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This article appeared in the January, 2018 issue of Maine Woodlands, our monthly publication.                              

                             By Bob Duchesne

     Perhaps you’ve been reading about birds in this column for several years. Perhaps you feed birds, and recognize them in your woodlands.  Although you never imagined it could happen, you might now be asking yourself, “Goodness gracious, am I a birder? What will the neighbors think?”  

     Odds are, your neighbors will think well of you. Every five years, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service conducts a survey of hunting, fishing, and wildlife-watching. It stands to reason that residents of the most forested state in the nation have an above-average interest in birds. Indeed, Mainers are way above average; up to 39% have an interest in birds, second only to Montana.  

     Recently, somebody asked me what it takes to become a birder. I reassured her that there are no required courses, no tests. The moment you start birding, you’re a birder. Congratulations. The next question was trickier. “What’s the difference between a birder and a birdwatcher?” I can’t really explain it, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.  

     The term birdwatching is older. Originally, birding was like fishing. The object was to bring home the bird. Gradually, definitions changed, and just a hundred years ago the term “birding” was first defined  in a dictionary as observing birds, not shooting them. Nowadays, the terms birding and birdwatching are synonymous, but there’s perhaps a subtle difference. 

     I liken it to the difference between golfing and golfwatching.  Birdwatching is a pastime; birding is a sport – the difference between passive and active enjoyment.  If you watch finches come to your feeder, you’re a casual birdwatcher. But if you’re out for a walk, and chase a warbler, you’re a birder. Even casual birdwatchers improve with time, but birders hone their skills. They go on walks. They learn from others. They practice. A couple of years ago, I published a test in the Bangor Daily News to help determine if you are a birdwatcher or a birder. Updated, here’s that test:

  • If you notice birds while traveling, you’re a birdwatcher. If you travel to see birds, you’re a birder.  If you drive to see a rare bird, you’re a birder. 
  • If you go only because your friend drags you along, you’re a birdwatcher.  If you can recognize a hawk, you’re a birdwatcher. 
  • If you recognize the difference between a sharpshinned and a Cooper’s, you’re a birder. If you even know there’s a difference, you’re a birder.  
  • If you can identify a gull, you’re a birdwatcher. If you can tell which kind of gull it is, you’re a birder.  If you can tell from plumage how old it is, you’re a wicked good birder.  
  • If you can identify a warbler by sight, you’re a birdwatcher. If you can recognize it by sound, you’re a birder. By behavior or habitat – definitely a birder.  
  • If you have binoculars, you’re a birdwatcher. If your binoculars cost more than your monthly mortgage payment, you’re a birder. If you are concerned about close focus, eye relief, field of view, and image brightness, you’re really a birder.
  • If you have a spotting scope, you’re definitely a birder. Who else would spend $1,000 to identify a distant duck?
  • If you have a guidebook, you’re a birdwatcher. If you have every guidebook, you’re a birder. If the guides are obsolete, but you’d never part with one, you’re definitely a birder. Seek help.

     All birders know about life lists – birds seen in one’s lifetime. But if you have a life list and a yard list, and a county, state list, and year list, you’re a birder.  If you know that an “official” list uses guidelines from the American Birding Association, and that a bird only counts if it wanders into the listing area on its own, you’re definitely a birder.  If you read this column, you’re a birdwatcher. If you disagree with something in it, you’re undeniably a birder.

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