Sunday, September 11, 2011

Bird Watcher, Birder, Ornithologist--Who cares?

BirdersPeople watching birds--whatever you call it--at Abbott Creek Burn, Jefferson County, Oregon, 7 June 2009 by Greg Gillson.


It's a perennial discussion. What do bird watchers call themselves? Although you would think that it is silly and doesn't matter, the name we associate with ourselves is very personal and self-defining. Such discussions can be quite emotional.

Recently, there has been discussion of changing the name of the Oregon Field Ornithologists in order to possibly increase membership. It seems that many bird watchers think that this birding organization is only for professional biologists. Not even close to true. Likewise, the organization that is the very definition of the word "birder," the American Birding Association, still wrestles with the word, as it did from its very inception. Having "birding" in its name does not keep the ABA from losing membership in the Internet age.

Very broadly, anyone who watches birds is a bird watcher. The old man that feeds bread to the ducks at the local city park, the neighbor with the empty hummingbird feeder hanging outside the window, visitors to the wildlife refuge to view the Bald Eagles, and the enthusiast who plans her third trip to Borneo this year just to view that one species missing from her huge list of birds she has seen in the world--all these are bird watchers.

Though not without argument, the term that describes a person who searches out and tries to identify all the birds they see, is usually called a birder. Birding often (but not always) includes listing--keeping careful track of birds they see, ticking them off on their list(s). There are life lists, country lists, state lists, county lists, backyard lists, and year lists of all these types and more. A friend once compared it (without bias) to stamp collecting. Birders are concerned with identification and distribution of birds in order to find (collect sightings of) them.

Field ornithology is the study of living birds in their natural habitat. Population status, behavior, and nesting are some of the topics of field ornithology. Recording data (including counting the number of individual birds seen) is a major component of field ornithology.

So, if you like to watch birds and desire to know their names you can be considered a birder. If you have ever participated on a Christmas Bird Count or breeding bird atlas, helped create a park checklist, or submitted sightings to eBird, you are, in fact, participating in a field ornithology activity.

Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia all have their Field Ornithology organizations. These are primarily birding organizations. They host their respective Bird Records Committees, which keep track of, and sanction, the official state bird list and vet rare bird sightings. They often produce a periodical that includes an updated state bird checklist, a comprehensive list of recent bird sightings, details about rare birds discovered, site guides to relatively unknown birding locations, and identification articles.

If you want actual field ornithology, then the East Cascades Audubon Society in Bend, Oregon does many more field ornithology projects than many state field ornithology organizations. Of course, Audubon Societies, in general, are environmental advocacy organizations that have membership primarily made up of the generic "bird watchers" and birders, and very few actual biologists or professional ornithologists.

So, no matter what you call your bird watching activities, you're probably also participating in birding and field ornithology.


  1. Hi Greg,

    Nice blog -- great pictures!

    I've just come off a 100-day meditation retreat in the Willapa Hills (overview: and as you can imagine I observed lots of birds. One thing I learned is that even though I'm a lifelong country boy, I haven't paid much attention to birds; I was shamed by my ignorance of the species I encountered out there.

    So I'm slowly filling in a lot of blanks, using details I recorded in my journal, my memory of calls, which I paid careful attention to, and on- and offline guides. I'll tell you this: if you ever need an owl call expert, drop me a line. I didn't actually _see_ that many, but when something shrieks a few yards from your tent at midnight, you remember. (4 species, all told.)

    Anyway, the reason I'm posting is I was hoping you could help me with one call I haven't been able to identify. I heard it most evenings at dusk, in a maple and alder ravine adjacent to my camp. It sounded like someone was striking a tiny bell: "ding......ding.....ding". Basically a single high, tremolo note, higher than the one-note whistle of the saw-whet owl, which I also heard in roughly the same time and place, and with a little decay on the end, like a bell.

    I know it's hard to ID a call from a description, but this one was so prevalent and so unique, I thought it might be a classic.

    Thanks either way!


  2. Thanks for your comments, Robin.

    My guess is that your bell-like call is not from an owl.

    For the next several weeks Swainson's Thrushes will be migrating at night. Their contact notes are a wit or weep whistled call. This is one of the most common night-time bird calls during migration. You may be able to hear other calls from other birds (mostly passerines) at night, or see them fly across the face of the moon near the horizon. Doppler radar picks up migrant birds at night--check out such "weather" maps online.