How guns, cameras, binoculars and smartphones have changed birdwatching

A yellow-throated toucan. Photo: Zdenek Machacek/Unsplash

  • Heavily mediated by digital technologies, birdwatching in the 21st century is very different from what it has been before.
  • Such disruptive changes are not confined to this century: binoculars, for example, announced “sighting” instead of the then normal hunt.
  • Today, many birdwatchers watch and learn about birds on their screens – via social media platforms, YouTube, etc. – even if some remain skeptical about the disconnection with nature.

Anyway, Mother Eagle and my mother are related. My mother donated money to the bird research organization… She learns the rituals and habits of care via other species… Without doing the physical experimental connection with bird watching, my mother observes birds and continues to take care of birds.

This is Ola Wilk Branas telling the story of his mother looking at a female bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in Iowa. She keeps track of every activity of this bird on her Instagram Live, sitting at her home in Chicago. Ola’s mother is not alone. Many people interested in bird watching use their cell phones and laptops for bird watching. Many go through thousands of images every day. This is a new kind of birdwatching that doesn’t need binoculars, but smartphones and high-speed internet.

Highly mediated by digital technologies, this is what birdwatching looks like in the 21st century. Technological innovations have profoundly changed our view of nature as a whole. Birdwatching is now done with binoculars, spotting scopes and electronic copies of bird books on smartphones. From guns to binoculars and cameras to smartphones, the history of birdwatching is fascinating. Technology has not only revolutionized birdwatching: it has also transformed our relationship with nature.

Collection to watch

Before the invention of binoculars, birdwatching was largely practiced as a hobby known as “collecting”. Shooting birds and collecting their eggs was then a common practice. It wasn’t until much later that bird ‘watching’ consisted solely of ‘watching and observing’ birds, using binoculars and, later, cameras.

Early European visitors to India brought back large collections of bird skins and eggs as novelties. The practice of bird watching is believed to have originated with the collection of eggs and skins. Until the 19th century, egg collecting was a popular pastime among bird lovers, and the discussion of bird eggs was always a hot topic in ornithological journals. As the famous ornithologist Salim Ali wrote in his autobiography:

“Most of the people who contributed to the study of birds in India were foreigners who had grown up in their home country with knowledge of birds – if only as ‘egg-collecting schoolboys’ – before coming to India.”

Many of them took sport shooting and natural history as serious hobbies to collect bird skins and eggs. Similarly, in the United States, bird watching has its roots in bird hunting. John James Audubon, the famous bird conservation icon, had a fascination with bird hunting. He wrote“I would like to have eight pairs of hands and another body to shoot the specimens.”

Firearms have played an important role in the history of ornithology and birdwatching. Collecting eggs and birds for taxidermy was part of the shoot. This led to discoveries of rare birds. Allan Octave Hume, founder of the Indian National Congress and also known as the “Pope” of Indian Ornithology, together with his team collected birds from all over the Indian subcontinent. Salim Ali’s interest in birds began when he shot a bird and identified it as a yellow-throated sparrow (Gymnoris xanthocollis). Ali was also known as “environmentalist with a gun“.

pull to watch

Seen only with the naked eye, they look like a bunch of light brown spots moving across a dark brown field. With a pair of binoculars, or better, a telescope, they resolve themselves into about fifty discreet birds feeding in a muddy tidal zone.

Jeffrey Karnicky writes thus on the red nodes (Calidris canutus) and the importance of binoculars. They are now an integral part of bird watchers. Originally made for military surveillancethe breakthrough in binoculars came with the invention of the compact prismatic system, and the subsequent imposition of conservation laws replaced rifles with binoculars.

In 1901, Kodak launched the “Box Brownie”, which cost one dollar and thus manufactured cameras available to many. Since then, cameras have come a long way. Today, companies like Sony, Canon, and Nikon have invented sophisticated digital cameras and lenses for wildlife photography. In 2020, Swarovski Optic developed a digital guidea device that connected to personal devices such as smartphones and tablets and was equipped with a bird identification app.

Birders these days use DSLR cameras to scan and click on birds, then zoom in on the images to identify them. Smartphones broadcast songs and images of birds, including whole books. Sharing bird images is now much easier with various social media platforms. Therefore, it’s no surprise that birdwatchers use these platforms, and WhatsApp, in myriad ways.

In the second half of the 20th century, telephones and pagers also played an interesting role in birdwatching. When phones weren’t affordable to everyone, people used those in cafes in the UK, according to Stephen Moss. Specifically, they used the “Telephone Tree Network” to share information about new birds.

When they spot a rare bird, given its vulnerability, it is possible to limit the dissemination of information about it. The invention of pagers led to the Bird Information Service UK. Moreover, this service has adopted different means of communication like magazines, SMS and web pages. Technological innovations such as telecommunications and the Internet have brought major changes to the communication system within the birdwatching community.

On-screen bird watching

Many, like Wilk-Branas’ mother, subscribe to websites and YouTube channels that broadcast live images and videos of birds. the Cornell Ornithology Lab offers several webcams on its website, actively transmitting images and videos from different countries. Likewise, BirdCAMs.liveYouTube channels like Nature-Tec, Wild Nordic Zoom and Bird Watching HQ carry pictures of birds and their activities. Some have installed cameras in their gardens and backyards with feeders near the cameras.

The on-screen birdwatching groups are both amateur and professional. Thanks to technological innovation, birdwatchers around the world can also connect with each other. is a checklist-based project that began in 2002 at Cornell Lab and the National Audubon Society in the United States. Birdwatchers participate by uploading their sightings and checklists. E-birds uses data from all continents to create graphs, maps and analysis tools.

Research institutes, including the National Center for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, as well as organizations and NGOs also document bird data through public participation.

During the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown, online birdwatching has kept birdwatchers connected to birds. Smartphones and computer monitors, with the help of the Internet, have allowed bird watchers to pursue their hobby relatively uninterrupted.

However, some avid birders do not consider this method a legitimate alternative to field birding. One of their criticisms is that people are missing out on the outdoor experience – hiking, exploring, looking for birds. While this is a threat that technology continues to impose on our lives in various ways, it must be appreciated that it has also inspired more people to bird watch.

Ambika Aiyadurai is a faculty member at IIT Gandhinagar and teaches Anthropology and Environment. Yogesh Patil earned a Masters in Sustainable Development from TISS Guwahati.