Javier Caletrío Says It’s Time for Birders to Move Away from High-Carbon Birding

A new book ‘Low-Carbon Birding’ challenges birders to give up air travel and twitching and instead enjoy their local species.
The book cover of Low-Carbon Birding, an illustration of a woman lying on a beach with a bicycle and binoculars and birds flying overhead.
Photo: Courtesy of Pelagic Publishing

Until 2011, Javier Caletrío considered his lifestyle to be fairly sustainable. The England-based birder and sustainability researcher travelled mainly by bus and train, though allowed himself flights and overseas travel for family and business. But after watching a presentation about how carbon pollution is warming the planet, he realized that his actions fell short. 

Caletrío was particularly distressed by the climate impact of his birding hobby. He came to recognize that his desire to see wild birds could actually hurt them. “In the midst of a climate crisis we cannot carry on celebrating forms of enjoying birds that depend on such an intensive use of fossil fuels,” he says.

So, he decided to commit to a lower-carbon lifestyle. He decreased annual trips to visit family in Spain—traveling only by public transportation when he did visit—and began attending conferences virtually. And his birding became “informed explicitly by a conscious decision to minimise the burning of fossil fuels,” Caletrío says. In his younger years, he would drive 50 to 200 kilometers to chase birds. Now he travels only by bus, train, or foot, and focuses on birding locally in his neighborhood.

The changes weren’t easy, but they felt right. He decided his next best step would be to talk more openly about birdwatching and climate change. In a 2018 article for British Birds, he recommended shifting birding’s culture to one that acknowledges the climate crisis. His article received positive reception, and its distribution on Twitter helped unite birders also trying to make their pastime more climate-friendly. Caletrio launched a website where he invited individuals to share their experiences. These writings inspired the book Low-Carbon Birding, a collection of essays written by birders—from newcomers to professional ornithologists. It was published in the United States in October 2022 and edited by Caletrío.

Taken together, the writings in Low-Carbon Birding encourage birders to reconsider the way they practice their hobby in the accelerating climate emergency. The authors share their own stories, offering a manual for cutting carbon emissions interwoven with poetic waxing on birds and the habitats they frequent. Each writer takes a unique approach, but one message is universal: To conserve birds, birders should learn to appreciate their local species. Though Low-Carbon Birding is written primarily from a European perspective, the general advice applies no matter where you live.

In the book, Caletrío argues that stopping or minimizing travel in gas-guzzling cars and long-distance flights is the best way to prevent harm to birds due to birding. Transportation makes up 14 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions, and traveling to bird by any means other than self-power contributes to that through burning carbon-costly fossil fuels. The subsequent warming climate is already altering bird habitat and food, with more changes anticipated in the future: More than two-thirds of North American species face extinction risk in the next century due to the climate crisis, according to a 2019 National Audubon Society study.

Birders contribute meaningfully to those emissions, creating present and future risks for birds. Many bird enthusiasts accumulate at least a few car-miles on weekends, and maybe take a longer trip to attend a birding festival or visit a more distant park once or twice a year. Other birders embrace twitching: hopping in a car or plane for an impromptu trip when a rare bird is reported, often a beloved rite of passage or way of life. For those who list seriously or compete to set a record, birding travel can amount to 10s or 100s of thousands of miles of carbon emissions annually.

As a challenge, for example, some birders undertake a Big Year, an informal competition to identify as many bird species as possible within a single calendar year and geographic area. In 2013 Neil Hayward, a Big Year champ, traveled 200,000 miles by plane and 50,000 miles by car to see 749 birds. “Activities like the Big Year or competitive world bird listing are increasingly looking out of touch with reality,” Caletrío says.

Portrait of Javier Caletrío.
Javier Caletrío sees birding as a pathway for reducing carbon emissions. Photo: Courtesy of Pelagic Publishing

Steve Dudley, the chief operations officer for the British Ornithologists’ Union and contributor to Low-Carbon Birding, used to travel 60,000 miles per year for birding. In the last 12 years, he committed to local birding in marshlands near his house—an important step for him to walk the talk, he writes. His annual mileage dropped to 5,000. He continued to adjust, slashing international travel and shrinking his local birding area. Twitter conferences replaced in-person meetings, and recently he and his wife decided to forgo all international travel. (He also forfeited his season tickets, and the 7,500 car miles, to Manchester United soccer matches.) For Dudley, these initial losses transformed into gains. “We feel richer for doing so and appreciate our local environments and its wildlife much more because of our renewed focus on it,” he writes.

The switch to low-carbon birding may feel like a huge sacrifice initially. Forgoing twitching might sting, especially when hearing about other birders’ chases. The book contributors describe the loss of forgoing the chance to see a new lifer or declining international conferences. But the shock of the transition fades, they write.

Like Dudley, other essayists also discovered new pleasures in everyday birds. For Nick Moran, a training manager for the British Trust for Ornithology, driving and flying to pursue birds was central to his hobby during the 1990s and 2000s. But growing concern for the environment fueled his transition to what’s known as "patch birding," a regular practice of watching and counting birds at the same location day after day, week after week. “One of the most satisfying aspects of observing the behavior of local birds is experiencing the changes through the seasons: a murmuration of starlings circling over a frosty reedbed on a winter’s evening; a flock of sand martins feeding low over the water in early spring,” he writes. Ben Sheldon, an ornithologist at Oxford University who has studied birds locally in England for decades, learned to honor other kinds of avian diversity: “There is diversity in behavior, in individual lives, in parasites, songs, learning, social relationships and genes, all of which occur in great diversity among those species that we find around us.”

Low-carbon birding can also yield unexpected peace. Jonathan Dean, three-time winner of the British Bird magazine’s Young Ornithologist of the Year award, jumped into birding at age nine. Listing birds consumed his waking energy and each untallied bird filled him with anxiety. When he switched to local, lower-carbon birding activities, that birding-induced stress dissipated, he writes. 

One of the biggest hurdles to lower-carbon birding is logistics. Hopping in a car is easier than biking to a train station, riding the train, and then biking to a park. That’s why it’s important to give yourself flexibility, writes birder Maria Scullion, and not hold yourself to a perfectionist standard. She has two chronic illnesses that limit her mobility, so on challenging days, she drives to her wetland patch instead of forcing herself to walk. 

With so many contributors sharing their real stories of transformation, Low-Carbon Birding is a thought-provoking read for anyone interested in reducing their carbon emissions. The book also contains helpful tips on how to savor birding locally when you’re ready to make a change. Although decreasing travel and sticking to more local birding may seem like small steps to curb a global problem like climate change, Caletrío argues that we can all play our part in reducing carbon emissions for ourselves and the birds.

Low-Carbon Birding, edited by Javier Caletrío, 251 pages, $24. Available here.