An interview with Bo of

By on 1st May in Garden
Avatar was founded in 1999 by Bo Beolens, after identifying a lack of comprehensive information about birds and birding online.

He found that many sites offer only a broad overview of bird facts rather than detailed information on each local area. Bo decided to bring together and showcase top birding resources across the country and the world, with a focus on local knowledge.

He dedicates his time to running a network of sites, travelling around top birdwatching areas and writing and raising awareness of the plight of birds. His books include Whose Bird, a number of Eponym Dictionaries (Reptiles, Mammals, Amphibians and soon Sharks and Birds) and the soon to be published The A-Z of birds.

We were delighted to catch up with Bo for a chat following the creation of our birdwatching infographic, featuring facts found on

Birdwatching Cartoon by Des Campbell cover for A-Z of Birds

Birdwatching Cartoon by Des Campbell cover for A-Z of Birds

Bo, we’re keen to encourage gardeners and wildlife enthusiasts alike to look out for birds and we think Fatbirder is a brilliant resource for amateur and experienced birdwatchers.

Can you remember what first inspired you to start birdwatching?
That’s easy. When I was nine I had an accident and couldn’t walk for many months. Dad took me fishing and one day a kingfisher landed on the tip of my fishing rod. From then on I was hooked (sorry about the pun)!

Do you think the decline in British garden birds is down to more than one factor?
Probably three things are at work, and maybe even more.

There’s no doubt that climate change and other pressures across the world are affecting both our native and visiting birds.

If the dry areas in Africa expand it makes it harder for birds to successfully migrate. Add to this birds being slaughtered for ‘sport’ in the Mediterranean and it’s easy to see why fewer birds are making it here, and those that do have to survive cataclysmic weather events.

Secondly, I’m afraid ‘agri-business’ is having a very negative impact. If land is used to grow mono-crops, scoured with chemicals and sprayed with herbicides and pesticides, two things happen: there are fewer seeds and invertebrates for birds to feed on and fewer places for them to nest.

I’m really worried too that our indiscriminate use of chemicals and genetically engineered crops will be too late to reverse once we discover their long-term effects.

Only today I heard a spokesman for farmers saying we shouldn’t ban an insecticide known to kill bees and other pollinators until the case is proven. I can’t believe how short-sighted this is! If we don’t ban the use of neonicotinoids now bees may die out, and if they do so will we!

Lastly, we have the problem of species that don’t belong here either predating on birds or out competing them. Grey squirrels are shown to have a detrimental effect on breeding success of some species and I’m afraid pet cats are a massive problem, killing millions of garden birds every year.

Tell us about ‘Birding for all’ and its aims? is another of my hobbyhorses. I describe myself as ‘hard of walking’ as a form of arthritis makes it painful at the best of times and impossible some of the time. So I have to adapt how I go birding both at home and if I take an overseas birding trip.

When I started looking at facilities for people like me over a decade ago I found that provision was woefully inadequate. So I started a small charity called the ‘disabled birders association’ to get birders with mobility problems together to make a difference.

We soon started to build up membership with a lot of birders with a variety of problems, including many wheelchair users, so I learned that often it was even worse for them.

We lobby on a national and local level and things have really begun to change; solid paths, ramps to hides, accessible gates and so forth. I have to say the RSPB have been terrific responders. In my home county of Kent the reserves are getting better, with some like Dungeness being flagships of excellence for disability access. On a national scale they care and train their staff to care too.

I wish I could say it’s all OK, but there’s still a long way to go, particularly when it comes to local reserves and those managed by volunteers that have no money. But often it’s a matter of good design not cash and there’s nothing that is done to improve access to those with mobility problems that makes it worse for anyone else.

Moreover, if you make it easier for disabled birders then it’ll be easier for the elderly, the very young and mums and dads pushing prams too. I always say that designing accessible facilities is like designing footwear – you wouldn’t expect us all to wear either size 10 boots or size six high heels, so if you want a one-size fits all solution you need to turn out rugged socks!

What would your top tips be for people who want to start helping garden birds more?

1. Keep cats indoors
2. Plant bird-friendly shrubs and native species of plant
3. Leave an ‘untidy’ corner that’s not weeded and maybe has a rotting log or two
4. Feed the birds, especially in cold weather but also spring and autumn when birds are either using energy to bring up nestlings or fattening up to migrate. Go for foods with high fat content, like sunflower seeds, peanuts and fat balls

For a first-time UK birdwatching trip, where would you recommend visiting?
Try the best RSPB reserve in your area. Their motto is ‘for birds, for people, forever’, and they recognise that people need to be educated and entertained not preached at (like I do:) ).

In the east, Minsmere in Suffolk and Titchwell in Norfolk have wonderful birds and brilliant visitor facilities, and both are accessible in every sense. Others include Ryehouse Marsh in Greater London, Dungeness in Kent, Pulborough Brooks in Sussex, Ham Wall in Somerset, Leighton Moss in Lancs, Blacktoft Sands in Humberside, South Stacks in Anglesey, Loch Garten in the Highlands… the list goes on.

Also, look at the map of your own locality and take a walk in woodlands near you. Try old gravel pits, bits of heathland or a patch of coast or estuary and you’ll see birds that don’t turn up in gardens. You’ll soon get hooked on their sheer variety and beauty.

Where can we find your books and could you tell us a bit about them?
Most of my books are about the people after whom birds and various other animals are named – Eponym Dictionaries. If you type Bo Beolens into Amazon you’ll see the titles. They’re all available at the Natural History Bookshop and I highly recommend them as they’re specialists and really know all about the wildworld, conservation and more.

The A-Z of birds isn’t out yet, but will be in summer. And of course, you can always mail me for a signed copy.

And finally, what’s your favourite British bird?
That’s easy – the Common Swift. It’s the most birdy of all birds as it stays on the wing virtually the whole time, from leaving the nest until breeding a few years later. They not only feed high in the air but even sleep and mate on the wing!

Watch them in flight and they’re the most superb flyers – the fighter jets of the bird world in their manoeuvrability.

They’re also the harbingers of summer. Their iconic high-pitched scream brings in summer in June and leaves us autumn in late August as they briefly grace our skies.

It’s also a bird we need to care about and for as it’s less common than it was. We need to ensure that tall buildings have nesting spaces for them, and that we don’t chemically blast all their insect prey into oblivion.
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