Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Human Birdwatcher Project Presents: On (Painfully) Defining And Counting Birders




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.

29 comments:

  1. I was scared when I clicked onto this post and the title was momentarily in Comic Sans before it switched to whatever the faux cursive font that you use is. Then I wondered if people who are into fonts wonder how many other people are into fonts and if they do how do they go about figuring out how many other fonters there are and if they have arguments about if they should be called fonters or fontites.

    And, wait, what was the question again?

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    1. I could get into fonting. Font identification is a difficult but rewarding pursuit.

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    2. How I long for the day before the splitters attacked our fonts. Give me a good Helvetica any day, but no, now we have Verdana, Courier, Sans, Tahoma, etc...
      Darn AFU anyway!

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    3. I wonder if all garden railroad enthusiasts ride their trains, or do some just simply drive them and watch?

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  2. Hmm, good questions Steve. I know I can easily identify 30 birds by sight or sound but I'm not a birder, just a bird photographer who studies her subjects.

    If there were two boxes to click, one that said birder and the other bird photographer I would check the bird photographer so .. would I be a faux birder because I could identify the 30 birds?

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    1. Ah yes, the photographer question. Well, as I alluded to in the post, of course if someone says they are not a birder, then there you have it. BUT, I think its safe to say that you enjoy viewing birds, are knowledgeable about them, and probably care for their well-being far more than the average person, which at least puts one foot in our camp, hehe. I should also say that your ID skills are certainly on par with that of an experienced birder...Ive never seen a mis-ID on your site!

      Faux birder sounds like a good category to me!

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    2. I guess you missed my "Song Sparrow" blog post that was actually a Lincoln's Sparrow? I felt like I had egg dripping off my face for the mis ID.

      One of my birder friends says I am part birder part bird photographer so perhaps I am a hybrid birdergrapher mixedupticus.

      Maybe Faux Birder is better, at least it is easier to say

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    3. Mia Mia Mia...there is no question in anyone's mind but your own that you are indeed a "birder". You may be principally a bird photographer, but you are out looking for birds with more regularity than most birders I know. You can identify more than most birders I know. You have observed behaviors that most birders haven't taken the time to notice. You are not only a birder, but a higher life form of birder.

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    4. Aw Robert, yer gonna make me blush. I am just a bird photographer who loves to see as many birds as possible and get to know them.

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  3. Geez I didn't now the bird community fabric was being ripped to shreds. It's all the fault of that Obama!!
    I always said nothin' could would come of that thur cyber interwebs. People that blog about birds are taking nature and putting it in an unnatural place: the internet cloud of doom and ambiguity.

    Anywho, I think the 30 species mark is a pretty good starting place, but maybe to test it out, let's think on normal species that almost anyone could be expected, or presumed, to know. Just about everyone knows Pigeons, and popular birds like Cardinals, Macaws, and Orioles (and other birds that are with sports teams) would be nationally recognizable. Lots of people are aware of their state bird, and Ravens, Mockingbirds, Great Horned Owls, Crows, Blue Jays, and Gulls (though not specific to species) are widely known from non-birder influences too. I think we can throw Mallards in with that group as well, and probably Canada Geese. Red-tailed Hawk is a maybe, and Turkey Vulture is likely a shoo-in. Chickadees might even push their way in, as they appear in so much tacky bird art and embroidery stuff.
    Of course, part of your specification was that these people also intend to watch birds, at least occasionally, whereas the average joe who knows the mentioned species may not. But, I think it's safe to say that the average American can probably specify 10 species of bird, despite having never gone birding/bird watching, so maybe we should push the minimum for an actual bird watcher to 40 species?

    I have been continually surprised and amazed by the number of knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and even obsessive birders I've run into who are not only removed from any organizations, like Audubon societies, but are not plugged into any listservs or rare bird reports. They have their field guides but are otherwise almost unaware that their hobby is increasing popular and publicized. They're mostly older folks.

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    1. 40 was what I originally decided on actually. I would say, here in urban California, the majority of people don't know chickadees or Turkey Vultures, or even Mallards. I think they could get Pigeon, Gull, Crow/Raven, Hawk...and thats about it. Note that none of these are even species specific...thats why I took it down to 30. Im sure general bird knowledge varies with the region though.

      Yep, there are tons of birders off the radar...how to accurately count them is beyond me (not that Im very concerned about that), unless you start on a very local level.

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    2. People who call them "Canadian" Geese are most certainly not "birders". I think you could call 30'ers "birdwatchers", but to be a "birder" ya gotta have a little bit of obsessive-crazy goin on. I just interupted a client today because I heard some Gray Partridges. Then the flock flew in front of us and they thought it was pretty cool to see them and to see the I knew them by sound before we actually saw them. I'm pretty awesome that way. Yet I'm only the 53,742nd best birder in the world if my hacking into the GBRS servers was done correctly.

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    3. Robert, yes normally I would make the same distinction, but if anyone wants to seriously count all of us, I think the only way it could ever be done accurately is lumping us together.

      I will check with GBRS security to see if the system has indeed be compromised.

      GRPA is a nice bird to run into...Ive only seen them once.

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    4. Robert, congratulations on 53,742!
      I don't suppose you looked up any other people while you were there huh??

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  4. Fifty with binomial nomenclature is where I draw the distinction between birder and bird watcher. In California, just name everything that begins with American and California and you are mostly there.

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  5. As the World's Laziest Birder, I feel compelled to say: Who gives a rat's ass? There. I feel better now.

    Actually, I do keep a life Famous Birder List. I'm up to 2.5, because you west-coaster types haven't graced my birding couch with your fancy-schmancy birder butts. Said couch is in Ohio, even in a Globally Endangered Ecosystem. I s'pose I could go out and watch the birds, but it's so much more funner from the couch. Anywho, I could have lots more Famous Birders on my Life List if you'd grace us with your presence. And presents, too.


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    1. Ah, you asked the inevitable question. Well, the obvious answer is basic curiosity, and as a Scientist, I am prone to being curious. If you want to get serious, birders spend a lot of money on birding, and if someone were to talk about how they can effect local economies (which they certainly do) and conservation (which they do, but usually less directly), knowing how many are out there seems pretty important. There are other reasons of course.

      Are you offering me a couch? I've always wanted to do some spring Ohio birding...

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    2. Of course! We're the Ohio Home for Wayward Rangers and Other Notable Riff-raff. Since we're at the intersection of the Ohio Turnpike and I-75, lots of folks crash here. We're the house with the giant buzzard in the front yard. Hmmm.... I'll have to blog about that critter some day.

      If you come out for say, The Biggest Week in American Birding, (print a tri-fold, color glossy flyer and it makes any claim true) you're welcome to crash here. Bring beer.

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  6. Hi Steve - I've read your blog for quite awhile now and always enjoy your offbeat sense of humor that you bring to our "lifestyle" that yet to this day many non-Birders equate to Miss Jane in her campaign hat. I agreed with your post but I ended up with a question from it. Why do you think many very skilled birders do not belong to at least one of the many worthwhile organizations who are working very hard to support us? ABA, ABC, Cornell, whatever. To me, it makes sense to lend support to these groups. Membership is what drives the hunting/shooting lobbies, and membership is what is needed to drive the organizations dedicated to saving birds and bird habitats. Not trying to slam anybody, but to me, it's a no brainer.

    Joe in Nebraska

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    1. Good to hear from you Joe. I think I can, in part, answer your question.

      Personally, I am not a member for two reasons: 1) To save money and 2) Because I move constantly. Since I work seasonally and occasionally take volunteer jobs I do not bring in much cash...for example, in 2011 I had a paid job for an entire 3 months...so thats one factor. Another is that since I move 3-5 times in a single year, I can't really get the publications those organizations put out, so that takes away anything they would directly give back to me.

      Finally, I feel no guilt about my lack of involvement because I work directly with bird research and conservation projects, which I think has a much bigger impact than paying membership dues.

      I mentioned the youth factor...I think the reason a lot of young bird-minded folks are not involved with said organizations is because they often get involved in ways that are out of the reach of these organizations. For example, I know many birders in their 20's and 30's who got started because of a college ornithology class or biology program...when birders are shaped through this route, they very often don't come in contact with the ABA, etc., as many researchers/professors/fellow students are not members themselves.

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    2. I second the youth factor. I tried attending some birding groups when I moved to Utah, but it's hard to relate to the members when they're at least 20 years older than me. Some of them are downright rude because they don't think a 30-year old could know anything about birds.

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  7. My husband still thinks I'm the only bird nerd out there looking for birds even though he says when I leave at 6am to meet up with a group "Have fun with your little birdy friends". I show him pictures of a big group of people watching birds and he thinks I photoshoped them in. I made him watch "The Big Year". He thinks it was a funny piece of fiction. He has gone with me a few times to look for a rare bird. "How are you going to find this tiny bird" he says. I just look for the other 20 birders who were there first all staring at a tree.

    My life list is pretty short but I could probably name 50-60 by sight.

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    1. Ha! You should show him one of the videos on Youtube of the crowds of twitchers that show for rare birds in England...it is astonishing.

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  8. Steve - please don't take offense at my post and feel it was directed at you "not doing your part". My post stemmed back from earlier in the year when the ABA had a discussion going back and forth about recruiting new members, particularly younger people. I'm sure you'll agree that at any birding event, you'll tend to see more older folks than most. It's just something that interested me. And in any kind of hobby at all, not even birding, new, younger members are key to the organizations survival.

    o anyways, no offense was meant to you or any of your other readers, and if I did, I sincerely apologize. I'm the last person who can cast a stone, believe me. Pass one maybe, but not cast one. Ha!

    Take care, and I would really like the chance to go bird with you some time.

    Joe

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    1. No offense taken Joe! No worries, sorry if my other comment came across wrong. I think the ABA is doing ok with VERY young birders, but not as well with reaching out to the 20-35 bracket...offering a heavily discounted or free membership to student birders I think is one way to go.

      If you ever get out to California, you are more than welcome to get in touch with me...I'm usually in the bay area, but I know the state pretty well.

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  9. I disagree with the definition of looking at birds "recreationally". There is nothing recreational about standing at La Jolla Cove in a winter storm looking for auklets. It is just nuts. I think the distinction should be; do you pay attention to birds while doing other stuff, or do you go to places and make eforts specifically to see and identify birds.
    A while back, people in SD were arguing about who is part of the "Birding Elite". This was a bunch of whining from hardcore birders (or maybe just one of them) upset about not being respected enough to get immediate phone notifications. People bickered about who was part of the "elite" or not. Then Rob Fowler posted a message reminding eveyone that compared to the rest of the world and to all the "birdwatchers", we are ALL part of the birding elite. It was a very Humboldt response.

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    1. I think that's a good distinction to go with. Simple and inclusive.

      Yeah I think I read some of those elite emails. Very entertaining. Of course, all California birders know the one you speak of.

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  10. Evolution: Bird-spotter or bird-fancier > Birdwatcher > Birder >> Twitcher OR Ornithologist ;)

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  11. Hint: read Bill Oddie's Little Black Bird Book :)

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