18 Nov /13

Bird watching

The origin of bird watching is really a tale of two brothers and their very different attitudes to our feathered friends.

Frederick Courteney Selous was a big game hunter who shot his way around Europe and Africa. Also celebrated as an explorer, his colonial adventures inspired H Rider Haggard to create the character of Allan Quatermain, bold seeker of King Solomon’s mines. Selous was a friend to the famous and powerful, notably accompanying Theodore Roosevelt on his post-presidential African expedition in 1909. The leading gun makers of the day pleaded with him to use their equipment, making him a pioneer of the celebrity endorsement.  Ironically his relentless hunting earned Selous a reputation as a naturalist and conservationist.  The Natural History Museum in London has the remains of 524 of his animal victims in their collection. It even has a bust of him in the Main Hall.

But it was his unassuming younger brother Edmund who made the greater contribution to our study of nature. As a young man he followed conventional wisdom, shooting animals for sport and also for study. But he soon developed a deep aversion to killing, and pioneered the idea that, both morally and scientifically, observation was a better option.

In 1901 Edmund published Bird Watching, explaining his philosophy and giving a name to the activity. The book includes a vivid account of what changed his point of view: “I must confess that I once belonged to this great, poor army of killers… But now that I have watched birds closely, the killing of them seems to me as something monstrous and horrible”.

Today bird watching is a popular hobby that is treated lightly by some and taken very seriously by others. In the US alone, there are almost 50 million birders. Many of them venture no further than their own back yards, but as many as two in five make intricately planned and expensive birding trips. It can become highly competitive; the “Big Year” is an annual competition to spot the most different species of bird in North America. In 1998 Sandy Komito set a Big Year record by spotting a remarkable 745 types of bird. As well as a considerable investment of time and expertise, bird watching trips by Komito and others like him incur expenses running to an estimated USD 36 billion each year. Even Frederick Selous and his famous friends might have raised an eyebrow at that.

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