held on a palmtop device (including pictures and sounds), ‘pens’ containing a selection of bird calls and songs that can be retrieved instantly in the field, video cameras, and ‘digiscoping’ (attaching a digital camera to a telescope in order to get a long lens shot of the bird) are in.

Digiscoping (a technique originally developed in Malaysia by Laurence Poh [25]) means that once the picture (or indeed video clip) is obtained, a birder can use mobile technology to send it instantaneously to other birders—especially important if the identity of the bird is in question.

One unforeseen result of this is that the type of thorough, complete notes required by national and state or county records committees, are hardly ever taken nowadays—after all, goes the reasoning, what is the point when you can take a picture of the actual bird? Indeed, in 2006 no fewer than three potential ‘firsts for Britain’—an Olive-tree Warbler (Hippolais olivetorum), Black-eared Kite (Milvus migrans lineatus) and Long-billed Murrelet (Brachyramphus perdix)—were initially misidentified in the field, their true identity only coming to light after images of the birds were posted on the web.

Sceptics believe that a decline in note-taking, and a reliance on photographic evidence as opposed to close observation of the bird, will lead to a falling-off in field identification skills—and they may well be right. After all, some of the developing world’s greatest field birders, such as Hadoram Shirihai in Israel, learnt their trade without any optical aids at all—not even binoculars.

Another use of new technology is to help human observers. Much in the same way as closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras reduce the need for human security, so the installation of a huge robotic camera in the area where the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) was supposedly sighted (in the southern US state of Arkansas) aims to capture sightings of this elusive (and possibly actually extinct) bird. In an article headlined ‘Spy cameras on the bayou could spell end of twitchers’, a spokesman from Cornell University was quoted as saying:

Humans are expensive, and they’re not always alert, and their presence disturbs the environment, even when they’re camouflaged and sitting quietly. [26]

New technology is not solely used with regard to rare birds. The Internet allows new kinds of communication—either between birders in different parts of the country or around the world, or between birders and ornithological organisations—to work in ways we could not have envisaged even a decade ago. The BTO’s BirdTrack programme allows participants to log on and check sightings of migratory birds, and indeed post sightings of their own. BirdTrack is a quick, efficient and highly effective way of mobilising thousands of ordinary birders in order to contribute to our scientific knowledge of birds [27].

A global version of this, proposed at a meeting of conservationists in Edinburgh in autumn 2003, involves a worldwide ‘air traffic control’ network to monitor the movements and numbers of migrating birds across the globe [28].

But whatever we think about it, and whatever the consequences for the future of birding, new technology is here to stay—and the next decade or so will undoubtedly see even greater technological advances to help birders.

The economic importance of birding

It has long been understood that birds themselves—or at least our exploitation of them for food, fuel and other products—contribute major benefits to regional, local and (at least in the case of the domestic chicken) global economies. There are far too many examples to list in full, but even a random selection gives some idea of how human civilisation might have taken a very different course had we not learned to exploit wild, and later domesticated, birds:

•  The domestic chicken, whose ancestor is the Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) of southern Asia, is easily the commonest bird in the world. With estimates of between eight and 35 billion individuals, its population comfortably outranks the number of human beings on the planet (approximately 6·5 billion).

•  The islanders of St Kilda, a remote island group off north-west Scotland, were known as ‘the bird people’ because they lived almost entirely on seabirds, which they used for food (meat and eggs), fuel (burning the oil from the fatty young) and even clothing (whole Northern Gannets (Sula bassana) were used as primitive slippers!).

•  The droppings of the Guanay Cormorant (Phalacrocorax bougainvillii) of South America, which are rich in nitrates, have been harvested for centuries for use as fertiliser, bringing profit to the people of various South American countries where it occurs. During the late 19th century Chile, Bolivia and Peru even went to war over the guano supplies.

•  The use of bird feathers and skins in women’s fashion reached a peak during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During a fifty-year period between 1870 and 1920, 20,000 tons of plumage, from millions of individual birds, were imported into the UK.

•  Since 1934, the US government has raised revenue from hunters through the sale of ‘duck stamps’—effectively permits allowing the right to shoot waterfowl. In the year 2000, over US$25 million of revenue was generated by the programme.

•  Birds are frequently used for advertising and marketing purposes, as manufacturers, retailers and other businesses seek to increase their sales or improve their public image, by association with some of our favourite creatures. Perhaps the best-known of a myriad of examples are the famous ‘Guinness toucan’, created in 1935 to advertise the well-known brand of Irish beer; Swan Vestas matches; and the publishing imprints Penguin Group and Puffin Books.

There are countless other examples of our exploitation of birds for direct or indirect economic benefits. But what about the economic benefits of watching birds? Until recently, very little attention had been paid to the actual and potential spending by birders, but nowadays both the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the RSPB are beginning to produce detailed reports on this important aspect of birding.

Economic value of birding in the US

In the US, the figures are simply staggering. In 2001, according to the US Fish & Wildlife survey [29], wildlife-watchers (of which birders represent the vast majority) spent a total of US$31·7 billion in pursuit of their hobby. To put this figure into perspective, it almost exactly matches the annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Costa Rica, a popular travel destination for US birders.

Of this sum, the largest costs were travel-related, including the purchase or hire of vehicles, the services of expert guides, and food and lodging. Participants spent over US$1·9 billion on optical equipment, including binoculars, telescopes and cameras; over US$0·6 billion on nest boxes and bird feeders; and a staggering US$2·2 billion on bird food—equivalent to two Big Macs for every man, woman and child in the US.

Overall, the impact of wildlife-watching on US economic output is even greater: its total economic value has been estimated as US$85 billion a year, producing US$13 billion in state and federal tax revenues and creating over 860,000 jobs—a substantial contribution to the country’s economy.

On a local level, the economic impact of birders is even greater, as the report’s author points out:

Towns such as Cape May, New Jersey, and Platte River, Nebraska, attract thousands of birding visitors each year generating millions of dollars—money that would likely otherwise be spent elsewhere.

The survey as a whole illustrates the immense scale of birding-related expenditure, something welcomed by Julian Hughes of the RSPB [30]. However, he has also pointed out that the methodological approach of the survey does raise some important questions, and also make like-for-like comparisons between the US and the UK more difficult.

The main problem is that the survey takes a very liberal view of the kinds of expenditure related to birding activities: for example it includes the sales value of cars, boats and other personal transport (totalling more than US$11 billion), despite the fact that not even the keenest birder owns a car purely in order to go birding. Other questionable figures include more than US$4 billion for ‘land leasing and ownership’, over US$500 million for camping equipment, and more than US$2·6 billion on food.

As a result, the figures for total birding-related expenditure have been, Hughes believes, greatly exaggerated, and the true figure is likely to be much lower—perhaps in the region of US$5–10 billion—nevertheless, still a staggering amount.

Economic value of birding in the UK

With a much lower population (60 million compared to over 300 million) and smaller economy (US$2·2 trillion compared to US$12·49 trillion—2005 figures [31]), the United Kingdom’s statistics may appear rather insignificant compared to those of the United States.

Another reason the figures are lower is that UK economists do not measure the total spending made by birders on their hobby, but instead measure the extra spending people make because they watch birds.

On a regional and local level, there is no doubt that birders do make a significant contribution to the economy. In 2006, the RSPB produced a report, Watched Like Never Before [32], on the local economic benefits of what it called ‘spectacular bird species’—mainly raptors such as the Osprey (Pandion haliaetus), White-tailed Sea-Eagle (Haliateeus albicilla), and Red Kite (Milvus milvus), but including a variety of other species and groups.

As the report noted, the phenomenon of mass viewing of birds is not confined to traditional birding sites:

Spectacular birds attract attention from the popular media, which in turn stimulates the public to visit sites and watch them in new ways… The resulting social and economic benefits can occur anywhere, from office-workers enjoying city-centre Peregrines (Falco peregrinus) in their lunch break, to tourists visiting seabird colonies on remote islands.

The report does not attempt to provide a total figure for the economic benefits of birding in Britain, but instead concentrates on specific sites, most of which are promoted by the RSPB in its A date with nature scheme [33], which provides expert guides to show these spectacular birds to the general public.

Even so, the sums generated are economically significant, especially in remote parts of the UK such as the Scottish Highlands and Islands, which rely heavily on tourism for revenue.

For example, an estimated 290,000 people now visit sites with nesting Ospreys each year—mainly Loch Garten in Scotland, but also other locations in Scotland, England and Wales. In doing so, they bring an estimated additional expenditure of £3·5 million per year, making the Osprey, in the report’s words, “probably the UK’s top bird-tourism species”.

Another spectacular bird-of-prey attracting visitors is the White-tailed Sea-Eagle (popularly known as the Sea Eagle). Following a successful reintroduction programme (the species became extinct as a British breeding bird during the First World War), a number of pairs of Sea Eagles now breed on the Isle of Mull. Visitors to the island spend about £38 million every year, of which approximately £1·4–1·6 million is generated by the presence of the eagles.

The RSPB has estimated the number of jobs created by this extra revenue, using a figure of one full-time post created by every £38,650 of expenditure. As a result, about 90 jobs have been created by the presence of Ospreys, and between 36 and 41 jobs from the Sea Eagles—a significant figure on an island with a population of fewer than 2000 people.

Together, the RSPB’s 200 nature reserves in the UK attract over 1·5 million visitors each year. In 2006, these visitors spent almost £19 million on products and services in the local communities around these reserves, supporting almost 500 jobs. In addition, the management of these reserves has created a further 1000 or so jobs. While insignificant at a national level, many of these jobs are in rural areas where traditional employment opportunities have diminished.

But as in North America, by far the largest sums spent on birds and birding in the UK are those related to feeding and providing nesting places for garden birds. Bird gardening has a long history, going back to the 6th century, when St Serf of Fife first tamed a European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) by giving it food. Regular feeding of birds began in the late 19th century, while the first decade of the 20th century saw the arrival in Britain of the first nestboxes, imported from Westphalia in Germany and sold for sixpence each—about £1 in today’s money.

However, until two or three decades ago, providing food and homes for garden birds was little more than a cottage industry, with supplies mainly provided by pet shops and other local retailers. Some retailers, such as Haith’s (which started in 1937 in a pet shop in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, UK) had been retailing specialised food and feeders since before the Second World War. But it was not until the 1980s that the market began to become really competitive. The following decade saw an unprecedented expansion in the bird food industry, with several major companies setting up mail-order retail outlets.

The BTO has estimated the value of the industry today at approximately £200 million per annum [34]. The figures for the consumption of individual products are equally staggering: 16,000 tonnes of peanuts, 30,000 tonnes of sunflower seeds and 2000 tonnes of fat products. As a result, the number of species coming to feeders in the UK has grown to more than 100, and several species formerly rare or absent from gardens, such as European Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) and Eurasian Siskin (Carduelis spinus), are now regular visitors.

Until a reliable, detailed study is carried out, only a rough estimation of birders’ total contribution to the UK economy as a whole can be made. But using a simple extrapolation from the US figures, the UK’s 2·85 million birders probably spend £500 million—perhaps as much as £1 billion—on their hobby each year.

Economic value of birding in the developing world

In the developing world, birders also bring significant economic benefits, simply by visiting different countries, regions and sites to watch birds. Unfortunately no reliable studies have been made on actual revenues, so we can only guess how much this is actually worth in economic terms.

Given that hundreds of thousands—probably millions—of birders travel abroad every year to watch birds, the sums involved are likely to be colossal. Of course much of the profits generated by foreign bird tours go to international airlines, major hotel chains, and the bird tour companies themselves, rather than remaining within the local economies where the birding actually takes place.

However, the recent trend towards environmentally and socially responsible eco-tourism does mean that many bird tour companies do try to spend as much as they can on local goods and services, while others pay a small percentage of their profits towards local conservation projects.

As foreign travel has become the norm rather than the exception, birders have broadened their horizons by visiting more long-haul destinations. Of these, perhaps the best-known are Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago, both of which attract large numbers of visitors from both North America and the UK. While Tobago has always been a popular holiday destination, Trinidad has not, so the annual influx of birders to locations such as the Asa Wright Nature Centre and the Pax Guest House makes an important contribution to the local economy.

In the Old World, long-haul holiday destinations such as The Gambia and Thailand have also proved popular, especially with British visitors. And during the 1980s and 1990s, the British tour company Sunbird pioneered a series of relatively low-cost (at least in bird tour terms) package holidays to places such as Eilat in Israel, the Indian resort of Goa, and even the Chinese seaside resort of Beidaihe.

In many of these destinations, such as Trinidad and Tobago and The Gambia, local birders can now make a good living from becoming tour guides, often accompanying a leader from the US or UK, and providing up-to-date local knowledge and expertise. Ironically, their extraordinary ability to identify the birds they see derives from the fact that most spent their formative birding years either using poor-quality binoculars, or in some cases without any optical aids at all.

An example of how birding contributes to a local economy, albeit on a small scale, is the ‘Jardin de los Picaflores’ in the small town of Misiones, near the Iguazu Falls in northern Argentina. This private garden attracts up to 16 different species of hummingbird (Trochilidae), coming to feed on nectar provided by the householders. By selling a colour brochure about the hummingbirds, and asking for a small financial contribution, at least one family enjoys a financial benefit from a steady stream of foreign birders. The birds are likely to benefit as well: if local people can make money from the bird-friendly exploitation of local species, they are more likely to ensure that birds and their habitats are protected against damage from other economic interests.

Elsewhere, similar projects are also helping both people and birds. In South Africa, the Zululand Birding Route [35] was established in 1997, and along with the Greater Limpopo Birding Route, is worth an estimated US$6·8 million per year to the region. On the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the route, in 2007, of BirdLife South Africa’s Duncan Pritchard commented:

To see the Zululand Birding Route reach 10 years is testament to how simple and effective the avitourism [birding ecotourism] concept has been in this case… There have been winners all round: local economies, jobs, education and, of course, the birds. [36]

South Africa has, of course, a long birding tradition. But even in places where birding is a relatively recent pastime, the link between conserving birds and tourism is now being made. In the central Asian republic of Azerbaijan, for example, government officials have included the country’s 52 Important Bird Areas (IBAs) in their national tourism plan, and provided an infrastructure for birding tours, thus ensuring their continued protection [37].

The dignified and low-key nature of these projects is in stark contrast to the frenzy of commercial exploitation that followed an apparent sighting of the potentially extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the forested swamps of Arkansas, in early 2004. The reaction of one excited ornithologist set the tone: “It’s kind of like finding Elvis!” [38].

For the people of Brinkley, the nearest small town to where the woodpecker had been sighted, the arrival of thousands of birders, accompanied in its train by the news media bandwagon, was like a modern-day goldrush. Local businesses sought to exploit the woodpecker in any way they could: one motel changed its name to ‘The Ivory-billed Inn’, while ‘ivory-billed salad’ and ‘ivory-billed burger’ were on the menu at Gene’s Restaurant and Barbeque. A local barbershop even offered an ‘ivory-billed’ haircut, a variation of the Mohawk style complete with a red tint.

The only problem was that despite reports to the contrary, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker may actually be extinct. Expert ornithologists have begun to question the authenticity of the initial observation, and despite dozens of alleged sightings elsewhere in the southern states of the US, the woodpecker may indeed live up to its reputation as the Elvis Presley of the bird world.

Part 4: Birding Future

With his television outfit set up in a Devon heronry or at a lek of a blackcock in Northumberland the bird-watcher of the fairly near future may check, without leaving his house, or perhaps without leaving London, detailed observations painfully secured by isolated pioneers cramped, wet through, at dawn under flimsy canvas hides. It may be shocking that the acuter discomforts of bird-watching should be abolished for those willing to command increasingly intricate apparatus, but that undoubtedly is the way we are going. [1]

Max Nicholson, 1931

Despite the uncanny accuracy of Max Nicholson’s 1931 forecast, which prefigured the arrival of webcams by about 70 years, making predictions about the future development of global birding is not an easy task. Indeed anyone who does so is likely to be proved wrong very rapidly, such is the complexity of the various factors involved.

So rather than making firm forecasts about how birding is likely to grow and develop during the coming decades, I shall instead endeavour to identify key factors which, in my opinion, are most likely to affect that development.

Broadly, these break down into three main categories:

•  The current and future status of bird species.

•  How technological changes are likely to impact on birding.

•  Environmental issues and birding.

Finally, I shall draw on the thoughts of previous and current writers on birding, in order to answer an apparently simple question once posed by the legendary American bird artist Roger Tory Peterson [2]:

•  What are birds for?

The current and future status of bird species

In 2000, BirdLife International and Lynx Edicions published what may prove to be the most important book on birds ever to appear. Threatened Birds of the World [3] was a catalogue of no fewer than 1111 of the world’s bird species, representing about one in eight of all the species currently in existence.

Each of these species had become enough of a cause for concern to be placed on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which included all birds potentially at risk of extinction, in categories ranging from ‘Extinct’ or ‘Extinct in the Wild’, through ‘Critically Endangered’ and ‘Endangered’, to ‘Vulnerable’.

Since then, the number of species on the Red List has risen to 1227, of which 192 are classified as Critically Endangered, 15 of which are possibly already extinct (2009 figures) [4]. With more than 800 further species categorised as ‘Near Threatened’, this means that well over 2000 species—more than one in five of all the bird species in the world—are considered urgent priorities for conservation action. Of these, it is predicted that more than 200 species will become extinct by the year 2100—more if the factors affecting their declines get worse. This compares with an estimated total of about 80 to 100 species having become extinct since the year 1600 [5]—an increase of a factor of between ten and twelve in the rate of extinction.

Other studies are even more pessimistic. A 2004 report from the Stanford Center for Conservation and Biology in California [6] suggested that in a worst-case scenario one in four of all bird species—2500 in all—could become extinct by the end of the 21st century. Even the best-case scenario predicted that 700 species would be lost, while the intermediate figure was 1200 species. As Dr Russell Mittermeier, President of Conservation International, has said:

All the indications are that we are standing at the opening phase of a mass extinction event. [7]

The reasons for the unprecedented decline and imminent extinction of so many bird species are depressingly familiar: human over-population, leading to widespread destruction of habitat (which once gone may be either very difficult or impossible to recreate); hunting for food or sport; and pollution (especially of wetlands). Now we face the new and terrifying spectre of global climate change, which threatens to alter our weather patterns, habitats and ecosystems more catastrophically and rapidly than ever before [8]. As Dr Stuart Butchart of BirdLife International noted in the 2008 report:

Species are being hit by the double whammy of habitat loss and climate change. [9]

The authors of Threatened Birds of the World put the situation into stark clarity: we are both the problem and, potentially, the solution. Birders—especially those travelling to poorly-known regions of the world—have long been a vital tool in collecting information about the birds of a particular area, and at times instrumental in saving them and their habitat from destruction. In the future, their role promises to be even more critical:

The challenge… is to promote behaviour changes amongst the world’s people. These changes should effectively conserve threatened birds, and the habitats, sites and ecosystems in which we all live. [10]

But despite the optimism of this statement, pessimists might take a very different view: in the future, will there be any birds left for people to see? Of course some species will continue to prosper, especially those which have adapted to live alongside man and exploit our wasteful misuse of resources, but these are not usually the birds most sought-after by birders travelling abroad.

And if birders are no longer willing to pay large sums of money to travel to watch birds, or decide not to travel so as to reduce their ‘carbon footprint’, what effects might this have on the local economies of such places that have grown to depend on an annual influx of visiting birders? A vicious circle could ensue, in which the reduction in numbers of people travelling to watch birds, and the consequent fall in income related to ecotourism activities, leads to the inability to protect the birds and their habitats that people are no longer coming to see.

A different, but equally valid, point of view is that a reduction in global birding tourism could ultimately be for the benefit of the birds, as Dr Nigel Collar of BirdLife International suggested in his Foreword to Volume 5 of the Handbook of the Birds of the World, in 1999:

Birdwatchers and biologists get to ever more remote places by virtue of new airports, new logging roads, new tourist facilities. They arrive as tiny components of the great machinery of economic development which, in a few short years, mutilates natural landscapes and human cultures beyond recognition and brings Coca-Cola, television, chainsaws, DDT and debt to every cultivable corner of the planet. By the year 2010 not only will we know more about birds than ever before… we will also have most of them completely surrounded. [11]

How technological changes are likely to impact on birding

Technology changes so rapidly, and so unpredictably, that any specific examples I might give may seem hopelessly wide of the mark in just a few years time. Nevertheless, we can be fairly sure that the breakneck pace at which computing power is able to increase, combined with the increased economic purchasing power of birders, means that the pace of change is likely to accelerate at an even faster rate.

Birders, like any other community of people, are quick to take advantage of new ways of communicating. So just as pagers and mobiles dominated the late 20th century, and e-mail and websites have so far dominated the early 21st, we can expect that recent changes in the Internet will soon be taken up by at least some birders.

Social networking services such as MySpace (more than 100 million users) and Facebook (more than 200 million users) allow rapid and informal communication; while similar use of shared spaces by ‘closed’ communities (such as schools and universities) are now being mimicked by online birding communities in the UK, US and Australia, and elsewhere [12].

Given the global nature of birding nowadays, the Internet is the perfect way to communicate sightings, opinions and advice between individuals anywhere in the world, and can only help develop the cohesive nature of birding in the 21st century. The sense of isolation felt by many new or young birders as recently as two or three decades ago is surely gone forever. In tomorrow’s world, the novice birder will need to learn to cope with too much information and too many ways to communicate with other birders, rather than too little and too few.

Another factor which might put a brake on progress—certainly for individuals in the developing world—is expense. Gadgets such as field guides on a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant—a small, hand-held computing device), or a microphone attached to binoculars which can digitally record the sound of a singing bird, may be assets, but they also cost money. Just as the wide difference in cost between cheap and expensive binoculars can create ‘second-class’ birders disadvantaged by their cheap optics, so the ever-increasing need to update hi-tech gadgets may do the same.

But however much technology may change, the fundamental needs of birders remain remarkably similar to those of a century ago: discovering good places for birds, getting there, and identifying the birds once you find them. And it is this latter, fundamental building-block of identification—for after all, you cannot really learn about a bird until you know to what species it belongs—which may see the most radical changes.

We already have the ability to take a sample of DNA from a captured bird, and analyse this to assign that particular individual to a known species. This has been compared to a kind of ‘barcode’; so the logical next step is to wonder if a device could be invented that could ‘read’ this code in the field—making field identification skills redundant virtually overnight.

This scenario was envisaged by Irish birder Anthony McGeehan in Birdwatch magazine a few years ago [13]. It was only after reaching the conclusion of McGeehan’s article, that most readers realised that it was, of course, an April Fool’s Day spoof. Maybe it soon won’t seem so far-fetched after all. Professor Paul Hebert of the University of Guelph in Canada has now set out to create unique barcodes—similar to those used to identify products in our supermarkets—for each individual species of plant and animal in the world. He claims that the system is accurate in 98% of cases, and that within five years every species on the planet (or at least all those known to us) will have its own barcode [14].

Environmental issues and birding

The next uncomfortable question for today’s birders is this: even if we want to travel to see birds around the world, will we be able to?

Three major factors are making it more and more difficult to watch birds in far-flung corners of the world. The first is political instability: nowadays, few birders visit Middle Eastern trouble spots such as Jordan, Syria and even Israel; nor are there many regular tours to Colombia. People are naturally put off by the perceived (and sometimes very real) dangers of travelling in such regions; and where they have a choice, will go elsewhere [15].

Second, the recent ‘credit crunch’, in which the world’s major economies (in both the developed and developing world) are entering what may be a prolonged period of economic recession, will no doubt have impacts on the numbers of people able to afford expensive birding holidays.

But the biggest change in our travelling habits is a consequence of our wastefulness and profligate use of the world’s resources in the past. Now that global climate change is fast rising up the political agenda (even, finally, in the US, where successive governments have ignored the problem in the vain hope that it would go away), there are demands for ‘something to be done’.

This is likely to take the shape of measures designed to reduce the carbon footprint of each individual: such as increased taxes on air travel and aircraft fuel; and ultimately individually based ‘carbon allowances’—effectively a form of rationing. Given that currently each American emits 20 tonnes of carbon per year, and each Briton ten tonnes (compared to just three tonnes per person in China and one tonne per person in India), it is likely that long-distance air travel will eventually undergo a rapid decline in accessibility. This would effectively put paid to non-essential inter-continental travel, and the current era of global bird tours would enter a period of rapid and possibly terminal decline.

If the more extreme predictions about the effects of climate change on our ecosystems come true, then not only will we be unable to travel to see birds, but even if we did so, there would be very little to see. A depressing thought, but potentially a realistic one.

Looking on the brighter side, birding in one’s local area—the regular watching of a ‘local patch’, or on a wider scale, county or state—is likely to become much more important. As Mark Obmascik notes in his account of obsessive birding in North America, The Big Year [16], the era of trans-continental twitching was effectively brought to an end by the terrible events of 9/11. Obmascik points out that Sandy Komito, the record-holder for the most species seen in a single calendar year (achieved in 1998), was travelling “in a different, friendlier world”:

It would not be easy to log 270,000 last-minute miles through the increased ­security of today’s borders and airports.

As birders turn towards the birds of their local area, some benefits may occur. The reduction in geographical horizons is likely to lead to a decline in the recent obsession with seeing rare birds and logging long lists of species, and a greater focus on the interests of an earlier age: such as the intricate details of bird behaviour, which so fascinated the pioneering birders of the early 20th century.

The literature of birding, too, has taken a very different turn. Books such as Scott Weidensaul’s Return to Wild America [17], Mark Cocker’s Crow Country [18] and my own A Sky Full of Starlings [19] have resurrected and updated a fine tradition of personal writing about natural history—and what birds and the landscapes they live in mean to us.

Epilogue: What are birds for?

This brings me to my final question: what are birds for? This was originally posed in 1966, as the title of an essay written by Roger Tory Peterson in a book published by the US Department of the Interior entitled Birds in Our Lives [1].

The question was put to Peterson at the end of a talk he had given in his hometown of Jamestown, New York. At first, the great man was lost for words:

What does a clergyman say to somebody who asks him to explain the reasons for religion? What does a teacher tell a boy who wants to know what good is reading? Or a parent, should anyone ask him to list the values of a baby to parents, the human race, creation?

After his initial hesitation, Peterson begins by enumerating the various reasons for the existence of birds, divided into the two categories identified by another American ornithologist, Dean Amadon: “on the one hand, aesthetic, personal, impractical; on the other, utilitarian.”

The latter category is, of course, easy to answer. Peterson points to the science of ornithology, and how it teaches us so much about the living world, and, indirectly, about our own lives. He notes the economic value of birds: the money spent on hunting and watching them; and the incalculable benefits to human civilisation of the domestication of birds. He mentions the widespread keeping of birds as pets, an area beginning to shade into the former category: “the aesthetic, personal, impractical” aspect of birds.

Then, finally, he takes the gloves off and makes a spirited defence of the ‘use’ of birds purely for the interest, pleasure and entertainment of birders. In this he follows in a long tradition of the defence of the pastime of birding as more than just a mere hobby. Peterson’s friend and colleague, the great British ornithologist James Fisher, summed it up when he made a characteristically wry comment on the nature of birding at the start of his book Watching Birds:

The observation of birds may be a superstition, a tradition, an art, a science, a pleasure, a hobby, or a bore; this depends entirely on the nature of the observer. [2]

In recent years, writers and observers have become more aware of the philosophical basis of birding; coinciding with a heightened interest in the benefits that an interest in nature as a whole can bring to people’s mental health and emotional well-being [3].

In Western societies in particular, increased affluence over the past few decades has paradoxically led to higher levels of stress, mental health problems and general unhappiness, summed up in the memorable title of a book by psychologist Oliver James: Affluenza [4]. James identifies this as a problem with people’s ‘emotional immune system’, which can only be cured if they can reconnect with things that really matter.

Another, growing fear, is that generations of modern children may be suffering from what has been termed ‘Nature-deficit Disorder’—a lack of unmediated, spontaneous contact with the natural world [5]. Things that older generations took for granted—fishing for tiddlers, picking wild flowers, collecting natural objects for a nature table at school—are being denied to many of today’s children. As a result, we are raising children who appear to be suffering from a whole range of physical, mental and psychological problems.

Meanwhile, for adults in the Western world, where religion and spirituality are generally on the decline, a passion for the natural world appears to be helping to fill the void. A 2003 report from English Nature, Nature and Psychological Well-being [6], analysed how connecting with the natural world not only brings benefits for people’s physical health, but can greatly improve their emotional, mental and spiritual health too:

The natural world offers the potential for significant positive affect on individual and community psychological well-being.

These include the reduction of negatives, such as stress and anxiety; as well as more positive aspects, such as increase in people’s attention span and the strengthening of relationships and communities; and wider benefits such as improving local environments.

Although the report was mainly concerned with general ‘outdoor activities’ such as outdoor play, country walks and wildlife gardening, there is no doubt that a focused activity such as birding would bring the same, if not even greater, benefits to the individual and their community. As a similar study by the US Academy of Leisure Sciences, The Benefits of Leisure [7], noted:

Evidence is mounting that that systems of social support and companionship contribute to a longer, more disease-free, and higher quality life. Certainly many of these systems rely, or are highly dependent, on leisure opportunities… the “social good” of leisure is truly staggering.

This is something many birders have known about—subconsciously or consciously—for a long time. Few people can spend any length of time engaged in watching birds without at some point musing on why they do it; and most will have come to the same conclusion—that a life with birds is better, on the whole, than one without them. As Peterson’s essay concludes:

The truth of the matter is, the birds could very well live without us, but many—perhaps all—of us would find life incomplete, indeed almost intolerable, without the birds.

I—and I imagine every reader of this essay—would wholeheartedly agree.


Stephen Moss


I should like to thank the following people who have contributed to the research and writing of this essay: Mark Barrow, Bo Beolens, Arnoud van den Berg, Martin Collinson, Dominic Couzens, Ian Dawson, Jeremy Greenwood, Julian Hughes, Marco Lambertini, Adrian Long, Graham Madge, Jeremy Mynott, Richard Porter, Nigel Redman and Lim Kim Seng. Mike Toms and Andy Clements at the BTO helped draft the section on Birders as ‘Citizen Scientists’, in Part 3.

At Lynx Edicions, I should like to thank Josep del Hoyo and Amy Chernasky.

My wife Suzanne has, as always, been a huge support, and has read over various drafts and made many helpful suggestions.

Finally, I should like to dedicate the essay to the man who had more influence over the development of birding in the 20th century than any other, and whose foresight, wit and intelligence are evident from the quotations used here: Max Nicholson.



1.   The Art of Birdwatching, Max Nicholson, 1931.

2.   The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, in the County of Southampton, Gilbert White, 1789.

3.   A Bird in the Bush: a Social History of Birdwatching, Stephen Moss, 2004.

Part 1: Birding Today

1.   Popularity of birding is still growing, by Ken Cordell and Nancy G. Herbert, Birding 34(1): 54–61 (2002).

2.   URL: http://www.fws.gov.

3.   URL: http://www.rspb.org.

4.   A Bird in the Bush: a Social History of Birdwatching, Stephen Moss, 2004.

5.   The Big Twitch, Sean Dooley, 2005.

6.   URL: http://www.shearwaterjourneys.com.

7.   URL: http://www.nss.org.sg.

Part 2: Birding Past

1.   Seventy Years of Birdwatching, Horace Gundry Alexander, 1974.

2.   Bird Watching, Edmund Selous, 1901.

3.   The Bird Collectors, Barbara and Richard Mearns, 1998.

4.   Key to North American Birds, Elliott Coues, 1872.

5.   Handbook of Field and General Ornithology: a Manual of the Structure and Classification of Birds, with Instructions for Collecting and Preserving Specimens, Elliott Coues, 1890.

6.   A Field Guide to the Birds, Roger Tory Peterson, 1934.

7.   The World of Roger Tory Peterson, John C. Devlin and Grace Naismith, 1977.

8.   The Handbook of British Birds, Harry Forbes Witherby et al., 1938–41.

9.   Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America, Steven M. Gelber, 1999.

10. The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, George Orwell, 1941.

11. The Redstart, John Buxton, 1950.

12. Nature Conservation in Britain, Dudley Stamp, 1969.

13. A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe, Roger Tory Peterson, Guy Mountfort and Philip A.D. Hollom, 1954.

14. Wild America, Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher, 1955.

15. Kingbird Highway, Kenn Kaufman, 1997.

16. A Guide to Bird Finding East of the Mississippi, Olin S. Pettingill, 1951.

17. Where to Watch Birds, John Gooders, 1967.

18. Citizens, science and bird conservation, by Jeremy J.D. Greenwood, Journal of Ornithology 148(Suppl. 1): S77–S124 (2007).

19. The Atlas of Breeding Birds of Britain and Ireland, British Trust for Ornithology and Irish Wildbird Conservancy, 1976.

20. The Big Year, Mark Obmascik, 2004.

21. The Big Twitch, Sean Dooley, 2005.

22. Birding on Borrowed Time, Phoebe Snetsinger, 2003.

23. Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 1, Ostrich to Ducks, Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott, Jordi Sargatal eds., 1992.

24. Where to Watch Birds in World Cities, Paul Milne, 2006.

25. Lim Kim Seng, in litt.

26. The Birds of Turkey: the Distribution, Taxonomy and Breeding of Turkish Birds, Guy M. Kirwan et al., 2008.

27. Richard Porter, in litt.

28. The Birds of Israel, Hadoram Shirihai, 1996.

29. URL: http://www.birdlife.org/worldwide/national/index.html.

Part 3: Birding Present

1.   The Bird Watcher’s Anthology, Roger Tory Peterson, 1957.

2.   Watching Birds, James Fisher, 1941.

3.   Birds from Britannia, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, 1962.

4.   URL: http://www.fws.gov.

5.   URL: http://warnell.forestry.uga.edu/nrrt/nsre/Nsre/birding0807.pdf.

6.   Bo Beolens, in litt.

7.   David Lindo, pers. comm.; also URL: http://www.theurbanbirder.com.

8.   URL: http://www.fws.gov.

9.   Urbanisation and time of arrival of common birds at garden feeding stations, by Nancy Ockendon, Sarah E. Davis and Mike P. Toms, Bird Study, in press.

10. URL: http://www.bto.org/birdtrends.

11. Epidemic mycoplasmal conjunctivitis in House Finches from eastern North America, by André A. Dhondt, Diane L. Tessaglia and Roger L. Slothower, Journal of Wildlife Diseases 34(2): 265–280 (1998).

12. Citizens, science and bird conservation, by Jeremy J.D. Greenwood, Journal of Ornithology 148(Suppl. 1): S77–S124 (2007).

13. The Sound Approach to Birding, Mark Constantine and the Sound Approach, 2006.

14. URL: http://www.bto.org/birdtrack.

15. URL: http://www.rspb.org/birdwatch.

16. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: a Study in Molecular Evolution, Charles G. Sibley and Jon E. Ahlquist, 1990.

17. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World, Charles G. Sibley and Burt L. Monroe, 1990.

18. Birds of the World: a Checklist (5th edition), James F. Clements, 2000.

19. Birds of the World: Recommended English Names, Frank Gill and Minturn Wright, 2006.

20. The Birdwatcher’s Companion to North American Birdlife, Christopher W. Leahy, 2004.

21. Arnoud van den Berg, pers. comm.

22. The Guardian, 16th June 2005.

23. URL: http://www.somersetbirds.net.

24. Mark Golley, pers. comm.

25. URL: http://www.laurencepoh.com.

26. Daily Telegraph, 14th February 2007.

27. URL: http://www.bto.org/birdtrack.

28. Independent on Sunday, 12th October 2003.

29. URL: http://www.fws.gov.

30. Julian Hughes, pers. comm.

31. URL: http://www.cia.gov.

32. Watched Like Never Before, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, 2006.

33. URL: http://www.rspb.org.

34. URL: http://www.bto.org.

35. URL: http://www.zbr.co.za.

36. URL: http://www.wildlifeextra.com/go/news/zululand-birding.html.

37. URL: http://www.birdlife.org/worldwide/national/azerbaijan/index.html.

38. Los Angeles Times, 29th April 2005.

Part 4: Birding Future

1.   The Art of Birdwatching, Max Nicholson, 1931.

2.   Birds in Our Lives, Alfred Stefferud ed., 1966.

3.   Threatened Birds of the World, BirdLife International, 2000.

4.   URL: http://www.birdlife.org/news/news/2009/05/red_list.html.

5.   Extinct birds, by Errol Fuller, in: Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 7, Jacamars to Woodpeckers, Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott, Jordi Sargatal eds., 2002.

6.   URL: http://www.stanford.edu.

7.   Threatened Birds of the World, BirdLife International, 2000.

8.   Predictions of the effects of global climate change on Britain’s birds, by Stephen Moss, British Birds 91(8): 307–325 (1998).

9.   URL: http://www.birdlife.org/news/news/2008/05/red_list_launch.html.

10. Threatened Birds of the World, BirdLife International, 2000.

11. Risk indicators and status assessment in birds, by Nigel J. Collar, in: Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 5, Barn-owls to Hummingbirds, Josep del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott, Jordi Sargatal eds., 1999.

12. URL: http://www.birdforum.net.

13. Cripes! It’s 1999, by Anthony McGeehan, Birdwatch 80: 15 (1999).

14. URL: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/scienceandtechnology/science/sciencenews/3353....

15. URL: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2008/sep/22/wildlife.conserva....

16. The Big Year, Mark Obmascik, 2004.

17. Return to Wild America, Scott Weidensaul, 2005.

18. Crow Country, Mark Cocker, 2007.

19. A Sky Full of Starlings, Stephen Moss, 2008.

Epilogue: What are birds for?

1.   Birds in Our Lives, Alfred Stefferud ed., 1966.

2.   Watching Birds, James Fisher, 1941.

3.   Nature Cure, by Richard Mabey, 2005.

4.   Affluenza, Oliver James, 2007.

5.   Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv, 2005.

6.   Nature and Psychological Well-being, English Nature, 2003.

7.   URL: http://www.academyofleisuresciences.org/alswp7.html.



All WebPages accessed June 2009.