I began birding when I was a schoolboy, but I didn’t admit it. Not after our teacher decided to hold a 'hobbies and pastimes' session one afternoon that was too wet and windy for cricket.
As each boy announced his preferred leisure activity, those in the class who shared it cheered and clapped. "Making balsa wood aeroplanes" was popular, there was a good contingent of conker players and almost a stadium full of Birmingham City supporters. When asked which football team he supported, the teacher's answer was: "The Throstles." West Bromwich Albion, aka the Baggies (no idea why), aka the Throstles.
No doubt I was the only one in class who knew that 'Throstle' was an ancient name for Mistle Thrush. I was about to impart this obscure knowledge to the class, but refrained since I would probably be accused of showing off. Little did I know that worse was to come. The teacher having disqualified football as a sport not a pastime, asked if anyone had what you might call an 'unusual hobby'.
This was my moment. "Me sir," I announced confidently. "Yes Oddie, and what is it?" "Birdwatching: I watch birds. I am a birdwatcher."
The modern birder is often decked out in camo gear and weighed down with tripod, scope and camera, which doesn't have the comedy value of matching tweed jackets (Steve Young / birdsonfilm.com).
One for the girls
There was an ominous silence, followed by sniggers from the boys, building to a cacophony of amusement and derision. When the teacher sympathetically attempted to recruit some kindred spirits to support me, he was shouted down by a reaction of "Birdwatching is for girlies, Sir!"
It certainly wasn't in the mid-1940s. In fact, I didn't see a female birder till north Norfolk in the late 1950s and, with respect, she certainly wasn't a 'girlie'. But the class wouldn't let it drop. They began to chant (at which they had lots of practice at the Saturday football): "Girlie, girlie!" This was usually directed at the referee, but this time it was at me.
"Ooh! He's BIRD watcher." Followed by the inevitable "Oi, Bill, I like birds." There was a chorus of "so do I"s, wolf whistles and lascivious "wahoohs!"
The teacher was too busy regaining control to offer any protection, or notice that I slipped out with a defiant glare, diluted a little by a trickle of tears. Quite likely it is because of this traumatic incident that, for quite a few years, I was a lone birder. Or maybe I just didn't encounter any kindred kids at the places I used to go. Concrete reservoirs, forbidden farms and muddy marshes were not desirable playgrounds to my classmates.
Over the years, though, I became aware that there was section of the birding community that held others almost in contempt. I shamelessly refer you to my Little Black Bird Book, which will supply further elucidation, and is illustrated by primitive cartoons of the predominant stereotypes of various kinds of birders: dudes, twitchers, serious birders and so on.
In days gone by, they were recognisable by their attire and equipment. There was a time when it wouldn't just have been my classmates who considered birders as figures of fun for no better reason than that they all wore the same uniform. There is much more variety these days, but in TV dramas and comedy, clichés and stereotypes are rife. Couples in matching anoraks and identical woolly hats. Wearing your binoculars swinging down by your waist.
The modern birder carries bins, scope, tripod, camera, huge lenses and a smartphone packed with apps that tells you rarity news from every part of the globe. These are signs of the times, bewilderingly impressive, but not a patch on the amusement value of a tweed jacket, deer stalker, haversack, scarf and hip flask of Scotch whisky. Modern birders look as if they are going into battle. Actually, I suspect the schoolboys who mocked me would be fascinated.
- This column was originally published in the July 2019 issue of Birdwatch magazine.