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The Rise of Birding in China

This is a post about birding in China. But, first, I have a few remarks of a decidedly parochial and personal nature. Bear with me, please; I’m going somewhere with this.

When I started birding in Pittsburgh in the early 1980s, I was made aware of a supposedly important geographical distinction: the 11-county region of southwestern Pennsylvania vs. the 8-county region of northwestern Pennsylvania. It wasn’t just an ornithological distinction (rare gulls up north, invading southern species down south); it was also, I perceived, something of a cultural distinction (the “establishment” down south, the “colonies” up north).

In due course, I became aware of a grander distinction: all of western Pennsylvania vs. the Philadelphia region vs. the great middle of the commonwealth. Then a much grander distinction: “East Coast” birding (especially Atlantic Seaboard birding) vs. “West Coast” birding (especially the California school). In due course, I came to appreciate the problem of “coastalism”: Birding is practiced somewhat differently in the interior than along the coasts. More recently, there has been healthy debate—here at The ABA Blog and in other forums—about birding and birders in the ABA Area relative to the whole rest of the Americas.

It’s a big place, the Americas. But check this out. There are fewer human beings—far fewer—in the entirety of the western hemisphere than there are in just a single Asian country: the People’s Republic of China.


Chinese birding pioneer Jia Zhong. Photo by (c) Jianyang Lin.

Fine, but what’s that got to do with birding? Answer: Everything. Birding is catching on like crazy in China. We first reported on Chinese birding in the March/April 2006 issue of Birding. Jianyang Lin’s article, “Getting Serious About Birding in China” (pp. 54–59), available as a free PDF download from the ABA website, tells the story of how modern birding came to be in China. At the time, I sensed an air of excitement and uncertainty in Lin’s article: Can it really be? Is birding destined to be the next big thing in China?

Guess what happened?


Writing in the July/August 2013 Birding, coauthors Yu Shrike Zhang and Ming Lei provide us with a thorough accounting of what’s been happening with Chinese birding in the past decade. The genie is out of the bottle. The birding bug has afflicted China.

Senior author Zhang is well acquainted with the American birding scene, having lived and birded here for quite some time. He and Lei chronicle “The Rise of Birding in Mainland China” (pp. 36–43), available as a free download from the ABA site, in a manner that is sensitive to both the similarities and differences between the American (sensu lato) and Chinese birding cultures.

Maybe the following sentiment is hopelessly ethnocentric, but I have to say I’m struck much more by the similarities between “them” and “us” than I am by the differences. Read the article, please, and tell me if you disagree.


Birding in China. Photo by (c) Yu Shrike Zhang.

One thing’s for sure. There sure are a lot of “them.” They’re starting up tour companies and birding clubs, they’re working to save bird populations and habitats, they’re keeping lists and holding friendly competitions, and there’s every indication that their numbers and influence are surging.

It’s hard for me to imagine that “The Rise of Birding in Mainland China” isn’t going to have consequences for us in the Americas. Even if Chinese birders bird like us (ethnocentric alert!), there have to be some bigger cultural differences—with regard to ethics, aesthetics, and so forth. As Chinese birding continues to catch on, we in the Americas are going to be affected—much for the better, I strongly suspect.


I like the New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman. It’s not that I always agree with him. Rather, I like how Friedman encourages us to think outside the box. There’s a natural tendency for us to focus on the familiar. For newspaper journalists, that might mean the U.S. stock market, the Middle East, and the missteps and misstatements of Hollywood celebrities. But Friedman’s always going on about some subtle yet major development in China, India, or Brazil.

Maybe Friedman’s analysis is a bit off, or even thoroughly wrong. Time will tell. But I admire him, nevertheless, for venturing into unfamiliar, yet likely very important, realms. If Friedman were a Birding author, he’d have been all over the Chinese angle.

What are some of the looming issues for birding in the Americas in the twenty-first century? With a little help from my friends—Jianyang Lin, Yu Shrike Zhang, Ming Lei, and, oh, I should mention Pete Dunne (see p. 56 in Lin’s article)—I’ve come to expect big things coming out of Chinese birding. What else? What do you think?


The ABA 2038 Bird of the Year. Photo by (c) DeVerm-Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s gaze into our crystal balls. It’s 2038. The ABA Bird of the Year is the Southern Lapwing. (The 2037 Bird of the Year was the South Hills Crossbill.) We’re looking back at the events of 2013, a generation earlier. We’re reflecting on all the exciting currents of that earlier generation—ones that are obvious with our mid-century hindsight, but that few birders saw at the time.

Except for those brave few who ventured some thoughts right here at The ABA Blog, in 2013, while it was all happening.

Have at it!

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

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  • Sterling60

    I visited southern China in 1985 and met up with an old guard government ornithologist. He took me birding to a few locations for a few days and back in the museum, he introduced me to a couple of younger ornithologists (about my age) who seemed primed to get into birding. But the time wasn’t right for such endeavors, so I am very pleased that with better infrastructure, and a different economic, social and political climate, the time is ripening for the growth of birding in China. With more awareness of birds, there will be more conservation awareness and action to protect them.

    John Sterling

    • Andy Boyce

      I love the optimism in the article, but having spent some time birding in China (2 months only) in Sichuan, Qinghai, and Xinjiang, there is a loooong way to go. Moving around as a foreigner in western china is an absolute nightmare if you are traveling independently. I’ve been thrown out of more hotels in China than I’ve ever stayed in inside the US. I’ve also been arrested for just walking around on private land I had permission to bird on and hauled 3 hours away into the local station for “friendly inquiry”. I suspect things are different in eastern China, and even Sichuan was relatively easy compared to areas farther west. That said, potential travelers should be aware that China is still very much China of recent memory, and your rights there are essentially whatever the local PSB (Public Security Bureau decides they are. It’s an amazing place, with some unbelievable birds and birders. I hope that someday the political practices that make it a tough place to be see some sort of liberalizing change. Fingers crossed that birds and birding are one of the many vehicles by which this change occurs!

      Andy Boyce

  • Jeff

    I’ve birded quite a few times in China and my experience is that birding in the “western” sense is not catching on at all. What really seems to be catching on in China is digital photography of birds. And more than passively observing the birds they actively damage the habitat in order to get the bird to sit on the perfect perch for the perfect photo. And while waiting en masse for that photo, they create piles of litter that’s simply tossed where they sit with no consideration for the impact of that either.

    So while there may be a few conservationists, sadly the majority of “birders” in China do more harm than good.

    • Morgan Churchill

      That is similar to the scene I experienced in Japan as well. Now there are birders in the US sense, but many (most?) of the birders are more interested in photography. Their is less sharing of information on rarities (for fear that someone else will photograph “their” birds). Also many Japanese birders are not interested in identification, just taking photos. While I have only ever been in Japan, I have heard this is similar to other countries in E Asia besides China.

      • fm5050

        Regarding Jeff and Moragn’s posts, something similar is happening in India. I just read about this today on a photography blog that I follow. At least there are some local folks concerned about this and quantifying its effects. I am not aware of similar studies done in the US but I am sure there are a few out there. See:

    • Judith Carr

      After living beside Lake Tai Hu near Wuxi for three months in 2003, walking the Yellow MT’s, boating the Li River, traveling from Shanghai to Harbin, spending time in Qingdao I pretty much decided there are not many birds in China. When the tide went out in Qingdao I was looking forward to the gulls but all there was was people gathering the starfish, snails and whatever moved to sell or eat.
      I still love China and the people there.

  • david

    When in Hong Kong, please visit the Crested Bulbul Club ( They are extremely knowledgeable and friendly people who lead free birding trips in Kowloon and Hong Kong Park, then wrap up with great dimsum. They also let me into the Mai Po nature preserve, which was (at the time) very hard to get a permit for.

  • Rick Wright

    “What really seems to be catching on … is digital photography of birds.” According to the comments here, that’s the case in China, in Japan, in India. And I don’t doubt it. What I do doubt is that that is somehow different from the case here in the US: in North America, too, “birders in the US sense” are increasingly, massively outnumbered by people who understand birding as the taking of photographs, without the historical emphasis on identification (or even any interest in identification). Five years ago, I would have suggested that the integration of all those picture-takers into the birding community was a looming issue, but I think it’s long since finished looming and has passed us by. The focus on photography, like it or not, rather unites us with birders in China and Japan and India than distinguishes us.

    • Ted Floyd

      For sure, “all those picture-takers” are changing the way we bird, both individually and corporately. And I share Rick Wright’s sense that a focus on photography unites us with birders in China and elsewhere.

      But is the “historical emphasis on identification” being supplanted by photography? Here are two personal reflections:

      1. I almost never photograph birds, but I do from time to time photograph insects. If my photo is of a butterfly, I’ll probably consult a field guide; if it’s of a moth, maybe; but if it’s of anything else, I’ll email the photo to an entomologist friend and get an answer. And, to be honest, even in the case of butterflies, I may well simply email the photo for an ID, as opposed to figuring it out on my own in a field guide.

      2. As I said, I don’t photograph birds, but I sure do make lots of sound recordings of them. Then I look at the sound spectrograms (digital images, with pixels and such, just as with my insect photos) and ponder what I was hearing out there. Whether it’s appreciating the complexity of a House Sparrow’s song or trying to learn Spizella sparrow flight calls, there is, for me, a fundamental “emphasis on identification.”

      At times, I confess, I pine away for the good old days, when alls we had were our eyes, our ears, a pencil, and a little notebook. We’d sketch a butterfly, we’d transliterate a song; we’d trot off to the nearest library or museum; we’d consult with our elders; we’d learn ID.


      The thing is, I’m learning more these days than ever before. I’m getting better with butterflies; I’m getting better with flight calls; I’m getting better with S&D (“status and distribution”). To some extent, I’m still applying old-fashioned methods: I crack open an insect ID guide at least daily at this time of the year; I’m constantly referring to the early 20th-century and even late 19th-century literature on bird vocalizations; and I consult my S&D books more than ever. But I’m also taking photos of insects, making recordings of flight calls, and poring over eBird range maps.

      The “historical emphasis on identification” is still there, I think. In China, as in the U.S., birders depend on print field guides (Zhang and Lei are emphatic on this point), universities (Lin’s article, in particular, explores this angle), and museums (see the photo in the July/August Birding of Chinese ornithologists at a banding station in Pennsylvania). In China, as in the U.S., they’re all picture-takers, it seems, these days. And in China and the U.S., I would say, we maintain a strong interest in identification.

      A final thought. Yes, technology, e.g., photography, can make us dumber. We photograph a bird, we email the photo to an expert, we’re informed of the bird’s ID, we tick it, we thoughtlessly move on. But haven’t we always been that way?– Back in the day, we “looked it up in the book” or “asked the leader,” we were informed of the bird’s ID, we ticked it, we moved on. I think there were lazy and undisciplined birders in the old days, and I think there’re lazy and undisciplined birders today. The converse, also: Back in the old days, there were birders committed to learning about ID, just as there are today.

      Good discussion. Thanks, everybody.

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