Vocabulary Quiz: Birder vs. Bird Watcher?

By Hugh Powell
bird vocabulary
Photo by Bob Powell.

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There’s a long weekend of fireworks and barbecues approaching – but I’m sure some of our readers will take some time to watch the midsummer birds. Perhaps you’ll sit quietly and watch your hummingbird feeder – or get up early and stroll through the park looking for fledglings. Or maybe you’ve got an all-out expedition planned, and you’ll be bagging rarities on the other side of the horizon.

Like the Inuit and their fabled number of words for snow, the bird-watching tribe has invented a vocabulary that can handle subtle gradations of enthusiasm (or obsession). But the definitions are slippery. Do you think there’s a difference between a “bird watcher” and a “birder”? Has it ever been suggested that you’re a “twitcher,” a “stringer,” or a “lister”?

How would you describe yourself? Do you use the two terms interchangeably, or perhaps different words altogether – I’ve also heard “naturalist,” “bird lover,” “nature enthusiast,” “outdoorsman” (or “outdoorswoman”), and “environmentalist.”

Here at the Lab, where many of us have spent a fair amount of time studying birds, people seem reluctant to describe themselves as “true birders” unless they can keep up with a certain echelon of folks, the kind who can, say, spot a Yellow-billed Loon in a New Jersey subdivision pond at 45 m.p.h. But then again, I’d say anyone who gets up before 7 a.m. on the weekend to see what’s in the bushes qualifies.

But does that mean that “bird watcher” somehow applies to people who are less interested or dedicated? I don’t think so. Certainly plenty of people have spent decades feeding birds, going on group bird walks, or helping on Christmas Bird Counts. They have a ton of experience and sharp ID skills – are they birders or bird watchers? Is it a matter of where or how often or which birds they watch?

For my weekend, I’m bound for Santa Cruz, California – not to look for rarities but to revisit the common birds of my former home: Black Oystercatchers, Heermann’s Gulls, Acorn Woodpeckers – and, of course, the mighty Brown Pelican.

And what do I call myself? I lean toward “naturalist” because I get a kick out of things like the 3-inch red newts that are out on the Ithaca roads right now, the longhorned beetles clinging to the milkweed leaves, or the crazy iridescent nudibranchs I’m hoping to see in the tidepools this weekend.

But when I’m pressed, I say “birder.” It’s a holdover from 30 years ago, when my dad started getting me up at 4:30 a.m. to go look for Black-throated Gray Warblers and White-winged Crossbills in New Mexico. Every weekend. Now, I suppose, I’m more of an opportunistic bird watcher. But old habits die hard.

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