Bird Watching

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Bird watching (or simply birding) involves observing and listening to birds in their natural habitats. Birding is aided by the use of binoculars, a spotting scope, and a field guide. Until the late 1800s, bird watching was synonymous with collecting. Ornithologists and bird watchers would routinely shoot birds and collect eggs and nests for scientific study and the pleasures associated with developing collections. In 1874, Elliot Coues, an imminent American ornithologist, provided advice to would-be bird watchers of his day: "The double barreled shotgun is your main reliance. Get the best one you can afford for your particular purpose which is the destruction of small birds with the least possible damage to their plumage. Begin by shooting every bird you can" (Kastner, p. 51).

Collecting gave way to modern bird watching with the introduction of improved optics and a growing concern about the decline of birds. The introduction of prisms in modern binoculars made it easier to identify birds in the field without shooting them. Simultaneously, rising concern about the killing of birds shrouded collecting with controversy. Millions of birds were shot (some to extinction) for commercial purposes—for example, their feathers were used to adorn women's hats. Early conservationists lobbied successfully for laws that would protect birds from commercial and noncommercial shooting and collecting.

A 2002 survey estimated that 46 million American adults participate in bird watching; but only 40 percent do so away from home and only 8 percent could identify more than forty birds by sight or sound (U.S. Bureau). However, many birders are highly serious, if not fanatical, about their avocation. Many enjoy counting bird species and keep "life lists" of all the birds they have identified in their home states, in the United States and Canada, and throughout the world. Some of these birders have world lists in the thousands and are highly driven to add new species.

In the early 2000s, a variety of venues existed for bird watchers. Organized tours took clients to all corners of the globe and to well-known birding "hot spots." A handful of states (for example, Texas and Arizona) developed "birding trails." In some areas, bed-and-breakfasts popped up near birding hot spots. Nearly 200 bird-watching and wildlife-watching festivals were held throughout the United States and Canada. There were also bird censuses, such as the Annual Christmas Bird Count, and birding competitions. At these events, which birders referred to as Bird-a-Thons or "Big Days," the goal was to list as many bird species as possible within a twenty-four-hour period. These competitions were typically organized by local Audubon societies to raise money for habitat conservation.

See also: Backpacking and Hiking, Camping


Kastner, Joseph. A World of Watchers. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation 2001–2002. Prepared by the U.S. Department of Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Department of Commerce. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2002.

David Scott