A Bird in the Bush, by Stephen Moss

A bird's-eye view of how twitching took off
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The Independent Culture

On 7 February 1989, a birdwatcher called Paul Doherty went out to post a letter near his home in Maidstone, Kent, and stumbled across something remarkable: a golden-winged warbler, a beautiful vagrant songbird from North America, and the first ever seen in Britain. He released the news to Birdline, a fledgling bird-spotting service, and next day 3,000 birders turned up to see it.

On 7 February 1989, a birdwatcher called Paul Doherty went out to post a letter near his home in Maidstone, Kent, and stumbled across something remarkable: a golden-winged warbler, a beautiful vagrant songbird from North America, and the first ever seen in Britain. He released the news to Birdline, a fledgling bird-spotting service, and next day 3,000 birders turned up to see it.

This was the moment when the strange reality of "twitching" burst upon the British public. The spectacle of 3,000 binocular-bearing anoraks charging like Yukon goldminers to the Tesco car park in whose bushes Vermivora chrysoptera had taken to disporting itself filled the newspapers and TV news.

The social and technological changes which combined to facilitate such a curious assembly are Stephen Moss's theme in this history of British birdwatching. His exposition is novel, comprehensive, and entertaining. He gives birdwatching a start date: 1789, the year of the publication of The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White. For thousands of years, people had regarded birds as food, as deities, as omens, as sporting requisites and as scientific curiosities. The Hampshire village parson was the first to talk at length about watching them for sheer pleasure.

His enthusiasm caught on, but for a century took a peculiarly English and aristocratic form: collecting. Victorian gentlemen bird-lovers expressed their love by shooting birds (the rarer the better), having them stuffed, and collecting their eggs. Not until the two decades before the First World War did a great change come about, precipitated by the 1894 manufacture of the first effective prismatic binoculars (anorak note: 8x20s, by Carl Zeiss of Jena.)

This made "sight-records" possible (corpses had previously been necessary for certain identification). Much else followed: the first bird ringing (1899), the first bird counts (1900), the first use of the specific term "bird watching" (1901), and the first monthly magazine, British Birds.

Modern birdwatching grew steadily in popularity for half a century with better books, optics and mobility. From the 1960s, it seemed to surge again as the competitive obsession with twitching took off (a term first in print in 1972, meaning to add the sight of a rare bird to one's list). The communications revolution of the late 1980s, with alert services such as Birdline, pagers and mobile phones, made the mass twitch such a spectacle that the country sat up and took notice.

That's how it came to pass. But why do they do it. Moss grapples extensively with the birding urge, but never quite gives a convincing explanation. That, in the end, is part of the charm of the book, like a mystery story with the solution left hanging in the air.

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