But not counting the hours spent counting birds.
There’s an oft-repeated saying that apparently originates somewhere in Italy:
“Three things can never be counted. Years, lovers, and glasses of wine.”
I would add “hours spent looking out of the window watching birds” to that list, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near as catchy.
Birds themselves, though: birds should be counted.
Over the weekend, we took part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, diligently logging every perched avian visitor. Equipped with the birdwatcher’s arsenal of pen, paper, and binoculars, I peered through the glass for an hour.
Birdwatching is a uniquely quiet activity. Unlike other hobbies, it doesn’t require you to spend increasingly vast sums of money (although you certainly can if you want to dive down the binocular rabbit hole), it doesn’t require you to download any apps, make regular trips to the shop, and there’s no Big Birdwatching Company cranking up subscription prices every year.
I have written about the stillness of birdwatching before here, and perhaps it says more about the benefits of being away from a phone screen even for an hour but this weekend I found birdwatching just so … fulfilling.
Birdwatching is about being present. It’s about intention. It’s about attention. Every social media app has behind it an army of psychologists and designers working their hardest to hold your gaze for as long as humanly possible. To swipe, to tap, to consume. The benefits, for you, are negligible. The benefits, for them, are vast and financial. Birdwatching, if anything, is a stupendous middle finger to those social media billionaires.
Like a good book, or an art gallery, there is no hidden agenda or desperate attempt to monetise every second of your attention. You can spend as long or as little time as you feel comfortable engaging with what is in front of you. You can step away, reflect, come back, and it will all still be there waiting for you, without microtransactions or notifications or ads.
Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism, calls this the difference between slow leisure and fast leisure. Birdwatching does away with the instant dopamine spikes that you get from TikTok or Instagram, but the benefits are far longer lasting. How many people on their deathbeds would wish for more time scrolling through a sea of derivative content than spending time with fleeting moments of natural beauty?
But you came for results, didn’t you. The Big Tally. What did I see in my precious hour of looking at birds?
Bearing in mind our little patch of grass outside the flat gets some overspill from the wetlands, so is no doubt busier than a tree-less industrial park:
Great tit: 5
Long-tailed tit: 1
Ring-necked parakeet: 4
Blue tit: 3
Little grebe: 2
Great spotted woodpecker: 2
Grey heron: 1
And then some kind of big, brown, exciting bird of prey that shot down and along the river, sending every small bird and mammal within the vicinity scurrying.
The value of counting birds comes with the data that the RSPB will use to paint a picture of birdlife across the UK. If we’re lucky, numbers will be steady. In all likelihood it will show continued nationwide decline.
From there, conservation plans will be drawn up. Unambitious government policies will be criticised. The call to action will be strengthened, renewed, and environmentalists across the world will shout even louder for a world in which birds are given a voice, and a future in which an hour spent counting birds yields increasing numbers.
Susannah over at Cricklewood mentioned there was a big birdwatch equivalent in the US happening last week. Did you do any birdwatching at the weekend? What did you see? Let me know in the comments.
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