The Rise of Birdwatching: From Shooting to Sharing

How birdwatching evolved from a lethal hobby to a popular pastime

Birdwatching, a beloved activity for nature enthusiasts, has a surprisingly modern history. Prior to the 20th century, scientists and hobbyists interested in birds would often resort to shooting them or stealing their eggs. It was only in 1898 when ornithologist Edmund Selous had a revelation while studying nightjars that the idea of observing birds without causing harm began to gain traction. Over the years, birdwatching gained popularity, especially during the Second World War when it served as a welcome distraction for soldiers. The publication of James Fisher’s book, “Watching Birds,” in 1940 further propelled the hobby’s growth. Today, birdwatching has become a mainstream activity, attracting a diverse and younger generation of enthusiasts.

The Evolution of Birdwatching:

During the early 20th century, conservation pioneers like Max Nicholson embraced Selous’ ideas and advocated for birdwatching. However, it was not until the Second World War that the hobby truly took off. Fisher’s book, “Watching Birds,” published in 1940, played a significant role in popularizing birdwatching. Its success, with over a million copies sold, demonstrated the growing interest in observing birds rather than harming them. Even in prisoner-of-war camps, such as the one near Warburg, imprisoned RAF officers established birdwatching societies, jotting down observations on scraps of paper. Notably, one of these officers, Peter Conder, later became the head of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

The Changing Face of Birdwatching:

Since the 1950s, birdwatching’s popularity has continued to rise. What was once viewed with suspicion is now a widely accepted hobby. The RSPB, which boasts around 1.2 million members, has more members than all UK political parties combined. Moreover, the demographic of birdwatchers has undergone a significant shift. Previously seen as the domain of white middle-aged men, a younger and more diverse generation is now embracing birdwatching. Social media and bird apps have played a crucial role in democratizing the hobby, making it more accessible to urban dwellers. Birdwatching is shedding its nerdy image and becoming cool.

The Influence of Social Media:

Sophie Pavelle, a 28-year-old naturalist and author, believes that social media and bird apps have played a pivotal role in making birdwatching more appealing to younger generations. These platforms have helped normalize hobbies like birdwatching and connect like-minded individuals. Pavelle notes that the younger generation can now identify with others who share their interests, bridging the gap between different generations. This shift has opened up opportunities for people who may have felt disconnected from traditional birdwatching communities.

Birdwatching Goes Urban:

The rise of urban birdwatching is a notable trend among the younger generation. Kwesia City Girl in Nature, a 25-year-old birdwatcher from south London, runs her own YouTube channel and recently co-presented an online nature series with Chris Packham. She represents a growing community of individuals who are finding joy in birdwatching within city limits. For those living in urban areas and coming from diverse backgrounds, birdwatching provides a unique opportunity to connect with nature and experience moments of tranquility.

Go Beyond: Inspiring the Next Generation:

Organizations like Go Beyond are actively working to encourage and provide opportunities for the next generation of nature-lovers. By promoting the accessibility and enjoyment of birdwatching, they aim to inspire a new wave of enthusiasts. Their efforts align with the broader movement to make birdwatching inclusive, engaging, and relevant to a diverse audience.


From its origins in shooting and egg-collecting, birdwatching has evolved into a popular and inclusive hobby. The influence of key figures, the advent of social media, and the growing interest among younger generations have all contributed to its transformation. Birdwatching is no longer confined to rural areas or specific demographics; it has become a cool and accessible pastime for people of all backgrounds. As organizations like Go Beyond continue to inspire and engage the next generation, the future of birdwatching looks promising, with more individuals finding solace, connection, and awe in observing the avian world.






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