This is a reworking of a post of mine from a couple of years ago. You will see, when you reach the closing section, that it’s very much a plea for enthusing novices of all ages, though especially the younger age groups, in the importance and joys of wildlifing. In particular via the medium of birds and birding because birds are really easy to see.
A friend of mine, one of the two best birders I know and a chap who has devoted his life to getting out looking at birds every day of the year published his annual birding round-up on his blog at the end of 2018. Reading what he said started me putting down my own thoughts on different approaches to birding. I am focussing on this paragraph:
“Non-birders and birder-lite’s don’t appreciate what “twitching” is all about. Yes it is irrational …. Yes it is not very environmentally friendly …. Yes it is only a tick, on a tick sheet designed to add ticks to it. What is not considered is the amount of data accumulated by those who chase when they complete their eBird checklists. Most contribute the sort of data that could only have been dreamed of pre-eBird. Counts, distribution and dates for all the species seen are part of the package along with the tick … You may not particularly like the notion of (responsible) twitching but you cannot denigrate the data it generates.”
I wouldn’t disagree with a word he wrote but I am going to take the opportunity to add a couple of personal comments as follows:
“Non-birders and birder-lite’s don’t appreciate what twitching is all about” … I’m getting on in years and once went through a period of enthusiastic twitching. I still love to claim a lifer and rarities always appeal, though I have little enthusiasm nowadays for ticking vagrant rarities, preferring to see birds where they are “supposed” to be and ideally on breeding territory. Most years pre-covid I would travel afar – usually northwards as I am not one for the steamy tropics – to see birds. More often than not I do so as part of a wildlife focussed tour with local guides so I get the most out of the expensive opportunities I am paying for. But I don’t twitch. I almost never jump in the car and hare off on the chance of possibly seeing something I “need” on my life list unless it is reasonably close to home base. I don’t care if I have a longer list than anyone else. But twitching? Yes, I understand the what and the why.
“Yes it is not very environmentally friendly …” … Here we get to “Greenbirding” which is about using only human motive power to get out to where the birds are – walking, cycling, canoeing, occasionally taking the bus. I was commissioned and paid a few years ago to write a book about this so I know the pros and cons quite well – you should read it (search for Greenbirding on Amazon). I do care very much about the environment and I do what I can to keep my fuel consumption low and cheap and my GHG emissions reasonably minimal – we recently sold our low mileage internal combustion engine car (only travelled 16,400km in four years) and purchased an electric car instead, not a hybrid but the real thing. When I can I walk or use the bus for the most part. Often while looking for birds or butterflies or flowers I just go off somewhere for a good walk. I am not here to criticise anyone. I can justify Greenbirding with statistics and factoids until the (GHG emitting) cows come home if you want me to but in the real world I am a greenish birder mostly because I enjoy seeing and knowing more about the birds that live near to me more than those far distant ones. I like to study the changes in their habits and populations with the seasons and over the years. That’s just me … as I said, I have twitched, I occasionally twitch but mostly my approach to birding has changed into one of visiting localish habitats that I know really well and just seeing what is about and recording it. If I can do some botanising at the same time (my wife is an avid botanist and I am becoming converted) then so much the better. Even more so if there are photos to be had. If I am travelling, then my first thought is not “what good birds are here” but rather “there’s an interesting field/marsh/woodland, let’s go and see who lives there”.
“Most (birders who report observations) contribute the sort of data that could only have been dreamed of pre-eBird.” … Here is where the two approaches meet and where we totally agree. Birding should not be primarily about personal lists as far I am concerned, interesting as they are, but about collecting and sharing data. Citizen Science in other words. I have very little time for people – robin strokers as they have been named – who say they like watching birds (or butterflies, or plants or whatever) but don’t make a note of what they have seen and certainly never make their observations available to others. Their approach means that science and other enthusiasts cannot benefit from the data they have gathered. The fact that rare bird X has appeared in an unusual place at an atypical date is lost forever. In today’s world with smartphone apps, websites, eBird, iNaturalist and the like it takes very little time at all at the end of a day in the field or watching your garden to sit down with a cup of tea and upload your sightings to one of the huge databases sitting there eager for your contributions in the knowledge of a job well done. For many species you can even record the observations as you make them with a couple of clicks on a smartphone app. Twitching is optional, recording and reporting should not be.
** Where to report your observations so others can know about them … citizen science:
eBird – https://ebird.org/
iNaturalist – https://www.inaturalist.org/
So, today I am always exceptionally pleased if I self-find a rarity (and report it to eBird etc) or just spend time with some nice birds that I don’t often see … but if someone else sees a rare/good bird somewhere distant to where I am I am probably not going off on a twitch to see it myself. I am content to know that it still exists out there and is happily doing its birdy thing in suitable habitat. The record from the finder is now in the database and the bird doesn’t need me peering at it. These days I am more concerned about, and work towards preserving, endangered habitat which, when lost, is going to affect all the wildlife that calls it home. Of course, many twitchers do that also and more strength to their elbows say I. Some don’t but that’s between them and their consciences. Just ‘liking’ a conservation project on social media doesn’t save any bird’s habitat. Get involved.
… Finally, we come to the point of this post.
Perhaps even more important is making sure that the following generations come to know and appreciate wildlife and want to preserve it and the places it lives in. Sadly, that seems less and less to be the case unless we make efforts to show them what’s out there and how vulnerable it is.
Quote: “In our technology-fuelled world, children are spending less time wandering around the great outdoors and much more time plugged in to a screen … it becomes increasingly important to bestow on our children the importance of interacting with nature and taking care of the environment.”
A good way to start the process of “bestowing on our children the importance of interacting with nature and taking care of the environment” is to make sure that the gardens they have to play in have been designed, planted and maintained to attract and hold as much of our native wildlife as possible. Put up feeders and nesting boxes, plant fruit trees and seed-rich native flowers, minimise the lawn, install a pond with a waterfall, enroll the kids (and your adult friends and relatives) in projects like Feederwatch and enthuse them about the whole process. Show them birds and critters and make sure they do not become the sort of sad people who think all blackbirds are the same or that male and female Cardinals are separate species or that Goldfinches (aka “canaries” to many) migrate in winter. Simply because they are no longer yellow. No need to lecture, if the kids are anything like I was back then they will find it fun. Then take them for walks in local parks and along riversides and continue the process of gentle education. That way there might still be a habitable world for them to grow up in.
And if the kids and your friends then want to go twitching – good for them.
Coda: I have used birds and birding above to make my point but the same things hold equally true for flowers and butterflies and mammals and frogs and mosses and trees.