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Author: Peter Borchert ~ Africa Birds & Birding magazine

( Article Type: Opinion )

One often hears comments such as: ‘Isn’t birding a rather elitist pastime – what real contribution does it make to conservation, and how relevant is it in the context of the endless list of pressing environmental issues facing our planet?’

At one level this perception of the world of birding, and birders in particular, is understandable. Regrettably birders can be rather snooty towards the uninitiated, giving the impression of being members of an exclusive club. Not helping matters, they are also popularly and all too often lampooned as strangely dressed eccentrics, ‘nutters’ in fact, festooned with notebooks, field guides and binoculars as they tramp through swamps and jungles in search of some rarity. The reality is something quite different as the hobby of bird watching is one of the fastest growing leisure activities in the world, drawing its aficionados from many walks of life, young and old. An interest in birding has become an expression of lifestyle and part of a multi-million dollar industry built on the sales of binoculars, cameras, books and magazines, garden feeders, bird-attracting garden plants, and nature-based travel.

Yet it has to be acknowledged that the millions of bird-watching enthusiasts around the world, still represent a very small slice of privileged human beings. Field guides, though good value for money, are not high on the list of priorities for the millions of Africans struggling to support themselves and their families; binoculars, even an inexpensive pair, are way beyond the budgets of many; and yes, travel to far-off wilderness areas to add species to one’s life-list, is not cheap.

But this is not where it all has to start. One only has to peer out of a home or office window, or make the short journey to an urban park, to begin a lifelong adventure with birds. Birds are the most accessible of all the wild creatures on our planet. And southern Africa, with some 950 recorded species, has more than its fair share. They are everywhere. And if they are not, then you can be sure that all is not well in that particular neck of the woods. Birds are extraordinarily good indicators of the general environmental state of the area and I am sure that most conservationists would agree that if we can only ‘save the birds’ then our planet will be able to take care of itself. It follows, therefore, that if a love, fascination and respect for bird life can be kindled among the greatest number of people, then a major, positive step in the conservation of our planet will have been taken. Yes, this is an over-simplification, maybe even naïve, but in essence it is not wrong. The question is: ‘How can the pleasures and value of birds and birding be communicated and nurtured on what seems to be such an impossibly wide basis?’

ny conversation along these lines inevitably leads to statements such as: ‘What we need to do is educate people.’ Apart from the perhaps unintended, but nevertheless implicit condescension in such comments, what follows is sadly, but so often the case, complete defeat. To educate one needs funds, infrastructure, and manpower that all too often just are not available. But if we are sincere, then there is something that each one of us can do.

The obvious step is to join an organisation such as BirdLife South Africa, the local affiliate of BirdLife International, a worldwide association that has as one of its stated objectives the widening of an awareness of birds and their conservation needs. In South Africa, BirdLife, which supports a rapidly growing number of conservation projects that draw corporate funders, scientists and local communities into partnership, has been instrumental in motivating, establishing and running internationally important bird areas such as Wakkerstroom in the Free State, and it acts as an umbrella organisation for some 28 regional bird clubs throughout the country.
While wholeheartedly encouraging and endorsing involvement with BirdLife and one of its local branches, the call to all amateur birders should be to take their commitment a step further. Cast your mind back to that time when you started and were unashamedly chuffed with every positive identification you could make, and when your list of lifers was growing with just about every bird you saw – even if it was only a European Starling or a House Sparrow. If you were to succeed in generating that same sense of wonder in only one other person who has as yet had no exposure to the intense and consuming interest of birding, then I would argue that you will have done more for birds, conservation, and the general quality of our planet than you could have imagined.