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Articles - Grumpy old men?

Mark Cocker
Mark Cocker

Mark Cocker - Posted on 08 Feb 2011

“Guess what?” my daughter Rachael asked recently, a look of feigned horror on her face. “The article we had to look at in English was taken from a birdwatching magazine!” In preparation for her language A-level the teachers choose a piece of modern journalism and then have the class analyse the writing to examine issues of approach, the social attitudes it reveals and what the content might imply about the authors and their assumed readership.

The most troubling part for her birding father was the reported response by all those year 13 students to the question: “So who do you think this magazine is aimed at?” Unanimously they had the readership down as middle aged, possibly retired, a bit boring, with time on their hands and little to do.

Before you agonise over which title she had been looking at, I think there is a more fundamental question to consider. For me the critical revelation was the way in which, for young people, the idea of someone’s engagement with the natural world still elicits a mixture of embarrassment and sharp personal distance from the activity, if not outright rejection and ridicule.

What makes this particularly significant is a perception that modern teenagers are much more liberal and accepting on questions, for instance, of sexual and racial identity. Despite this deeper social tolerance among young people, there was very little of it on show for the poor old birders.

It suggests that some things haven’t changed at all since I started birding in the 1970s, when it was a part of my own survival strategy to seal off from public knowledge the extent to which I spent time looking at birds. I had birding friends at school but there was an unconscious code among us that we keep the interest closeted.

When I was writing my book, Birders, I interviewed dozens of people, including some in their late sixties, and was fascinated to find that my insecurity had a much longer pedigree. The fear of being labelled a birder hasn’t really changed in 60 years. Perhaps it is something we’ll always have to endure.

So what is different today? One critical development I notice is the almost total absence of representatives of my childhood self from today’s countryside. In the last 20 years I cannot recall seeing a teenager birdwatching by themselves.

Britain’s deep collective anxiety about paedophilia has devastated the possibility of solitary activity for children. It means that there are no young people of my daughter’s generation wending their way through a self-motivated childhood of observation and intimate encounter with nature to a point where they have highly developed field skills. It means that one whole route to becoming what the grand old man of birds, Ian Wallace, would call ‘purposeful observers’ has been shut down completely.

Before we start to fear for the whole future of birding, we should perhaps recognise that things have changed, but not necessarily for the worse. The statistics suggest that there is no shortage of children willing to brave the social stigma of their bird interests. If anything there has been a massive increase in birding since my own childhood. The RSPB Wildlife Explorers now number 190,000 and that figure is growing all the time. Even more encouraging are the 40,000 members of the RSPB Phoenix, the branch that caters specifically for those in their late childhood. These young people are not passive members. They are choosing their interest. They have an annual conference to which twice as many apply as there are places. They even write their own magazine, Wingbeat.

Derek Niemann, a man at the heart of this youth culture, editor of Birdlife and Wingbeat, finds it difficult to generalise about what kind of person makes a RSPB Phoenix member. However, they tend to be sophisticated in their use of technology to learn about birds, if less willing and able to make personal observations in the field. They find new ways to network with one another through channels like Facebook.

They have generally travelled more widely than anyone in my own childhood. Rather curiously, while they may have seen birds in Australia or India, they are often less experienced when it comes to things in this country, such as the classic Scottish specialities. The British birder who has seen a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo before a Scottish Crossbill is an interesting phenomenon.

However, one anecdote, which suggests how some things never change, concerns the 18-year-old Phoenix member who was so frightened to tell his girlfriend that he was into birds that he used to sneak off to do it in secret. She couldn’t work it out, but assumed he was seeing someone else.

In many ways most fascinating of Derek’s suggestions is his last: that this new well-heeled, media-savvy, globally travelled modern young birder tends to see twitching as a somewhat passé activity pursued by old people. Now there is an intriguing change in bird culture. (By old, incidentally, the new birding generation is probably thinking of anyone over 30!). If that is the case, then maybe my daughter’s English class are not too wide of the mark when they identified the readers of that bird magazine as dull and middle-aged. Perhaps common birds are really the young person’s new black.

RSPB Phoenix
Birding isn’t just for middle-aged men: RSPB Phoenix members at a recent Climate Question Time event at the Houses of Parliament. Photo by Grahame Madge (


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