Birds: the icons that could save the world

Photo: Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike (Coracina novaehollandiae) by Darcy Whittaker

During the months of October and November, The Third Fuse Project will be supporting Birds SA’s Conservation Fund by donating $10 from every paperback sale of Red Reflection and $4 from every e-Book sale.

Birdwatching is one of the most popular and growing hobbies in the Western world. But it doesn’t automatically translate that the people participating in birdwatching are concerned about bird conservation. That’s why organisations like Birds SA and Birdlife Australia are so important. They support people to participate in the hobby they love but also support people to understand the threats facing many bird species in Australia.

Red-browed finch (Neochmia temporalis)
Photo: Darcy Whittaker


Various studies show that birdwatching is one of the most popular and fastest growing outdoor activities. For example, in the United States 16-30% of the population are birdwatchers (1). While there is very little information about the popularity of birdwatching in Australia, it is anecdotally thought to be a fast growing and popular hobby.

This popularity may appear to be a good thing in turning around the current state of bird conservation in Australia where 22 birds are now extinct, 17 are critically endangered, 55 are endangered and 63 are listed as vulnerable under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (Cwlth) 1999 (2).

Participation in birdwatching, however, does not necessarily mean someone will have conservation attitudes and behaviours. There is a good study from the United States that found a better indicator was someone’s motivation for birdwatching, which could be associated with conservation, achievement or social opportunity. Though a conservation motivation was more likely to involve environmental concern, the other two motivations (achievement and social opportunity) did not necessarily translate to environmental concern (3).

Photo: David Anderson

Other studies that I’ve looked at suggest a positive link between outdoor recreation and environmental commitment (4,5) but I like this study on motivation because I have seen someone’s motivation for birdwatching change over time and, similarly, their conservation commitment change as their motivation changed. This was something that happened during my father’s life.

My father and his birdwatching motivations

If you knew my father as a teenager, you might think that he had very little environmental concern.

My mum tells a story about his time as a Jackaroo on Mulyungarie Station, north-east of Yunta, when he was a teenager between 1955 and 1957. We have his 1951 copy of What bird is that? which has notes about birds he’d seen at the property but also birds’ eggs he’d collected. Mum also recalls a photo (now long gone) of him with a wedge-tailed eagle that he’d shot on the station, and there are notes in his book about wanting to take up falconry.

It’s obvious from the notes in his book that his motivation during those teenage years was ‘achievement’: how many birds he’d seen and how many eggs he’d collected. But if you knew him later in his life you would know his motivation had changed because his actions showed he loved birds and was concerned about the impact of cats and habitat loss.

I remember a farm on the Eyre Peninsula we used to visit. Dad refused to help with clearing a large area of mallee for farmland. After they’d rolled the mallee with a chain between two bulldozers, weeks later we visited and helped burn the remaining roots and branches using bent pieces of kero-filled tubes with a burning wick on the end. Dad disappeared when that work was happening.

What I don’t know about my father is what drove this transformation in his motivation for birdwatching. Was it the birdwatching itself or some other external factor? Was it the involvement of a bird conservation organisation? I don’t know.

Birds SA and Birdlife Australia: a solution story

Given the above study’s finding that achievement and social opportunity motivations for birdwatching do not necessarily translate to environmental commitment, there appears to be an important role that bird conservation organisations can have by connecting with birdwatchers and raising awareness about the threats to bird species in Australia. There is good evidence to suggest that providing conservation information and running related outdoor activities for people can increase knowledge, awareness, interest and concern (6).

Birds SA and Birdlife Australia are two organisations that do just that. While supporting birdwatchers to participate in the hobby that they love, they also do a lot to promote the conservation of Australian birds and their habitats.

These organisations provide birdwatchers with information about birds, where to find them and what equipment is needed. They run field trips and hold webinars for their members. They also help their members with identification. But these organisations do so much more. They provide information and run birdwatching activities that raise awareness. Birds SA has a conservation fund and offers research grants to encourage and promote research into birds and their habitats in Australia. Birdlife Australia promotes conservation by providing birdwatchers with information on threats to birds. They are also involved in the development of conservation action plans and campaign for stronger environmental laws (7,8).

If birdwatching doesn’t always translate to conservation attitudes and behaviours, we need organisations like Birds SA and Birdlife Australia that support people (like my dad) to participate in the hobby they love but also support people to understand the threats facing many bird species in Australia.

One great way to combine birdwatching with conservation is to pass on what you find to a citizen science program. The Aussie Backyard Bird Count is happening during National Bird Week (18 to 24 October 2021). Check out The Aussie Backyard Bird Count website here.

Please feel free to leave a comment below. I’d love to hear about your own motivations for birdwatching. Can achievement and social opportunity motivations co-exist with conservation behaviours or evolve into conservation motivation?

Thanks to Darcy Whittaker for allowing me to use some of his wonderful photographs.

Useful links:

  1. Market Analysis of Bird-Based Tourism: A Focus on the U.S. Market to Latin America and the Caribbean Including Fact Sheets on The Bahamas, Belize, Guatemala, Paraguay (
  2. 2021. EPBC Act List of Threatened Fauna. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 23 September 2021].
  3. Sheri L. Glowinski & Frank R. Moore (2014) The Role of Recreational Motivation in the Birding Participation–Environmental Concern Relationship, Human Dimensions of Wildlife: An International Journal, 19:3, 219-233, DOI: 10.1080/10871209.2014.878966 (To link to this article:
  4. Are wildlife recreationists conservationists? Linking hunting, birdwatching, and pro-environmental behavior: Are Wildlife Recreationists Conservationists? Article in Journal of Wildlife Management · March 2015 (To link to this article:
  5. Tsung Hung Lee (2011) How recreation involvement, place attachment and conservation commitment affect environmentally responsible behavior, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 19:7, 895-915, DOI: 10.1080/09669582.2011.570345
  6. Shwartz A, Cosquer A, Jaillon A, Piron A, Julliard R, et al. (2012) Urban Biodiversity, City-Dwellers and Conservation: How Does an Outdoor Activity Day Affect the Human-Nature Relationship? PLoS ONE 7(6): e38642. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0038642
  7. Birds SA website
  8. Birdlife Australia website
  • Share on:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *