Fork-tailed Flycatcher

What’s the Difference Between Birding and Bird Watching?

Around the world there is a large community of people who share a fascination for birds. In fact, there are entire subcultures around the various hobbies that stem from this fascination. Words such as twitching, lifers, foys, birders, and bird watchers are all terms that are firmly integrated into the bird community. However, two of these terms are intriguing, because to those that aren’t terribly familiar with them, they appear to be the same thing. The two in question are birder and bird watcher. A quandary posed by many is whether or not they are actually the same thing or if they are in fact different. If they are different, than in what ways are they separate from one another? While this can certainly be debated, we’re here to help answer the question, what is the difference between a bird watcher and a birder?

To those not indoctrinated into the bird world, the common term for describing someone who has an interest in birds would be “bird watcher.” It is the term most known by the general public, but what does that actually describe? And is it accurate as a broad term to describe anyone interested in birds? To answer this, we turn to the Merriam Webster dictionary. This dictionary describes a bird watcher as…well “a birder.” And it describes a birder as “a person who observes or identifies wild birds in their natural habitat.” So it would seem that according to the dictionary, the terms could be used interchangeably, case closed, right? Not quite.

White-breasted Nuthatch

For the whole answer we must look inward to the bird community. One of the first mentions in pop culture of a difference between the terms comes from the movie “The Big Year,” in which a character refers to the hobby of searching out birds in their natural habitat as “bird watching” only to be met with a stern retort from one of the main characters named Stu (played by Steve Martin) that it is in fact called Birding. This is the first evidence that indicates there is a difference between a birder and a bird watcher, even though the dictionary doesn’t seem to think so. So, there may in fact be a difference, but what is it?

Based on discussions with others in the bird community the definitions could be as follows.

A bird watcher is someone who has a fascination for birds and typically views and notices them but does not actively search for them

Whereas a birder is sometone who actively seeks out birds.

In general, a birder would be a more specialized stage of bird watching in which more knowledge is gained and the hobby becomes more focused and driven. Birders may take vacations specifically to see birds and keep tallies of all of the birds they’ve seen in a competitive manner.

Spotted Towhee

A good comparison would be the hobby of cave exploring. Spelunking and caving are two terms that both describe the same activity, but caving has more of an emphasis on exploring for sport whereas spelunking in considered to be exploring as a light hobby.

In sum, both bird watching and birding are very similar, and the terms generally describe the same hobby, but there are some subtle differences with birders being more active in their pursuit of seeing birds. In the end, does it really matter? Probably not, but as the hobby of birding continues to grow, there will undoubtedly be more subgroups that pop up, and maybe someday people will even petition the Merriam Webster dictionary to more distinctly define the two terms. Until then, thanks for watching we’ll see you next time, on Badgerland Birding.

7 thoughts on “What’s the Difference Between Birding and Bird Watching?”

  1. Well I will give my personal opinion!
    I’m 80 years old and I have enjoyed birds all my life! In my first 60+ years I knew maybe 15 birds, but not by the correct names. Bob White, Red Bird, Sparrow, Robin, Hawks, Crows, Cat Bird and probably a few more. Then in my early 60’s my wife and I joined a local Bird Club!!!
    WOW did we get an awesome education, real fast! To us most of those little brown birds were just sparrows. We quickly found out that there are about 30 different species of sparrows and a lot of those little birds were Finches and Warblers and then the number of different species is very high!
    The first time one of our birding friends saw an Oven Bird I was sure he was pulling our leg!
    So for my first 60 years I was a bird watcher and and now I can finally call myself a novice Birder!

  2. And if you are out birding but really looking for other birders to show you the birds that is called Birdering!

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