The History of Bird Watching

We here at Thermal Birding are pleased to announce a new guest blogger, Ernie Allison. Please welcome Ernie Allison and check out his blog on the history of bird watching….

 

The term bird watching was first used by Edmund Selous in 1901. His aptly titled book, “Bird Watching,” was one of the first accounts of birds being sought after for aesthetic reasons rather than merely a source of food. Since then, bird watching, or birding, has spawned communities of people equipped with high-powered optics, handheld cameras and backyard bird feeders.

Victorian Era

During the Victorian era, bird watching was practiced in the interest of collecting eggs and the skins of exotic breeds. At the time, well-to-do collectors in Britain were known to utilize contacts in the colonies to gain access to rare breeds from around the world. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the cries for conservation rang and the first Audubon Society was established in America. Designed to combat the bird trade, Audubon Societies, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in Britain, paved the way for bird watching as a recreational activity and furthermore the preservation of countless bird species.

  • Bird watching began in the interest of collecting eggs and skins of exotic breeds of birds.
  • It wasn’t until the 19th century that Audubon Societies were formed to conserve birds.
  • These societies in America and Britain paved the way for bird watching as a recreational activity.

20th Century

With the onset of advanced optics and field guides, bird watching exploded on the Eastern seaboard of the United States. As communities continued to form, so did protests against the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU), as well as the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). Rather than studying birds from a strictly observational viewpoint, the AOU and BTO were more concerned with the capture, invasive study and inevitable killing of birds. Eventually, traveling ornithologist, Tom Harrison took over the RSPB in 1936 and pioneered several surveys of the Great Crested Grebe, the largest of the Grebe family found across Europe and Asia.

  • With the onset of advanced optics, bird watching exploded on the Eastern seaboard of the United States.
  • As birding communities began to form, so did protests against the AOU and BTO.
  • It wasn’t until Tom Harrison took over the RSPB that conservation dominated public opinion.

Present Day

As bird enthusiasts took to the sky, so did possibilities for bird watching in lesser traveled parts of the world. Air travel became affordable in the 1960s thus lending to international bird watching. By 1965 the first bird touring company in Britain, Ornitholidays, opened its doors to a community of devoted bird watchers armed with binoculars and camcorders. Once opened, Ornitholidays solidified transnational bird watching as a popular tourist attraction. This led to the further classification of birds around the world and paramount literature such as the Handbook of the Birds of the World, the first multi-volume account of every living species of bird. Written in Spain in the 1990s by Josep del Hoyo, Jordi Sargatal and Andy Elliott, the Handbook is the first and only instance where an entire class of animal is detailed in a single piece of work.

  • Affordable air travel in the 1960s lent to international bird watching.
  • By 1965, Ornitholidays, solidified transnational birding as a tourist attraction.
  • This led to the paramount Handbook of the Birds of the World, the first account of every living species of bird, as well as an increased interest in bird watching around the world.

Ernie Allison has been an advocate for bird conversation since he was a child. He’s a nature writer by trade and has spent the greater part of his life studying birds.