The Terrible Truth About Twitching

Hollywoods birdwatching film "The Big Year" was a commercial flop. Scoffed at by birders, misunderstood by non-birders. Was it a victim of its own success? A beautiful (and amusing) portrayal of birdwatching yes, but when even birders can't agree why they do it, what's hope Hollywood can explain it to anyone else?!       

It's a society with no leaders, no rules and no winners or losers. It's passion for nature, a yearning for knowledge and escapism that drives people to watch birds. It's bush-walking, vacation, art, culture, science, friendship, joy, disappointment and meditation in one. Birdwatching can turn your life into an adventure.

So why is birdwatching so often a source of great amusement and even ridicule by many?

In his book “Birders”, Guardian journalist Mark Cocker uses the metaphor "tribe” for birdwatchers. In reality it's rather less coordinated. To his credit Cocker doesn't try to over-explain birding as much as describe what it entails (and it's a very enlightening and entertaining read).

Birders try (and fail) to categorise or compartmentalise birdwatching in a vain effort to legitimise their particular interest. Some non-birders might even think it a strange and unsavoury past time - it's not about hanging around suburban gardens with a long coat and binoculars you know ; )

The word 'twitcher' often comes up - despite its use by birders most can't even agree what it literally means. One thing is for sure, it doesn't mean birdwatching.

As if birdwatching ever needed to be more literally interpreted as anything more than ... well, er ... birdwatching.

Faced with the possibility a newbie might want to go birdwatching, birders can get a bit excited. This is another potential source of embarrassment. Beware the birder who corners you in a party talking about nothing but birds for an hour!

Like fine wine birdwatching is best served in the right company. Birding chit-chat is the preserve of the expert and in matter of fact, when in 'normal' company, many of us birders prefer to dodge embarrassing questions about our hobby because like everyone else, we'd rather be talking about sport, music and films – and the fact we can't really explain why we do it, other than we love to look at birds (… and before you ask, yes, also the two-legged variety).

If I have to explain, despite our TV-obsession with everything exciting, famous, fast and bizarre, one-third of Americans enjoy birdwatching and it's one of the fastest growing hobbies on the planet. That's the best excuse I can ever come up with anyway. I just love watching birds, okay … enough already!

Really though, to understand birdwatching, you don't need to be a birdwatcher – lie on your back on a sunny day, listen and look. Observe what's going on in the trees and sky above. There's a dimension to your existence that envelopes everything and carries on like clockwork. It doesn't care about your political views or life stresses. It is a soundscape and beautiful backdrop to your world. Like a pet dog, it asks for nothing in return. Get to know it and you'll miss it when it's gone.

Carolus Linnaeaus, the founding father of modern animal and plant names said in 1735 “the first step in wisdom is to know the things themselves”. I bring my kids up on nature so even if they don't become passionate 'watchers', they'll at least be content – my son and daughter can identify most of our garden birds on sight and call. A parent told me he took his son and friends bush-camping. The friends jumped at every sound beyond the campfire. “What do you expect to be out there?” he asked.

Richard Louv, in his 2005 book The Last Child in the Woods, refers to "nature deficit disorder", which manifests itself in a range of psychological and physical health problems, caused by an absence of outdoor life and increasing dependence on indoor pursuits, including TV and video games.

Interaction with nature actually reduces symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder, depression and obesity … even dementia. The Australian Alzheimer's Association recently published Bird Watching in My Backyard adding that people who engage physically, mentally and socially, are less likely to get the disease. Who'd have thought, birdwatching is good for your health!

Many birdwatchers can trace their interest to a moment, where they realised that life beyond their world was beautiful and they needed to be part of it.

The celebrated author Jonathan Franzen who opened the Melbourne Writer's Festival a couple of years ago explained how a friend showed him migrant birds in New York's Central Park. Priding himself as a deep-thinker, Franzen was surprised at how he'd missed what is apparently so obvious to him now. Birdwatching has changed his life. It's made him happier.

After completing a film with Damon Albarn and the band 'Gorillaz', film-maker Ceri Levy says he embarked on a quirky film about birders but then “I started filming and there suddenly came a moment where I wanted to put my camera down and look at what they were looking at … the beauty that surrounds us every day that we are often not aware of”. This change of direction gave rise to the conservation project Ghosts of Gone Birds with artists and musicians world-wide.

Ironically, the conservation fraternity often crowbars birdwatching into a place it should never be … the place most people are trying to escape. It is fast becoming a thing of scientific scrutiny. Like putting batteries in a child's yo-yo, all this means it loses its essential and compulsive simplicity.

When you spend time with nature you'll realise it is very personal and transcendent, even if you're sharing the moment with close friends. Birdwatcher and lead guitarist Martin Noble of British Sea Power says, “I get a very similar feeling from music and birds. It's the thrill of seeing something new, the beauty and the sounds they make”. Non-birder Australian singer songwriter Brett Winterford yearns for more contact with the Australian bush – his music, he says, is an endangered species, affected by the increasing urbanisation of his life.

Birds have and always will be a metaphor for freedom and birdwatching reflects our need to break away from the constraints of a crowded life, of work and family pressure. Everyone does it for their own reasons and at different pace. There's no reason to make excuses … it's really quite normal, honest, like watching a sunset, or the ocean roll in.

If you're like the rest of us though, it won't be long before you'll be answering your friends' probing questions about why you choose to spend your holiday on a slow boat upriver in Borneo; or trying to justify to your partner why you've invested in that new 500mm lens.

Then you'll know you've 'fledged', become one of us and like so many others before you, may just wonder what you've been missing all your life.