It has often been asserted that a feeling for and connection to the natural world is a precondition for wanting to protect it and preserve it. One area where this feeling for the natural world is organized is within recreational natural history and specifically recreational bird watching.
There is an estimated 45M bird watchers in the USA. In the UK, the RSPB, the largest bird conservation NGO, has over 1M members and there are bird watching cultures across Western Europe, Northern and Southern Africa and SE and E Asia. Most bird watchers are drawn to the beauty and aesthetic appeal of wild birds, to their colours, movement and their songs, sounds and calls. Many are drawn to wild birds because of the way they enchant the places and landscapes in which they are found and encountered.
These feelings for and encounters with wild birds motivate bird watchers to support the protection and acquisition of land by conservation bodies, to advocate the preserving of urban green spaces and the wider commitment to protecting biodiversity, both close to home and internationally. This is because to watch birds is also, typically, to want to protect them and their habitats. It brings with it a desire to protect other communities of animals and plants upon which birds depend.
These aspects of bird conservation and bird watching behaviour have wider environmental benefits. As the UN sponsored IPCC report argues, healthy ecosystems can provide 37% of the mitigations needed to limit global temperature rise. Whereas damaged or degraded ecosystems release carbon instead of storing it, natural landscapes can sequester carbon. Furthermore, restoring landscapes and managing them for species richness and diversity can enhance their value as a source of climate change mitigation and biodiversity.
There are, however, other dimensions of bird watching and bird conservation which involve actions and behaviour which are more problematic environmentally. The pursuit of close encounters with rare, scarce or exotic birds often involves travelling to nature reserves located in relatively remote places in the UK or seeking out birds overseas through nature tourism. These pursuits usually involve driving by car and flying by plane. As forms of mobility they come with a hefty carbon footprint.
As Javier Caletrio has shown this means that a good deal of contemporary bird watching is a high-carbon activity. He has proposed the development of low-carbon ornithology, ‘travelling less or traveling differently’ as he puts it. This means traveling by train, cycling and limiting flying or stopping flying altogether. Caletrio’s model for decarbonizing ornithology also includes encouraging local patch birding, such as that promoted by the Patchwork Challenge.
These are challenging injunctions to a bird watching culture which has developed around cars and planes to deliver speed, mobility and access to remote, distant and inaccessible places. Shifting these birding behaviours is not easy. It requires more time to travel by bike or train, and the latter can cost more than driving. Public transport infrastructure needs to be expanded. And adapting to slow birding would require more free time and longer paid holidays from employers. But Caletrio is surely right to suggest that bird watchers can’t only support biodiversity through conservation but must reflect on the contribution their passions for birds make to the climate crisis.
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Department of Sociology, University of Essex
Sean is currently working on a new monograph Passions for Birds: Science, Sentiment and Sport to be published by McGill-Queen's University Press. It is an interdisciplinary study drawing upon environmental and cultural history, animal geography and sociology. It explores the shifting relations with wild birds within Britain and the wider Atlantic world from the first decades of the twentieth century to the late 1970s. It seeks to bring together the practices of bird conservation and bird-centred field sports to explore the interplay of different passions for birds and competing configuration of human/avian relations.
His previous research has focused on the history of advertising and commercial culture.