There it is, perched on a tree about 30 feet in front of us. With steel grey wings and head, a rusty red back, darting eyes, and small yet fiercely sharp-looking talons, the American kestrel is a beautiful sight. And here we are, me and my parents, all fighting to get a good look at it through our roughed up, damaged pair of binoculars.
With a minor veneer of civility, we pass around the dingy binoculars, frustrated when we are forced to pull away from our examination of the kestrel and surrender our turn to the next eager watcher.
If this moment tells me anything, it’s that me and my family, while interested in birdwatching, are by no stretch of the imagination, experts. Though we may be amateurs, birdwatching is something I always look forward to doing with my family. Our lack of proper technique and equipment has not stopped us from embarking on these little expeditions, trying to identify all the birds we see.
As to why I started birdwatching — or birding, as it is sometimes referred to — in the first place, I couldn’t tell. I suppose it’s just something I can do with my family outdoors. The birds we find are beautiful, but for me, it’s a very communal activity.
The question of why we birdwatch is something I think about in these moments. Why not mammal watching or reptile watching? What is it about birds that inspires so much wonder that thousands of people around the world are eager to seek out birds just as my family does?
Bob Lefebvre, an avid birdwatcher who runs the Birds Calgary blog, began birdwatching back in 2010. He offers insight into how birdwatching has gained a significant following.
“Birding is a very fun outdoor activity, it’s educational, just an all-around good activity. But to me, it’s important because it gives people a way into understanding conservation, which is sorely needed in the world these days,” says Lefebvre.
“Getting people involved in birding is probably the easiest way to get people interested in nature. There are always lots of birds to see, whereas if you were to focus on mammals, you may not find very many species and in low numbers around the city. So, it’s a good way to get people out in nature and get them interested in the wider issue of conservation.”
While this may be the main reason people birdwatch, it doesn’t tell the whole story of the hobby and how it began. While reading A Bird in the Bush: A Social History of Birdwatching, by Stephen Moss, I realized humans have been watching birds for a long time. However, the distinction between watching birds and birding needs to be made.
Birds were an important part of ancient culture, with people relying on them for food or even depicting them as Gods, as the ancient Egyptians did with Horus and Thoth, which were represented by birds. If you wanted to go way back, the first known pictorial depiction of a bird would be a cave painting in Gargas, France dating back 18,000 years.
But, people did not always watch birds for pure enjoyment as we do today.
The first documented birdwatcher is debated, but Reverend Gilbert White seems to be a frontrunner. White was an amateur naturalist from the United Kingdom and mostly studied birds for scientific purposes. But when his book, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne, was published, people gravitated towards it for its beautiful, in-depth descriptions of the birds. It opened people’s minds to the possibility of enjoying the outdoors, which was a foreign concept back in the late 1700s.
For some people, however, there is more to birdwatching than just being immersed in nature.
Twitchers are a subset of birders who react with frantic excitement at the possibility of sighting a rare bird. They give an entirely different perspective of why someone would birdwatch. For them, birdwatching is checking off a list. The more birds checked off, the more accomplished and noteworthy the birdwatcher.
This can lead to competition, but avid birdwatcher Howard Heffler, one of the organizers of the Calgary Big Year Birding Challenge, notes that this behaviour is not something he’s ever experienced.
“The whole birding thing is very much about helping beginners. If you’re out birding and there’s an expert there, they’ll be more than helpful to everybody around,” Heffler says.
“I used to play squash, and when a bad squash player is going against a really good one, it’s not much fun, but in birding that’s not the case. One birder might be an expert, but they’ll be more than happy to share their expertise. It’s very much a part of the whole tradition.”
This environment has led to more young people becoming interested in the hobby throughout the past few decades, as Lefebvre notes, with social media being an all-important reason for the surge in youth involvement.
“Birdwatching has changed a lot in a relatively short period of time,” says Lefebvre. “You have access to all the field guides and bird calls right on your phone. There are rare bird alerts that notify groups when a rare bird is spotted. It allows everyone in the birding community to be more closely connected … and the online side of it is something that appeals more to young people. It allows them to grab right onto it and get into birdwatching really fast, allowing them to learn a lot really quickly.”
COVID-19 has had an adverse effect on getting new people into birdwatching. Events that are geared to attract new birdwatchers like the Calgary Big Year Birding Challenge — where Calgarians try to identify as many species of birds as possible in one calendar year — had a great turnout at the start of 2020, but once the pandemic hit, that turnout dropped off. But, this doesn’t mean interest has gone away entirely.
Like many others over the past few months, I immersed myself in my favoured hobbies during the pandemic. For birdwatching, that meant our family getting new binoculars. It was quite the ordeal trying to pick out a new pair from the glittering display cases with row upon row of binoculars, containing well-known brands from Swarovski to Nikon, priced from $100 to $4,000.
Eventually, we went with some reasonably priced Bushnell binoculars. My family now has two pairs, with one being a marked improvement upon our previous battered pair. In the end, it’s not so much about the equipment and our skill as it is about being with each other and enjoying nature. It seems that over 250 years, the allure of birds has remained the same.