Birdwatching is one of the most popular pastimes in North America and other parts of the world. But just what is birdwatching? Yes, it’s about watching birds, but there are many ways to watch birds. And there are many levels, from casually watching birds out your window all the way up to becoming a professional ornithologist (a scientist who studies birds).
There are several terms used for bird watching, and they typically refer to the level of commitment one is willing to make.
Birdwatching (or bird watching) – this is considered by many to describe the most casual level of watching birds
Birding – describes someone with a higher level of commitment
Twitching – the British term for the more committed “Birders”
I have met some birders who used the term “Birdwatching” somewhat derogatorily, but I don’t agree with that. To them, “birdwatchers” don’t regard rare birds highly enough, and pay too much attention to common species. Only “birders” fully appreciate the rare birds. That’s where I disagree. I’ve seen birders who are too interested in checking a species off a list and not in the actual birds themselves. By actually watching the birds, you can learn things about behavior and ecology that you wouldn’t get if you only worry about a list. To me, that’s more enriching than a list. And for those quick to criticize, yes, I do keep lists (life, country, state, and specific locations), but I get great enjoyment out of watching birds, even the most common ones.
Here’s a description of the different levels of birdwatching. Just know you don’t have to advance to the highest levels. This list is to let you know just how dedicated you can become, and maybe inspire you to try some of the higher levels…
Casual birdwatching is what you do when you watch the birds coming to your feeders in the backyard. It helps to have binoculars and a field guide to birds, but even that is not necessary.
Many birdwatchers, and certainly all birders, keep a life list. This is a list of all the bird species they have seen in their lifetime. It doesn’t matter where you’ve seen the bird, just that you have. Some also keep a list of the well-designated subspecies, as well. Currently, there are about 10,000 species of birds worldwide recognized by the authorities. In North America, the number of species you can reliably see is about 700. In my opinion, the fun in keeping a life list is not so much the actual total, but the memories. I can look down through my life list and it will trigger some wonderful memories.
The next step is to keep lists of birds seen in different locations. For some, that is for different states. For others, it may be specific locations, like parks or preserves. I know of several people that keep lists by county. Others keep a list of birds seen in their backyard.
Many, if not most, birdwatchers will travel to see rare birds. It may only be across town, but some, with the time and money and desire, will travel long distances, if the bird is rare enough. Or if it has eluded them in the past. I’ve done this several times (not many), and I admit it can be quite fun. But it does require money and the ability to travel at a moment’s notice.
So, how do the more hardcore birders know about the presence of rare birds? Prior to the internet, birding groups would set up a telephone hotline you could call and hear a recorded message of recent sightings. If a bird made the list, it was called a “hotline bird,” and this term is still used, even though the use of telephone hotlines is pretty much history. Nowadays, bird groups use the tools of the internet for the same purpose. Listservs are commonly used to let others know about interesting sightings. And of course, email and text are widely used. Also, some organizations will post a list of sightings on their website. Last, eBird has become very popular. Users can post sightings of rare birds, but the value of eBird is much more than that. Birders will post complete lists of all birds they’ve seen at a location, and you can use this to help learn about the possibility of seeing the more common birds. On a larger scale, you can use eBird to look at ranges of species during a given time period.
For the most dedicated birders, there are a number of competitions available. Some are just for fun, and a few even have prizes associated with them. Two of the most popular are hosted by the American Birding Association (ABA). The ABA Big Year is an annual “competition” where you keep track of all species seen in a calendar year. The ABA Big Day is similar, but you count all the species seen in one 24-hour period.
There are several opportunities for you to contribute to the advancement of bird knowledge, if you have the desire to participate. Programs such as Christmas Bird Count, Breeding Bird Survey, Project FeederWatch, and NestWatch rely heavily on non-professional citizens. Thus, the term “citizen science.” Christmas Bird Count is a one-day total of birds seen in December or early January each year. The Breeding Bird Survey is a series of counts taken along a specified route during the breeding season. Project FeederWatch allows people to contribute counts of birds coming to their feeders. NestWatch records data (such as the number of eggs, nestlings, and fledglings) on individual nesting attempts.
At the highest level of dedication are the people who devote their professional careers to the study of birds. These people are called ornithologists, and the science of the study of birds is called ornithology. These individuals are typically employed by colleges and universities, federal or state agencies, or non-profit conservation organizations. Their research on birds is typically published in scientific journals or technical reports.
So, now you can see the possibilities for how involved in birds, or not, you can be. It’s all up to you. But, most importantly, the key is to enjoy the birds!