After our morning walk, Janet asked, “Do you consider yourself a birder or a bird watcher?”
Actually I have never thought about it. I just go out and look for birds. Besides, what’s the difference? Aren’t they simply two different terms for the same thing? Later I gave more thought to Janet’s question. I recalled that when my interest in birds was just beginning I never referred to myself as a bird watcher. To me that term had slightly negative connotations. There was a stigma attached. Bird watchers were little old ladies in tennis shoes, plain Janes. They were the objects of disdain—dowdy, old-fashioned, fuddy-duddies. Nothing like me. So I never used the term, especially around people who had no interest in birds. I did not want to be considered odd, or mousey, or different. I shuddered at thought that others might compare me to Miss Jane Hathaway on The Beverly Hillbillies. Ugh.
Others in the birding community had a similar reaction to the term. The American Birding Association and other groups attempted to update the image of the hobby and began to promote new terminology. I started to hear the term “birder” being used. “To bird” became a verb. This new nomenclature seemed more modern and acceptable to the mainstream than “bird watching”. It seemed to project a new image. So I became a birder and went birding.
In reality, “birding” is actually the older term. According to Merriam-Webster, bird-watching did not appear until 1894, whereas birding dates back to at least the 16th century. Of course, at that time the term had a more deadly meaning. To speak of going birding was akin to going fishing. You were seeking food, not pleasure. A second definition was to raise birds, as, maybe a chicken farmer.
Of course when I talked to non-bird people about being a birder, they would still give me a strange look. They had no idea what a birder was. When I explained, they usually said “Oh, you’re a bird watcher!” and moved to a different part of the room.
However, as birding has become a more common and acceptable term to the general public, a certain element of birding has acquired a slightly negative connotation among bird people. Some overly serious birders, or hot shots, are perceived as pure listers, primarily interested in adding a new checkmark to their life list, and not in enjoying the birds. They are extremists who can give everyday birders a bad name.
Recently Cornell Lab of Ornithology coined a new word for some elements of birding: a citizen scientist. I have a scientific background so I kinda like the term. However, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. And it can project the image of a mad scientist in his laboratory or of an antisocial nerd spending lonely hours collecting minutia.
So now I am totally confused. I’ve gone from a nature lover to a closeted bird watcher to a birder with a touch of scientist on the side. What am I?
What about you? Do you consider yourself a bird watcher or a birder?
About the Author
Hank Weber is a retired business executive who has nothing to do all day except relax, watch birds, and enjoy life in the Hudson River Valley, just 20 miles north of New York City. Some call him an unemployed bum. Others mostly ignore him.