Tuesday, March 26, 2002

Birder or Bird Watcher?

When I was developing my interest in birds in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the literature I read suggested to me that I was becoming a bird watcher, a person who engages in the hobby of watching birds. So that's how I came to view myself, as a bird watcher. Then, in the early 1970s, coincident with the founding of the American Birding Association, people who watched birds were suddently being referred to as birders. I was somewhat taken aback by this new terminology. In my mind, I associated the word birder with bird lister, someone who's interest was primarily in compiling lists of the birds he or she had seen in a particular year, State, or country. Well, over the years, I have grown more comfortable with the word birder, and have even come to consider myself one, but I still think that there's much more to birding than simply ticking off species on a checklist. For many years, I labored under the belief that birder was of relatively modern origin; only recently have I discovered that the term has actually been in use much longer than bird watcher (see below).

A. Birder:

According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (2002), the word birder is a noun dating from the 15th century. They assign it two meanings:

1. a catcher or hunter of birds, especially for market. 2. a person who birds.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th edition, 2000) assigns the word three meanings:

1. A bird watcher. 2a. A breeder of birds. 2b. A hunter of birds.

The use of bird as an intransitive verb (as in, "John likes to bird") dates from 1918, and means "to observe or identify wild birds in their natural environment" (Merriam-Webster).

B. Bird Watcher:

A person who observes and identifies birds in their natural surroundings (American Heritage).

Merriam-Webster Online (which suggests that bird watcher be hyphenated) dates its origin to 1905 but does not provide a definition, considering it to be synonymous with its second meaning for the word birder (i.e., a person who birds).

So there you have it. It appears to me that birder and bird watcher can be used interchangeably depending on your whims. But be warned, a die-hard birder may take offense at being referred to as bird watcher!

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