How Bird Collecting Evolved Into Bird-Watching

In the early 1900s, newfound empathy for avian creatures helped wildlife observation displace dispassionate killing

Illustration of birds overlaid on a page from a bird-watching book by Edmund Selous
Ornithologist Edmund Selous made empathy for birds respectable and, in doing so, changed the world. Bird-watching became a popular pastime, eventually making birding scientific and playing a pivotal role in the animals’ conservation. Illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via Biodiversity Heritage Library, Internet Archive

Hunting and collecting have long been obsessions among the wealthy, whether it be Egyptian pharaohs fowling in the marshes and filling their tombs with artifacts, Inca chiefs with their menageries, or early modern Europeans like Ole Worm and Francis Willughby cramming their cabinets with curiosities. The obsession with bird collecting in the 1800s and 1900s was a continuation of this trend but much more widespread, because by this date, a higher proportion of people in Europe had the wealth and time to collect. Both then and now, acquisition and accumulation often reflected deep-rooted cravings for status.

Through the 1700s, easier travel and better firearms encouraged the collecting of wildlife. By the start of the 1800s, the making of collections—of bird skins and birds’ eggs—had become increasingly popular. This was how ornithology was done at the time: Having a specimen to examine, measure, keep and refer back to whenever necessary was the essence of scientific bird study. The aim was to understand the relationships between different species via a comparison of the external (and sometimes internal) characteristics. Birds were shot (with dust shot for small birds), skinned and prepared as a “study skin” (rather than a lifelike mounted specimen) that would fit tidily inside a cabinet drawer.

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But it was science that gave bird collecting its biggest boost. Like other 19th-century ornithologists, Edmund Selous killed birds to study them. Almost everyone interested in birds collected specimens in this way, but in June 1898, when Selous was 40 years old, he had an epiphany while watching a pair of European nightjars.

Magical and enigmatic, the nightjar’s perfectly patterned plumage provides exquisite camouflage while it’s on the ground, as Selous discovered as he stared out from his hide (a sheltered hiding place). He knew there was a bird incubating in front of him, but it took over an hour before he “finally became convinced it was the bird and not a piece of fir-bark at which I was looking; and this though I knew the eggs to be there.” Thrilled by what he had seen, he wrote in an observational diary, “I must confess that I once belonged to this great, poor army of killers, though, happily, a bad shot, a most fatigable collector, and a poor half-hearted bungler, generally. But now that I have watched birds closely, the killing of them seems to me as something monstrous and horrible.”

He continued:

The pleasure that belongs to observation and inference is, really, far greater than that which attends any kind of skill or dexterity, even when death and pain add their zest to the latter. Let anyone who has an eye and a brain (but especially the latter), lay down the gun and take up the glasses [opera glasses, or proto-binoculars] for a week, a day, even for an hour, if he is lucky, and he will never wish to change back again. He will soon come to regard the killing of birds as not only brutal, but dreadfully silly, and his gun and cartridges, once so dear, will be to him, hereafter, as the toys of childhood are to the grown man.

Study skins of Garrulus glandarius at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin
Study skins of Eurasian jays (Garrulus glandarius) at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin LoKiLeCh via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 3.0

Selous made empathy for birds respectable and, in doing so, changed the world. Bird-watching became one of the most popular pastimes globally, eventually making birding scientific and playing a pivotal role in the animals’ conservation. Dispassionate killing was gradually displaced in favor of a gentler, more intimate approach whose aim was to better understand the nature of a bird’s world. It was a shift enhanced, naturally, by the appearance of decent binoculars, which in the early 1900s enabled watchers to observe birds from a distance without disturbing them.

As the interest in watching birds rather than shooting them increased, a view espoused by ornithologist Max Nicholson came to dominate the field. Nicholson believed that bird-watching should be “useful,” and he wanted bird-watchers to direct their energies toward an even greater understanding of birds’ behaviors, especially in terms of their numbers—and so started the practice of monitoring bird populations.

A second boost to bird-watching came in 1940, in the early days of the Second World War, with James Fisher’s Watching Birds, a book that eventually sold over a million copies and which, in its introduction, emphasized the variety of people then engaged in the hobby. For those directly involved in the war, watching birds was a welcome distraction during the long, boring intervals between fighting. And for those confined in German prisoner-of-war camps, birds provided a much-needed antidote to boredom and despair.

A puffin on Skomer Island in Wales
A puffin on Skomer Island in Wales Naff14 via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

One of the servicemen who took solace in birds was John Buxton, who had served as warden of Skokholm Bird Observatory in 1939 with his wife Marjorie. Captured in Norway in May 1940, Buxton spent the rest of the war in various prison camps, where he encouraged fellow inmates to watch and record the behavior of the different birds they could see. From his camp, Buxton wrote to Erwin Stresemann, Germany’s leading ornithologist, who in a wonderful gesture of collegiality responded by sending books and bird bands (rings placed around a bird’s leg to help identify them) to help with their studies. A true scholar—he had been partway through a graduate degree at Oxford at the outbreak of war—Buxton subsequently transformed the mass of notes accumulated by his fellow prisoners into a monograph on the common redstart that was published in 1950.

Once the war was over, interest in birds metamorphosed from a “comparatively rare eccentricity into a national pastime,” according to a 2007 history in the journal British Birds. As it did so, two increasingly distinct strands—that Nicholson would have identified as either purposeful (censusing) or aimless (birding)—started to emerge: surveys versus listing, or keeping a list of every bird the watcher has seen. In a way, such a divide was inevitable. As more and more people became interested in birds, it was unrealistic to expect them all to engage in something “useful.”

”But now that I have watched birds closely, the killing of them seems to me as something monstrous and horrible.”

This emerging ornithological watershed generated some strong feelings, exemplified by the Reverend Peter Hartley, a professional ornithologist who in 1954 declared that “[n]on-scientific bird-watching ... is simply lazy, incompetent and slovenly bird-watching.” In response, Denis Summers-Smith, an amateur who eventually became Britain’s leading expert on sparrow research, countered by saying that bird-watching “is no more slovenly ... than going to a concert without a score.” He added, “[M]any are not suited to carry out scientific studies or read scores. Should we criticize them for the pleasure they get from birds or music?”

The battle between Hartley and Summers-Smith was symptomatic of birding’s ongoing bumpy descent through the social hierarchy. In the 1800s and early 1900s, only the wealthy could afford a serious interest in birds. Even in the 1950s, bird-watching continued to be dominated by those “that held sway in most departments of cultural life” in Britain—that is, mainly upper-class white males, as Mark Cocker writes in Birders: Tales of a Tribe. But by the 1970s and ’80s, as interest in birds continued to expand, most birders “came from the same broad social background—the working and middle classes.”

Over succeeding decades, birding became more genteel. The days of skulking in the undergrowth with binoculars are a thing of the past, for most birders today are conveyed along wooden boardwalks toward cozy hides to watch birds in comfort. Since the 1960s, the ongoing expansion of higher education across much of the world has resulted in more and more women taking university courses in biology and zoology and becoming professional ornithologists.

A group of bird-watchers in Panama in 2012
A group of bird-watchers in Panama in 2012 Alex Proimos via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0

Worldwide, tens of millions of people have an interest in birds. Because there’s no precise definition of what a birder is, there’s no precise figure. It is telling, however, that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the United Kingdom has more members than all U.K. political parties combined.

The irony of all this is that as the number of people interested in birds has boomed, the number of birds worldwide has steadily declined, in large part due to habitat loss and overexploitation. More and more people are in search of fewer and fewer birds. The good news is that the increase in the number of birders, together with stunning technological developments like online database eBird and migration tracking project ICARUS, are transforming many different forms of birding, giving them purpose and enhancing our knowledge of bird biology on a scale no one could have imagined even 20 years ago.

Adapted from Birds and Us: A 12,000-Year History From Cave Art to Conservation by Tim Birkhead. Published by Princeton University Press. Copyright © 2022 by Tim Birkhead. All rights reserved.

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