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What is Bird Watching? (Everything You Need to Know)


Humans have been bird watching since time immemorial, but only in the last few decades has it become a full blown hobby.

There is a reason why so many people are willing to spend time and money to look at birds, and once you try it, you’ll understand why.

What is birding?

What is bird watching exactly? It is basically an activity wherein birds are observed for the purpose of recreation or citizen science.

This is the most basic bird watching definition, but aside from simply watching or listening to birds, most birders will go a few steps further by documenting their observations, identifying the birds they see, and sharing their findings with fellow bird enthusiasts.

birds in nature

But regardless of the activities that bird watchers pursue, at its core, birding meaning is inextricably rooted in an appreciation and sense of wonder at the avian species. This is what everyone from novice bird watcher to expert birder has in common.

People outside the community may not see what is special about birds. After all, they’re everywhere right? But bird watchers have a collector’s mindset. But instead of collecting stamps or coins, they collect records of the birds they’ve seen–it could be notes, lists, photographs, or videos.

With birds differing so much in appearance and behavior, it’s hard to run out of things to be excited by. There is always a new species to look for, a new call to hear, or a new behavior to watch.

Bird Watching vs. Birding vs. Twitching

The words above are sure to come up when you do a search on bird watching terms. These may sometimes be used interchangeably, but there are nuanced differences between them.

It can be seen as differences in the level of intensity and resource allocation towards the bird watching hobby. Here is a layman-friendly breakdown of terms:

man in the nature

Bird watching

Within the community, the bird watching meaning refers to watching birds from the comfort of one’s own home, or at most, in a nearby local park. Bird watchers invest minimally in the hobby. As such, their knowledge and species list is not as extensive. It may be thought of as the beginner level.


What is a birder and how is it different from a bird watcher? To define birding, think about people who are dedicated enough to put aside money for birding equipment and trips. Correspondingly, birders tend to be more well-versed in details aside from visual and aural identification, including population distribution, migratory patterns, and other trivia.


For a twitcher bird watching is a worthwhile reason to spend money. They plan long-distance trips just to see a particular bird and tick that off their list–this act is referred to as a twitch or chase. To do this successfully requires intense research on the target, so you can expect twitchers to be extremely knowledgeable.

Types of birding

Bird watching is much more than just literally watching birds. Birding activities can range from simple to complex. Some require very little forethought, while others need elaborately detailed planning. What you choose depends on the time and resources you are willing to allot to the hobby, but each of these give you a chance to appreciate birds.


Backyard birding

If you are even mildly interested in birds, you’ve probably already watched them from your backyard. This is also called “armchair birding”. You can passively watch whatever bird happens to pass by, or actively attract birds by installing feeders and baths. This is a convenient and cheap option, but the species you see are quite limited.

Local birding

Local birding entails visiting nearby bird spotting sites such as natural parks or reserves. This entails more planning, more knowledge of local birds, and hones field skills. Check if there’s a local birding club you can join so you can meet like-minded people from who you can learn from.

Birding travel

This is basically bird twitching, wherein you travel long distances to see particular birds. You expand your species list with every trip and experience birding in different habitats. At this level of bird watching, ornithology knowledge is helpful. This helps you better appreciate the differences between avian species in different parts of the world.

Is birding expensive?

It may be intimidating to know that a professional bird watcher can spend thousands of dollars on equipment and birding trips, but know that birding is among the cheapest hobbies you can enjoy.

To search for birds, all you really need is to go outdoors and watch. If you want to up your game a smidge, then get a decent pair of binoculars for $100-300, a field guide, and a notebook. This can last you decades if you take care of it properly.

two photographers

There is sophisticated equipment to capture bird sounds and photographs, but with field skills and some luck, a smartphone will do fine.

Some people travel for wild bird watching, but there are websites that allow you to observe birds remotely. It’s not the same, but it’s good enough if you’re on a budget and just want to see birds.

The beauty of birding is that it can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be.

While investing more in equipment and travel greatly expands your species list and quality of documentation, you can still appreciate birds and learn about them at very little cost.

Birding looks like a very boring hobby

To most people, the term “bird watching” might bring to mind an image of someone sitting around for hours just watching birds fly by. With that, it’s easy to see why some would think it’s boring.

But there are so many different birds to see, unique bird behaviors to watch, and variations in bird songs to enjoy. It is both engrossing and relaxing to witness it for yourself. Studies support anecdotal data that bird watching helps reduce stress and anxiety (1).

four starlings

The idea that this hobby is just about sitting around and waiting is an insult to the birder definition. It’s more like a real-life version of Pokemon collecting. For those who have been living under a rock, this is the highly addictive mobile phone game based on a popular Japanese anime that revolves around real-life travel to collect fictional creatures.

In the same way, birding involves going to places to collect recordings of birds. It’s like a never-ending video game wherein each bird represents a new quest or adventure. You can build your skills in species identification, recognizing bird sounds, and tracking down your target. There’s bird photography, videography, and even competitive bird watching.

Bird watching competition

In a bird watching competition, birders aim to increase their lists as much as possible within certain parameters. There are three main competitive birding events: big day, big year, big stay.

You can participate in birding as a competitive sport through the World Series, the Great Texas birding classic, and the New York Birdathon.

woman bird watching through a spotting scope

Big day

In this event, the objective is to see as many species as possible within one full bird watching day. Each team of birders has 24 hours to identify as many birds as they can by sight or sound. Whichever team has the longest list wins!

Big year

In bird watching big year is an event where individual birders compete to have the longest list by the end of one calendar year. They have from January 1 to December 31 to spot as many birds as possible within a set geographical area. If you want an idea of how it works, watch “The Big Year” movie!

Big sit or big stay

This event requires a team of birders to spot birds from within an area that is 17 feet in diameter. Within 24 hours, they should log as many avians as they can observe from within that parameter. Hence the term “sit” or “stay”.

World Series of Birding

The World Series of Birding is a world-famous competition that has been held annually since 1984 to raise money for conservation efforts. The format is a “Big Day” event wherein teams must observe as many birds as possible within the state of New Jersey during the month of May when migratory bird sightings are at their peak.

Great Texas Birding Classic

The Great Texas Birding Classic birding competition holds the distinction of being the longest competition in the country, as it runs for one whole month! It has 9 tournament categories including big sit and big day events in each of the Great Texas Wildlife Trail regions. Winners get to choose which conservation projects will receive grant money.

New York Birdathon

The New York Birdathon bird watching competition engages avian enthusiasts in New York to participate in several big day events over the course of the month. Strategically set during the spring migration in May, this fundraiser helps out conservation efforts in the city and beyond.

History of bird watching

People have been watching birds for centuries for food and game, but the hobby we now know as birdwatching only started in the early 1900s. The history of bird watching has its foundations in Great Britain and the United States, where a growing concern for the welfare of birds combined with the development of visual aids like binoculars allowed people to observe avians without shooting them down.

two cranes

The bird watching name was first mentioned in 1901 in a book by Edmund Selous. However, the first modern field guide was created 33 years later by Roger Tory Peterson. The hobby’s development and popularity was made possible by several prominent bird enthusiasts and ornithologists throughout the years.

Ornithology can be thought of as the bird watching scientific name, but this was once controversial. Some argued that bird watching should be purely recreational in order to distinguish it from the scientific study of ornithology. But today, birders are considered citizen scientists who contribute greatly to avian research and conservation.

The bird watching hobby has progressed even further with the advent of convenient travel, photography and videography. People are now able to follow and observe birds without having to harm, capture, and kill them.


What is the difference between birding and bird watching?

Within the community, bird watching refers to observing birds from home, while birding involves actively searching for them outdoors. Outside the community, they may be used interchangeably.

What does it mean to go birding?

This entails traveling to an area to observe birds as unobtrusively as possible and identify them by sight or sound.

What do you need to go birding?

The most basic equipment is a pair of binoculars, a field guide, and a notebook to record observations. Mobile phone apps may stand in as recording devices.

Why is birding important?

Birding is a way to increase awareness and appreciation about birds, raise funds for species and habitat conservation, and contribute to academic avian research.

Is birding a thing?

Yes. While birding can be done with minimal cost, thousands of birders spend significant amounts of time and resources on this hobby just because they love it.

What is twitcher in birding?

A twitcher is a bird watcher who sets her sights on a target bird and does everything to observe it. This often involves extensive travel and expense.

What are bird watchers called?

Bird watchers are called birders, avian enthusiasts, citizen scientists, listers, or twitchers depending on their level of dedication to the hobby.

Is bird watching a sport?

Yes, it can be. The general objective of birding competitions is to spot and identify as many birds as possible within a time frame and/or geographic locations.

Is birding a word?

Yes. It may be used as a synonym for “bird watching”, or it may refer to the type of bird watching that entails traveling, outdoors, and field skills.

What is the point of bird watching?

To appreciate birds in their natural habitat and to feed the need to see more of them and learn more about them.

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