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.