Multiple Acts of Birding: PhD Research

Doctoral research in environmental education, environmental ethics and animal studies investigating how birding connects and separates birders from the more-than-human world.

The Education, Ontology and Ethics of Bird Watching in Ontario.

Chickadee on Feeder
Creative Commons License photo credit: likeaduck

Abstract

While bird watching has captured the attention of those interested in fostering an experiential connection to the more-than-human, research conducted to date often assumes birding to be a heterogeneous act. As an example of free-choice learning, this work positions birding as a kind of environmental education, thus opening this popular activity to analysis missing from the literature thus far. Rather than a singular act, this investigation sees birding as a multiple, ontological object. As a result, the practices of field birding, backyard birding and bird rescue were studied with the goal of describing the relationship between practices and birders’ perspectives of and relationships with wild birds. Influenced by actor-network theory, a method assemblage was developed using multiple sources of data, including: semi-structured interviews analysed using a modified grounded theory approach; field journals analysed with a naturalist autoethnography lens; and photographs analysed using a spatially and personally contextualized approach.

This research shows that birding often starts with a curious person observing a bird’s presence and then trying to identify the species. While awareness and knowledge of natural phenomena can assist in the identification of a bird, when the observation of an individual becomes a record of a species the act of identification marks a reductive moment between birders and birds. Ornithology, technology and birding are deeply intertwined. Yet, their influence on practice often goes unrecognized. In the emergent move to digital objects in birding, images, rather than birds, risk becoming the epistemological object. The influence of place on the construction of birds’ visibility and value is investigated. As a result of the lens of home place, birds in the backyard are rendered differently than in the field, with some included in backyard birder’s social sphere. Bird rescuers enact yet another relationship with birds, one where care is the primary concern and a focus on identification to species falls to the periphery. Ultimately, as a counter to instrumental and anthropocentric constructions of nature fostered by certain enactments of birding, reflexive birding is offered as an example of practice, which promises to foster awareness of birders’ connections to the deeply material lives of birds.

Research Objects

Digital objects created from my dissertation research, available for downloading and exploration.

Doctoral Research Proposal

Read the original dissertation proposal and précis.

Dissertation

Download (PDF, 2.12MB)