Bird Buddy Blog

Birdwatching tourism and the risks involved

Dieny Portinanni / Unsplash

The joy of birdwatching for many is about seeking out the unknown. Familiar with home, some people wanted to see more and connect with others to share knowledge. Bird tourism was born and here we look at some of the issues surrounding this lucrative pastime.

Back at the turn of the twentieth century as more and more people began to catch on to the relaxing and rewarding concept of birdwatching as a home hobby, it wasn’t long before a niche in the market for bird tourism, also known as avitourism, was cleaved wide open. Tales of exotic lands stuffed full of immeasurably beautiful and strange birds travelled fast and soon the opportunity to exploit the natural world to these odd people who just wanted to look at birds was seized upon by amateur and professional entrepreneurs alike. As it became easier to travel to other parts of the world, tours and safaris could now be purchased. Birdwatching was taken to another level.

Fly far away

Bird tourism is of course based on the principle that you need to travel to find the birds in their natural habitat. Remarkably, at first little thought was given to the actual birds from the organisers, as money and profit were the drivers. The balance between carrying out this activity for fun and limiting damage to the environment was often ignored in the beginning, with just about any travel company offering the prospect of watching birds when you got to wherever it was you were going.

Tales of exotic lands stuffed full of immeasurably beautiful and strange birds travelled fast.

Birdwatchers by their nature, like most ecotourists, tend to be well educated both in terms of conventional schooling and about environmental knowledge and their impact on the world around them. There is generally a heavy bias towards conservation amongst birdwatchers, and we are more likely to make efforts to reduce any negative impacts and increase the positives, simple things like taking rubbish home, planting bird-friendly trees, or joining an animal or environment conservation movement. By these shared qualities, birders are essentially part of a huge club, and they love to swap knowledge; so when word got around, it got around quickly, and the industry had to wake up.

After a rocky start, bird tourism took off under the watchful eye of its clients. Never had the tourist industry been so compelled to adequately provide for the very people it wanted to attract. It wasn’t long before the financial and educational implications of bird tourism were recognised by the participating communities, and it became a huge boost to economies and employment figures, often in places who once thought they had nothing to offer. Travellers came from far and wide, many from the more affluent western parts of the world where alternative and unknown biodiversity was sorely lacking.

Is birdwatching good for birds?

But what of the birds and their habitats themselves? Birds, as we know, are incredibly shy creatures who generally don’t like being disturbed. Combined with the fact that the birds in many of these environments are also on an endangered or cause for concern list, it was vitally important at the outset that this branch of tourism was explicit about keeping the risk to the birds as low as possible. Companies needed to be mindful of breeding seasons and know where the breeding sites were, so locals with acquired knowledge of the land were employed as guides, and encouraged to expand their understanding of the world in return for a steady wage. Contact with birds should also never happen; if possible, visitors would be kept unseen by installing hides and camouflaged areas. Birds should be scared of us, as if birds became insensitive to human proximity, they would then be placed at great risk from poaching. Responsible birdwatching tours should never allow their clients to imitate calls either: some people have been known to play recordings or impersonate predators to “flush” out a bird, and others attempt to lure out birds by “calling” as a potential mate. Aside from the stress this places on a bird, minimising flushing will lead to the quality of the birdwatching itself if populations are allowed to grow in abundance unperturbed.

Should I go on a birdwatching holiday?

We know there are doubts out there among birdwatchers about the risks that come with stepping into a world that is not your own, no matter how earnest and careful we are. Actively travelling to another country and then imposing yourself on a bird’s habitat can be unappealing to many, but as with all things we must do our homework and evaluate the risks. The joy of seeing some of the world’s most extraordinary creatures, even if for a moment, does wonders for your soul and gives you perspective on all things. Your money will also go to forwarding their survival, if you choose the right provider.

After a rocky start, bird tourism took off under the watchful eye of its clients.

Companies are finally catching on to the additional draw of combining conservation with their product, and community education about the value of the area where people live is now commonplace in parts of the world where birdwatching tourists go. This is spawning a new generation of bird-loving conservationists, an immeasurably worthwhile after-effect.  You can read all about some companies that are striving to do just that on this website.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There is still a good deal more to be done in terms of assessing the environmental impacts of birdwatching tourism, and finding out how to reduce disturbance to bird populations at the same time as encouraging people to go and see them. As mentioned, areas that are usually the best for birdwatching can also be the most ecologically sensitive, and visitor-control measures must be in force to guarantee sustainable development, otherwise you could quite easily destroy the very thing you’ve gone there to see.

Companies are finally catching on to the additional draw of combining conservation with their product.

At the time of writing, the world is undergoing a bit of a pandemic problem, so bird tourism, like practically all other tourism, isn’t exactly viable at the moment. There are still the birds where you live of course, and your daily exercise can take you to some as yet undiscovered niche somewhere, but do remember, whilst not ideal, there are some wonderful resources online for birdwatching, including this free, almost hour-long video called The Birders, of a birdwatching road trip through Colombia, a birder’s paradise with over 2,000 species. There are 102 species in the film and you are invited to check them off from The List, available here. Enjoy!