What ‘The Birdman of Wahroonga’ and other historic birdwatchers can teach us about cherishing wildlife



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Russell McGregor, James Cook University

Under the first coronavirus lockdowns, birdwatching increased tenfold in Australia, with much of it done in and near the watchers’ own backyards. And as Melbourne settles into stage 4 restrictions, we’ll likely see this rise again.

The increase in backyard birding is good news for conservation and can help birds recover from bushfires and other environmental catastrophes. But backyard birding isn’t new, nor is its alliance with conservation.




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Since the turn of the 20th century, when birdwatching as a hobby began in Australia, birders have cherished the birds in their backyards as much as those in outback wilds. Birdwatchers admired wild birds anywhere, for one of their big motivations was — and is — to experience and conserve the wild near home.

Harry Wolstenholme holding a bird in front of him in his garden in Sydney
Pioneering birder Harry Wolstenholme recorded 21 native species nesting in his garden.
Alec Chisholm/National Library of Australia, Author provided

This wasn’t an abstract ambition, but a heartfelt commitment. Birdwatchers have long known that if we are to conserve nature, we need not only the intellectual expertise of science but also an emotional affinity with the living things around us. Birders in Sydney in the 1920s and ‘30s knew this well.

The Birdman of Wahroonga

Harry Wolstenholme, son of the feminist Maybanke Anderson, was an office-bearer in the Royal Australasian Ornithologists’ Union and a keen amateur birdwatcher. In the 1920s, his usual birding site was his own garden in the northern Sydney suburb of Wahroonga.

There, bird life was prolific. Harry recorded 21 native and five introduced species nesting in or near his garden, plus many more avian visitors.

His garden drew a stream of notable birders from the Sydney branch of the ornithologists’ union, such as wildlife photographer Norman Chaffer, naturalist and journalist Alec Chisholm, and businessman Keith Hindwood. (The union members were predominantly male, though with a liberal sprinkling of women, including Perrine Moncrieff who became its first female president in 1932.)

Keith Hindwood in black and white, with a White-eared Honeyeater on his head
Keith Hindwood, with a White-eared Honeyeater on his head, 1929.
Mitchell Library, Author provided

For his closeness to the birds, Harry earned the nickname “The Birdman of Wahroonga”. That suburb still hosts a good range of species, although the bird life is no longer as prolific as in Harry’s day.

Many others birded in city environs and, like Harry, published their suburban ornithological studies in the union journal, The Emu.

In 1932, Alec Chisholm devoted a whole book, Nature Fantasy in Australia, to birding in Sydney and surrounds. Featured on its early pages is a painting by celebrated bird artist Neville Cayley captioned “The Spirit of Sydney: Scarlet Honeyeater at nest in suburban garden”.

Scarlet honeyeater feeding on grevillia nectar
Scarlet honeyeaters can still be spotted in urban parts of Australia.
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The fact this gorgeous little bird was common in Sydney’s gardens exemplifies Chisholm’s theme of urban Australians’ ready access to the wonders of nature. Scarlet Honeyeaters can still be found in Sydney though they are no longer common there.

Mateship with Birds

Like all Chisholm’s nature writings, Nature Fantasy promoted conservation.

Conservation then differed from conservation now, having a stronger aesthetic orientation and less ecological content. Nonetheless, these pioneer conservationists, among whom birdwatchers were prominent, laid the foundations on which environmentalists later built.

Chisholm urged people not merely to observe birds but also, more importantly, to love and cherish them. In his first book in 1922, Mateship with Birds, he urged readers to open their hearts to their avian compatriots and embrace them as friends and fellow Australians.

Jacky winter, a small, pale-coloured bird is perched on a white log.
Early birders believed names of birds like ‘Jacky Winter’ would help us embrace birds as fellow Australians.
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One way of fostering this feeling, Chisholm and his birding contemporaries believed, was to give birds attractive names. For example, “Jacky Winter” struck the right note, and as Chisholm wrote:

it would be a healthy thing if we had more of these familiar names for our birds, bringing as they do, a feeling or sense of intimacy.

While those birders urged people to cultivate an emotional connection with nature, and while most were amateur rather than professional ornithologists, they nonetheless made major contributions to the scientific study of birds.

Science was needed, they realised, but so was feeling. As one reviewer of Nature Fantasy enthused, Chisholm was a naturalist “who in his writings combines with the exact research of a scientist the sensibility of a poet”.




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Birders today

Our city birdscapes have since changed. Some species have dwindled; some have increased. But suburbia still holds a remarkable degree of biodiversity, if only we’re prepared to look.

A woman holds binoculars to her eyes among trees
Lockdown is a great time to try backyard birdwatching.
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The world of the birders of the 1920s and ’30s is gone. Our attitudes toward nature are cluttered with fears unknown in their day, such as climate change. Yet those early birders still have something worthwhile to tell us today: the need to connect emotionally and tangibly with nature.

To hear that message, we need not, and should not, jettison today’s environmental fears. But fear needs complementing with more positive emotions, like love.

Despite — or because of — the prominence of environmental alarms in today’s world, the need to admire and love living things remains as pressing as ever. As birdwatchers have long known, the birds fluttering in our own backyards are adept at fostering those feelings.




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The Conversation


Russell McGregor, Adjunct Professor of History, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Birdwatching increased tenfold last lockdown. Don’t stop, it’s a huge help for bushfire recovery



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Ayesha Tulloch, University of Sydney; April Reside, The University of Queensland; Georgia Garrard, RMIT University; Michelle Ward, The University of Queensland, and Monica Awasthy, Griffith University

Many Victorians returning to stage three lockdown will be looking for ways to pass the hours at home. And some will be turning to birdwatching.

When Australians first went into lockdown in March, the combination of border closures, lockdowns and the closure of burnt areas from last summer’s bushfires meant those who would have travelled far and wide to watch their favourite birds, instead stayed home.

Yet, Australians are reporting bird sightings at record rates – they’ve just changed where and how they do it.

In fact, Australian citizen scientists submitted ten times the number of backyard bird surveys to BirdLife Australia’s Birdata app in April compared with the same time last year, according to BirdLife Australia’s Dr Holly Parsons.

But it’s not just a joyful hobby. Australia’s growing fascination with birds is vital for conservation after last summer’s devastating bushfires reduced many habitats to ash.

Birds threatened with extinction

Australia’s native plants and animals are on the slow path to recovery after the devastating fires last summer. In our research that’s soon to be published, we found the fires razed forests, grasslands and woodlands considered habitat for 832 species of native vertebrate fauna. Of these, 45% are birds.

Some birds with the largest areas of burnt habitat are threatened with extinction, such as the southern rufous scrub-bird and the Kangaroo Island glossy black-cockatoo.

Government agencies and conservation NGOs are rolling out critical recovery actions.

But citizen scientists play an important role in recovery too, in the form of monitoring. This provides important data to inform biodiversity disaster research and management.

Record rates of birdwatching

Birdwatchers have recorded numerous iconic birds affected by the fires while observing COVID-19 restrictions. They’ve been recorded in urban parks and city edges, as well as in gardens and on farms.

In April 2020, survey numbers in BirdLife Australia’s Birds in Backyards program jumped to 2,242 – a tenfold increase from 241 in April 2019.

Change in the number of area-based surveys by Australian citizen scientists over the first six months of 2019 compared with 2020. Data sourced from BirdLife Australia’s Birdata database.

Similarly, reporting of iconic birds impacted by the recent bushfires has increased.

Between January and June, photos and records of gang-gang cockatoos in the global amateur citizen science app iNaturalist increased by 60% from 2019 to 2020. And the number of different people submitting these records doubled from 26 in 2019 to 53 in 2020.




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What’s more, reporting of gang-gangs almost doubled in birding-focused apps, such as Birdlife Australia’s Birdata, which recently added a bushfire assessment tool .

The huge rise in birdwatching at home has even given rise to new hashtags you can follow, such as #BirdingatHome on Twitter, and #CuppaWithTheBirds on Instagram.

A gang-gang effort: why we’re desperate for citizen scientists

The increased reporting rates of fire-affected birds is good news, as it means many birds are surviving despite losing their home. But they’re not out of the woods yet.

Their presence in marginal habitats within and at the edge of urban and severely burnt areas puts them more at risk. This includes threats from domestic cat and dog predation, starvation due to inadequate food supply, and stress-induced nest failure.

That’s why consolidating positive behaviour change, such as the rise in public engagement with birdwatching and reporting, is so important.

A female superb lyrebird calling to her reflection in a parked car in suburbia. Her nest was later discovered 100 meters from the carpark.

Citizen science programs help increase environmental awareness and concern. They also improve the data used to inform conservation management decisions, and inform biodiversity disaster management.

For example, improved knowledge about where birds go after fire destroys their preferred habitat will help conservation groups and state governments prioritise locations for recovery efforts. Such efforts include control of invasive predators, supplementary feeding and installation of nest boxes.

Gang gang Cockatoo hanging out on a street sign in Canberra.
Athena Georgiou/Birdlife Photography

Better understanding of how bushfire-affected birds use urban and peri-urban habitats will help governments with long-term planning that identifies and protects critical refuges from being cleared or degraded.

And new data on where birds retreat to after fires is invaluable for helping us understand and plan for future bushfire emergencies.

So what can you do to help?

If you have submitted a bird sighting or survey during lockdown, keep at it! If you have never done a bird survey before, but you see one of the priority birds earmarked for special recovery efforts, please report them.




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There are several tools available to the public for reporting and learning about birds.

iNaturalist asks you to share a photo or video or sound recording, and a community of experts identifies it for you.

BirdLife’s Birds in Backyards program includes a “Bird Finder” tool to help novice birders identify that bird sitting on the back verandah. Once you’ve figured out what you’re seeing, you can log your bird sightings to help out research and management.

The majority of habitat for Kangaroo Island glossy black cockatoos burnt last summer.
Bowerbirdaus/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

For more advanced birders who can identify birds without guidance, options include eBird and BirdLife’s Birdata app. This will help direct conservation groups to places where help is most needed.

Finally, if there are fire-affected birds, such as lyrebirds and gang-gang cockatoos, in your area, it’s especially important to keep domestic dogs and cats indoors, and encourage neighbours to do the same. Report fox sightings to your local council.




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If you come across a bird that’s injured or in distress, it’s best to contact a wildlife rescue organisation, such as Wildcare Australia (south-east Queensland), WIRES (NSW) or Wildlife Victoria.

By ensuring their homes are safe and by building a better bank of knowledge about where they seek refuge in times of need, we can all help Australia’s unique wildlife.The Conversation

Ayesha Tulloch, DECRA Research Fellow, University of Sydney; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Georgia Garrard, Senior Research Fellow, Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group, RMIT University; Michelle Ward, PhD Candidate, The University of Queensland, and Monica Awasthy, Visiting Research Scientist, Environmental Futures Research Institute, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.