A Vagrant European Robin Is Drawing Huge Crowds in China

The rarity popped up at the Beijing Zoo earlier this month, revealing a booming Chinese birding scene.

What’s the big birding buzz in Beijing right now? It’s all about a robin.

A European Robin, only the third one ever recorded in the Chinese capital, is wintering on the landscaped grounds of the Beijing Zoo. It might have been present for weeks, but it didn’t catch the attention of birders until January 8. Since then it has drawn hundreds of admirers and has been featured on China State Television’s international website. The celebrity treatment has helped to highlight the rapidly growing popularity of birding in China.

The European Robin—a perky, orange-chested sprite—is much smaller than the American Robin, and it's classified in a different family, the Old World flycatchers and chats. One of the most familiar birds all across Europe, it is common in gardens and popular on Christmas Cards. It’s especially associated with Britain, where it was named the national bird by an informal poll in 2015. When the robin showed up in Beijing, some locals joked that it had flown there to escape the political upheaval in the U.K., calling it a “Brexit refugee.” Actually it’s quite unlikely that this individual flew all the way from Britain; the robin’s breeding range extends as far east as central Russia, and it winters regularly as far east as Kazakhstan. Still, the one in Beijing was probably at least 1,500 miles east of its normal range, enough of a rarity to excite any dedicated birder.

Though the sighting is certainly remarkable, perhaps the biggest news is that such dedicated birders exist in China, and in such numbers. In the 1990s, I spent a month at Beidaihe, a migration hotspot that is one of China’s most famous birding sites, and several days around Beijing. At Beidaihe, every birder I met was from Europe or North America. In Beijing, as I admired the Azure-winged Magpies flying around the grounds of the zoo, not a single person stopped to look at uncaged birds.

Today the situation is different. As reported on the blog Birding Beijing, hundreds of people have been coming out every day to get a glimpse or a photo of the visiting robin. The crowds of birders rival those that have come out to see some recent rare birds in the United States—like the notorious Mandarin Duck in Central Park, or the Great Black Hawk in Maine. Birding has definitely arrived on the scene in China.

Terry Townshend, a British conservationist living and working in China, has run the Birding Beijing website since 2010. When I asked him for some background on the hobby’s growth, he told me in an email that China has no national birding organizations but that local ones are on the rise. In the year 2000, there were only three such groups, including a long-established bird club in Hong Kong. By 2016, there were more than 40 local birdwatching societies spread over the eastern two-thirds of China. Membership is growing rapidly. By the end of 2018 the Beijing Birdwatching Society had 527 members, up from about 300 three years earlier. Townshend added, “There are many birders in Beijing who are not members of the society, too. So the real number of birders in the city will be significantly higher.”

“In addition to the numbers,” Townshend wrote, “another aspect that surprises me is the demography of birders in China.  There are many women (I would judge possibly more women than men, although that is not confirmed by robust surveys) and also I often see families going birding.” This bodes well for the hobby’s growth as a mainstream activity.

The increasing interest in birds and nature in the world’s most populous country has to be viewed as a positive. More than 1,300 bird species have been recorded in China, including many long-distance migrants that rely on stopover habitat in the country as they travel to points as distant as Africa, Australia, and Alaska. As more Chinese citizens take up birding, there will be more public support for major conservation measures, such as the government’s 2018 decision to sharply curtail coastal development along the Yellow Sea to protect the environment—good news for the vast numbers of shorebirds that pause there during migration.

And as more people go birding, they’re likely to find more rare vagrant birds. Indeed, the European Robin this month capped off a whole year’s worth of newsworthy finds in the Beijing region. What exciting avian visitor will show up next? A growing community of active birders will be exploring that question all over China.

Kenn Kaufman is a world-renowned birder, environmentalist, and author. He is a field editor for Audubon, and his online column, Kenn Kaufman's Notebook, features original artwork and essays by Kaufman.