Birdwatching, or birding, is a form of wildlife observation in which
the observation of birds is a recreational activity or citizen
science. It can be done with the naked eye, through a visual
enhancement device like binoculars and telescopes, by listening for
bird sounds, or by watching public webcams.
Birdwatching often involves a significant auditory component, as many
bird species are more easily detected and identified by ear than by
eye. Most birdwatchers pursue this activity for recreational or social
reasons, unlike ornithologists, who engage in the study of birds using
formal scientific methods.
1 Birding, birdwatching, and twitching
2 The history of birdwatching
3 Economic and environmental impact
4.2 Environmental education
5 Networking and organization
6 Equipment and technology
6.1 Sound equipment
6.4 Portable media players
6.5 Remote birdwatching
6.7 Code of conduct
8 Famous birdwatchers
9 In media
10 See also
13 External links
Birding, birdwatching, and twitching
A birdwatching tower in Hankasalmi, Finland
The first recorded use of the term birdwatcher was in 1891; bird was
introduced as a verb in 1918. The term birding was also used for
the practice of fowling or hunting with firearms as in Shakespeare's
The Merry Wives of Windsor
The Merry Wives of Windsor (1602): "She laments sir... her husband
goes this morning a-birding." The terms birding and birdwatching
are today used by some interchangeably, although some participants
prefer birding, partly because it includes the auditory aspects of
In North America, many birders differentiate themselves from
birdwatchers, and the term birder is unfamiliar to most lay people. At
the most basic level, the distinction is perceived as one of
dedication or intensity, though this is a subjective differentiation.
Generally, self-described birders perceive themselves to be more
versed in minutiae like identification (aural and visual), molt,
distribution, migration timing, and habitat usage. Whereas these
dedicated birders may often travel specifically in search of birds,
birdwatchers have been described by some enthusiasts as having a more
limited scope, perhaps not venturing far from their own yards or local
parks to view birds. Indeed, in 1969 a Birding Glossary appeared in
Birding magazine which gave the following definitions:
Birder. The acceptable term used to describe the person who seriously
pursues the hobby of birding. May be professional or amateur.
Birding. A hobby in which individuals enjoy the challenge of bird
study, listing, or other general activities involving bird life.
Bird-watcher. A rather ambiguous term used to describe the person who
watches birds for any reason at all, and should not be used to refer
to the serious birder.
— Birding, Volume 1, No.2
Twitching is a British term used to mean "the pursuit of a previously
located rare bird." In North America it is more often called chasing,
though the British usage is starting to catch on there, especially
among younger birders. The term twitcher, sometimes misapplied as a
synonym for birder, is reserved for those who travel long distances to
see a rare bird that would then be ticked, or counted on a list.
The term originated in the 1950s, when it was used for the nervous
behaviour of Howard Medhurst, a British birdwatcher. Prior terms for
those who chased rarities were pot-hunter, tally-hunter, or
tick-hunter. The main goal of twitching is often to accumulate species
on one's lists. Some birders engage in competition to accumulate the
longest species list. The act of the pursuit itself is referred to as
a twitch or a chase. A rare bird that stays put long enough for people
to see it is twitchable or chaseable.
Twitching is highly developed in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands,
Finland and Sweden. The size of these countries
makes it possible to travel throughout them quickly and with relative
ease. The most popular twitches in the UK have drawn large crowds; for
example, approximately 2,500 people travelled to Kent, England, to
view a golden-winged warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera), which is native
to North America. Twitchers have developed their own vocabulary.
For example, a twitcher who fails to see a rare bird has dipped out;
if other twitchers do see the bird, he may feel gripped off.
Suppression is the act of concealing news of a rare bird from other
Many birdwatchers maintain a life list, that is, a list of all of the
species they have seen in their life, usually with details about the
sighting such as date and location. The American Birding Association
has specific rules about how a bird species may be documented and
recorded in such a list if it is submitted to the ABA; however, the
criteria for the personal recording of these lists are very
subjective. Some birdwatchers "count" species they have identified
audibly, while others only record species that they have identified
visually. Some also maintain a country list, state list, county list,
yard list, year list, or any combination of these.
The history of birdwatching
The early interest in observing birds for their aesthetic rather than
utilitarian (mainly food) value is traced to the late 18th century in
the works of Gilbert White, Thomas Bewick, George Montagu and John
Clare. The study of birds and natural history in general became
increasingly prevalent in Britain during the Victorian Era, often
associated with collection, eggs and later skins being the artifacts
of interest. Wealthy collectors made use of their contacts in the
colonies to obtain specimens from around the world. It was only in the
late 19th century that the call for bird protection began leading to
the rising popularity of observations on living birds. The Audubon
Society was started to protect birds from the growing trade in
feathers in the United States while the Royal Society for the
Protection of Birds began in Britain.
The term "birdwatching" appeared for the first time as the title of a
Bird Watching" by
Edmund Selous in 1901. In North America,
the identification of birds, once thought possible only by shooting
was made possible by the emergence of optics and field identification
guides. The earliest field guide in the US was Birds through an Opera
Glass (1889) by Florence Bailey.
Birding in North America was focused in the early and mid-20th century
in the eastern seaboard region, and was influenced by the works of
Ludlow Griscom and later Roger Tory Peterson.
Bird Neighbors (1897) by
Neltje Blanchan was an early birding book which sold over 250,000
copies. It was illustrated with color photographs of stuffed
The organization and networking of those interested in birds began
through organizations like the
Audubon Society that was against the
killing of birds and the
American Ornithologists' Union
American Ornithologists' Union (AOU). The
rising popularity of the car increased the mobility of birdwatchers
and this made new locations accessible to those interested in
birds. Networks of birdwatchers in the UK began to form in the
late 1930s under the British Trust for
Ornithology (BTO). The BTO saw
the potential to produce scientific results through the networks,
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) which like
Audubon Society originated from the bird protection movement.
Like the AOU in North America, the BOU had a focus mainly in
collection based taxonomy. The BOU changed focus to ecology and
behaviour only in the 1940s. The BTO movement towards 'organized
birdwatching', was opposed by the RSPB which claimed that the
'scientification' of the pastime was 'undesirable'. This stand was to
change only in 1936 when the RSPB was taken over by
Tom Harrisson and
others. Harrisson was instrumental in the organization of pioneering
surveys of the great crested grebe.
Increased mobility of birdwatchers ensured that books like Where to
Watch Birds by
John Gooders became best-sellers. By the 1960s
air-travel became feasible and long distance holiday destinations
opened up with the result that by 1965, Britain's first birding tour
company, Ornitholidays was started by Lawrence Holloway.
Travelling far away also led to problems in name usage, British birds
like "wheatear", "heron" and "swallow" needed adjectives to
differentiate them in places where there were several related
species. The falling cost of air-travel made flying to remote
birding destinations a possibility for a large number of people
towards the 1980s. The need for global guides to birds became more
relevant and one of the biggest projects that began was the Handbook
of the Birds of the World which started in the 1990s with Josep del
Hoyo a country doctor in Catalonia, Jordi Sargatal and ornithologist
Initially, birdwatching was a hobby undertaken in developed countries
such as the United States of America and the United Kingdom.
Nevertheless, since the second half of the 20th century an increasing
number of people in developing countries have engaged in this
activity. Transnational birding has played an important role in this,
as birders in developing countries usually take up the pastime under
the influence of foreign cultures with a history of birding.
Economic and environmental impact
In the 20th century most of the birding activity in North America was
done on the east coast. The publication of Roger Tory Peterson's field
guide in 1934 led to the initial increase in birding. Binoculars
became more easily available after World War II, which made this
easier. The practice of travelling long distances to see rare bird
species was aided by the rising popularity of cars.
About 4% of North Americans were interested in birding in the 1970s
and in the mid-1980s at least 11% were found to watch birds at least
20 days of the year. An estimate of 61 million birders was made in the
late 1980s. The income level of birders has been found to be well
The 2000 publication of "The Sibley Guide to Birds" sold 500,000
copies by 2002. but it was found that the number of birdwatchers
rose but there appeared to be a drop in birdwatching in the
According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study, birdwatchers
contributed $36 billion to the US economy 2006, and one fifth (20%) of
all Americans are identified as birdwatchers.
North American birders were estimated to have spent as much as US$32
billion in 2001. The spending is on the rise around the world.
Kuşcenneti National Park (KNP) at Lake Manyas, a
Ramsar site in
Turkey was estimated to attract birders who spent as much as
US$103,320,074 annually. Guided bird tours have become a major
business with at least 127 companies offering tours worldwide. An
average trip to a less-developed country costs $4000 per person and
includes about 12 participants for each of 150 trips a year. It has
been suggested that this economic potential needs to be tapped for
One of the expectations of ecotourism is that the travels of
birdwatchers to a place will contribute to the improvement of the
local economy which and in turn ensure that the environment is valued
and protected. Numerous positive and negative impacts of birdwatching
have been identified. Impacts include disturbance to birds, the
environment, local cultures and the economy. Methods to reduce
negative impact and improve the value to conservation are the subject
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Birdwatchers at J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel,
Many birdwatchers occupy themselves with observing local species
(birding in their "local patch"), but may also make specific trips
to observe birds in other locales. The most active times of the year
for birding in temperate zones are during the spring or fall
migrations when the greatest variety of birds may be seen. On these
occasions, large numbers of birds travel north or south to wintering
or nesting locations. Early mornings are typically better as the birds
are more active and vocal making them easier to spot.
Certain locations such as the local patch of forest, wetland and coast
may be favoured according to the location and season.
Seawatching is a
type of birdwatching where observers based at a coastal watch point,
such as a headland, watch birds flying over the sea. This is one form
of pelagic birding, by which pelagic bird species are viewed. Another
way birdwatchers view pelagic species is from seagoing vessels.
Weather plays an important role in the occurrence of rare birds. In
Britain, suitable wind conditions may lead to drift migration, and an
influx of birds from the east. In North America, birds caught in the
tail-end of a hurricane may be blown inland.
The Strait of Messina, Sicily, a classic migration bottleneck, seen
Birdwatchers may take part in censuses of bird populations and
migratory patterns which are sometimes specific to individual species.
These birdwatchers may also count all birds in a given area, as in the
Bird Count or follow carefully designed study protocols.
This kind of citizen science can assist in identifying environmental
threats to the well-being of birds or, conversely, in assessing
outcomes of environmental management initiatives intended to ensure
the survival of at-risk species or encourage the breeding of species
for aesthetic or ecological reasons.
This more scientific side of the hobby is an aspect of ornithology,
coordinated in the UK by the British Trust for Ornithology. The
Cornell Lab of
Ornithology hosts many citizen-science projects to
track the number and distribution of bird species across North
America. These surveys help scientists note major changes from year to
year which may occur as a result of climate change, disease,
predation, and other factors.
Moroccan students watching birds at Nador's lagoon as a part of
environmental education activities organized by the Spanish
Due to their accessibility and ubiquity, birds are a useful tool for
environmental education and awareness on environmental issues. Birds
easily transmit values on respect to nature and the fragility of
Birdwatchers watching Britain's fifth-ever white-tailed lapwing at
Caerlaverock, Scotland, 6 June 2007
Birding as a competitive event is organized in some parts of the
world. These are found to be more exciting by some. The birding
competitions encourage individuals or teams to accumulate large
numbers of species within a specified time or area with special rules.
Some birdwatchers will also compete by attempting to increase their
life list, national list, state list, provincial list, county list, or
year list. There have however been criticisms of such events
especially when they are claimed to aid conservation when they may
actually mask serious environmental issues. The American Birding
Association was originally started as a club for "listers", but it now
serves a much broader audience. Still, the ABA continues to publish an
official annual report of North American list standings.
Competitive birdwatching events include:
Big Day: teams have 24 hours to identify as many species as possible.
Big Year: like a big day, but contestants are individuals, and need to
be prepared to invest a great deal of time and money.
Big Sit or Big Stay: birdwatchers must see birds from a circle of
prescribed diameter (e.g.: 17-foot). Once birds are spotted,
birdwatchers can leave the circle to confirm the identity, but new
birds seen may not be counted.
Networking and organization
Prominent national and continental organizations concerned with
birding include the British Trust for
Ornithology and Royal Society
for the Protection of Birds in the United Kingdom, and the American
Birding Association and the Cornell Lab of
Ornithology in North
America. Many statewide or local Audubon organizations are also quite
active in the United States, as are many provincial and local
organizations in Canada.
BirdLife International is an important global
alliance of bird conservation organizations. Many countries and
smaller regions (states/provinces) have "rarities committees" to
check, accept or reject reports of rare birds made by birders.
Equipment and technology
Birders using a tower hide to gain views over foreground vegetation.
Bay of Liminka, south of Oulu, Finland.
Equipment commonly used for birding includes binoculars, a spotting
scope with tripod, a notepad, and one or more field guides. Hides
(known as blinds in North America) or observation towers are often
used to conceal the observers from birds, and/or to improve viewing
conditions. Virtually all optics manufacturers offer specific
binoculars for birding, and some have even geared their whole brand to
Recognition of bird vocalizations is an important part of a birder's
toolkit. Sound information can assist in the locating, watching,
identification and sexing of birds. Recent developments in audio
technology have seen recording and reproduction devices shrink in both
size and price, making them accessible to a greater portion of the
The non-linear nature of digital audio technology has also made
selecting and accessing the required recordings much more flexible
than tape-based models. It is now possible to take a recording of
every birdcall you are likely to encounter in a given area out into
the field stored on a device that will slip into your pocket, and to
retrieve calls for playback and comparison in any order you choose.
Photography has always been a part of birding, but in the past the
cost of cameras with super-telephoto lenses made this a minority,
often semi-professional, interest. The advent of affordable digital
cameras, which can be used in conjunction with a spotting scope or
binoculars (using the technique of afocal photography, referred to by
the neologism "digiscoping" or sometimes digibinning for binoculars),
have made this a much more widespread aspect of the hobby.
As with the arrival of affordable digital cameras, the development of
more compact and affordable digital video cameras has made them more
attractive and accessible to the birding community. Cross-over,
non-linear digital models now exist that take high quality stills at
acceptable resolutions, as well as being able to record and play audio
and video. The ability to easily capture and reproduce not only the
visual characteristics of a bird, but also its patterns of movement
and its sound, has wide applications for birders in the field.
Portable media players
This class of product includes devices that can play (some can also
record) a range of digital media, typically video, audio and still
image files. Many modern digital cameras, mobile phones, and
camcorders can be classified as portable media players. With the
ability to store and play large quantities of information,
pocket-sized devices allow a full birding multimedia library to be
taken into the field and mobile
Internet access makes obtaining and
transmitting information possible in near real time.
New technologies are allowing birdwatching activities to take place
over the Internet, using robotic camera installations and mobile
phones set up in remote wildlife areas. Projects such as CONE 
allow users to observe and photograph birds over the web; similarly,
robotic cameras set up in largely inhospitable areas are being used to
attempt the first photographs of the rare ivory-billed woodpecker.
These systems represent new technologies in the birdwatcher's
In the early 1950s the only way of communicating new bird sightings
was through the postal system and it was generally too late for the
recipients to act on the information. In 1953 James Ferguson-Lees
began broadcasting rare bird news on the radio in Eric Simms'
Countryside program but this did not catch on. In the 1960s people
began using the telephone and some people became hubs for
communication. In the 1970s some cafes, like the one in Cley, Norfolk
run by Nancy Gull, became centers for meeting and communication. This
was replaced by telephone hotline services like "Birdline" and "Bird
With the advent of the World-Wide Web, birders have been using the
Internet to convey information; this can be via mailing lists, forums,
bulletin-boards, web-based databases and other media. While
most birding lists are geographic in scope, there are special-interest
lists that cater to bird-identification, 'twitchers', seabirds and
raptor enthusiasts to name but a few. Messages can range from the
serious to trivial, notifying others of rarities, questioning the
taxonomy or identification of a species, discussing field guides and
other resources, asking for advice and guidance, or organizing groups
to help save habitats. Occasional postings are mentioned in academic
journals and therefore can be a valuable resource for professional and
amateur birders alike. One of the oldest, Birdchat (based
in the US) probably has the most subscribers, followed by the
English-language fork of Eurobirdnet, Birding-Aus from
Australia, SABirdnet from South Africa and Orientalbirding.
Several websites allow users to submit lists of birds seen, while
others collate and produce seasonal statistics, distribution maps.
Code of conduct
As the numbers of birdwatchers increases, there is growing concern
about the impact of birdwatching on the birds and their habitat.
Birdwatching etiquette is evolving in response to this concern.
Some examples of birdwatching etiquette include promoting the welfare
of birds and their environment, limiting use of photography, pishing
and playback devices to mitigate stress caused to birds, maintaining a
distance away from nests and nesting colonies, and respecting private
The lack of definite evidence, except arguably in the form of
photographs, makes birding records difficult to prove but birdwatchers
strive to build trust in their identification. One of the few
major disputes was the case of the Hastings Rarities.
See also: Biophilia hypothesis
Nikolaas Tinbergen considers birdwatching to be an
expression of the male hunting instinct while
Simon Baron-Cohen links
it with the male tendency for "systemizing". There have been
suggestions that identification of birds may be a form of gaining
status which has been compared with Kula valuables noted in Papua New
A study of the motivations for birdwatching in New York concluded that
initial motivations were largely similar in males and females, but
males who participate actively in birding are more motivated by
"sharing knowledge" with others, and active female birders are more
motivated by their "intellectual" interest in studying birds, and by
the "challenge" of identifying new and rare birds and improving their
skills. A study suggests that males leaned towards competitive
birding while females preferred recreational birdwatching. While
the representation of women has always been low, it has been
pointed out that nearly 90% of all birdwatchers in the United States
are white with only a few African Americans.
Other minority groups have formed organizations to support fellow
birders and these include the Gay birders and the Disabled Birders
The study of birdwatching has been of interest to students of the
sociology of science.
See also: List of birdwatchers
There are about 10,000 species of bird and only a small number of
people have seen more than 7000. Many birdwatchers have spent their
entire lives trying to see all the bird species of the world. The
first person who started this is said to be Stuart Keith.
Some birders have been known to go to great lengths and many have lost
their lives in the process.
Phoebe Snetsinger spent her family
inheritance travelling to various parts of the world while suffering
from a malignant melanoma, surviving an attack and rape in New Guinea
before dying in a road accident in Madagascar. She saw as many as
The birdwatcher David Hunt who was leading a bird tour in Corbett
National Park was killed by a tiger in February 1985. In 1971
Ted Parker travelled around North America and saw 626 species in a
year. This record was beaten by
Kenn Kaufman in 1973 who travelled
69,000 miles and saw 671 species and spent less than a thousand
dollars. Ted Parker was killed in an air-crash in Ecuador.
In 2012 Tom Gullick, an Englishman who lives in Spain, became the
first birdwatcher to log over 9,000 species. In 2008 two British
birders, Alan Davies and Ruth Miller, gave up their jobs, sold their
home and put everything they owned into a year-long global
birdwatching adventure about which they a wrote a book called "The
Biggest Twitch". They logged their 4431st species on 31 October
Birdwatching literature, field guides and television programs have
been popularized by birders like Pete Dunne and Bill Oddie.
The 2011 movie
The Big Year
The Big Year depicted three birders competing in an ABA
Area big year.
List of birding books
List of ornithology journals
American Birding Association
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
National Audubon Society
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
World Series of Birding
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Look up birdwatching or bird watching in Wiktionary, the free
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Birdwatching.
Wikivoyage has travel information for birdwatching.
Birding at Curlie (based on DMOZ)
All About Birds – Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Birders, Banders, &
Binoculars Video produced by Idaho Public
A six-part History of Birding magazine, covering the period
1968–2006, appeared in Birding magazine in 2006:
1968–74, 1975–80, 1981–87, 1988–93, 1994–2000, 2001–06
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