A note from the author: Upon further reflection—and a very good point made on Twitter—I concede that the Shoebill qualifies as a birb under Rule 3's Muppet Exemption. The piece has been updated to reflect this.
There are certain terms that embed themselves into your consciousness like a woodpecker’s beak in particle board. “Birb” is one of them. For those not terminally online, birb is affectionate internet-speak for birds. The word began, as near as anyone can tell, when the absurdist Twitter account BirdsRightsActivist tweeted the single word “Birb,” out on November 2012; two years later, it had multiple entries in Urban Dictionary and a dedicated reddit forum. The term is seemingly designed for the internet: one syllable, beginning and ending with “b,” connoting a pleasant roundness, a warm mouth-feel. What a good birb, you might say, or I’m so glad we went birb-watching, or I love Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birbs.
Birb is a slightly daffy word from the same school of internet absurdity that gave us LOLCats (“I Can Haz Cheezburger”) and Doge (“Much Meme, very cute. Wow.”) Yet unlike these online gags, or memes, birb functions as a category rather than a stock character. It is roughly akin to “doggo,” or “snek,” yet all dogs and snakes are contained within those words; birb remains amorphous. Sit outside an Austin coffeeshop on a pleasant fall day, and many urban birds present themselves for perusal: strutting, sardonic grackles, chatty parakeets, bustling sparrows. Which of them are birb? Are some birds more birb-like than others? What is a birb, really?
First, let’s consider the canonized usages. The subreddit r/birbs defines a birb as any bird that’s “being funny, cute, or silly in some way." Urban Dictionary has a more varied set of definitions, many of which allude to a generalized smallness. A video on the youtube channel Lucidchart offers its own expansive suggestions: All birds are birbs, a chunky bird is a borb, and a fluffed-up bird is a floof. Yet some tension remains: How can all birds be birbs if smallness or cuteness are in the equation? Clearly some birds get more recognition for an innate birbness.
What this question requires, therefore, are some basic operational rules.
Rule 1: Birbs are often (though not conclusively) small. Adult Ostriches are thus disqualified, as is any bird larger than a turkey; warblers, sparrows, flycatchers, and other songbirds are the most likely demographic. Even large birds start small, however: An ostrich or crane chick is absolutely a birb. We may understand, then, that while “birb” can be a developmental stage, some birds are birbs their whole lives.
Rule 2: Birbs are often (though not always) round. People tend to regard round animals as cuter, and round objects in general to be more pleasant. (This shape factor also complements the aforementioned roundness of the word “birb” itself.) Given this, the rounder or fluffier a bird is, the more birblike it is likely to be. Here again, classic songbirds and rotund groundbirds like grouse and ptarmigans have the advantage: They look like little balls of fluff, an important component for birbness. Most hawks and eagles are too sharp and angular to qualify under this metric; the same goes for many gulls, cranes, crows, and grackles. If the Pileated Woodpecker didn't lose its birb status under Rule 1, it does now, though smaller and rounder woodpeckers like the Downy or Red-bellied are most certainly birbs.
Rule 3: Birbs appear cute. This gets into slightly dicier territory: Isn’t cuteness subjective? Up to a point, but Rule 2 helps here. Humans tend to like looking at round and fluffy things. So much so, in fact, that violent or unseemly behavior doesn’t disqualify a bird from birbness: the aggression of hummingbirds, the Vlad-the-impaler antics of shrikes, brood parasitism of cuckoos, and brain-eating of Great Tits are immaterial to their round fluffiness. You could post a picture of any of these on reddit under “murder birb” and nobody would blink. Again, eagles and other large raptors are a bit too majestic and fierce looking to count under this metric. However, silliness or absurdity also come into play: The potoo bird is large and not particularly fluffy, but its general muppety appearance makes it a contender for the title. Even the terrifying Shoebill stork sneaks in with this exemption.
Now that we’ve laid out some basic guidelines, let’s test them out. The following can be unquestionably judged as birbs, hitting the natural sweet spot of round, fluffy, and small: The vast majority of songbirds. Burrowing Owls, Elf Owls, both screech-owls, American Kestrels, and other small raptors also qualify. So do prairie chickens, quail, shorebirds like sandpipers, and smaller seabirds like puffins and penguins. Parrots of all sizes are in, despite some of them being quite formidable, because culturally they scan as cute. Little waders like the Green Heron are in, but the Great Blue Heron? Sorry, not a birb.
Big raptors, while incredible and fascinating creatures, are not birbs. The same goes for large seabirds like gulls and albatrosses. Swans and geese have solidified a reputation as terrors, and are worryingly big besides. Most cranes, herons, and storks are too large and lanky. And then you get to birds like the Cassowary, which is perhaps the least birb-like bird on the planet. Its chicks may qualify as birbs (see Rule 1), but the adults most definitely do not.
Now, one might reasonably ask why it matters which birds qualify as birbs. Strictly speaking, of course, it doesn’t. But viewed sidelong, it becomes a taxonomic game, akin to “is a hot dog a sandwich.” These sorts of debates are fun partially because they reveal real fault-lines in our operational definitions. It’s a chance to take stock, not just of what we think about birds, but how we think about them. Defining “birb” also means interrogating our impressions. It’s not only about rating them: It's about reminding us that—regardless of birb-status—all birds are good.