Saturday, 21 July 2018

Twitching, birdwatching and birding - some definitions

The word 'Twitcher' is often used by the print media in this country (particularly The Sun and the Daily Mail), to mean 'anyone who is even vaguely interested in birds, and perhaps has a bird feeder in their back garden'. Usually this is in the context of some celebrity who has confessed a love of the outdoors and a liking for our feathered friends, and perhaps even owns a pair of binoculars. However, amongst birdwatchers this is not actually what it means. It doesn't even mean  'someone who is more keen, has a good pair of binoculars and maybe even a telescope and can tell without looking up that there are Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins flying about with the Swifts overhead '.

So what does it mean?  Well, in the world inhabited by birders, twitching is the act of going to try and see an individual bird (or, more rarely a group of birds) that has been reported by another person (or persons), in a different location. This could entail flying to the Shetland Isles to see a Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, or it could be simply driving to the car park of your local branch of Sainsbury's to see the flock of Waxwings which has been reported feeding on the trees there, because you haven't yet seen one this year. So, at its simplest, a 'twitcher' is someone who does this. In practice however, although most birders have, by my definition at least, twitched birds many times in their lives, a lot of birders would baulk at being called 'a twitcher' because for them that word implies that they are one of those crazy people who is always racing around the country after rarities and who has had several speeding tickets, a couple of lost jobs and probably at least one broken marriage because of it.

For one year of my life (1997) it would probably be fair to say that I was a twitcher, as I went to look for birds immediately or shortly after they were found, and travelled quite large distances for the purpose (thankfully, without the lost jobs, broken marriages etc (although now I think back, my first ever speeding ticket (of two), did come while driving home from seeing a Pacific Golden-plover on the Humber Estuary in the year 2000)). However, for the rest of the time before and since then I would probably be better described as a birder who occasionally goes on twitches, when the birds aren't too far away and when it fits in with the rest of my schedule.

So what about 'birder' and 'birdwatcher'? Well, in reality they are pretty much the same thing, but most really keen, experienced and knowledgeable bird enthusiasts (and a lot who are slightly lower down this scale), tend to call themselves 'birders' rather than 'birdwatchers'. I tend to vary what I call myself, depending on who am talking to, and I suspect that this is true for most of the 'birding community'. I don't mind being called a birdwatcher - although there is far more to birding than just watching the birds, and on the occasions when I go out birding and keep a list, it is quite possible that a good proportion of the species on the list were never actually seen by me, but rather they were identified by their calls, or their songs. The one thing I do object to being called is 'bird-spotter'! I suspect that most birders/birdwatchers (and definitely all twitchers) would correct you (possibly quite fiercely) if you used that term when talking about them. This is probably because it brings up images of those people who stand with notebooks to write down the names and numbers of inanimate, man-made objects, such as trains or planes, and birders want to distance themselves from that image. They want instead to identify with rugged outdoor types, but with added field-craft and scientific skills. I think this is a bit ironic, particularly in connection with some of the really hard-core twitchers, who actually have quite a lot in common with train spotters (but don't tell them I said so).


  1. Thanks Colin. I class myself as a birder who occasionally twitches, but travel no more than 10 miles round trip .

    1. Hi David. I think you’re probably a bit more disciplined than me as I do often go more than 10miles