Birding

Seagull or Gull: Who Really Cares?

When birders reflexively correct common names like "seagull" or "Canadian goose," they may turn newcomers off the hobby altogether.

My husband and I share many things in common, but when we met, birds were not among them. I write about birds for a living, and before I became a writer, I spent time in far-flung places like the Australian Outback and the Saskatchewan prairie in the name of bird science. Evan, on the other hand, had a vague idea that there might be more than one kind of sparrow—and that was about it.

As he got to know me, though, he slowly grew interested in my feathery fixation. I never pushed it, but the identification and categorization involved in birding clearly clicked with the same parts of his brain that like engineering and ham radio. Now, he’s often the one grabbing the binoculars when we head out for a walk along our favorite creek at the edge of town. Once in a while, he even beats me to the species ID.

But it wasn’t until recently that I realized he had really, truly become one of us.

A friend had posted a photo of a large, common bird—you know the one: buffy body, black neck and head, white chinstrap—on social media, referring to it as a “Canadian goose.” It seemed my husband couldn’t contain himself. He posted a comment to inform his friend that, actually, the correct name is Canada Goose.

"Any old goose from Canada is a Canadian goose, while I am a distinguished Canada Goose." Photo: Anna Flynn/Audubon Photography Awards

That’s when I knew I’d created a monster. In those five years, Evan had learned a lot about birds. He can now easily identify and list the many sparrow species that frequent our backyard (House, Song, White-crowned, and occasionally Chipping). And he’d also picked up one of birding’s more annoying habits.

Let’s call it “birdsplaining”—that urge to jump in like a walking Wikipedia entry as soon as we hear someone flub a bird name. It isn’t limited to pedantry about geese; the word “seagull” also seems to drive some birders up the wall. People who say “seagull,” we assure each other, are wrong. There’s no such thing as a seagull—the correct term is simply “gull," because gulls don't live exclusively near the sea. This is a hill many birders have chosen to die on. (There’s even a Twitter account!)

The excuse for such purism is that, for many birders, a correct ID is the whole point of the hobby. After all, standardized common names are immensely helpful in making sure that we’re all talking about the same bird; plenty of warblers are partially yellow, but there is only one Yellow Warbler. Indeed, North American birds have official, “correct” common names determined by the American Ornithological Society. (Disclosure: AOS is one of my writing clients.)

But it’s not like birders use these so-called correct names 100 percent of the time. We have our own language of silly bird nicknames, from butterbutts to LBJs. And yet, many birders make these almost compulsive, rabid corrections anyway.

I’m as guilty of this hang-up as anyone. I’ve done my share of cringing when someone refers to a Great Blue Heron as an egret—or worse, a crane. But lately I’ve been thinking that my habit may do more harm than good.

Laughing Gulls cackle at your pedantry! Photo: Philip Sidran/Audubon Photography Awards

As in everything, context matters. Sometimes putting the right name to a wild bird is an opening for a little on-the-spot environmental education. After all, a heron and a crane are two very different things. The person you’re talking to might be interested to learn about those differences, and birders who’ve picked up this habit of kneejerk corrections are, by and large, doing it with a good heart. They’re trying to be helpful, to induct someone new into the shared language that makes birding a community.

The spark for birding doesn't come from sorting things into categories, though. It comes from learning to notice birds—and then learning to notice them everywhere. If an experienced birder immediately rushes in with a “well, actually,” we make it seem like memorizing lists of names is a prerequisite for being into birds, and we can blow out that spark before it catches.

So, the next time someone starts telling you about that wacky seagull or pissed-off Canadian goose they spotted, consider a different approach. Take a deep breath. Smile. Say, “cool!” Ask questions. Where did they see it? What was it doing? Offer to lend them a field guide or hook them up with a local birding group. Save “you know, it’s really called a Canada Goose” for the second conversation. Or maybe the third. Meet your non-birding friends and acquaintances halfway, and get excited along with them about common birds you’ve seen a hundred times before.

And yes, that includes getting excited about—gasp!—seagulls. You might surprise yourself by noticing something new about everyone's favorite chip burglars.

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Whether you're a long-time birder or new to the hobbydownload our free Audubon bird guide app for profiles of more than 800 North American species—including their common names. 

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