Monday, February 01, 2010

Birdwatching as a Spiritual Discipline

From the Independent:

Anyone can learn the deep calm pleasure of patient observation and identification. It costs nothing more than a pair of binoculars. Bill Bailey's Bird Watching Bonanza programme is a response to the twitching majority. Jonathan Ross never got birdwatching, which was his personal misfortune and his professional failing. The greater British public are not obsessed by sex and celebrity. They want to look at birds. As Bailey puts it: "I find it life affirming that more people watched Springwatch than Big Brother."

Birdwatching is a journey of enlightenment, so I quite understand why it leaves non-believers cold.

I'm not a birdwatcher, a bird is something that tweets but isn't Stephen Fry, but I was struck by the qualities that twitching brings to those who pursue it. The ability to concentrate, attention to detail, patience, appreciation of beauty, a better sense of climate and seasons, there's a lot of overlap between all this and the kind of things that spiritual writers talk about. And don't even mention St. Francis.

Sure the article is trying to sell birdwatching to us. No mention of hours spent in the freezing cold waiting for a stork which never came. But then how do you learn patience and fortitude without experiences like that? I'm currently planning a walking holiday, and discovering that I'm much more of a wuss than I was as a teenager, when I'd happily stalk off into a rainstorm for the promise of a hot radiator and a cup a soup on arrival at the next Youth Hostel. A lot of that is down to having a car, and dozens of little choices made to avoid discomfort. Now my capacity to cope with discomfort has dropped, because it's not been exercised.

Love the way this final snippet brings together wonder and obsessive record keeping:

There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of but you must look for them. And then make sure you have logged them, if possible with photographic evidence, and inform the RSPB. Just as teaching of history has narrowed to Henry VIII and the Second World War, so nature has been taken over by lions, polar bears, and dishy male survivalists. It is wild life as Avatar. But there is also the gentle day-to-day nature of which schoolchildren know less. We need a little more "Hello, birds! Hello, trees!" We must cultivate our gardens.


  1. I love this post. Getting close to nature is definitely a spiritual experience!

  2. I enjoy bird watching (recently re-discovered from my youth, now that I have a son developing a similar interest!)

    I wouldn't call it "spiritual" more "natural science", but I know what you mean by the word, its about awe and wonder at nature, the desire to understand it and share that knowledge etc. It's also a great way to develop an awareness of conservation in youngsters who are interested, and gets them away from their Nintendo and into the fresh air!

  3. For me, as a confirmed introvert, bird watching is a way of getting out of my head and into the world at large. And it gets me outdoors and teaches me patience and persistence, along with quiet - all good disciplines for me.

    Oh, and I started it in my forties...

  4. Bird watching is a really great way to enjoy nature and you can watch them from the comfort of your home.