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There are a lot of interesting things in nature, but of all land vertebrates, birding has highly disproportionate attention. People (perhaps including birding enthusiasts) may note and appreciate mammals they see, and reptiles, but birding stands on its own as a hobby.

Why, about birds and about us, are we so interested in birding?

I can imagine a partial answer in that birds are more interestingly likely to fly in and out of an area one is observing, and that birds are often brightly colored, but this is a guess on my part, and I would give them only a guess's degree of probability.

Why emphasize birding?

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    They can fly, we can't. Your other options are a bat, an insect, or extinct. – Mazura Sep 25 at 5:18
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    Citation needed. – Nobody Sep 25 at 16:13
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    You'll spend a long time, most places, waiting for an ungulate to saunter by. And then a great deal longer waiting for one of another species. Meanwhile, you'll see three to six species at your bird feeder before breakfast. – Ed Plunkett Sep 25 at 18:42
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    Birding is not alone. Collecting insects is also a stand-alone hobby. Though for insects one kills the object of interest. It's not as prevalent as it used to be but you can find people with extensive collections of insects mounted in frames – slebetman Sep 26 at 10:39
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    I also ("Citation needed" 6 votes) challenge your proposition birding has highly disproportionate attention. Please back it up with some data. – Jan Doggen Sep 26 at 13:39
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This is rather speculative, but draws on a few birding/wildlife books I've read and it's too much for a comment. It also has a little UK bias, but I've visited 4 continents on wildlife trips, and much of this seems universal.

First, to get them out of the way: invertebrates may be interesting but in the general population there's a bit of a "yuck factor". Only butterflies (and maybe bees) really have much general appeal. I do know a couple of people who are as keen on their lepidoptera as birders are on their aves.

Mammals are broadly interesting. They're what people with only a passing interest in wildlife go on safari, or to the zoo, to see (along with the largest reptiles). But for many people, especially city dwellers, sightings of wild mammals are rare. The creatures themselves are, and they're often nocturnal. I'm in a village and cycle at dawn and dusk, so see more than most, but still only see (introduced) grey squirrels and rabbits regularly, with deer and foxes occasionally, and badgers/weasels almost never. Rats have the yuck factor again for many people, and are to be avoided, while most people will only see smaller rodents if they've got a cat to bring them in. So to see interesting mammals takes effort. Much of this applies to reptiles/amphibians too.

Birds on the other hand are visible, audible, and common. Having a few different attractive species visible from your own home is normal. Some (e.g. European Robins in the UK) approach close enough that you can really appreciate them, while others draw attention to themselves at a distance by singing - and birdsong is generally pleasant. If you have the beginnings of an interest in wildlife, it's most likely to be revealed by garden or local birds. Then we have a self fulfilling effect - people are interested in birds, so they go to bird reserves, which means there are facilities for people to go to.

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    This is an excellent answer, which removes the question from any taint of being "opinion based". One of the things that I find fascinating is that they are dinosaurs. – ab2 Sep 24 at 23:20
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    I'd add just one thing to this excellent response. There has been a long history of widely available field guides to the birds since the first edition of Peterson's guide in the 1930s. That helps add to the experience of observing birds. As more field guides have become available for, e.g., dragonflies and butterflies, interest in them has increased, too. – Tom Gaskill Sep 25 at 23:32
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    Mammals tend to have duller coloration than birds, which is part of the appeal of birdwatching over mammal-watching. The nocturnal bottleneck hypothesis is offered as an explanation why mammals tend to have poor color vision and dull pigmentation, even though some modern mammals are diurnal. – 200_success Sep 26 at 17:36
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    I think part of it may also be that "birds" are a somewhat more "concentrated" category, so there's more variety within the clade (?? abusing the term here, there's probably a better one). Somebody who thinks foxes are cool is not necessarily going to be interested in watching deer/squirrels/etc (despite being mammals), but somebody who thinks ravens are cool is at least somewhat likely to think a brightly colored songbird is also cool. – mbrig Sep 26 at 19:28
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    re-worded, birds have a ton of variety while still all looking like birds, while mammals, reptiles, and insects might have more variety overall, but often aren't even recognisably the same thing (and when they are, there's very little variety indeed) – mbrig Sep 26 at 19:31
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It's also a case of accessibility, birding really doesn't take any special equipment beyond say a pair of binoculars and birds will visit peoples backyards and bird feeders. While mammals can be shy or limited in area requiring trips to see them. Fish take special equipment to catch and mammals especially the biggers ones can often be dangerous to humans.

The next thing is there are tons of diversity among the birds you can see while there is a much smaller number of mammals compared to birds, compare this list of birds to this list of mammals.

This also may depend on where you are, it is faily common in national parks in the U.S. to have massive elk/moose/buffalo/bear traffic jams and I doubt that you would ever see that for a bird.

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    While a twitch may not cause as much havoc as a Yellowstone bison jam, a mega rarity can still attract huge crowds (+1) – Chris H Sep 25 at 5:54
  • Fish also take special equipment to watch, not only to catch... – henning Sep 25 at 8:27
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    There are indeed bird traffic jams. Tadoussac is a major hub in the northern bird migrations and during fall and spring seasons, biologists and bird watchers flock to the area. The bottleneck is caused by the width of the St-Lawrence. Only past Tadoussac does it become narrow enough that birds start to cross it south. I spent a week emptying nets during the tagging season in 2011 and the amount of birds was just insane. We could barely keep up. – Gabriel C. Sep 25 at 14:12
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    There can be enough people at the Tadoussac location that parking becomes an issue. That's what I was referring to when saying biologists and bird watchers flock to the site. It can get crowded. – Gabriel C. Sep 25 at 14:43
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    Now I want to go back to Tadoussac (and the rest of Québec). We did have a bit of a snow geese jam with everyone wanting to park close to see them at Cap Tourmente, our next stop after Tadoussac. (@GabrielC) – Chris H Sep 26 at 19:06
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I'm not a bird-watcher myself, but I have bird-watchers in my family, so I had rich opportunity to observe their conversations on their hobby. Here's a collection of points that I think contribute to the appeal of bird-watching. Note that for reasons of homogenuity, I'll use websites and quotes mostly from the UK as an example in the following, but the arguments should hold for most other temperate climates just as well.

(1) Changing availability encourages emotional investment

One aspect that sets birds clearly apart from other types of animals is their strongly seasonal pattern. True, in temperate climates, there are hardly any insects during winter, but the mammals that you can observe in the UK are observable throughout the whole year. With the migratory behavior of birds, you have immense fluctuations across the seasons: for many species, you'll be able to observe them only at specific times of the year. This seems to lead to emotional investment: You can look forward to the time when species A should be observable for the first time, and cherish if it eventually has returned from its winter quarters. Also, bird-watchers seem to develop forms of FOMO if a rare species B has migrated to an area where you'd not expect it normally.

(2) There are so many to collect

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds claims that there are 574 bird species that can be observed in the UK. In comparison, the Mammal Society lists only 101 mammal species in the British Isles, and there are apparently only 6 reptile species in Britain. This means that while you may quickly have observed all reptile species that exist in your area, you will never run out of targets if you are a bird watcher.

(3) It's very accessible

Some birds are so common that you will recognize them without much training. The entries in the list of 19 common British birds are distinct enough that anybody should be able to identify at least a few entries already. This means that you can start bird-watching right away just by going to the local park, even with young children.

(4) There is room for personal development

You may start watching birds straight away, and even children should be able to reliably recognize Great tits and Blue tits. Yet, you need to invest some time, and you will require some experience, in order to be able to recognize a Marsh tit if you see one. I've been told that keeping waders apart, e.g. a knot from a redshank is not trivial, and that it can be a satisfactory experience to realize how many different species you can already spot.

(5) It's a social activity

As an outsider, I was surprised to learn how much of a social activity bird-watching actually is. If you're at a observation post, it's not rare that you'll be addressed by complete strangers who want to show you that rare species that they've just discovered. Bird-watchers are also well-organized, be it in traditional societies (such as the RSPB) or on social media, including dedicated networks like BirdTrack where you can record and share your bird observations.

Granted, some of these points might in principle apply to the observation of other vertebrates as well, especially the last one: I'm sure that there are societies dedicated to the observation of reptiles or of mammals – but there are just not as many. Other points are fairly unique to observing birds, I think.

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    There is the "reward" factor to consider too. You probably won't see many reptiles – let alone every kind – in a short time, but you'll see many bird species. So unless you have a strong reason to observe reptiles, you'll probably get bored with it. – Weather Vane Sep 25 at 19:31
  • #2 explains why "an estimated 75% of households in Britain provide food for birds at some point during the winter." - for any given specimen there's a 6 out of 7 chance it's a bird. In Florida e.g., it's probably more like one in seven once you make it past the squirrels, chipmunks, anoles, iguanas, alligators, snakes, crocodiles, bats, and centipedes. – Mazura Sep 25 at 22:08
  • Wow, this is a great answer, especially for a non-birder! Obviously a lot of research went into it! I love all animals, and am a huge bird-addict! Many of these great sources are European. Rather than add a redundant answer, would it be okay for me to add some American equivalents, and some expansion on an aspect or two you laid out so nicely. I wouldn't presume to hijack your answer, so please tell me if you'd rather have me leave it alone!! Thanks! – Sue Sep 26 at 2:18
  • @Sue: Sure, go ahead! For as long as your American sources align well with the arguments, improving my answer is more than welcome. – Schmuddi Sep 26 at 11:47
3

This might have to do with migrating behaviour. Different seasons will see different birds, hence more variety, and their arrival has more of an event character.

1

It's nothing more complicated than this: The hobby is accessible. Birds come to us.

The suburbs are a very, very, very hostile place for land animals - vast and sterile by their standards, with pavement, lawns (no cover), structures, fences to impede mobility, and thick with predators (dogs and cats). So prairie dogs, salamanders, wolves, emus, giant turtles, rattlesnakes just can't get to us to be seen.

Birds, however, glide over all. The predators are no threat to them. The urban environment has enough trees, power lines, or other roosts; there's food and water to be had from squirrel feeders and bird baths.

So all you need is an easy chair, and you can see a huge selection.

1

Accessibility, and the sore thumbs of wearing funny hats and a pair of binoculars. This question is predicated on an observational bias.

Walking out your front door wearing binoculars immediately identifies you as a bird watcher, as opposed to me: a cat watcher. And if you can walk ten feet without seeing a bird, you're just not looking hard enough.

When I walk down the sidewalk, I look down everyone's gangway; not to steal crap... I'm looking for my cats, and anyone else's. How would you ever know that, if I wasn't wearing my cat-watching hat?

But if you want to observe any other non-domesticated animal, specifically and intentionally, as hunters and nature photographers both know, you'll have to walk a lot more than ten feet, and still you can go WEEKS without seeing your game. That sounds like a lot of fun... you might as well 'shoot' it with something while you're at it.

  • There's like 20 different kinds of cats and 90% of them are tabbys.... Birds: "the world's most numerically successful class of tetrapods, with approximately ten thousand living species," – Mazura Oct 3 at 3:17
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Darwin's finches might have something to do with it. Birdwatching does seem to be more popular in the UK than US and probably first became popular during the Victorian era or shortly after. See https://www.britishbirdlovers.co.uk/articles/darwins-finches

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    "John James Audubon, whose paintings of North American birds were a great commercial success in Europe and who later lent his name to the National Audubon Society." - "an estimated 75% of households in Britain provide food for birds at some point during the winter." – Bird – Mazura Sep 25 at 21:48

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