Thursday, 13 February 2014

Will birding ever be 'cool'?

Birding - that is, birdwatching as an obsession - has always been slightly tainted. Birders are a fairly recent phenomena and with such a short history most probably have still to find steady ground on which to bed-down and mature into a coherent statement.

The first 'birders' (as currently understood), were most probably that swathe of young men (for they were mostly men) that appeared in the late 1950s and early 1960s, largely working-class and very different from the accepted face of ornithologists at the time. These lads were as close to a sub-culture (and as such 'cool') as birders have come. They were independent thinkers who blazed trails into field identification and birding beyond the confines of the UK and Europe. They attracted a small band of like-minded souls and, having been fortunate to meet many of them, I quickly realised that they also embraced other elements beyond birding which were an important part of who they were: the music, the recreational stimulants and the clothing and jewellery that came back with them from their exotic trips. But this was a time of conservatism in society - it was not until the end of the 1970s that to 'look different' was accepted as not meaning 'to be asking for a good kicking'. They were treated with suspicion and wariness.

About the time that I started to travel widely in the UK birding (mid 1970s) there had been an increase in the number of 'birders', swollen by young oiks like myself. We all thought that we were the dogs bollox, picturing ourselves to be free spirits and mercenary birders, but in truth we were a small band of misfits that largely didn't really fit in with most of our peers. To be a birdwatcher was still seen as the world of the vicar, the geek and the slightly strange. If you were a birder you were slightly odd. We were also referred to as 'twitchers' by all and sundry, whether we were or not. It was used as a term of derision.

Not a lot has changed since then, although the birding demographic has become steadily older. If we, as birders, were to employ an image consultant, they would despair with what they would find. Gaggles of middle-aged men wandering around dressed in dull clothing. Many with not an awful lot to say. Well, not much of relevance anyway.. (OK, I fall into that category on a regular basis). And when the media get hold of a story, it is normally negative or sensationalist.

In other areas of recreation, this rise of the 'grey generation' has lead to a big increase in interest from other sections of the public, building a base on which to ensure a thriving scene. Take cycling. Even before the likes of Bradley Wiggins started to win Tours, a boom in bike sales had come about, and in the so-called dying world of print publication there are many magazines with production qualities to die for. Go and pick up a copy of Pro-cycling or Rouler, and look at the stunning photography, the considered design, the lifestyle promises for those that fall under their spell. Then check out their websites. What has birding got that is remotely similar? Not a lot, I'd say. Certainly not up to this standard. I stood and watched the 'Tour of Britain' as the cyclists made their way through Epsom last autumn. The streets were packed, with all age groups and both sexes in equal numbers. You wouldn't get that demographic at any birding gathering.

Does it matter? Well, yes and no. We need a population that understands our wildlife and appreciates it, not only for the spiritual good that it does us but also for its ability to act as a barometer as to the well-being of our planet. In the future a critical mass of those who are 'pro-wildlife' will be needed to protect it and the habitats that are needed to support it. This cannot be done unless there is engagement with it. A million plus RSPB members hints at the true number of people who do value this. But to get to the 'adults of tomorrow' it needs a message of 'relevance' to be got across - a message of 'coolness' if you will. That's how it works in 2014. Birding is one way of getting the attention of those who are currently looking the other way. We won't get their attention by dressing up as Ray Mears and banging on about the minutiae of gull and redpoll identification. There is room for that of course, but there seems to be a suggestion that this is the stuff of a birding Nirvana. For every one birder that is turned on by this sort of stuff I will show you half-a-dozen who are switched off. Are we, as birder's, myopic? Are we walking along a narrow path that is ultimately leading to a self-indulgent end?

There may be signs of a younger element of birders appearing, but from my limited exposure to them they are largely university students who are studying environmental subjects (big sweeping statement I know, but largely true).

But until a group of birders can stand on the edge of a housing estate and, (a) not feel embarrassed, and  (b) not get funny looks, I'd say we've still got a way to go. Our public perception is still one of being odd.

17 comments:

  1. Good points. I agree public image of naturalists/birders is very important- probably one of the most important challenges for conservation. The more people attracted into taking part in nature focused activities, the more value to the society and the greater protection to wildlife. It's a marketing and image challenge which I think could benefit from influences from the arts and creative fields- some kind of cross pollination of popular science (which is what birding is part of) and other elements of popular culture.

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    1. This is a difficult nut to crack Peter. I think that 'bugs' and reptiles have a better profile with infant and junior schoolchildren than birds. Maybe they have had better PR?

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  2. Steve,
    I think you are looking down the wrong end of your telescope:-). As you point out the RSPB (and the National Trust) can mobilize large numbers of people young and old who believe wildlife and conservation is worthwhile.

    Coolness will always be transient and I think truth irrelevant.

    "We need a population that understands our wildlife and appreciates it", I believe large numbers do but do not realise the full picture because those in political and corporate power will do everything they can to cloud the issue as Peter Alfrey is only too well aware.

    Also as you allude, any association the general public make between birdwatchers or naturalists and those driving the length and breadth of the country just to be able to say they saw a little brown job must be as bad as the influence of the politicians etc.

    Peter uses the word marketing I prefer education because the time to get them is when they are young.

    I now step down.

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    1. John, you are correct. What I was trying to suggest is that when 'birdwatchers' become more than just those who put out food for our feathered friends, what they then become ('birders' for want of something to call them) are small in number and not terribly inspirational to those yet to be bitten by the bird bug. We need this transition to happen as this is where the future contributors to bird surveying will come from. No birder, no BTO Atlas. Five million RSPB members may have one ear of a politician, but without the foot-soldiers there would be a dearth of data.

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    3. Steve,
      There you hit on another struggle I have. Of course you are right about data. However,does that matter? As the flooding in Somerset is proving (and so many other places) everything is done on cost benefit and at the moment cost is calculated in almost exclusively monetary terms. I suspect that one ear of a politician that the RSPB has, is close to one more than the BTO Atlas would reach. I am getting old and very cynical.
      John

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    4. No John, not old and cynical, just seen it all before.

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  3. I think twitching gives birding the image problem. I'm still fairly young being in my twenties and when I tell people in my cohort about what I do, I say I'm a naturalist rather than a birder. Once the usual joke about naturism is out of the way, people mostly seem to think it's a great way to spend your spare time. The image I think I'm projecting is of someone spending time outdoors, enjoying nature and learning things but all done fairly locally and not at the expense of the rest of my social life. "Cool", at least as I understand it, has something to do with not looking like you're trying too hard. When a horde of wax-jacketed, middle-aged, almost exclusively white men drive across half the country to see an LBJ, it screams "trying too hard" and appears a bit exclusive.

    I also think that the bins are also a bit of a problem. When you start out in the hobby you may be quite self-conscious and you have to walk around with this obvious signifier about your neck. It says "twitcher" to the general public while you're still working out whether this is really the hobby for you and how to tell the thrushes apart. I remember feeling very awkward the first time I went birding with a group in a more populated area.

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    1. Rob, you have clearly demonstrated the feeling of awkwardness that can be present when out birding. I still feel this, even after doing it for forty years! When on a designated reserve, where most of who you bump into are fellow naturalists, this awkwardness does not exist. Last autumn I went looking for a rare fungus in woodland that was heavily used by dog walkers. I had my bins on. You should have seen the wary looks I got, even when I explained what I was doing. Most people just don't get it or trust those that do it. What chance do we have of encouraging more youngsters into it?

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  4. Define cool! I wear my nerdiness like a badge of honour and all my non-birding and non-naturalist friends have always thought I was really cool for doing what I do and I like to think my peers do to. I make a point of turning up to twitches looking as different to Ray Mears as I can, always fighting against the grain of crowd mentality. The way I see it, the only person who decides if you are cool or not is YOU.

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    1. Graeme, you have an advantage - you are a confident, tall, handsome chap (you owe me for that comment) who looks little like most of the motley crew that go birding. If birding were populated by people like you then the recruitment rate would no doubt be higher. But you obviously can see that there is an image problem here, that might seem trite on the surface, but does stop the younger element getting involved. As I have already said, most of the new recruits have already been converted (uni, studying sciences) - so we are not reaching beyond them in any meaningful way.

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    2. Thanks Steve! But here is the irony, if anyone had ever said anything like that to me as a child, rather than the bullying and neglect that I received, I probably never would have got into birding and natural history at all! At university I opted out of natural sciences and have never done as little natural history as I did in those four years. There is something to be said for doing things back to front!

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  5. Interesting post Steve. I don't think you'll ever be able to look for Waxwings in an urban street without receiving funny looks and feeling, unless you're brimming with self-confidence, very awkward about the whole thing. Largely birding is not ever going to be perceived as 'cool' but I think there are times that it could/is. Birding does have some 'cool' representatives; more young people would surely be drawn in if more of us were like David Lindo or Josh Jones. I was not a closet birder at school and this caused me trouble up to perhaps year 9 but ever since I've had nothing but positive responses from people when they learn about my hobby. I'm pretty good at picking up when people are taking the piss and can report with some confidence that lots of young people I come across now think my birding is a great hobby, many have expressed their admiration for having such a passion. I'm taking out my uni flatmates to Oare Marshes in spring. I'll most probably never be cool but I believe that I have a very cool hobby, some outsiders probably just don't see it that way! If you take away the self-harming, the film Pelican Blood has a couple of examples of what I would label a 'cool birder'.

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    1. Thanks for the comment David and good to hear from you. In some ways 'my' generation and those subsequent did a poor job at creating a birding world that was appealing to a significant cross-section of people. I hope that the media-savvy and confident new generation (of which you are a significant member), will do a better job. Over to you...

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  6. As a full-time 7.5T lorry driver, I may not come across as the most obvious candidate for being a nature-nut/madcap keen birder! But, time after time, whenever I'm put with an agency driver's mate/new bod and (inevitably...) start chatting birds/butterflies/whatever the other person slowly begins to reveal their own interest in nature, their own tale of when they saved a sparrow from the cat, that time they fed the swans, the butterfly stuck in the kitchen, the spider in their bath. Everyone (yup, everyone) has a nature-tale to tell. They're just waiting for the right person to initiate the conversation. As Graeme so proudly boasts, I don't look like a birdwatcher. Hopefully neither do I. Yet I have been for over 30 years. 'Cool' isn't part of it. Confidence is the key. If you come across as a bit street I think you'll get away with it, often as not.

    As for cycling - just an excuse for grown men to wear tight fitting lycra and get away with it, buncha bloomin' weirdos ;)

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    1. We agree Seth, but my point isn't that there are not 'cool' birders out there (cos there clearly are), it is that as a complete package it is naff. In the 21st century, with so much to compete with, the chance to convert youngsters to birding has never been so fleeting.

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  7. Maybe I ought to have waited until the vino had worn off before attempting that previous comment....

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