The Bad Birder

Serious birders define themselves by lists and numbers: how many birds they’ve seen in a given year, in a certain state, or even from their bathroom window.  The single most important number is, without question, the length of your life list – the total number of bird species you’ve seen and identified in your life.

Mine currently stands at 544.

By anyone’s standards that’s pretty impressive.  But the truth is, it’s misleading.  My plus-sized life list comes less from the fact that I’m an awesomely talented birder and more from the fact that I’m lucky enough to have traveled.  A lot.  Visit Saskatchewan, Costa Rica and Australia, make regular trips out west to Arizona and California for a couple years, and you too can have a life list that completely misrepresents your birding skills.

Oh, sure, I can pass as a real birder.  I have the binoculars.  The giant stack of field guides.  The “Eat, Sleep, Bird” t-shirt.

I do the Christmas Bird Count every year.  I volunteer at banding stations.  But my deep, dark secret is, I am not really a hardcore birder.  Maybe I was once upon a time, say, back in college, or when I was working in Saskatchewan.  But these days, if I’m not traveling in some unfamiliar place with new and exotic birds, I rarely bother to take my binoculars with me when I go for a walk.  I certainly still notice the birds around me, but unless there’s something special like the CBC or a local nature festival happening, I don’t just go birding.

Birding was kind of my gateway drug.  Before I taught myself how to identify wildflowers and butterflies, before I bought a tree field guide and started taking photos of spiders and helping out with breeding amphibian surveys, I watched birds.  However, in the past couple years I’ve started to think of myself less as a birder and more as a naturalist, which (to me) means being a sort of jack-of-all-trades, someone who has a basic knowledge of a lot of different aspects of the natural world rather than an obsessive knowledge of one thing.  This is part of why I ultimately couldn’t go into research as a career – I hated the thought of specializing!

I suppose to most people the distinction between a true hardcore birder and someone who just thinks birds are cool isn’t all that apparent; I mean, there are four bird field guides on my bookshelf now, and a couple more in a trunk at my parents’ house.  But when I go for a walk on the beach I don’t really make any effort to identify every species of gull, tern and sandpiper I see, and I’m okay with that.  One of the guys I went birding with in college used to say that the only thing he didn’t like about birding was other birders, so maybe not being a true birder isn’t such a bad thing.

Of course, maybe the definition of a birder is someone who cares enough to keep a life list.  And who finds a way to work her impressive life list total into a blog post in a way that doesn’t sound too much like bragging… you be the judge.

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4 thoughts on “The Bad Birder”

  1. My birder friends claim I’m not a birder. I’ve traveled a lot and seen a lot of birds, but I don’t have a life list. To the dismay of my birding buddies, I’ve missed seeing rare species because I was doing things like trying to dip killifish out of a road ditch with a coffee cup or chasing jumping mice through the grass. With so much nature to enjoy, I could never take a trip and confine myself to just one subject. So, I don’t know if I”m a bad birder or just not a birder at all.

    1. Exactly! There’s an anecdote in the book The Big Year about a woman who ran pelagic trips (boat tours in search of ocean-going birds) on the West Coast who was enamored with marine mammals. Apparently the hardcore birders on her tours would get really annoyed if she ever stopped the boat to look at a whale or group of seals or what have you. Who in their right mind would be annoyed by the chance for a good look at a whale in its natural habitat???

      And yet I bet you could identify just about every bird that frequents Blue Jay Barrens, and know a fair amount about their life histories to boot. So it all depends on how you define who is and is not a birder.

  2. Your Life List is very impressive. I am mainly a backyard birder and don’t know the exact number of birds on my list but it is much less than yours. Gee….I wouldn’t consider you a bad birder. Often I like to just enjoy the action without trying to hard to ID or get a photo.
    We come in different colors and degrees. :)

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