The Birding Hype

A bittern is a bittern is a bittern. Yet, everything else related to the awareness of birds has radically changed in recent years. “Birdwatching” has turned into “birding,” which sounds infinitely cooler, and the cliché-ridden hobby is no longer viewed as eccentric, but rather as hip, even political!

Whenever it perceives danger, the bittern instantaneously assumes the arrow position and stretches its neck steeply upward. In doing so, it appears to be looking even further forward, in what is truly a hilarious pose. It imitates a reed. Today’s reed is rarely the thick, old reed found in the past, but more often than not flimsy pampas grass, in which, ever more frequently, birdwatchers can be found lying in wait. However, even the birdwatchers are not what they used to be. The traditional image of the common hobby ornithologist is practically carved in stone – a white, middle-aged man dressed in khaki, squatting in the marsh with his bird whistles and a fishing hat on his head. Today, not only is the bucket hat hip, but this recreational activity focused on birds has attracted a completely new set of followers.

First of all, let us clear up some terminology. In contrast to ornithologists, who pursue research into birds for scientific purposes, a birdwatcher identifies bird species, often based on their songs and traces (such as nests, feathers, and pellets). In practice, though, a birdwatcher can be anyone who simply watches birds. Nowadays, those who observe birds as a hobby are referred to as “birders.” The level of aspiration of a birder can range from casual to ambitious. So-called twitchers or spotters are the extreme sportspersons among birders, even journeying around the whole world to view rare bird species. Speed birders are obsessed with capturing as many species in front of their lens in the shortest possible time. Meanwhile, others drift aimlessly and prefer to be taken by surprise by whatever feathered fowl comes their way.

Every birdwatcher would probably like to recognize and name their discoveries at some time or another. Many therefore catalog the appearance, discovery data, and the suspected species of their finds, increasingly with the use of an app. Should the bird observation data be collected for research purposes or nature conservation, the activity is then referred to as mapping or monitoring. Amateur birdwatchers can even pass on their data to this end and thereby contribute to science. For such purposes, a pair of binoculars and, for long distances, a spotting scope are very practical. (And if a digital camera is used for documentation, one calls this digiscoping.)

With respect to spotting scopes, sales of these expensive specialty observation telescopes have rapidly increased in recent years, as have varieties of birdhouses and the massive number of reference books on species identification. In addition to these ornithological tomes that have recently taken flight on the book market, the interested reader can also find novels, volumes of poetry, and coffee-table books devoted to bird topics. Never before have there been so many publications on the subject, or has the popularity of the small, feathered friend been so great.

For discussions on whether native blackbirds, thrushes, finches, and starlings are drawn more to sunflower seeds or apples and how the turquoise legs of the Alexander parakeet shine so prettily, German-speaking bird lovers can tune in to Antonia Coenen and Philipp Juranek’s podcast Gut zu Vögeln . In each episode, the two hobby ornithologists present a different bird species, song, behavior, and “jizz” (the overall impression given by a bird’s physical traits). They also highlight the incidence of birds in art, music, and popular culture. The podcast first appeared during the Corona pandemic and is as informative as improvised and exhilarating, always ready to delve into some digression. Evidently, the series hit a nerve. An ever-greater number of new ornithological podcasts, such as, for example, Birdbeats, have popped up on various audio services and are delighting growing audiences. And as an official indication of birdwatching’s newfound popularity, even the Dachverband Deutscher Avifaunisten, an umbrella organization uniting all ornithological associations in Germany, has noted a steady increase in membership.

All this should come as no surprise. The trend conforms perfectly to people’s desire, especially city dwellers, to spend more time in nature. We are so overstimulated, not only by light and noise but also with technology, work, social media, psychological stress, and mounting expectations, that we find it almost impossible to switch off. Nature provides us with a solution. By focusing on nature, we can forget about everything else and achieve a clear head. For many, the path to the woods is much simpler than the path to meditation. And on the way, one can learn and discover things. Seen in this light, birdwatching is a way to unwind with additional value. Success is guaranteed, as everyone sees some bird at one time or another. This awakens a basic instinct in certain hobby ornithologists, similar to what hunters feel when lying in wait to shoot their prey. Most birders, however, describe a feeling of pure joy when observing birds.

One advantage of this recreational activity is that it can be pursued independently of any particular location. The most famous birdwatching areas are probably the Galapagos Islands, Africa, Costa Rica, and the Amazon. Petrels, albatrosses, and the migration of penguins attract bird lovers to the Arctic. Zambia provides a spectacular spot in late summer to observe the nesting carmine bee-eater, while guillemots can be seen jumping off cliffs in Helgoland. There are lesser-known destinations as well, such as Sri Lanka and Borneo, and one shouldn’t exclude impressive bird populations closer to home in Europe. Many birds can be watched in Germany as well. White storks in summer, for instance. And there are also many songbirds, waterfowl, and birds of prey, such as owls and hawks. In the spring, migratory birds fly in from Africa, Portugal, Spain, and France to breed, whereas other species arrive in Germany from Scandinavia to spend the winter. It is probably easiest to spot birds in the winter when the leafless branches offer a clear view. Over 40,000 birds from approximately 130 different species are observed each year. The more common migratory birds such as the graylag goose, common chaffinch, and crane, rarer species such as turtle doves, black storks, and orioles are also sighted.

Birdwatching has even become a huge trend in urban centers. For one thing, there are now more species to observe in cities than in the surrounding countryside, which is probably connected with the overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides there. Cities are now home not only to pigeons, sparrows, and crows but also to swifts, swallows, hawks, falcons, and escaped parrots and parakeets. Another reason for the hobby’s popularity lies with a man called David Lindo. He calls himself the urban birder and, for over ten years, he has actively promoted inner-city birdwatching. “Birdwatching has definitely become much cooler,” says Lindo, an expert on the topic and himself the best proof of his claim. Lindo hits the asphalt in his jeans and sneakers, looking up into the clouds with his binoculars. His hashtag is #lookup. “When I was young, most birdwatchers were middle class, white, middle-aged men,” he likes to recall in interviews. Lindo’s origins are black British-Jamaican. He is still far from being middle-aged and certainly does not correspond to the clichéd image of a birder. Lindo has managed to turn his hobby into a profession; he appears regularly on television, writes bestsellers on birdwatching, and is a star in the UK and the USA. Thanks to his spectacular shots, fast-paced videos, and a wealth of wild stories on his birding experiences, birdwatching can no longer be viewed as a quaint hobby but rather a funky passion. It has become popular in many cities. In Los Angeles, the Ace Hotel invites guests to the roof for “Bird’ n’ Booze,” while devotees in Berlin assemble in Tiergarten Park for some “after work birding.” London features a complete festival with street art performances in honor of the bird (not, of course, during the current pandemic).

Lindo not only snatched a dusty leisure pursuit away from its graying following but also brought it right into the city. Nowadays, birding has not only become more popular, youthful, and urban but also much more diverse. “Birding today cuts through all social strata and is simply good for the soul,” says Patrick Reetz from Birding NRW and thereby describes a feeling of being happy, free, and close to nature. Nonetheless, for a long time, women tended not to feel at home in this hobby.

Molly Adams was one of them. In the past, she had unpleasant experiences with mansplainers in birdwatching groups. Then, in 2016, she established the world’s first feminist birding club in New York City. Its logo is the spotted sandpiper, a bird species in which the females are in charge. Since then, the group is also open to people of any same-sex, trans, or asexual orientation and those of ethnic origins not sufficiently represented by society, who are simply looking for a protected setting to practice their hobby.

Flock Together, a birding group founded in London this past May and that is currently enjoying a lot of attention, shares a similar story. There is an English proverb that goes “birds of a feather flock together.” Yet, in addition to their mutual hobby, members of the group have one more thing in common – they all have a skin color other than white. This is not just an optical differentiation from the cliché birdwatcher (whose external and socio-cultural characteristics have become a metaphor for a good reason). It is also about providing a safe space where people with similar experiences can come together and feel comfortable in a group.

“We want to make it (Birdwatching) more accessible, especially for urban people—and bring some style and panache to it,” explains Olli Olanipekun, one of Flock Together’s two founders. Thanks to Instagram, over a hundred participants suddenly joined the group. It organizes walks lasting approximately 2 hours through London’s parks and nature preserves. Since then, offshoots have sprouted in other major cities, such as Toronto, Amsterdam, and Tokyo. The group is open to both beginners and professionals. No experience or equipment is required. “The barrier to entry is absolutely minimal,” Olanipekun continues. “We provide everything, the binocular donations and all of the equipment donations go to people who actually need it.”

From the very start, the two founders were primarily concerned about the underrepresentation of people of color, or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), taking part in outdoor leisure activities. They aimed to change this situation. For an individual person of color, it is already quite a feat to venture into such predominantly white realms as birdwatching and then, afterward, possibly stopping off to a pub with the group, says Nadeem Perera, the other founder of Flock Together. “There have been many times where I’ve been in the countryside and after I’ve been on a hike, I would like to go to the pub. But sometimes I think, should I actually walk into this pub? Will I be accepted in this pub? Will I be abused when I go to this pub? Racism happens in spaces where people feel like they own it. By us being together and going into typically white spaces, we find strength and unity and the courage from each other to normalize our presence in these spaces. We are showing Black people that being here is fine.” Someday, perhaps this group will be open to people from every ethnic background, says Perera. But for the moment, it is good to have something they can call their own.

Even Lindo has experienced brushes with racism. People sometimes wonder out loud if he really belongs outside with the birds. Lindo agrees: “It’s like it’s not our place to be involved in those worlds,” he says. “We’re only encouraged to become footballers, basketball players, R&B singers. But we’re never encouraged to become an astronaut, or to become involved in the environment.” He also dispels another prejudice right off, namely that you have to be an expert to observe birds. “But you really don’t. You don’t need to know the names of the birds or what they are called in Latin. You just need to go outside and just look up.”

You can easily find a suitable birding group on social media. NaBu (Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union) regularly reports on current events in Germany. Crane season begins at the end of February.