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How Guns, Cameras, Binoculars and Smartphones Changed Bird-Watching

How Guns, Cameras, Binoculars and Smartphones Changed Bird-Watching

A yellow-throated toucan. Photo: Zdeněk Macháček/Unsplash

  • Heavily mediated by digital technologies, 21st century bird-watching looks very different from the way it was until then.
  • Such disruptive changes aren’t restricted to this century: binoculars, for example, heralded ‘watching’ instead of the then-normal hunting.
  • Today, many birders watch and learn about birds on their screens – via social media platforms, YouTube, etc. – even as some remain sceptical over the disconnect from nature.

Regardless, Mother Eagle and my mother are making kin. My mother has donated money to the bird research organization… She is learning about rituals and habits of care via other species… Without making the physically experiential connection with bird-watching, my mother bird-watches and has still come to care for birds.

This is Ola Wilk-Branas narrating a story of her mother watching a female bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in Iowa. She keeps track of every single activity of this bird on her Instagram live just sitting at home in Chicago. Ola’s mother is not alone. Many interested in bird-watching use their mobile phones and laptops to observe birds. Many swipe through thousands of images each day. This is a new kind of bird-watching that does not need binoculars, but smartphones and high-speed internet.

Heavily mediated by digital technologies, this is what 21st century bird-watching looks like. Technological innovations have profoundly changed the way we look at nature at large. Birding is now carried out with binoculars, spotting scopes, and e-copies of bird books on smartphones. From guns to binoculars and cameras to smartphones, the history of bird-watching is fascinating. Technology has not only revolutionised bird-watching: it has transformed our relationship with nature as well.

Collection to watching

Bird-watching was largely carried out as a hobby known as ‘collecting’ before the invention of binoculars. Shooting birds and collecting their eggs was, then a common practice. It was only much later that bird ‘watching’ was only to “watch and observe” birds, using binoculars and, later, cameras.

Early European visitors to India carried back large collections of bird skins and eggs as novelties. The practice of bird-watching is thought to have originated with the collection of eggs and skins. Until the 19th century, egg collecting was a popular pastime among bird lovers, and discussion on bird eggs was always a hot topic in ornithological journals. As the noted ornithologist Salim Ali wrote in his autobiography:

“Most people who contributed to bird study in India were foreigners who had grown up in their home country with birdlore – if only as ‘egg collecting school boys’ – before they came out to India.”

Many of them took sport-shooting and natural history as a serious pastime to collecting bird skins and eggs. Similarly, in the US, bird-watching has its roots in bird hunting. John James Audubon, the famous icon of bird conservation, had a fascination for bird-hunting. He wrote, “I wish I had eight pairs of hands and another body to shoot the specimens.”

Guns played a significant role in the history of ornithology and bird-watching. The collection of eggs and birds for taxidermy was part of the shooting. This led to discoveries of rare birds. Allan Octavian Hume, founder of the Indian National Congress and also known as the “Pope” of Indian ornithology, along with his team, collected birds from all over the Indian subcontinent. Salim Ali’s own interest in birds began when he shot a bird and identified it as yellow-throated sparrow (Gymnoris xanthocollis). Ali was also known as the “ecologist with a gun“.

Also read: How Birds Rescued Me From the Birders, and Other Stories

Shooting to watching

Seen with only the naked eye, they look like a bunch of light brown spots moving around on a dark brown field. With a pair of binoculars, or better, a spotting scope, they resolve into 50 or so discrete birds feeding in a muddy tidal zone.

Jeffrey Karnicky writes thus about red knots (Calidris canutus) and the significance of binoculars. They are now an inseparable part of bird-watchers. Manufactured initially for military surveillance, breakthrough in binoculars came with the invention of the compact prismatic system, and subsequent imposition of conservation laws replaced guns with binoculars.

In 1901, Kodak launched the ‘Box Brownie’, which cost one dollar and thus made cameras accessible to many. Since then, cameras have come a long way. Now, companies like Sony, Canon, and Nikon have invented sophisticated digital cameras and lenses for wildlife photography. In 2020, Swarovski Optic developed a digital guide, a device that connected to personal devices like smartphones and tablets and was equipped with a bird identification app.

Birders these days use DSLR cameras to scan and click the birds and then zoom in on the images to identify them. Smartphones carry bird songs and images, including entire books. Sharing images of birds is much easier now with various social media platforms. Therefore, it is not surprising that bird watchers use these platforms, and WhatsApp, in multiple ways.

In the latter half of the 20th century, telephones and pagers also played an interesting role in bird-watching. When telephones were not affordable for everyone, people used those in cafes in the UK, according to Stephen Moss. Specifically, they used the ‘Telephone Tree Network’ to share information about new birds.

When they spotted a rare bird, given its vulnerability, it is possible to limit the spread of information about to it. The invention of pagers led to the Bird Information Service in the UK. Furthermore, this service has adopted different ways of communication like magazines, SMS and webpages. Technological innovations like telecommunication and the internet have made major changes in the communication system among the bird-watching community.

Also read: The Hornbill’s View

Birding on-screen

Many, like Wilk-Branas’s mother, subscribe to websites and YouTube channels that live-stream bird images and videos. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology features multiple webcams on their website, actively transmitting images and videos from different countries. Similarly,, YouTube channels like Nature Tec, Zooom Nordic Wild and Birdwatching HQ carry footage of birds and their activities. Some have installed cameras in their gardens and backyards with feeders near cameras.

Groups birding on-screen are both amateurs and professionals. With technological innovation, birders from all across the world can connect with each other as well. is a checklist-based project that began in 2002 at the Cornell Lab and the National Audubon Society in the US. Birders participate by uploading their observations and checklists. E-birds uses data from across continents to create graphs, maps and analysis tools.

Research institutes, including the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, and organisations and NGOs also document bird data through public participation.

During the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, online bird-watching provided an opportunity for bird-watchers to stay connected to birds. Smartphones and computer screens, with the help of the internet, have allowed bird-watchers to continue their hobby relatively uninterrupted.

Some committed bird-watchers don’t consider this method to be a legitimate alternative to bird-watching in the field, however. One of their criticisms is that people miss out on outdoor experience – hiking, exploring, searching for birds. While this is a threat that technology continues to impose in our lives in various ways, that it has also inducted more people into birding is to be appreciated.

Ambika Aiyadurai is a faculty member at IIT Gandhinagar and teaches anthropology and the environment. Yogesh Patil completed an MA in sustainable development from TISS Guwahati.

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