Saturday, August 13, 2011

What are you really?

“Are you a bird watcher, an ornithologist, an ornithophile, an aviphile, a bird lover, bird fancier, bird bander, birder, bird spotter, lister, ticker, twitcher- or what?” asks Roger Tory Peterson.

Famous American bird artist and photographer Roger Tory Peterson’s article “What are you really?” first published in “Bird watchers digest” in March/April 1984, later included in the book “All things reconsidered" edited by Bill Thompson III, is a very interesting article for all who are curious about birds.

“As for myself, I am primarily a bird artist and a photographer, a visual person obsessed by birds. I watch them, and they undoubtedly watch me, their eyes are better than mine.” It is the way he identified himself. Let’s see how he describes others.

“I favour the term Bird watcher for general use because it is inclusive. It describes almost everyone who looks at birds or studies them - at nearly every level, from the watcher at the window who simply feeds birds all the way to elitists……”

There are many arguments among bird watchers, on “who are real ornithologists and who are not”. Some people like to call themselves as ornithologists. These days we hear many people identify themselves as various types of "–logists", which indicate some sort of professional value. Here are the Peterson’s thoughts.

“It is risky to call yourself an artist if you merely dabble with water colors or oils as a weekend hobby. It is equally presumptuous to call yourself an ornithologist just because you identify birds, take notes, or make lists. Ornithology implies a high level of expertise of a scientific nature. Most professional ornithologists these days have degrees, either a doctorate or at least a master’s. A very few non-professionals who devote their time year after year to some specialised problem of avian research might be included in this rarefied category.”

On birder and bird watcher
“The term birding did not surface in the ornithological literature until 1896, when Florence Merriam, one of the founding mothers of the Audubon movement, wrote a book entitled ‘A birding on a Bronco’….”

“Curiously, the term birding slipped from our vocabulary after Florence Merriam used it in the title of her book. Did she coin it? To my knowledge, the meaning of the word birder as we use it today never surfaced in any standard dictionary until Webster published its ‘New Collegiate dictionary’ in 1977. On page 112 we find: “BIRDER (1) a catcher or hunter of birds, esp. for the market. (2) one that birds.” Referring to the verb BIRD, I find “to observe or identify wild birds in their natural environment.” So far, so good. Then turning to BIRD WATCHER, I read: “birder”. They are interchangeable.”

However, Peterson likes to distinguish bird watchers and birders. He describes bird watchers, as anyone who feeds birds. Many people have bird feeders in their backyards, although they don’t know how to identify birds. Hunting birds is still a widespread game (Sport) in many parts of the world. He writes “they certainly watch birds (through the gunsight rather than the binocular), but their focus is on relatively few species.”

“More recently, Robert Arbib, editor of ‘American birds’ arrived at a far more conservative estimate of the number of birders. His rationale was that one is really not a birder unless he or she occasionally goes out looking for birds beyond the confines of the backyard. The birder owns a binocular, field guide, and scope. Arbib discounts “compassionate” birders, go-alongs who are out there only because they want to be with their spouses or children. ….”

On lister or ticker
“Birders make lists of the birds they see; if they don’t, they should. Thus the conscientious birder might also be called a “lister” or a “ticker”. …
There are all kinds of lists. Dearest to the hearts of most birders is the life list, which includes those birds ticked off anywhere in the world during one’s lifetime. ……”

Peterson describes endless variations of lists from country lists to backyard lists. Here is an interesting story on one of his lists.

“When I was a young man, one of my lists was birds heard on the sound tracks of movies. I had a very special list for the Wren tit, a common bird around studios of Hollywood - a bird with an unmistakable voice. The range of this species is almost entirely within the state of California, but my researches in the movie theaters over the years extended its range to Wyoming, lake champlain and even Austria.”

“A ‘ticker is a shade different from a lister. I have known tickers who merely follow other birders around and scarcely look at the bird when they are spotted but wait for theor leader to call them off. I remember particularly a friend who often followed our group, building up his list without the benefit of a binocular.”

“When I first heard the term twitcher, I assumed it meant the same as ticker, but not so. This was invented by the bird watching fraternity in Britain. ….. I asked my friend John Parslow, about the origin of the word. He replied that as a matter of fact, he was one of the very first twitchers. About twenty years ago he and a friend, who tore about the roads of England on their bikes running up lists, learned of a rare warbler that had been reported on the coast. They dropped everything, jumped on their bikes, and paddled like mad for couple of hours, stopping only to have lunch by the roadside. … Another young chap who joined them commented, “You are a couple of twitchers.” And that, according to Parslow, is how the word entered the birders’ lexicon.

Other birders may dispute this origin, but by definition a twitcher is a birder who races around the country frantically collecting rare birds for his list. To quote Bill Oddie again, ‘what distinguishes the real twitcher is his degree of emotional involvement. … If this kind of birder gets to hear of a bird that has been sighted that would be a tick for him he is so wracked with nervous anticipation (that he night see it) or trepidation (that he might miss it) that he literally twitches with the excitement of it all.’

I might comment that twitchers seldom discover their own rarities; they zero in on reports that have reached them through the grapevine.”

Here  is an interesting old report on twitching a bird from UK.

I copied the short biography given in the back cover of the book “All things reconsidered” here.

“Roger Tory Peterson, one of the world’s greatest naturalists, was born on August 28, 1908, In Jamestown, New York. He became passionate about birds as a young boy, went to art school, and at the age of twenty six, published his first book, A field guide to the birds. His visual system of grouping similar species together and using arrows to designate important field marks allowed quick identification of live birds, a departure from the practice of killing birds to study them. That book became the cornerstone of the best-selling Peterson field guide series, which includes more than hundred titles. During his lifetime, Peterson received, every major award for ornithology, natural science, and conservation as well as numerous honorary degrees, medals, and citations, including the presidential Medal of Freedom. Peterson died in his studio on July 28, 1996, while working on revising his field guides.”

In honour of Peterson, The Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural history (RTPI) was established in his hometown. Today it serves as an excellent study center for nature studies and environment awareness programmes, while holding large portion of Peterson’s work, both paintings and photographs.



This is a something that we need to resolve very delicately. Over here everyone who learns to identify a few birds surmises him/her self as an ornithologist. At times with an adjective; Field ornithologist. Many and most here are twitches who rush behind a location and a species.And many are snobbish as well, hiding locations for monetary gains.I touched on this matter sometime back as well.

Gallicissa said...

What's in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

–From Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, 1600

Chinthaka said...

You are correct Amila, there is nothing in a name. What matters is the subject indicated by the name.