My recent move from a big city to a small mountain town got me thinking about how birding culture differs from place to place. It’s interesting how people doing the same activity can organize themselves differently. Some birding communities are friendly and welcoming to new birders, others are more difficult to join. In some areas, the focus is on competitive birding, and in others it’s more on photography or backyard birding.
From my travels and recent move, I’ve discovered that understanding the birding culture of an area will allow you to more quickly and easily learn where the good birds are. Keep reading and I’ll talk more about birding culture and how to use it to your advantage while traveling. This extends to bird photography too!
What Is Birding Culture?
From Google research, there is surprisingly little written about this topic. Culture is generally defined as “the social behavior and norms found in human societies” (source: Wikipedia). If we apply this to birding, birding culture is the social behavior and norms found in birding communities. There are a lot of definitions of culture, but I like this one and I think it works well for birding and the concepts I want to discuss in this article.
I never really thought much about birding culture until I started traveling for birds. While visiting a new area, I would wonder why I couldn’t find recent sightings on eBird or why there weren’t any birders at the locations I was visiting. In some areas birders are hesitant to share information about sightings and in other areas people are really open and helpful. I started to realize that understanding the birding norms of an area is key to having a successful birding trip.
Why is Culture Different From Place to Place?
I recently read Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman as part of my Big Year of Bird Reading. Kenn travels around North America trying to see as many bird species as he can in one year. He describes the different birding cultures in northern and southern California at the time (1970’s). The birders in the south were highly competitive, skilled and less welcoming to newcomers. In the north, the birding culture was completely different. Birders were friendly, glad to share their knowledge, skillful, but nowhere near as competitive as the south.
Kenn’s description speaks to the point that birding culture exists and, even within the same country or state, can be very different. Each birding community has its own unique mix of birding styles: twitchers, backyard birders, professional birders, conservationists, ornithologists, casual birders, serious birders and photographers (to name a few).
Every style of birder has different motivations, so it’s natural that communities organize themselves differently depending on the ratios of each type. If you think about it, each style of birding is its own birding subculture. Although part of the larger birding community, backyard birders (for example) have their own social behaviour and norms that are quite different from say twitchers.
When you mix all these different birding subcultures together, you get a unique cultural landscape for each nature area/city/state/country.
I recently moved to Fernie, a small mountain town of 5,000 people. There are 4 ‘serious’ birders, including myself who live here! The birding culture here is understandably very different to a larger city.
For fun, this is an approximate representation of what the birding mix looks like in Fernie.
Various demographic factors like race, gender, age, sexuality and income have an impact on both the birding culture of an area and on your experience of that culture depending on your own background.
According to a 2011 study by the US Fish and Wildlife Service,
The average birder in the United States is 53 years old and more than likely has a better than average income and education. She is slightly more likely to be female and highly likely to be white.
I was surprised to learn that there are more female birders than males, but the study used a broad definition of birding that included backyard birders. I found two specialized studies on gender that suggest males are more likely to be competitive bird-watchers than females: The Gendered Nature of Serious Birdwatching and Gender Patterns in Bird-related Recreation in the USA and UK.
When I go out birding, I am often the youngest birder and, particularly in groups of bird photographers, one of a few females. Being on the younger end of the spectrum and female will likely provide me a different cultural experience than if I were an older male. When you add other factors into the mix like race, things get even more complex. Dr. J. Drew Lanham put together this video: Bird-Watching While Black: A Wildlife Ecologist Shares His Tips. The subject is presented humorously, but there is a serious message here too.
Type of Birds and Geography
The type of birds and even the time of year can affect the culture of an area. A place like Point Pelee in Ontario or Magee Marsh in Ohio during warbler migration has its own unique culture for two magical weeks in the spring.
In Ottawa, the birding culture changes in the winter when northern owl species show up in the city and the number of photographers out in the field dramatically increases. Breeding season everywhere tends to bring out a different set of norms for viewing and photographing birds.
Geography also has a role to play in birding culture. Doing a bird trip to the tropics will involve a different set of behaviors to those in the high alpine. Packing a pair of leech socks is very common in birding trips to certain areas, but completely unnecessary in others.
When you go beyond your own country or society, cultural differences are compounded. You are not just dealing with differences in birding styles, but also in overarching cultural norms. This is the excitement of traveling to another country, but it does mean there is a lot to learn!
Birding Without Borders
Noah Stryker, in his book Birding Without Borders, makes observations about the different birding cultures he experiences on his global big year. In Argentina, Noah struggles to keep track of his list as birders call out bird names in Latin! On his blog he talks about Rene, a birder he meets from Brazil:
In the U.S. we often characterize birding as a hobby for old white folks, but this guy breaks pretty much every birdwatching stereotype. Hanging out with locals like Rene is certainly enlightening; the birding subculture is much different in Brazil (heavier on photography, business, and science, and lighter on personal listing) and I will be curious to see how things change as I travel onward.
What contributes to Noah’s success is relying on local guides in each area. Not only do the locals know where the good birds are, they also help Noah navigate the unique birding culture of every new area he visits.
I found another great example of international birding cultural differences on IndiaBirding.com. This website stipulates the “birding ethics” for visiting the Rajasthan/Udaipur area. It’s worth a read, but in summary it advises birders to ask permission before pointing their binoculars/camera at local tribal people’s houses, that locals will go to the washroom in open areas and fields near wetlands and that many local children will want their photograph taken, but to be careful not to let them touch your camera. Although these are general cultural norms for the area, they obviously have a big impact on the local birding culture as well.
I mentioned twitchers when discussing birding styles above, but I wanted to spend more time on this group. Twitchers are competitive birders who go to great lengths, often travelling far distances, to seek out rare birds to add to their life list. A quick Google search of this subject pulls up articles about twitchers who hire private planes, give up full-time employment, bird in war zones and whose marriages and friendships fall apart because of their lifestyle. These are hardcore birders!
The UK in particular is known for having a high number of twitchers. I am not sure if this has to do with the overarching culture of that area or whether it’s more about the island geography of the region (or both!). When a rare bird is blown off course and shows up in the UK, hundreds of birders can show up for the twitch. Although dated, this video is eye-opening:
I think it’s worth being aware of this birding subculture, especially if you’re travelling to areas like the UK where it’s popular. Going after a rare bird in the UK will likely be a very different experience to other places!
Here is more recent video of a White-throated Robin twitch in the UK. Bringing your own ladder is recommended!
You will notice in both of these videos most twitchers are older white men. This speaks to the point I made earlier about age/gender/race having an impact on culture.
Last year the media published numerous articles about an increase in millennial birder-watchers. Suddenly bird-watching became hip?
Here are a few:
I’ve also noticed a number of birding blogs coming out of Oregon. These blogs are written by young people and tend to be edgy, forward-thinking and pretty much the opposite of what you think of when you picture a stereotypical birder.
I don’t know if this younger generation of birders constitutes its own subculture, or whether the ideas and behaviors coming out of this group will start to shape the overarching birding culture. Either way, it’s an exciting new development in the world of birding. I would like to visit in Portland, Oregon and find out what the birding culture is like there. I was told they have a birds and beers group that meets every month at pubs and micro-breweries around Portland. The group is made up of 20-40 somethings, which is a different age demographic to birders in many other areas.
How Understanding Birding Culture Can Help You While Traveling
Although it’s interesting to think about the birding culture where you live, the focus of this article is discovering the culture of places you want to visit. Often when we travel, we have limited time. The more you can learn about the birding culture in the area you want to visit before your trip the better.
Most birders who travel want to know:
- The best birding spots
- The most recent bird sightings
- Where to find other people to bird with
Understanding the social behaviour and birder norms in the area you are visiting will get you this information more quickly and accurately. Integrating into local birding culture will also give you more opportunities, especially if locals welcome you into their community
The basic research I do before most of my trips is to use eBird to check recent sightings and bar charts, Fat Birder for bird travel resources and a Google search for the area I am visiting + birding. These are all great places to start, but if you want to delve into local birding culture I advise going further with your research. How much research you do will likely depend on how long your trip will be and how culturally differently the area you are visiting is from what you are used to.
Here are some ideas:
Network with Local Birders
There is no substitute for having local contacts in an area you are visiting. Locals are your inroad to understanding birding culture as well as finding out the best locations. Here are some ways I have connected with locals:
- Facebook – Join birding groups for the area you want to visit. Interestingly, each Facebook group tends to have its own unique culture with a different set of rules and acceptable behaviours!
- Instagram – Search birding locations and look for photographs of birds tagged to the location. Comment on locals’ photographs and send private messages.
- Twitter – Tweet using the hashtag of a birding area and ask for tips or help. Once I’m in a new area, I like to change my location to that area. Twitter will send you suggested contacts based on your location so it’s a great way to network with locals
- Finding a birding blog from an area you want to visit can be a goldmine of local information. Emailing the blog author is a great way to make a local connection, or look to connect with them via one of their social media accounts. Find blogs on Google or the Word Press search feature.
Birding Pal is a website that connects bird travelers with local birders around the world. I have had success with this website, but some have concerns with safety as there is no way to write reviews for the birders you meet with. Their website also needs updating, but it still can be a useful tool for connecting with birders while traveling.
Ask the Right Questions
Once you’ve made a connection with a local birder, try asking more than just “where are the good spots for birds.” To delve deeper into local birding culture, I like to ask where locals post their recent bird sightings. Not everywhere uses eBird, so finding out about the “secret” yahoo listserv can be really helpful. I also ask whether there are any local birding groups or bird meet-ups.
It’s also useful to ask more general open-ended questions like “what’s the birding scene like there?” You can get some really great information this way!
If you are visiting an area that you expect will be culturally different to what you’re used to (like my example from India above), ask about the cultural norms and accepted practices of the area.
Read Bird Travel Books
I’ve recently discovered a love for reading books about birding, particularly books that are travel-related. Reading Birding Without Borders was a great crash course on visiting many great birding locations around the world. There are lots of other bird travel books out there – start here for some ideas.
You can also find books that are part field-guide, part location guide. In Australia, I relied heavily on Finding Australian Birds: A Field Guide to Birding Locations. This guide is written by locals and gives detailed advice on the best birding areas in Australia.
Research General Cultural Norms
For visiting areas with significant cultural differences, research more general travel resources (not just about birding) for tips about the local culture. I like to use Lonely Planet or Rough Guides as a starting point. Many government websites also provide travel advice and advisories for countries around the world. Here is the one prepared by the Canadian government.
While On the Trip
As much preparation as you do beforehand, things can change quickly when you arrive at your destination. Maybe the spot Google said would be great has no birds. Or no one is posting anything recent on eBird. If things aren’t working out as you planned, it’s time take to take stock. Don’t assume the culture will be the same as what you’re used to.
Similar to pre-trip research, the best way to get your trip back on track is to find some local birders! Chat with people you meet out in the field or follow-up with those you spoke with during your pre-trip research. Search online for organized birding or photography outings. When I first arrived in Fernie, I had a hard time figuring out where to go birding. The habitat is vast and the eBird hotspots were minimal. After sending 4-5 emails, I finally reached the organizer for the local Christmas Bird Count. Joining the count and meeting locals significantly improved my birding success.
If you can’t find anything on Google or Facebook, try Meetup. When I was in Australia I found an excellent Meetup group for bird photographers that met once a month. By joining the group on an outing I learned so much great information about the local birding scene that I wasn’t able to find out in my pre-trip research.
Another great strategy is hiring a local bird guide for a day. In addition to finding great birds, you can also ask them lots of questions about the local birding culture to have more success when you go out on your own. If you want to take most of the pre-trip research out of the equation, opt for a full guided tour.
Birding Culture – What Do You Think?
When I first had the idea to write this article, I anticipated it would be a short easy piece. But, as I began writing and researching I soon discovered birding culture is a rich topic that goes well beyond a simple blog article. I tried to come up with a variety of examples and factors that influence birding culture, but what I’ve presented here is nowhere near exhaustive.
Because I find this topic fascinating and there isn’t much written about it, I’d like to put the question out to my readers – have you experienced distinctive birding cultures in different areas you’ve visited? Or, is birding culture the same the world over? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.