An Anthropologist’s Take on Birders: Part 2

birding_venetucci_20090916_lah_06671If you missed Part 1, I’m summarizing some observations made by our daughter, the anthropologist, about our birding tribe.


Any interest group will have it’s own special vocabulary, and birders are no different. For example, there’s a difference between birdwatchers, birders, and listers (or twitchers, if you’re British). Each word has its own nuance. “Birdwatchers” are recreational birders, enjoying birds wherever they find them but not really going out of their way or keeping track of what they’ve seen. They may actually have the most fun, since there’s no pressure and they take the time to really look at the birds they see.

“Birders” are a bit more serious, are usually able to identify the bird, and keep notes. “Listers,” in a somewhat derogatory sense, are more interested in checking the bird off on their life list than they are in actually enjoying the experience. Then there are “power birders” who go out of their way to see rarities, can identify anything instantly by ear or sight, and outlast everyone else in the field. Of course, these terms are somewhat interchangeable, and there are probably regional differences as well.

Birders also have their own not-so-secret code. Since many birds have long names (such as Yellow-crowned Night Heron or Red-winged Blackbird) that are too painful to write out on a trip list (and you could miss the next bird while you’re trying to write with a dried up pen on a tiny notebook while juggling camera, binos, and field guide), many of us use the same abbreviations  as bird banders. According to this standardized list, every North American bird has a four-letter ID. House Finch become HOFI and Canada Goose is abbreviated CAGO. If you know what a MODO or a LEGO is, you’re probably a birder.

Not a seagull

Other words take on special meaning in our vocabulary. There are tits and boobies, and we all hope get a good look at them. “Eclipse” has nothing to do with astronomy and much to do with ducks. Additional birding terms for the uninitiated to ponder include:  lifer, binos, trash bird, and jizz. (If you are from Britain, the vocabulary is totally different.) Along with the jargon comes arcane knowledge: birders know there are no such creatures as seagulls (see the not-a-seagull, above right), most ducks do not quack, and  it’s nest box (or roost box), not bird house.

When faced with a tree full of leaves, it’s typical to point out a bird by saying, for example, that  it’s at the end of that branch at two o’clock. I’m not sure that the next generation of birders, with their digital watches, will know what we’re talking about!

Specialized Behaviors
As I mentioned above, birders tend to rise before dawn, at least on fieldtrip days. The early bird might get the worm, but it’s the early birder who gets the birds. Arriving on location as the sun tops the trees is one hallmark of a dedicated birder. (So is going to bed early.)

Birders also do other somewhat insane things to get their bird. I’ve camped at 8,500 feet elevation in the Rocky Mountains in February, hoping to see some owls. Given that it was eleven degrees, the owls were probably holed up in their nest cavities, being much warmer and more sensible than we were.


If getting up at 4am or camping in sub-freezing weather seem a bit extreme, how about the birders who drive 500 miles—or fly across the country—to see a rare bird? With the internet, any exotic sighting is quickly posted to a rare birds hotline. Within minutes, people are in their cars, hoping to arrive in time to get a glimpse. I’ve only ventured as far as Denver, a hour away, and the Parasitic Jaegar was well worth the trip. But I know others who have traveled hundreds of miles just to see a lost bird.

The extreme end of this is the Big Year. The idea is to see the most possible species in a given region (usually “North America”—defined as the US and Canada, in this case) in one calendar year. For some people, this is an intensely competitive venture. Thousands of dollars are spent, thousands of miles are traveled, just to beat out the current record-holder. Unless you can include at least one trip to the western Aleutians (as close to Siberia as possible), another to the Dry Tortugas (off the coast of Florida), and are willing to cross and re-cross the country for every special sighting, you aren’t even in the running.

To be continued…

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