In observing birds, biologist sees reflection of ourselves

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am


As a young man at university more than 50 years ago, Gao Wu was reluctant to follow his instructors' advice and enter the field of biology. He turned out to be a pioneer in the field. Now 71, Gao has retired from teaching biology at Capital Normal University. He can look back with pride at the role he played in helping to spread environmental awareness through sharing his passion for birds with other people.

How did you end up studying biology?

I began my schooling when I came to Beijing to live with my elder brother in 1953. I almost had to drop out after five years because my family lacked the money, but my head teacher advised me to enrol in what is now called Capital Normal University. Students who trained to be teachers were exempt from tuition fees. My first choice of study was physics, but so many students were pursuing it that I was advised to take biology, owing that I was from the countryside. I went on to teach animal husbandry at the university after graduation.

How did you get involved in amateur birdwatching groups?

Wang Yongcheng, a veteran broadcaster with China National Radio, went to the United States in 1996 and was impressed by the enthusiasm regular people had in birdwatching. After she returned to China, she started looking for bird specialists to spread the hobby and managed to reach me. We began to organise birdwatching trips, mostly in the mountainous areas around Beijing, under a group called Friends of Nature, which was founded by the late Liang Congjie .

How did the first trip turn out?

We went to the Jiu Mountain in the Haidian district. It was September 1996. More than 200 enthusiasts had signed up, but only about 40 to 50 people actually turned up because of the incessant rain that day. The weather forced us to stay inside a classroom at the nearby China Agricultural University campus and I ended up giving a lecture on bird species. The rain stopped in the early afternoon, and the trip turned out magnificently - the clearer sky made birdwatching even more enjoyable.

How many people usually show up?

It is difficult to calculate, but we organise three major birdwatching trips every year attended by up to 70 people. We also hold at least 10 smaller events that attract more than a dozen people. As I've gotten older, other bird specialists have joined to lead excursions.

How do participants compare with the birdwatchers in the US?

In the US, people birdwatch as a hobby, and many of them are retirees who have the time and money. But in China younger people from all walks of life - students, journalists, office workers and parents with their children - sign up for the trips. We have seen some diehard enthusiasts who joined as pupils and continued to stay on even in college. Through birdwatching, people begin to realise that if the environment changes, the way birds live changes accordingly. If the water in their habitat is polluted, the birds can't live there anymore.

What observations have you made during your years of studying birds?

We used to see a lot of black storks in the mountainous areas in the districts of Huairou, Miyun, Fangshan and Mentougou, where the large birds fed on small fish in shallow streams. However, their numbers have fallen as more tourists visit the area and development increases, such as dam-building. The storks no longer live along one tributary of the Chao River, due to the mining of sand and gravel in recent years. The birds that do live there have been forced to change how they survive. For example, they search for food in the early morning hours and at lunchtime when there are fewer people around. The pheasant-tailed jacana, a well-loved bird that would likely have been found at some former royal gardens in southern Beijing in the summer, has disappeared as a result of pollution and dried-up waterways.

What can we learn from this?

By teaching people how these birds used to live compared to now, we hope to help raise awareness about the fragility of nature. We have seen that few species can compete with humans when it comes to natural resources. As birdwatchers, we are concerned by what we have seen, and we should take a moment to do some soul-searching over what kind of a world we humans need. Do we really need the amount of development we see in cities such as Beijing?

How can people interested in birdwatching sign up?

They can visit the Friends of Nature website ( for inquiry numbers or click on the 'Green Forum', which carries information about trips and details about a lot of other interesting activities that raise awareness about biodiversity and keeping the environment clean. They can also send an e-mail to