Urban Birdwatching: Meet David Lindo - 'The Urban Birder'

Urban Birdwatching: Meet David Lindo - 'The Urban Birder'

David Lindo - 'The Urban Birder'

With his trademark “Look up!” phrase, one man has been leading the way in helping residents of towns and cities seek out the abundance of nature hidden in plain sight, bringing the concept of urban birding to the attention of millions. In today’s Birds of A Feather, we talk to birder, broadcaster, writer, tour leader and educator David Lindo about his lifelong fascination with birds, ongoing threats to the hard-won harmony in urban areas, and how to see what is already right there around you.

There is the general view that humanity’s cities have replaced the natural world, forcing the once free-roaming wildlife into ever more restricted areas, permanently excluded from the urban sprawl. Whilst this is largely true and urban expansion has hugely contributed to habitat loss for millions of species of animals and plants, when planned correctly, cities can provide fantastic opportunities for birds, with numerous parks and gardens helping sustain good population sizes.

David Lindo

Now, many of us are also waking up to the fact that having bird feeders nearby and even the slightest hint of green such as a hanging basket or a container garden will attract birds. And yet, even in the absence of these logical additions, many bird species have still managed to live alongside us and are there to marvel at every day.

In 2014 The Royal Society, the independent scientific academy of the UK, published the first-ever global study of bird species in urbanized environments. The study spanned six continents, gathering data from 54 cities, concluding among other things that the world’s cities are home to over 2,000 bird species, a fifth of all known species worldwide, some which can count examples of the world’s rarest species in their locales. This news would not have surprised David Lindo, who by this point had been enlightening thousands to the wonders of nature and birdlife that can be easily found among the concrete and steel if one would just look for it.

David Lindo

A cat among the pigeons

Lindo has been bewitched by birds for as long as he can remember, but had no guiding hand in the beginning, having to learn all about birds himself from library books. Being repeatedly told that nature didn’t exist in London where he was born, Lindo decided to look for it anyway, and found it just the same. With no mentors to advise him on where to go, I ask if he could attribute this determination to anything in particular; and perhaps because he is tired from a day traveling coupled with a delayed flight from the UK to Spain where he is now based, I’m not entirely sure if he is joking when he explains his views on his innate urge to seek out the birds.

“I think it could be from a previous life if I'm honest. I've always supposed that I was a puma in a previous life and I was hunting birds and I missed one once and decided not to eat them anymore and watch them instead, but then I died of starvation. However, just before dying, I thought ‘birds look quite interesting, so if there's anything else after this, I would love to take up birdwatching again.'

David Lindo

Luckily, I was born a human; I think that's where it came from. I was born in an area of London where there were mostly Caribbean and Irish immigrants, and no one around me had any interest or inclination, so my interest came from nowhere. Even at a young age I thought to myself, ‘In my later life, I'll be using this in some way’”.

Having no one to turn to for engagement or share discoveries with, I ask if he ever questioned his interest as valid if no one else was doing it or felt daunted by the isolation.

“Not at all, nature was my sanctuary and it made me feel good. I loved the adventure of discovery and seeing and naming things because at the time I didn't know what they were. When I got a bit older, around 10 or 11, I started seeking people out to see if I could convert them to come with me. But I suppose as much as I'm engaged with people these days, I do like to be on my own. I could spend days not talking to anyone! I can envisage being an 85-year-old man living alone on an island somewhere, I love that idea. Getting my groceries delivered from Ocado or Waitrose, of course…”

Great grey shrike by David Lindo

Finding a community

As predicted, these early encounters of solace and connection with birds did indeed lead him down a path that would change his life forever. But first, there was some growing up to be done, during which Lindo spent as many moments as possible out birding, either alone or with a friend he’d managed to convince to join him. As the pair advanced through their teenage years and into their twenties, the friendship eventually ebbed as happens all too frequently in many of our lives, as we flail out the other side of puberty into some semblance of adulthood.

The discovery of music, girls and socializing took precedence; Lindo doesn’t see this as a step back, but more of a necessary stage to develop his confidence in being around people, mastering how to communicate with positivity and how to instill a sense of adventure, so necessary for exploration in the unmapped arena of urban birding he would eventually promote, where skepticism is often the first reaction.

David Lindo in Leicester, photographed by Russell F Spencer

It wasn’t until he began taking like-minded people to his ‘patch,’ Wormwood Scrubs, or the Scrubs as locals refer to it, that he felt he discovered a community. Known to many people as just the location of the eponymous prison, the Scrubs itself is, at the time of writing, a 76-hectare common green space in North London, with overgrown areas as well as sports pitches, woodland, scrub, and meadows crisscrossed by nature trails. Beloved by many, the discovery of the Scrubs as a haven for so much wildlife is all down to Lindo.

"Just look up!"

“I first started going there in the late ‘80s; no one went there, and it was one of those places where people said, Why are you going there? Why don't you go somewhere ‘proper’? But of course I loved that no one went there, and that it was against all odds, that it was hard work. And then when I started finding birds, not only local species but national rarities, and good numbers of common breeding birds, that's when people started coming.

When I eventually had slots on [BBC’s] Springwatch I mentioned it there, I wrote about it in magazines and online and spoke about it whenever I had a chance. For me it was the classic example of how you can go somewhere innocuous and you can find birds. That’s where my trademark ‘look up’ was born, because a lot of the things I saw were actually flying over, migrating. It was a classic laboratory for me, to figure out the art of birdwatching myself in terms of looking up and getting people interested in things. You have to walk the walk and do it yourself to be able to encourage others.”

Wryneck by David Lindo

Over the years Lindo has found 150 species among the grasses, heathers, and hogweed, such as Wheatear, Ortolan Bunting, Wryneck, Quail, Great Grey Shrike and Ring Ouzel, and looking up – never forget to look up – there have been Marsh Harrier, Osprey, Honey Buzzard, Short-eared Owl and Mediterranean Gull.

If not you then two

He recognized that city-dwellers often overlook the abundance of birdlife around them, so he hatched a plan to bring attention to the feathered inhabitants of cities and to foster that connection that he understood was important, not just for our wellbeing, but most importantly for the bird’s continued survival. But it wasn’t easy at the beginning, with many unconvinced that birding, let alone urban birding, held any real merit outside of a hobby for retired middle-class white men.

City-dwellers often overlook the abundance of birdlife around them.

“I remember at the beginning of my career when I was so enthusiastic pitching ideas for TV series even the BBC said to me ‘birds are boring.’ I'm thinking, oh really, so what about the bird-feed industry worth eight billion pounds; the RSPB with over a million members; several million more interested in birds in the UK. But you know, when people say they just don't care, sometimes all you need to do is say to them ‘You should come with me one day, just go for a walk’”.

The simplicity of that suggestion is the lynchpin to the success of Lindo’s urban birding initiative. Prior to his current and full-time quest to get people to look up as they lead their lives in the bustle of the city, his professional background was in sales and marketing, selling advertisement space, which evolved into selling advertorials and sponsorship; after some time he then became a PA for a director of music videos and commercial. He credits these experiences as fundamental to bringing the idea of the Urban Birder to life, referring to it as a Trojan Horse.

“I just had this idea of bringing this Trojan horse into town, and simply saying, look, you can go bird watching in cities, and it's like meditation, like yoga; and people just bought into it because I helped people see that they don't need to know anything, they don't even need to have binoculars. I think that's how it all kicked off, really, and my previous career really helped me sell the idea.”

The value of records

In 2021, part of the Scrubs was sold to the controversial high-speed rail network linking London to the north of England, HS2. Spiraling costs, ever-increasing timelines beset by delays and, campaigners say, devastating and irreversible impact on the country’s flora and fauna, has made this project one of the most reviled in the nation’s history of so-called development. According to The Wildlife Trust, HS2 will uproot 250 miles of British countryside through five internationally protected wildlife sites, almost 700 local wildlife sites, over one hundred ancient woodlands and many legally protected sites of special scientific interest.

For Lindo, it is a personal tragedy. He spent years documenting the myriad species, resident and migratory, and he is a firm believer in keeping records, which can be profoundly advantageous for situations such as this. When presented with meticulous data, developers are faced with obstacles that they can often not overcome, but when there are gaps in the data, everything becomes open season. Lindo moved to Spain eight years ago, and after that, the record-keeping dropped off significantly, something he feels deeply sorry about as he knows the power in numbers.

David Lindo

“I despise HS2 with every bone in my body. I kept records and made them public, but after I left to go to Spain, there was no one else really that took up the helm, and even now the birders that go there aren’t very proactive in terms of trying to save the place. It's all very well having historical evidence, but you need to be on top of what's happening now and keep that all going all the time. I feel upset with Wormwood Scrubs because I don't see anything about it anywhere. Apart from what I say, it's not even mentioned in any daily bird news about London.

If they find birds, they should be putting it out there so that new people can say, ‘Oh, I might give it a visit’ and that opens it up to more people and keeps it in the public eye. I remember being in Dungeness [on the southern coast of England], watching for seabirds and a guy came and sat next to me and asked where I came from. Then he said ‘Oh, do you know The Scrubs?’ and starts reeling off all for the birds I’d found, suggesting I should take a look when I’m there next time. You need people talking about these places, and more importantly, to report the things that they find, because that's ammunition against further destruction. So that's why I'm a bit upset that that hasn't been carried on at my local patch.”

Near not far

Lindo clearly cares deeply about birds and helping people to do the same. Once described as a ‘one-man ornithological phenomenon,’ he knew he could amplify his message and reach a wider audience, so he founded the Urban Birder movement, a platform to share his knowledge, experiences, and insights, and to educate and inspire people around the world to engage with the avian wonders of their own urban environments.

Lindo’s ability to demonstrate that wildlife and cities can coexist has inspired countless individuals to reframe their perception of nature and urban spaces. His influence has grown apace, starting from local guided walks with beginners and experienced birders alike, to writing and going on TV to talk about his experiences. He published his first book on the subject and about himself in 2011. On the dust jacket of The Urban Birder, there is the sentence describing Lindo as “sometimes controversial,” and I ask if he knows why that epithet was included. There is a reference to masturbation as Lindo points out, but aside from that I found the book warm, friendly, and deeply respectful of the need for sharing the love of birds.

David Lindo

“I don't consider myself controversial as such, but I can say the older I get the more straightforward I am in expressing what I think. I have a massive bugbear, for example, with the way that nature is portrayed in the media. I can certainly speak about the BBC and also other channels, with the way they concentrate on jaws, claws, and fangs. But there’s also the fact that there's just been a recent series [on British television, Wild Isles] with David Attenborough, and there wasn't a single episode on urban wildlife.

I found that absolutely ridiculous, because 82% of Britain's population lives in urban areas, and they’ve alienated them immediately, even though they might be watching things that are amazing, footage of salmon jumping out of a river, for example. But how many of us actually get to see that? It's something that I've never seen and I'm next to rivers all the time.

Urban birding. Photo by Juliette Mills

So they're still selling this whole dream; they do obviously reference the problems because you can't hide from it now, pollution of rivers and the sea, habitat degradation, and so on, but for me, it starts in urban areas, it starts with the people living on an estate in the middle of Leicester, or in the middle of New York, wherever. But they’re not going to feel that connection to nature because they're watching things that make it seem as if a) it’s all okay, and b), it's a form of entertainment. I think that, given the situation we're in at the moment, it’s gone beyond presenting stuff in a way that's enlightening, funny, and engaging, this formulaic way of doing things. Personally, I think it just further alienates people.”

He makes an excellent point, and one that I had rather naively never considered before, bewitched as I also am by any nature programs. I think to when I used to live in a city, and how the double irony of staying indoors to watch slick close-up shots of falcons, kingfishers, and flocks of starlings whilst it raged on in natural technicolor just outside my window didn’t occur to me. For that moment, I feel a little bit dumb; but shaming people is not Lindo’s intent. His infectious enthusiasm for birding has reached millions, either through his written articles for RSPB’s Nature’s Home magazine, Bird Watching magazine, and the US’s Bird Watchers Digest or his frequent appearances at conferences, festivals, after-dinner events, and awards ceremonies.

The Urban Birder by David Lindo

As well as The Urban Birder, he has also written How to be an Urban Birder in 2014, Tales From Concrete Jungles: Urban Birding Around the World a year later, and The Extraordinary World of Birds in 2022. As well as his numerous television, radio and podcast appearances, Lindo has taken people on thousands of tours over the years, and all over the world, in so many cities, helping people experience nature so close to home.

Every time I take anyone out in an urban area, even if they are already interested or invested in what’s out there, they are always surprised with what we see.

“Every time I take anyone out in an urban area, even if they are already interested or invested in what’s out there, they are always surprised with what we see, because there’s still so many people who don't realize what is actually on their doorstep. They still think you need to go a certain distance out, this whole idea of ‘the countryside;’ and that immediately puts up barriers for people living in urban areas, especially inner-city areas. For all sorts of reasons, but mainly, it's too far, they can't afford to get there, there's no transportation there.

Osprey by David Lindo

I've been doing the Urban Birder professionally now for 16 years and yes there's more interest now, especially since lockdown, and that's great. I run these day courses, for example, at the London Wetland Center [where he is vice-president] on how to be an urban birder and they're always fully booked by people who are mostly invested in the idea of birding and have been out birding before, but don't actually realize that you don't need to go anywhere to do it. And I think that's the big thing; people sometimes don't get the fact that you can actually see it right in front of you because it's sold to us when we look on TV that it's all about being in the middle of nowhere. It’s kind of fighting an uphill battle.”

It is more than safe to say that Lindo has single-handedly revolutionized the way we can perceive birdwatching amid urban environments.

The agitation he feels as he contemplates this issue out loud is perfectly framed by the passion in his voice that shows his dedication extends beyond birdwatching and into advocacy and conservation efforts. He actively promotes urban greening initiatives, emphasizing the importance of preserving and creating habitats for birds in urban areas. When he engages with communities and local authorities to encourage marginalized communities to get involved in birding, he is promoting the use and upkeep of green spaces, playing a pivotal role in improving urban environments for both birds and people. In 2021, his superb and sometimes Herculean efforts were recognised by the Linnean Society who presented him with the coveted H. H. Bloomer award, only given to "an amateur naturalist who has made an important contribution to biological knowledge."

Northern wheateater by David Lindo

The future of urban birding

Through his unwavering passion and commitment to education and conservation, it is more than safe to say that Lindo has single-handedly revolutionized the way we can perceive birdwatching amid urban environments. By sparking an interest in the avian life teeming in our bustling cityscapes, Lindo bridges the gap between people and the natural world, encouraging us all to appreciate the beauty and biodiversity that can be found right outside our windows. Looking to the future, Lindo is in the process of completing the formation of The Urban Birder NDM Foundation, named after his now sadly-departed friend Nigel David Mill.

David Lindo

The foundation aims to connect inner-city children to nature across the UK, but also have a far-reaching purpose too. The Foundation already has two acres of land on a seabird island off the coast of South Africa in a bid to save the dwindling populations there at the mercy of invasive species. From a reincarnated bird-loving puma to a fierce human advocate for those forgotten birds in our cities, Lindo’s journey serves as a powerful reminder that nature's wonders are not confined to remote wilderness but can be easily discovered in the heart of the concrete jungle, and it is our duty to help preserve and conserve the habitats found there so that they too can call it home.

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