Can flying after birds be unethical? Low-Carbon Birding as a New Trend in Ornithological Tourism


Can communing with nature be more humane and environmentally friendly than bloodless hunting with binoculars and a camera? It’s hard to imagine. Of course, unskillful observation, such as during the breeding season or with the use of sound baiting, can contribute to animal stress and be harmful to them, but in general, voyeurism can be considered one of the least invasive forms of contact with nature. So why, in an issue devoted to environmental footprints, a text about birdwatching? What does coal have to do with a bird? Well, it can have. I was inspired to write the text by the intriguing title of a book published in 2020. Edited by Javier Caletrío – Low-Carbon Birding. Since the book talks about low-carbon birding, does that mean that ordinary birding is high carbon?

The title “birding” (a.k.a. birdwatching) is nothing more than the English-language name for the hobby of bird watching. In Polish, it is referred to as ornithological tourism. I think a better term here, however, would be “bird-watching,” because (as we will see later in the text), bird-watching (and not only bird-watching) does not have to be related to tourism at all.

How did birdwatching originate and evolve?

Interest in birdwatching for its aesthetic or scientific value, rather than merely utilitarian (food source), dates back to the late 18th century. It became especially widespread in Britain during the Victorian era, when wealthy collectors used their contacts in the colonies to acquire specimens from around the world, in addition to collecting eggs and stuffed specimens of local avifauna. Only in the late 19th century. appeals to protect birds have led to an increase in the popularity of observing live specimens, and thus greater protection for them. In the UK in 1889. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds was founded. Birdwatching is gaining even more popularity.

In Europe, birdwatcher networks began to emerge in the late 1930s. In the 1970s. They appeared mainly in the UK, as part of the activities of the British Trust for Ornithology, and to this day the hobby is most developed in that country. However, over the years, the way it is implemented has changed significantly. As Caletrío writes, the days when Horace Alexander, one of the pioneers of British ornithology, expanded in 1910. the scope of his annual bird walk outside his hometown for a train ride to Dungeness, are a thing of the past. The growing popularity of cars has increased the mobility of observers, and this has made it easier to access new locations.

In the 1960s. In the 1970s. The development of air services has created the opportunity to travel to new and remote places. In 1965. Lawrence Holloway founded Britain’s first bird-watching tour company, Ornitholidays. Today, many birdwatchers use such obvious means of transportation as cars and airplanes to travel to remote corners of the globe in search of unusual specimens of ornithofauna or pursuing watch lists.

What important things does this book tell us about?

Bird watching (birdwatching) is a lovely hobby, especially if it involves expanding knowledge about species and contributing to their conservation. But has the pursuit of birds gone too far? I guess so, since items such as the title Low-Carbon Birding are in circulation. The book was inspired by an article that Javier Caletrío, an economist and researcher on public perception of climate change, published in April 2018. In the pages ofBritish Birdsmagazine.

The article pointed to the need to change the approach to birdwatching culture and how it is implemented in the context of the climate crisis. The wide response to this text became the reason for compiling into a thematically coherent monograph the articles submitted by authors with similar experiences. The result is a book consisting of 31 chapters written by 30 authors.

W mojej opinii najciekawsze są dwa pierwsze rozdziały, napisane przez redaktora (w tym jeden stanowiący przedruk wspomnianej publikacji w „British Birds”). Najpełniej przedstawiają ideę ruchu low-carbon birding, są okraszone ciekawymi danymi i statystykami, które przybliżają czytelnikowi zakres i skalę problemu. Chociaż wkład lotnictwa w zmiany klimatu wywołane przez człowieka jest obecnie mniejszy niż innych sektorów (2% dla przemysłu lotniczego), problemem jest szybki wzrost udziału emisji. Szacuje się , że do 2050 r. emisje CO2 z lotnictwa międzynarodowego mogą stanowić 22% globalnych emisji. Udział ten jest większy w krajach, w których usługi lotnicze są najbardziej rozwinięte.

According to data cited by the author, the richest 10% of the world’s population accounts for about 50% ofCO2 emissions. This inequity is even more pronounced when it comes to transportation-related emissions. In France, 5% of the population is responsible for 50% of transport-relatedCO2 emissions in tourism, mainly from flying (and 20% of the population is responsible for 80% of emissions). In the UK, only 15% of people take 70% of the flights, most of which are leisure flights taken by frequent travelers.

One of the paradoxes of the current environmental crisis is that the biggest emitters ofCO2 are the most educated and environmentally conscious social groups. In Germany, Green Party supporters fly planes more often than supporters of any other party. Research in the UK and Norway shows that people are eager to adopt environmentally friendly behaviors at home, but reluctant to forgo vacations abroad. It is worth noting that only 5% of the world’s population has ever flown on an airplane. Those who fly to watch birds are among a small elite of polluters.

The remaining 29 chapters are more or less free essays revolving around the issue. The texts, as usual in such anthologies, differ in style, writing manner and workshop, but are bound together by a common theme – birdwatching – and reflections on the history and evolution of the movement, descriptions of personal experiences, observations, thoughts and conclusions.

The writers are of different ages and have different work and life experiences. The texts by senior authors, especially academics, recur with recollections of rather unreflective travel for projects and for research and observation in the early stages of an academic career, and stories of coming to an awareness of the harmfulness of such practices in terms of the carbon footprint generated by excessive travel. Younger authors seem to be entering adulthood with a greater awareness of the ecological consequences of a greed for world exploration and rampant consumerism. The vast majority share their experiences of exploring nearby refuges of local avifauna and their surprise that the surrounding wildlife turned out to be more fascinating than they thought.

The book won Best Bird Book 2022, awarded annually by the British Trust for Ornithology and “British Birds.” So far it has not been translated into Polish, but it is written in relatively accessible, pleasant language.

Birding in Poland

In our country, birdwatching travel has never reached the scale it has in the UK, and the carbon footprint they generate is a rather marginal problem. Certainly the significant restrictions on free travel that we experienced for several post-war decades contributed to this. The beginnings of ornithological tourism in Poland can be traced to the second half of the 20th century, with a definite increase in interest in it observed only at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Since birdwatching hasn’t developed that much in Poland, what lesson can the Polish reader take from reading the book? For me, this book is first and foremost the apotheosis of locality, the appreciation of what is close by, around the corner.

Of course, the whole movement promoting the low-carbon birding philosophy and the theses raised in the book may seem like far-fetched environmental extremism, and the demands to stop traveling trump ecoterror. I am not saying that one should uncritically agree with them. However, the book points out that not all actions, seemingly innocuous environmentally, are actually so. Maybe a look at the book will give us some food for thought and make us, even if we don’t give up traveling, reduce it a bit.

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