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.