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


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.


Download (PDF, Unknown)

3 replies on “Multiple Acts of Birding: PhD Research”

I discovered your dissertation the other day, after reading the abstract for your paper in Environmental Education Research.

I just thought you might want to know that there are multiple acts of birding taking place in my backyard, all inspired by a very late and very comfusing hummingbird. We have a very interesting mix of participants, from kids in the nieghborhood through birders and bird banders to professional scientists. You can read the short version here:

And follow all the debates here:
and here:

Eric Gyllenhaal

Thanks for the comment Eric and the links. Fascinating stuff. First, a congratulations to Ethan for his attention to the hummingbird at the feeder; I enjoyed reading Aaron’s observations on the bird’s behaviour. Those vagrants (especially so late in the season) always seem to excite. Love that you left the feeder up; glad people are getting a chance to see the bird. The conversation on the forum is such a rich case study!

I think the one post in the discussion that was brought up–that the hummingbird is likely to die given its location and the time of year–is particularly interesting given all the work and discussion around deciding if its a broad-tailed or not (including the banding and the DNA collection). You would obviously have the best idea here about what birders are saying when they’re visiting…are many talking about the possible demise of the bird? Or is the focus on just what species of Selasphorus it is?

A lot of the discussions about helping the bird survive are taking place off the forum. The first e-mail I got after my first post about the bird (on IBET, a listserve for Illinois birding) was from a rehabber in Illinois who wanted us to “rescue” the bird immediately and take it to her, where she could keep it over winter. I have also been in contact with a Chicago area wildlife rescue group (Flint Creek) who got me a supply of NEKTAR-plus, which is a diet for captive birds. Then, to figure out when and how to use the special diet, I’ve been communicating with a hummingbird specialist in Arizona (Sheri Williamson, who is also part of the ID discussion).

Most people on the Forum are familiar with recent cases of hummingbirds in Illinois/Wisconsin that survived for weeks or months before disappearing (not sure if they died or moved on). They also know about the Green Mango, a tropical hummingbird that survived for much of a late summer/fall in southern Wisconsin, before being rescued and taken in a Brookfield Zoo. So the assumption among the folks I know is that the hummer –whatever it is — will do OK for the time being, and that my family is making arrangements in case it stays a long time.

Of course, there is also a philosophical debate in the background about whether we should take special precautions for this bird or just let nature take its course. I’m leaning towards helping out without rescuing at this point. As part of this, I have to go replace the 4:1 sugar water that’s in our feeder now with stronger 3:1 solution that Sheri recommended for now.

More later,

P.S. While changing the sugar water I got into a discussion with an Illinois Beach State Park Hawkwatch volunteer, who told a story about a friend who helped a hummer survive an Illinois winter into January, when it took off right before a big storm hit. Her belief seemed to be that that hummer knew what it was doing. So, these thoughts are there even if folks talk more about other things.

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