April 1st is International Bird Day. They surround us everywhere: near our homes and in the countryside, in high mountains and endless steppes, in the Arctic and in deserts. Even in Moscow there are more than 200 species of birds. How many of them do you notice? We talked with Yevgeny Koblik, candidate of biological sciences, senior researcher in the ornithology sector of Lomonosov Moscow State University’s Zoological Research Museum. We asked him about professional bird listeners - birdwatchers, what birdwatching is and why is it still not as popular in Russia as it is in Europe or America.
- Is birdwatching more of a hobby or is it science?
- Birdwatching is a property of the soul. Literally, a birdwatcher is a person who collects meetings with birds in nature. He or she can go see a Ross`s gull, because he/she has never seen it in his/her life. A normal ornithologist will still consider whether this is necessary for a scientific career. A birdwatcher is a romantic. He/she wants to watch – he/she does it.
- What do the birdwatchers look like to others?
- If a person bought binoculars and a bird field guide, than this is it – we can consider them lost to the world, they`ve turned into a birdwatcher. First of all, they admire. There are seconds, minutes, hours of happiness. Many birdwatchers-ornithologists also enjoy meeting new bird species in nature, but they cannot admit it – it`s improper for a professional.
In the West, birdwatchers lead the common ornithological science. Ornithologists, of course, calculate strategic moments, but all tactics are conducted by birdwatchers: bird counts, area maps with notes.
Amateurs are engaged in all this, and sometimes they know much more than ornithologists. Birdwatchers are open to the world and, as a rule, they have more opportunities for birdwatching.
- How common is this hobby?
- There are millions of birdwatchers in the West. It is estimated that almost every fifth citizen of the United Kingdom listens to birds. It all came from England: an English gentleman sat in his garden and watched the birds. Since he had a scientific mindset, he wrote down all his observations: "Have seen five robins, two blackbirds". This trend has spread across the West, and now birdwatching is a mass hobby. In addition to a notebook and a pen, it requires additional equipment: binoculars, various optical instruments.
In Russia, in recent decades, there has been an increase in the number of birdwatchers. They organize themselves, set up their websites on the Internet, and they don’t need ornithologists. Moreover, the society of birdwatchers is international: there are the Russians, the Ukrainians, the Kazakhs, and the Baltic and Finnic people ... All kinds of people can be met there! I think that their number has already exceeded 1000. This, of course, is not a lot, but we do not have so many ornithologists for a country with such territory either.
Birds in Moscow
At the beginning of the 21st century, in Moscow, within the MKAD, scientists noted 245 species of birds, 125 of them nesting. This is slightly less than the number of bird species that were recorded in Moscow Region during the same period (294 species). Is it a lot or a little? For comparison: in London - 130 breeding species, in St. Petersburg - 166, in Voronezh - 128, in Kaliningrad - 116.
- And how many ornithologists are in Russia?
- A total of 300 people. It is difficult to say for sure, since there are few specialists working on an ongoing basis. In Soviet times there were much more ornithologists and perhaps they were more serious. Now, bird atlases are done in this way: the whole territory of Europe is divided into squares, and there are volunteers who examine these squares. In each square, a person needs to establish how many birds are there, how many nests, etc. Then this information is collected in a single center, and after 10 years an atlas of Europe is issued, for example, from 2005 to 2015.
In Europe, of course, it’s easier. For a small Czech Republic or Slovakia, 10 ornithologists and 30-40 birdwatchers are enough, but try and do such a thing on our territory. But we are trying, and soon an all-European atlas will be released, where the entire European territory of Russia is covered by our research, and to a large extent, by the research of birdwatchers. We have a think tank at the Zoological Museum for publishing such an atlas. The all-European atlas and the European atlas of part of Russia will be released. Our work will be in both of them.
What kind of bird is this?
If you decide to engage in bird watching, but don’t know anything about birds, there is an online guide, “Birds of Russia”, or a comprehensive book for newcomers, “Bird Watcherʼs Bible”. If you are completely ignorant in the world of birds, then you can try to remember their voices through free sound archives. For example, here.
You can share your observations with professional ornithologists and international organizations on various resources. For example, the eBird website, the ru-birds online diary, and the iNaturalist website. But for this you need to be sure of the correct identification of the species. If you have difficulties, you can consult people in thematic groups. Data on rare birds on these websites, of course, is checked by moderators.
- There is also such a term as “birding rally". What is it?
- This is a kind of specialized sport. People drive cars to some locality and compete in crews: drive off-road, rent places and photograph different types of birds, identify them and present their findings to the jury. Points are taken for incorrect identification. Rare bird species get more points.
There is also a competition for who will see more birds in a year. There was such a film, “The Big Year”, where American birdwatchers compete in who sees the most species in a year. Our competition is kind of similar to that.
There are think tanks, there are special people who organize a birding rally and organize a jury, there is youth birdwatching, there are competing firms. And we, professional ornithologists, also participate in this. In secret, I’ll say that no one has beaten my record of the Soviet Union - 700 species. But many have got close already.
There is a birdwatching list, it covers the whole world. Once I was there among the top listers, but now I can no longer keep up with those who can travel daily and discover for themselves new birds. There are already people in Russia who saw with their own eyes more than 3,000 birds.
- And what kind of birds did you, as a romantic, chase? Do you have your own “Ross`s gull”?
- I saw a Ross`s gull on Wrangel Island on my birthday in 1985. This day is memorable for me, because then I crossed the border of the western-eastern hemisphere on foot. Nature gave me a present.
And I actually wasn`t traveling because of Ross`s gull. I wanted to see the Arctic, real and great.
I still sometimes chase birds. Last year, the idea arose to go to New Guinea, to see the birds-of-paradise. At that moment I didn’t have much money and time, but I decided that I would definitely go. A company gathered - only two professional ornithologists, and the rest were birdwatchers and nature photographers. We went to New Guinea and looked at the birds-of-paradise.
When you look at it, you get the feeling that this is a TV program or a BBC movie, and now David Attenborough will talk in detail about birds-of-paradise, but then it comes to you - it's all real. Awesome.
Birds-of-paradise make very atypical sounds for birds, as if mechanical: metallic buzzing, knocking, crackles. There is no a melodic song at all. They look like a beautiful clockwork machine that can take various poses, make sounds, but at the same time it seems to not be real.
- What is necessary to become a birdwatcher?
- You can become a birdwatcher even in your garden. Only two things are needed: a field guide, in which the arrows show what to look for, and good binoculars. It is with good binoculars that the whole world becomes full of birds. Many birdwatchers watch birds at their dachas (in the countryside).
Although some people have made the meaning of their life of the hobby. At the first Birdwatching Congress in Gujarat, India, in 2010, I met a very nice couple. They decided to break the birdwatching record for the year around the world. On January 1st, they left home in California and explored the entire globe until December 31st. During this time, they saw about 6,000 species. And this is more than half. It seems to me that such a "race" does not bring pleasure.
- Writers, Jonathan Franzen and Margaret Atwood;
- Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Queen Elizabeth II;
- Director, Wes Craven;
- 39th US President Jimmy Carter
Interviewed by Natalia Mozilova