Language matters. As birders, the words we use signal what we value. To nurture a community as wonderfully diverse as the birds we love, we need to ensure our language is as welcoming and inclusive as possible. One easy way to do this is to redefine “birding” and who a “birder” is.
In my work as the coordinator for Birdability, a nonprofit whose mission is to share the joys of birding with people who have disabilities and other health concerns, and outreach coordinator for Talkin’ Birds, a radio show and podcast about birds and conservation, I often hear birdwatching defined as a more relaxed, leisurely appreciation of birds. Meanwhile, birding focuses on chasing and listing birds, in a way that can often feel subtly (or overtly) competitive. Frequently, birdwatching is considered more amateur, and birding more serious and legitimate.
I have been a bird observer, identifier, appreciator, and lister, in one way or another, since my childhood in Australia, and I have lived and been part of birding communities in Texas, Massachusetts, Kentucky, and Alabama. These two interpretations have been consistent in all of those places. Unfortunately, this divide can create an exclusive and elitist atmosphere, which does not help welcome newcomers to the birding community, or celebrate any of the other diverse ways people engage with birds.
There is a reason for these differing definitions. As Scott Weidensaul writes in his 2007 book Of A Feather: A Brief History of American Birding, the term birding became popular in North America in the 1970s, tied to the newly emerging concepts of listing and Big Years. (A Big Year is an effort by one person to identify more bird species than anyone else in a defined geographic area within a year.) The competitive nature of a Big Year cannot be hidden! But words are a tool, and language evolves. Use of the term birding has already expanded for many people, and is regularly applied in a more general way. It is time to officially broaden the definition.
Kenn Kaufman, in his 2011 Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding, encouraged this notion: “Birding is something that we do for enjoyment,” he wrote. “So, if you enjoy it, then you’re a good birder.” Indeed. But, as long as birding and birdwatching are seen as distinct activities, often with a cultural preference to have a big life list and “out bird” others, the hobby of appreciating birds may still feel out of reach for many would-be participants.
I propose that we redefine birding to be: the act of enjoying wild birds. That way, we don’t need separate categories for birders and birdwatchers; we’re all just birders. And under this definition, it’s easy to embrace everybody who wants in, because birders are simply people who appreciate wild birds in whatever way they wish or are able to.
No single way of birding is more or less valuable than any other. We can look for birds while driving down a road, and admire them without binoculars. It is not necessary to watch or see birds: We can sit in our kitchen with open windows, listening to bird song filtering in, and appreciate them just as much. We can even enjoy birds virtually, via nest cams or online field trips.
If we redefine birding to be inclusive instead of exclusive, there’s room for everybody who shares a love for things with feathers. Of course, there will still be people who consider themselves “listers,” “twitchers,” “mindful birders,” or “casual birders,” or who enjoy multiple ways of birding. And that’s okay! But referring to everybody as birders as a starting point is such a simple way to invite more people in to share the joys of birding.
Often, beginner birders express concern in the early stages of their birding journey: Am I considered a birder? Have I seen enough birds? Will I be laughed at if I say I went birding even though I only identified six species? There is no certification required to be a birder, and no one is going to check your credentials to ensure you’re “qualified” to use that word about yourself. That is not inherently obvious to newcomers—but it could be.
If we apply the term birder to everybody, it also avoids the perceived barrier of the word birdwatching. Consider the assumptions of that term and how exclusive it might sound for some people. Ben Kingsley’s character in the film A Birder’s Guide to Everything states at one point: “Absolutely anyone can be a birder. Except for blind people I suppose.” The three birders he’s talking to all nod in agreement. But we know that’s false. Birders who are blind or have low vision may not watch birds, but may soak in birds by listening to them instead.
It’s not enough to just think we’re being inclusive. We have to be intentionally inclusive. Redefining birding is an easy way to do this, but there are other ways, too. Birders with disabilities or other health concerns may not feel invited to participate in a bird walk, but a bird outing? Perhaps. And you may not realize it, but the perception that expensive optics are necessary can create a socioeconomic barrier for many potential birders. (It should go without saying, but an unfriendly or patronizing tone is discouraging, too.)
As part of my work with Birdability, I’ve shared this broader definition of birding through social media, podcast interviews, and presentations with thousands of birders. The community response has been amazing. People who enjoy gentle, mindful birding tell me they feel included, whereas before, they felt uncomfortable identifying as a birder the same way someone who chases lifers does. Birders who can’t afford a pricey scope, or who aren’t confident with their identification skills, have told me that they, too, now feel like part of the birding community.
So, the next time you ask someone if they’ve been birding lately, and they reply sheepishly, “Well, yes, although I’m not sure if I’m really a birder yet ...,” imagine how good it will feel to respond, with great encouragement and enthusiasm: “Not a birder yet?! Do you enjoy wild birds? Then congratulations! You’re a birder!” And imagine how welcomed, and how included, they will feel.
I believe the lasting effects of redefining birding will be huge. It embraces newcomers, folks who bird in different ways, those with disabilities and other health concerns, and anyone who doesn't realize they’re a birder. And the more people who care about birds, the more people there will be to act on conservation efforts and protect the birds themselves.
After all, there is no wrong way to enjoy birds, and as we say at Birdability, birding is for everybody and every body!
Freya McGregor (she/her), OTR/L, CIG is the Birdability Coordinator and Occupational Therapist. You can follow her on Instagram @the.ot.birder and learn more about Birdability at birdability.org You can also hear her on Talkin’ Birds, where she works part time as the Outreach Coordinator and shares some of her birding adventures with listeners via audio postcards.