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Birder vs. Bird-watcher: What’s in a Name?

Photo by Seabamirum via Flickr

I love birds. I watch Black-capped Chickadees flutter to and from bird feeders in the backyard. I stop and stare when I see a raptor soaring above while I’m walking down the street. I actively seek out warblers at the park during spring migration. Yet, when someone asks me what I do for fun or enjoyment, I am always at a loss for words.

I usually just stumble through some explanation about how I like to look and listen for birds and occasionally take photographs, only to have the person say, “Oh so you’re a bird-watcher.” My response to this is usually some even longer explanation about how that term doesn’t completely entail all aspects of what I do, including the audio aspect of enjoying birds.

This brings us to the crux of the article: Am I a birder or a bird-watcher?

In its purest historical sense, birding is the older term, although it’s an antonym of how I would describe myself today. When people went birding in the 15th and 16th centuries (and up until the 1900s really), they meant they were hunting for birds. Bird-watching, on the other hand, didn’t appear until 1891, according to Merriam-Webster.

So simple logic should lead us to believe that bird-watching is the correct term, since we don’t mean we go out hunting birds. But that’s not how language works. It lives, breathes and changes in time. For example, we no longer use the word awful to describe something that’s amazing and fills you with awe. We use it to mean horrible and grotesque. The term birding went through that same transformation when it was usurped by people who love birds to mean that act of seeking out and enjoying birds without harming them.

So which one should we use?

Unsurprisingly, I’m not the first person to ponder this same existential debate. The great Melissa Mayntz at the About Birding page writes it’s all about the intensity. She argues a bird-watcher is someone who is more casual about birds. They don’t travel specifically for birds and enjoy birds in their backyard with binoculars.

Birders, however, are those who actively seek out species with high-end optics and go birding for sport or thrills.

Do you bird or bird-watch?

The simple truth is that the terms aren’t mutually exclusive and birding and bird-watching are used interchangeably. So why wouldn’t all of us (both casual and hard-core bird enthusiasts) just use birder? Well, not only does it sound a bit pretentious, but it also raises more questions in people and precipitates this same debate. A bird-watcher, alternatively, is often derisively painted as someone who wants people off their lawn and wears funny hats.

So, again, which one should we use?

The answer may be less satisfying, but you should use whichever you want. After writing this diatribe, I am going to continue to call myself a birder because I’d rather have lay people be interested in this strange term and strike up a discussion about what separates it from bird-watching, but I would never fault anyone for calling themselves a bird-watcher.

Even though some diehard factions of the birding/bird-watching community will insist on one or the other as the 100% correct answer, self-identity has always been a matter of choice, which is why you should be able to call yourself whatever you want. Just don’t call yourself a twitcher…

Let us know how you identify yourself as a bird enthusiast and why.

Timothy Martinez Jr. is a writer and freelance journalist. His work has been published in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Remapping Debate in New York City and other publications. He’s been a bird lover since he was young and currently lives in New Orleans, L.A.

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