By Roger Tory Peterson, excerpted from the March/April 1984 issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest
Are you a bird watcher, an ornithologist, an ornithophile, an aviphile, a bird lover, bird fancier, bird bander, birder, bird spotter, lister, ticker, twitcher—or what? As for myself, I am primarily a bird artist and a bird photographer, a visual person obsessed by birds. I watch them and they undoubtedly watch me; their eyes are better than mine.
I favor the term bird watcher for general use because it is inclusive. It describes almost everyone who looks at birds or studies them—at nearly every level, from the watcher at the window who simply feeds birds, all the way to elitists like the Fellows of the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) and even Nobel laureates such as Konrad Lorenz and Nikko Tinbergen, who have won distinctions for their behavioral work on birds.
Let us consider some of the alternative names
It is risky to call yourself an artist if you merely dabble with watercolors or oils as a weekend hobby. It is equally presumptuous to call yourself an ornithologist just because you identify birds, take notes, or make lists. Ornithology implies a high level of expertise of a scientific nature. Most professional ornithologists these days have degrees, either a doctorate or at least a master’s. A very few non-professionals who devote their time year after year to some specialized problem of avian research might be included in this rarified category.
A generalization that might be made is that the average person who watches birds is interested in what the bird is, while the ornithologist is more involved with what it does. The laboratory ornithologist, a special breed, might not be satisfied with the external appearances of birds—he probably couldn’t separate a juvenile bay-breasted warbler from a blackpoll, anyway, unless he has it in the hand. He dissects birds and probably knows more about their insides than he does about living, free-flying birds. Most Fellows of the AOU, and many of the elective members as well, look with disdain on field identification buffs. They contend that anyone who watches birds seriously should have a problem to work on. This rather lordly attitude was why the American Birding Association (ABA) came into being—as an antidote of sorts, to promote birding as a game or a sport. This splinter group aspired to form an elite of its own that would set themselves apart from the hoi polloi—the hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, who call themselves bird watchers.
Back in the early years of this century, around 1920, when I was cutting my teeth, so to speak, on the Junior Audubon leaflets, people who watched birds fell into two basic categories: ornithologists, who usually shot birds, and bird lovers, who didn’t. Frank Chapman, in his Color Key to North American Birds, published in 1903, pointed up the dichotomy when he wrote: “From the scientific point of view there is but one satisfactory way to identify a bird. A specimen of it should be in hand.” Then, aware of an increasing dilemma, he wrote, “[But] we cannot place a gun in the hands of these thousands of bird lovers we are yearly developing.” He used the term bird lover freely in his writing. If we insist on speaking of dog lovers and horse lovers, bird lover would be a logical usage. But dogs and horses are pets, almost like members of the family; wild birds are not. Loving involves reciprocation, or at least the hope of reciprocation, and birds do not reciprocate in an amorous or affectionate way. They couldn’t care less about us, even though we feed them and call them “our feathered friends.”
If someone is so naïve as to call me a “bird fancier” I quickly correct him. He may be on his third martini at a social gathering and may simply want to get in on the conversation, which seems to be about birds. “I don’t keep birds,” I tell him. “I prefer my birds wild.”
Bill Oddie, the popular British television personality and perceptive birder, in his Little Black Bird Book, asks, “What is wrong with ‘bird watcher’? I honestly don’t know. There may be something like a million people in this country [England] who would confidently claim to be bird watchers, and that’s too many to constitute an elite. So—the correct word is ‘birder.’ This implies a fair degree of conviction and expertise.”
On the flyleaf of our Field Guide to the Bird of Britain and Europe, my coauthors, Guy Moundfort and Phil Hollom, and I dedicated the book: “To Our Long-Suffering Wives.” This was followed by a quote from Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor:
“She laments, sir … Her husband goes a-birding.”
It has always been assumed that in those times, “birding” must have meant wildfowling or bird shooting. Not so, insists my Swedish friend, Sven Wahlberg, a self-styled Shakespeare scholar. It really meant that the husband had gone to a brothel or was chasing the gals. Good reason for a wife to lament! Other Shakespeare scholars may dispute this interpretation, so I’ll leave it right there.
The term “birding” did not surface in the ornithological literature until 1896, when Florence Merriam, one of the founding mothers of the Audubon movement, wrote a book titled A-Birding On A Bronco. I haven’t seen the book for years and cannot remember whether she just watched birds (I presume she did) or whether she shot them, as did most bird observers in those days. Her contemporary, John Burroughs, the popular nature essayist, counseled the serious bird student: “Don’t ogle it through a glass, shoot it!”
Curiously, the term “birding” slipped from our vocabulary after Florence Merriam used it in the title of her book. Did she coin it? To my knowledge, the meaning of the word “birder” as we use it today never surfaced in any standard dictionary until Webster published its New Collegiate Dictionary in 1977, wherein 22,000 new words and meanings were introduced. On page 112 we find: “birder (1) a catcher or hunter of the birds, esp. for the market. (2) one that birds.” Referring to the verb bird, I find “to observe or identify wild birds in their natural environment.” So far, so good. Then, turning to bird watcher, I read: “birder.” They are interchangeable.
Throwing up my hands, I conceded that even Webster cannot keep up with the subtleties of our ever-evolving ornitholanguage.
When I am asked by the media, as I often am, how many birders are there, I am forced to be equivocal. “Do you mean birders or bird watchers?” I ask. It depends on your definition. Bird watchers may include anyone who feeds birds. Practically everyone up and down our road at Old Lyme, Connecticut, puts out sunflower seeds or suet. And do we include sportsmen? Several million, mostly men, shoot ducks, quail, and pheasants. They certainly watch birds (through the gunsight rather than the binocular), but their focus is on relatively few species.
Robert Arbib, former editor of American Birds, [rationalized] that one was really not a birder unless he or she occasionally goes out looking for birds beyond the confines of the backyard. They own binoculars, field guides, and scopes. He discounts “companionate” birders, go-alongs who are out there only because they want to be with their spouse or child.
The number of hardcore birders is growing fast and will continue to increase as advanced or specialized bird guides see the light of day. What a contrast to the old days when my first Field Guide to the Birds was published in 1934. It came close to being turned down by Houghton Mifflin because one of the editors—a birder at that—thought there were not enough people who would buy a book costing $2.75, the price necessary to cover the printing of the four color plates!
Lister or Ticker
There are all kinds of lists. Dearest to the hearts of most birders is the life list, those birds ticked off anywhere in the world during one’s lifetime. My own life list is still under 4,000.
There is the North American list. There are about 840 species on the ABA Checklist, including the many accidentals. Like Dick Davenport of the Doonesbury cartoons, I still do not have Bachman’s warbler, and I am still just short of qualifying for the 700 Club (I’m at 696). But if I include those birds on the ABA list that I have seen outside the ABA area—birds seen in the West Indies, Mexico, Japan, or on the high seas, etc. — I am closer to 800; but that would be against the rules of the game. Apparently, the only way to break 700 is to go at least twice to Attu. I will have to go again.
Three is the state list, or, if you are really provincial, the county list. When I was a teenager, I saw my first black-crowned night heron on the banks of Silver Creek, just over the line in Cattaraugus County, New York. I ran across the bridge and chased the bird across the creek into my home county, Chautauqua.
There are also backyard lists, January 1st lists, “Big Day” lists, Christmas count lists. The variations are endless.
As a young man, one of my lists was birds heard on the soundtrack of movies. I had a very special list for the wrentit, a common bird around the studios of Hollywood—a bird with an unmistakable voice. The range of this species is almost entirely within the state of California, but my researches in movie theaters over the years extended its range to Wyoming (in the Wallace Beery movie Wyoming), Kentucky (National Velvet), Lake Champlain (Northwest Passage), and even Austria (The Waltz King).
Another kind of list would be birds photographed. It was the late Allen Cruickshank’s goal to photograph every North American bird.
Bird banders, at least those who use mist nets to snare the migrants, are listers too; but they are more akin to the bird-in-hand ornithologists of the old days. When confronted with a technical identification problem they usually do not refer to their field guides but use a different set of criteria—wing formulae, etc., by with they separate one difficult flycatcher from another.
A “ticker” is a shade different form a lister. I have known tickers who merely follow other birders around and scarcely look at the birds when they are spotted, but wait for their leader to call them off. I remember particularly a friend from Brooklyn who often followed our group around the Ramble in Central Park, building up his list without the benefit of binoculars.
This term was invented by the bird-watching fraternity in Britain. We do not use it on this side of the ocean and I hope we never will because it has a slightly demeaning connotation. I had always thought it was synonymous with “ticking.” So I asked my friend John Parslow, coauthor of one of the competing British field guides, about the origin of the word. He replied that, as a matter of fact, he was one of the very first twitchers. About 20 years ago, he and a friend, who tore about the roads of England on their bikes running up lists, learned of a rare warbler that had been reported on the coast. They dropped everything, jumped on their bikes, and pedaled like mad for a couple of hours, stopping only to have lunch by the roadside. The weather was foul, and as they wolfed down their sandwiches, they were shaking, partly from the cold and partly from their impatience to get going lest this rare tick slip through their hands. Another young chap who joined them commented, “You’re a couple of twitchers.” And that, according to Parslow, is how the word entered the birder’s lexicon.
Other birders may dispute this origin, but by definition, a twitcher is a birder who races around the country frantically collecting rare birds for his list. To quote Bill Oddie again, “What distinguishes the real twitcher is his degree of emotional involvement. … If this kind of birder gets to hear of a bird that has been sighted that would be a tick for him, he is so wracked with nervous anticipation (that he might miss it) that he literally twitches with the excitement of it all.” He adds, “I have seen certain twitchers twitch, shake, and even throw up under stress.”
[In the United States, such birders] prefer to be known as “hardcore.”
The Rare Bird Alerts cater primarily to the twitching crowd. And a crowd it is. Thousands poured into Newburyport to see New England’s first Ross’ gull, and thousands flocked to Nantucket to ogle North America’s first western reef heron from West Africa. The local cab drivers did a land-office business and even pointed out the heron before they turned off the ignition. I might comment that twitchers seldom discover their own rarities: They zero in on reports that have reached them through the grapevine.
Bird Watcher’s Digest is well named, I think, because it covers the whole spectrum, from watching birds at the feeding tray to more sophisticated birding. And because it picks up items that have immediacy and are not likely to find their way into the technical literature, even many of the academics subscribe and find pleasure in its pages. After all, bird watching can take many forms, and it is fun!
Roger Tory Peterson contributed a column titled “All Things Reconsidered” to Bird Watcher’s Digest from 1984 until his death in 1996. The mission of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute, in Jamestown, New York, is “to honor and continue the work of Roger Tory Peterson to foster understanding, appreciation and protection of the natural world.” Its motto: Learn it, love it, protect it! Learn more about the organization at www.rtpi.org.
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