Reports, Reviews, Articles and Views

Nature Obsessives – 1. Birdwatchers

                                            Nature Obsessives

There will be a number of features in this slot from wildlife and nature lovers giving a bit of an insight into why they do ‘their thing’. We start with Birdwatchers.


For half a century or more the general view of a birdwatcher was not drawn from life but from a character from a TV show – The Beverly Hillbillies – Jane Hathaway. She was likely to be seen clad in kahaki like an overgrown boyscout with a hat and woggle, creeping around a wood in search of the lesser spotted made-up-name bird. The truth is that we, of course, come in all shapes, sizes, races, creeds, and proclivities and from both genders.

Why do we bird?

Is it our hunting instinct sublimated? Could it be that our penchant for collecting is being positively perverted? Maybe it’s just that as long as the genus homo has been sapient we have been fascinated by flight. Is listing about our ancient need to record history or because we want a bigger pile of blue things next to our bower to thoroughly hack off our poorer neighbours?

It’s a trick question of course, as there is no one answer. Like many human pastimes there could be said to be as many reasons to birdwatch as there are birders, but there some definite ‘tribes’ of us with broadly similar motivations.

You might, rightly be wondering why it matters, or if, in fact it even matters at all.

Those of us concerned with conservation in general, or bird welfare in particular need to know who to target and how to get our messages across to them.

I’ve seen birding called a ‘sport’ and there is no doubt that to some people it is, and to others it becomes one occasionally. If you are a ‘competitive’ birder then it matters to you how you are ‘performing’ in relation to other birders. So the way you bird is different depending on why you are doing it. Humans have a relatively few years of ‘civilized’ behaviour, but many hundreds of thousands of years hunting for food or competing for that food with others. To my mind twitching is hunting sublimated. There is no doubt that to find rare birds you need to hone ID skills and fieldcraft, hunters need to know how to recognise the best food species and get close enough to despatch them.

What is the prize? To some a photo is the thing, but to most it’s merely the ‘tick’ on whatever list they are most fond of. Its all very well having the tick to gloat over, but waving it over your head as a triumphant trophy is much more fun.

For many of us birding is a much more private and personal thing. I suspect we are motivated more by our fascination with avian science or the sheer beauty of birds. For me being in a quiet place, lost in the spectacle of natural beauty tops extending species lists every time.

I’ve lost count of the number of times a non-birder has asked me why I bird and then asked… do you take a photograph? My reply is usually tailored to what they love in life, and I’ll ask, for example, if they take a photo of the golf ball disappearing down a hole as they finish their round. Their laughter at the question often stops them in their tracks. Virtually any pastime seems weird or fruitless when deconstructed.

From the conservation angle, it’s no use trying to appeal to rarity chasers by telling them that they can help make a rarity more common. But they might be motivated by an appeal to preserve the habitats that attract vagrants to their neck of the woods. Membership of their local conservation trust might appeal to them when they know that their subscription will help save the reserve from being eyed up by the developer’s bulldozers, if it regularly turns up ‘stonkers’ to extend their lists.

Some of us are pushovers of course. Just showing us the picture of a barn owl is enough to get us diving to the bottom of our pockets in a rush to hand over our last brass farthing (and there can’t be many of them left).

Our tribe are the descendants of Neanderthals who probably missed out on the mammoth steaks, being too busy watching the erratic flight of dragonflies or just grinning inanely at the wonder of high-flying swifts. Our Cro-Magnon neighbour’s cave was probably covered in the tallies of all his woolly rhino and auroch meals, whereas our precursors will have had just one lovingly crafted bison portrait, coloured with the juice of the berries and roots left over from his foraged meals.

My speculation may be way wide of the mark of course… and those reading this (and thanks for doing so incidentally) might want to put me right. Feel free, as far as I am concerned it takes all sorts to make the human world more interesting and each should be appreciated for their individual characteristics, just like bird species really.