Birdwatching or birding is the observation of birds as a recreational activity. It can be done with the naked eye, through a visual enhancement device like binoculars and telescopes, or by listening for bird sounds. Birding 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 mainly for recreational or social reasons, unlike ornithologists, who engage in the study of birds using more formal scientific methods.
Birding, birdwatching, and twitching
The term birdwatching was first used in 1901; bird was introduced as a verb in 1918. The term birding was also used for the practice of fowling or hunting with firearms as inShakespeare's 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 many participants prefer birding, both because it does not exclude the auditory aspects of enjoying birds, and because it does not have some associated negative connotations.
In North America, many birders differentiate themselves from birdwatchers, and the term birder is unknown to most lay people. At the most basic level, the distinction is one of dedication or intensity. Generally, self-described birders are 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 Volume 1, No.2, which stated the following:
Birder. The acceptable term used to describe the person who seriously pursues the hobby or sport of birding. May be professional or amateur.
Birding. A sport and/or 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 both to describe the person who watches birds for any reason at all, and, more recently, to refer to a person who watches girls. Used mostly in fun. Should not be used to refer to the serious birder. The word "BIRD-WATCHING" is in the same category, of course.
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 checked off, on a list. The term originated in the 1950s, when it was used to describe 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, Denmark, Ireland, 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, a group of approximately 2,500 people travelled to Kent, England, to view a Golden-winged Warbler. 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 twitchers.
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. Although the study of birds and natural history became fashionable in Britain during the Victorian Era, it was mainly collection oriented with 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 book "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 Blanchanwas an early birding book which sold over 250,000 copies. It was illustrated with color photographs of stuffed birds.
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 (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, unlike the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) which like the 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 Andy Elliott.
Initially, birdwatching was a hobby practised 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 citizens from developing countries that engage in birdwatching usually develop this pastime due to influence of foreign cultures that already practise birding.