One for the birds: hobby that helps
For the members of the Shanghai Wild Bird Society (SWB), bird watching is not just a hobby, but a responsibility to document the city’s birds and educate the public.
For more than a decade, rain or shine, the avid twitchers have recorded the number of birds and species all around Shanghai, including some places not known even by many locals.
As a non-government organization, the SWB has assisted decision-makers and scientists and raised the awareness of environmental conservation.
How it started
Although Shanghai sits in the middle of the East Asian-Australian migration route and is a stopover for a large number of migratory birds twice a year, the city had a late start in developing its bird watching community.
Yao Li is one of the founding members of the SWB and also the director general of the organization.
“In 2002, some bird watching trips were organized by the East China Normal University, which invited bird watching volunteers to help with a field survey,” Yao recalls.
“At the same time, we learned more about bird watching development in Beijing and Shenzhen because they had started a few years earlier.”
The early Shanghai bird watchers wanted to form an organization to attract more people. Their initial platform was the regional site of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), on which a group of bird lovers started to organize events.
But it wasn’t easy to establish an independent organization back then. Eventually, the SWB became an affiliate of the Shanghai Wildlife Conservation Association. The president is Tang Sixian, ornithologist and processor at East China Normal University.
Yao and other twitchers worked on the project for two years. One of the founding members, Zhao Yanxia, who was a computer engineer, constructed the China Bird Report website (www.birdreport.cn) that allows anyone to submit data. Zhao maintained the website and provided the resources as a volunteer.
Although he didn’t participate much in various events and moved to Shenzhen later, that database is still being used today.
In the autumn of 2004, the SWB was officially launched and members divided the work because there was so much to do.
“I was the coordinator in charge of the general operations, we didn’t have a council until 2005 and apart from the dozen bird watchers we had, there also wasn’t a membership system, so the number grew quite slowly at first. Now we have around 150 active members,” says Yao.
What they do
All volunteers of SWB work in their free time. None work full-time or part-time at the organization. Yao himself is in the IT business.
Some of the members who are more experienced bird watchers are responsible for the monthly bird surveys in all key locations across Shanghai, which usually takes one day.
Some have been doing these field surveys for more than 10 years.
Among the wild bird societies across China, the SWB has conducted one of the longest non-stop surveys that accumulated data for the region’s bird research and monitoring.
“The bird surveys are ... mostly for helping the government make decisions regarding environmental projects and to help the universities,” says Yao. “Our real goal is to raise a voice for the protection of wild birds and their habitats, so more people will pay attention to these issues.”
To achieve the goals, every month the SWB organizes two bird watching tours in parks, one trip in the suburbs and one lecture.
“These events are highly sought-after,” Yao says. “We limit the number of participants to ensure everyone can have the best experience. Every time we post new events on our WeChat, the seats are filled within five to 10 minutes.”
In the early days, SWB did some wildlife rescue work because a lot of people would come to them when they found injured birds.
But they are not really equipped to handle such cases because of the limitations of space and professional help.
Since 2009, the SWB has trained guides for nature tours free of charge.
“New members join the SWB after attending our events,” says Yao. “Nature education has been growing quite fast in the past two years.
“About half of the people who are involved with nature education come from our workshops. Some have even made it a career.”
At the start of every year, the SWB releases an annual bird watching calendar so nature instructors can schedule trips accordingly.
In the public education sector, the SWB sometimes applies for funds to support short-term projects carried out by smaller teams. If a project has financial support, participants can receive some compensation.
Before social media became the primary communication tool, the SWB was based on an online forum (http://www.shwbs.org/swb/). The forum is still active but more people choose WeChat (shwbs2004) and Webo to share information.