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Birdwatching has a vast range of benefits and creates a vital awareness of nature

Birdwatching can have important benefits to individuals, as well as helping to preserve avian diversity.

Birds are a very accessible part of nature, and you don’t need to live in the countryside to enjoy them. Urban birdwatchers or ‘birders’ such as David Lindo in London and Debbie Becker in New York have helped us to think about this hobby differently. After all, a peregrine is just as exciting to watch when perched on a city office block as it is on a coastal clifftop, and urban parks are a vital refuge for a surprisingly wide array of birds.

Birdwatching Peregrine My Good Planet
The peregrine is a worldwide apex predator that can now be seen in many cities. (c) Dr. Simon Wills

But wherever it may be practiced, birdwatching has many rewards. Perhaps the most obvious is that individuals passionate about wild birds have pioneered numerous conservation success stories. People who enjoy watching birds have been stimulated to create partnerships, find sponsors, and educate people in order to rescue birds in danger of extinction.

Bird Life International recently highlighted ten ways in which some of the rarest birds have been saved. Indeed, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the UK and the National Audubon Society in the US were both founded on the back of campaigns designed to defend birds from slaughter by the fashion industry and so preserve them for future generations to see. These two bird charities are now amongst the most popular wildlife membership organisations in their respective nations.

The iconic American bald eagle was once at risk of extinction but is a conservation success story. (c) Dr. Simon Wills

Such is the modern passion for watching birds, that it’s become an important component of eco-tourism in many countries, from Costa Rica to New Zealand. Research even suggests that the survival of the most critically endangered species in places such as South America and Africa is to some extent reliant on birdwatching tourism.

A survey of UK and Australian birders in 2017 revealed that many are prepared to pay a premium for access to good birdwatching areas, and this income can be used for conservation purposes.

Birdwatching Ruddy turnstone
Coastlines offer good opportunities to watch birds such as the ruddy turnstone. (c) Dr. Simon Wills

Aside from its importance to conservation, birdwatching has many advantages for the individual. It involves physical exercise, which is good for fitness, and it motivates people to get outside and away from stresses, domestic chores, and the computer screen.

Birdwatching is also a significant form of mental stimulation – it’s essential to learn how to recognise species, remember their distinguishing features, and learn their songs. Yet being outside and observing the natural world is a different stimulation to the office or the playground. In many ways it is a form of mindfulness: paying attention to nature in the present moment.

Birdwatching African Penguin
Funds generated by ecotourism in South Africa help protect breeding colonies of the endangered African penguin. (c) Dr. Simon Wills

Ecotherapy is the term used to describe the pursuit of outdoor activities, such as birdwatching, in order to improve wellbeing. Psychologists suggest that it is likely to improve mood, encourage relaxation, and help to alleviate stress. It’s a treatment that has attracted particular attention in the UK where the national mental health charity, MIND, has taken a significant interest. The MIND website offers many illustrations of how ecotherapy might be taken up.

On a practical level, watching birds is a hobby that potentially suits a wide range of personality types. It can be a sociable activity undertaken in groups or couples, or an interest that is pursued independently. Getting close to nature is popular with families, and despite the occasional headline that schoolchildren don’t know a robin from a crow, a recent survey in the UK shows that parents want their children to learn about the natural world. National wildlife agencies and charities increasingly devote significant sections of their websites towards children, and some do even more. Birdlife Australia, for example, trains youth ambassadors aged 13 to 16 who learn how to protect beach-nesting birds and they disseminate this knowledge within their communities. Birdlife International raised awareness of the dangers to migratory birds in the developing world by inspiring schools across Africa to record songs about the issue to share across the continent. Some schools have taken a lead in encouraging children to enjoy nature, and to develop the respect and knowledge that future generations will need to preserve our biodiversity. National events such as the RSPB Big Schools’ Birdwatch in the UK, or Bird Studies Canada’s annual Christmas Bird Count for Kids inspire this approach and help to stimulate awareness and provide a structure to learning.

Birdwatching Pigeon scaly naped
Scaly-naped pigeon in the Caribbean. Birdwatchers often want to watch behaviours such as nesting but must be careful not to disturb birds. (c) Dr. Simon Wills

So quite apart from the simple pleasure of watching birds in the wild, there are many other reasons – personal and global – for championing this pastime in adults and in future generations.

 

Dr. Simon Wills
Dr. Simon Wills

Dr Simon Wills is a wildlife writer and photographer, and author of the book ‘A History of Birds’ (White Owl, 2017) Twitter: @WriterWillsy