For the Birds Radio Program: How to Become a Real Birder

Original Air Date: Feb. 21, 2003

How do we become real birders?

Duration: 4′17″


When I was a novice birder in 1975, I spent a day birding in the Morton Arboretum in Chicago. I was delighted to find my first “cute coots with their white snoots” (number 110 on my lifelist) along with several other birds that were common yet excitingly new for me. That afternoon, we encountered two birders who told us about seeing White-winged Crossbills, and asked what we’d seen. When my companion blurted out with delight, “We saw some coots!” they gave us a look of disdain and walked off without a word. I felt abashed, and thought I had a long way to go before I would be a “real birder.”

Little by little I learned that there is a kind of elitism in birding. Some people measure how worthy birders are by how many species are on their lifelists. But some people who know just about every bird in their town or county or state don’t travel far, so have a smaller lifelist than their skills would indicate. And some people who have long lists aren’t very skilled. Birding tour guides point out every bird, so it’s quite possible for people to amass huge lists without actually identifying any of them. I once knew a man with over 700 birds on his North American list who was missing Willow Flycatcher. This species was fairly common and easy to find right in his own southern Wisconsin neighborhood, but nondescript, belonging to a group of flycatchers that are difficult to identify except by song. He asked me to show him one, so we met in a park and I got one in my spotting scope. He took a quick peek, said thanks, and left, not even waiting for the bird to sing its diagnostic song.

How much experience should a birder have? I’ve seen experienced birders misidentify Blue Jays as Sharp-shinned Hawks at Hawk Ridge. Does their inexperience with one species in one situation make them less of birders? And I’ve known people who noticed a rare bird at their feeder but couldn’t get “real birders” to believe them.

I’m not sure what dark impulse deep in the human soul makes some of us yearn to prove our own worth by making others feel inferior, but it has no place in birding. Kenn Kaufman, author of the Peterson “Advanced Guide to Birding” and the “Kaufman Focus Guide “Birds of North America,” was the first person to see over 600 species in a single year in North America. Yet one of his birding acquaintances recently told him that he isn’t a “real birder” anymore because when he is outdoors, he pays a lot of attention to plants and insects, and is more focused on conservation than on building his lists.

Every time I hear the term “real birders,” I find myself thinking of how the Velveteen Rabbit became real. In the story by Margery Williams, a stuffed rabbit was a child’s dearest toy. The child became deathly ill with a contagious disease, and held on to his Velveteen rabbit day and night while the fever raged. But then when he recovered, all his blankets and clothing, and the Velveteen rabbit, had to be destroyed to prevent the germs from infecting anyone else. But the loving service the little toy had given the boy magically transformed the Velveteen rabbit into a real rabbit. To me, that’s sort of the way birders become real, too. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, we become “real birders” through love and commitment. Watching birds is a lovely pastime. Caring about them as individuals and as populations, and doing small things to ensure their continued survival on this little planet, is what makes us “real birders.”

Little things we can do to help our backyard birds

Set out nest boxes (Plans in Carrol Henderson’s “Woodworking for Wildlife” published by the University of Minnesota Press.)

Offer nesting supplies—dog and cat fur and short lengths (less than 6”) of binder twine and natural yarns are best You can set them in a clean suet cage. DON’T set out dryer lint! When wet, drying lint shrinks and then as it dries becomes crusted and brittle.

Keep your cat leashed or indoors. If your cat insists on going outdoors, limit its time outdoors to nighttime.