It is well-known that birders care about seeing, listening to, photographing, gleefully petting and (for some) smelling Baird's Sparrows more than any other group of people in the world. The question some birders are asking is...what the hell is a birder anyway? Photographed at Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, ND.
Recently, cyberwars have been raging over on facebook regarding the true number of birdwatchers that exist in the United States. Cybertears have been shed, the cyberblood has readily flowed...needless to say, cyberfeelings were hurt. Birders seem to not only be unable to agree upon the number of birders out there, they cannot even agree on a definition of a birder. The very fabric of the elite birding community is being ripped to shreds as we speak...a true identity crisis is at hand.
I have always separated birders and birdwatchers; birders being more experienced and addicted, birdwatchers being able to live with themselves if they go a few months without seeing a new or rare bird. For our purposes today, lets lump them and relax enough to use the phrases interchangeably.
Wikipedia simply defines birding/birdwatching as "the observation of birds as a recreational activity", which is true enough, although extremely vague. If someone spends 4 or 5 hours a year doing nothing but looking for birds, does that make them a birder? If you ask me, that's a resounding OH HELL NO. Someone who birds at that level probably experiences birding completely differently than those of us who have been doing it for a while. I'm not passing any judgement, but you and I know this is true. Of course, we all have to start somewhere, but I don't think anybody who has only tried looking at birds a couple of times would comfortably label themselves a birder.
Little known but extremely obvious fact: 99% of Homo sapiens who have knowingly seen a live Curlew Sandpiper in the United States are self-professed birders. Photographed in Imperial Beach, CA.
We here at the Human Birdwatcher Project ("Birders are people too!") have a simple suggestion. I think if we just establish a baseline of bird identification knowledge (a crucial aspect of birding), we can go from there. I would suggest using a number to gauge a person's birderness. Why not say...anyone capable of identifying 30 species of birds can be called (if they consent, of course) a birdwatcher? If you can correctly identify 30 bird species, you've obviously paid attention to birds and spent a fair amount of time with them, even if you do most of your birding on your property or at your bird feeders. I would also argue that unless you are a nonbirding biologist, wildlife rehabber, or exceptionally knowledgeable bird hunter, there are very few people out there who correctly know 30 bird species by sight or sound who do not consider themselves particularly interested in birds. Sure this is a bit of an arbitrary number (should it be 25? Or more like 40?), and some parts of the country have less bird diversity than others...but I think it's a good start.
Vireo Vita looks at the first Gray Kingbird either of of us have ever seen. I don't think she could pass the 30 species number yet, nor would she call herself a birder...but her birding urges are plain for all to see. Photo by Booby Brittany.
Now back to the argument of counting birders....yes, the definition I put forth here is very impractical in terms of being able to look at numbers/demographics and make a count of the birders out there, but no one else has been able to find a very reliable one (aside from looking up American Birding Association members). My only suggestion would be to also look at members of birding email groups and go from there....CALBIRDS, for example (California's state-wide rarity list), has about 2500 members, and if you subtract some of those people (some live out of state, some have subscribed with multiple email addresses, some are likely nonbirders who mistakenly signed up), that is still a solid start for estimating the California birder population. Add that to ABA members who aren't signed up, and the number will climb...but where does the birder counter go from there? Where is the data? EBird?
This brings us to my final point, which is that vast numbers of serious birders do not belong to any birding organization at all. While I have been an ABA and Audubon member, I haven't been one in years...the only birding organization I have pledged my loyalty to is the Global Birder Ranking Scale, and obviously that data is not available to anybody. Many other birders I know are without allegiance to any bird clubs....in fact, I would say that roughly half of my close birdwatching friends do not belong to these organizations...perhaps its a function of youth. Just something the birder pundits should keep in mind when this debate picks up again...a lot of us simply don't show up on the map, so to speak.
What do you think about all this? Think my number 30 definition is bullshit? Were you one of those people watching the flame-sesh on facebook? Let us know in the comments.