What Does it Mean to be a Birder?

What is a birder, anyway?

Several birders have made stabs at what it is to be defined as a birder, in part spurred by questions of how to count how many of us are out there. First, the Birdwatcher’s Companion (2004) seek’s to differentiate “birding” from “bird-watching,” as terminology has notably changed over the past 20 years (or perhaps more):

Birder (birding). A relatively new term that has become popular as an alternative to “birdwatcher” with its unflattering (to some) overtones of passivity, eccentricity, frivolity, and even effeminacy. A birder is one who “birds” or “goes birding” in a serious and energetic manner, whether to hone his or her field-identification skills or to amass an impressive list.

Some would argue that there’s no real semantic difference, just an evolution of the preferred term, but is perhaps a differentiation in terms what we’re after? If we talk about being a birder as different than being a birdwatcher, there are many stances on criteria of what defines a birder. Also, what we’re doing here inevitably is looking for breakpoints in a series of continuous variables (and some qualitative) to define categories, and so there’s always probably going to be room for debate here.

Becoming a birder is driven by a sparked curiosity in birds, that then turns into a pursuit of knowledge, interaction and experience with birds. To me, an active birder is someone who makes an effort to study birds through detailed observation. It’s hard to quantify passion, but I would define birding as a dedication to learning any/all identification characteristics of birds you encounter. The hobby of birding means always challenging your ID frontiers, so perhaps though qualitative, I like the Birdwatcher’s Companion definition.

Criteria for inclusion

What’s our threshold for the word “birder”? There’s also a “tribal element” here, meaning we’re wondering how to define our community. We want to know who’s in our group. From blog posts and social media comments, here’s what I can glean as elements that people think are important:

  • effort
    • time
      • length: how much time do you spend observing birds?
      • frequency: how often do you observe birds?
    • travel: do you go places specifically to look for birds?
  • expertise: how many birds can you identify?
  • goals
    • record-keeping: do you keep track of birds you observe?
    • listing: do you aim to see a certain number of species?
    • citizen science participation: do you contribute to citizen science efforts (e.g., eBird, Breeding Bird Survey)?
  • related hobbies
    • photography: are you mostly in it to take photos of birds, or does your photography accompany your birding?
    • sound-recording: are you interested in varied vocalizations of birds?
  • organizational membership
    • subscription to a list-serve and/or bird social media: do you follow bird sightings in your area?
    • member of society: do you participate in your local bird organization?

My thoughts

I see time spent as important but in flux; there are inevitably times in life where e.g. we’re not birding as much as we’d like or as much as we had, but do we no longer become birders during a dry spell? As far as travel, here’s a post with 2 paragraphs on that definition of birder, including a criterion of travel.

“This is not to suggest that one must bounce about the Pacific Ocean on a pelagic tour with Debi Shearwater to qualify as a birder. But driving a mile to walk at the local park and seeing ducks on the pond does not a birder make.” – Jason A. Crotty

My friend Mike McDowell last year posited that a birder goes somewhere once a week (at least) to specifically look for birds. Though I guess I’m playing devil’s advocate to some extent because I do indeed often make trips specifically to observe birds, I wouldn’t necessarily include frequency of travel in my personal definition of birding.

In general, though, I have more questions from this thought exercise than answers. When do you become a birder: the moment you see your “spark bird” (for those that have that experience), or do you need more experience to be part of the club? I started to do what I would really call “birding” when I was an undergrad. I was hooked when I took ornithology lab, though I started to learn birds before then, and had a childhood love of birds. I’m not sure when I started calling myself a birder: perhaps after the semester was over, and it became something I did for fun?

Is some sort of listing inevitable or optional? I keep a life list, but that’s about it. Yet, I see it as essential to my experience, though I can’t say what’s essential to anyone else’s experience.

When are you more of a photographer than a birder, and does your goal matter: are you trying to take photos of whatever you can find for an expert to sift through later, or are you using photographs as a tool for documentation and to help yourself ID birds? Are those that just take photos of birds for others to identify just curious, and not really birders? I see myself in this almost in how I look at plants: I’m not passionate about plants like I am about birds, but I do like them. So, I take my field guide out and take photos, but though I like the idea of it, I’m not likely as my significant other is to actually collect something and key it out. Though I like learning about everything outdoors, there’s nothing that really “gets me” the way birding does. So, where is the break point, and where do the qualifiers come in? For example, I wouldn’t call myself a “hobby botanist.”

How many local groups do you have to be subscribed to, and which kind, and in what manner? My pursuit of birding leads me to subscribe to various social media pages, text alerts, etc. I also serve my state’s ornithologists’ union, citizen science efforts, festivals, etc. I don’t know where “requirement” comes in, but it certainly reflects my deep interest.

Your thoughts?

I can only speak from my experience, so I look forward to reading yours in the comments!

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