When you think of a birder, you’re probably thinking about grandma looking out the back window at the blue jay coming to her birdfeeder, or perhaps a group of middle-aged men wandering through the local park in their vests.
Think again — there are millions of birders from all walks of life, and they’re out there looking everywhere from the backyard to the ends of the earth. I have spent the past decade traveling nonstop around the world looking for birds, and here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way.
Birds are endlessly diverse and exciting.
There are over 10,000 species of birds and counting — new species are described every year. Since emerging from the ranks of the dinosaurs, birds have proliferated and now can be found in nearly every ecosystem. Indeed, birds are the most easily observable components of the fauna in most places on earth.
The bewildering variety of shapes, sizes, and colors is proof of their genetic heritage over the long road of evolution. One day you can be crawling through the tropical undergrowth, spending hours trying to glimpse a skulking bird, then find it and feel that pulse of excitement that comes with knowing you’re one of only a handful of people ever to set eyes on this species. The next day you may be staring open-mouthed in awe at the outrageous feathers of a bird of paradise.
And birds can fly; we’ve always envied birds their powers of flight. On the expedition vessels I work on, I’ve watched transfixed for hours, even days, as a mighty wandering albatross sailed effortlessly through the violent Southern Ocean gales while most of the vessel’s inhabitants could hardly stand up straight. It’s hard not to feel a surge of excitement, and envy.
If your goal is to see unusual birds, you’ll quickly get off the tourist track.
All world birders know that birding is a great excuse to travel and experience places you would otherwise never have visited. If you want to see much beyond the widespread species you’ll quickly find yourself off the tourist trail in areas where few people venture.
Apart from getting to see a different aspect of the local culture, you’ll find that the areas where birds are tend to be the best to see other wildlife as well — elusive mammals, cool reptiles, and insects, as well as untamed wilderness. And birders are good about sharing information, so it’s usually easy to find out where to go and how to get there.
Birding is a social activity.
Sometimes it’s great to head into the wilderness alone with the backpack and tent and come out days later. But much of the joy of birding is derived from the shared experiences with fellow enthusiasts. And there are lots of fellow enthusiasts!
It’s an often-quoted fact that there are more than one million members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the UK, where birding has perhaps developed more than any other country. Surveys in the United States routinely show that about 1 in 5 Americans at least occasionally watches birds. While most of these people clearly are not traveling worldwide, there are certainly tens, if not hundreds of thousands who are.
Birding is one of the most popular outdoor activities in the world, and it appeals to people from just about every age class and social group. A typical birding group will often feature a random assortment of people who’d never have associated with each other but are unified by their love of birding. You’ll very quickly find others to share your findings with.
Birding can benefit the places you visit.
There are a lot of birders out there. They travel a lot and spend a lot of money. If done right, birding tourism has the potential to benefit the habitats where the birds are and the people and communities that live in the area. Many a patch of rainforest has been saved from the chainsaw because a steady flow of birders into the forest brings far more money than chopping down the forest ever could. The forest is saved, the community benefits, and the birders get to see their birds — everyone wins (except maybe the multinational logging companies). Likewise, there are many stories of ex-bird trappers turned bird guides who now make a living showing birders rare birds rather than trapping them.
Birding also offers great scope for citizen science. By reporting your sightings of rare or unusual species, you can add to knowledge of bird populations and hopefully aid in their conservation. Even our understanding of the common species can be enhanced when birders submit their sightings. A good example is Cornell’s eBird, a website where birders can share their bird sightings from anywhere in the world. According to eBird project leader Marshall Iliff, there are 110,000 contributors submitting about 3.5 million observations per month. That is a potentially powerful conservation tool.