Birder or birdwatcher?

By Phila Rogers

Though the terms “birdwatcher” or “birder” are often considered synonymous, don’t tell that to a birder.  A birder is apt to nurture a long bird list, and is willing to suffer inclement weather and travel distances to see that rare or possibly “life” bird.

The birdwatcher is frequently subject to snickers of amusement or even derision.  The prototype might be the “little old lady” wearing sensible shoes, seldom venturing beyond a local park, and most familiar with the birds that come and go from the garden feeders.

Natural history writer Joe Eaton, who sometimes refers to himself as a recovering birder (though he confessed to recently driving 75 miles to the Colusa National Wildlife Reserve to see a very rare Asian bird – the Falcated Duck), thinks of birders “as more compulsive, list-driven, probably younger and disproportionately male.” He concedes that more women are entering the ranks of birders.  Eaton points out that most American Birding Association members are “either birders or wannabe birders” and “may be willing to drive all night to the Salton Sea in search of a rare gull.”

Wikipedia — with something to say on almost every subject — says that the term “birdwatching” was first used in 1901 and that the verb “to bird” was recognized in 1918.  While the term birdwatching is widely understood, birding is not.  Some prefer the term “birding” because it includes recognizing birds by songs and calls.  But mostly it appears to be, according to Wikipedia, a matter of “scope, dedication, and intensity.”

And what am I?  By most reckonings I am a bird watcher.  I’m mostly content to watch the birds at my feeders with an occasional foray to Jewel Lake over the hill in nearby Tilden Park, or to one of the close-by botanic gardens where even if the birds are not active, there are always rewarding plants to look at.

But I am just as much or even more a bird listener, taking special pleasure in all bird vocalizations.  I often record in my notebook which bird I hear first upon arising.  These winter mornings it’s most likely to be a sharp flicker call or the soft round note of a Hermit Thrush.

Because I believe in writing about birds to enlarge and sustain my pleasure, I am also curious about the lives of birds. How are they being affected by climate change? Why are some species becoming more numerous, and others rarer? When the winter sparrows leave in the spring, I want to know where they go. I fantasize about following the Golden crowns north to the willow thickets that edge the tundra. I want to hear their sweet song in the wide, wild places where arctic winds blow.

I leave the subtleties of plumage changes and variations to ornithologists or to the true birders, content to note the myriad variations I see in the Lesser Goldfinches which year-round crowd my feeders.