Bird Watching Terminology (Words + Definitions)

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If you are a new bird watcher, then you may be confused about the terminology between bird watching, birding, and ornithology. Let’s start with a brief explanation of all three.

What Is Bird Watching?

Bird watching is simply listening to or watching birds wherever you are – inside your house, driving, walking in a park, or hiking.

If you are noticing birdlife and enjoying its splendor, then you are participating in bird watching.

What Is Birding?

Some people refer to “birding” as an activity only practiced by “serious” bird watchers who go out into the field to observe birds.

However, I believe anyone who is watching birds in their yard or out in the field is “birding.” People can practice their love of birdlife anywhere they like.

For instance, some people may not be physically able to go out into nature to observe birds, but they may regularly watch birds that visit their outdoor space with much relish.

I will add a term here, I believe to be mainly used in the UK:

  • Twitcher

Here is a definition of twitcher from Audubon.org’s dictionary:

  • “Definition: a hard-core birder who goes to great lengths to see a species and add it to his or her list.”

We have avid bird chasers like that here in North America, but the term ‘twitcher’ hasn’t caught on.

Ornithologist

Golden eagle with dark brown, with lighter golden-brown plumage on the napes on the Ornithologist hand.

An ornithologist is a zoologist who specializes in the study of birds. They study or have studied ornithology, which is a branch of science that deals with bird anatomy, appearance, behavior, intelligence, migration patterns, genetics, evolution, etc.

Simply watching birds or having bird feeders in your backyard does not make you an ornithologist. This requires specialist study.

Ornithologists are the experts that birdwatchers and birders will consult when they want to know more about their feathered friends.

Bird Watching Terminology Relating to Birder Activities and Tools:

Big Day

A big day is a 24-hour period during which a birder or birdwatcher will try to see as many different bird species as possible.

Big Year

Well known as a term from the film of the same name, a big year is a whole year birders dedicate to ticking as many different birds as possible off their life lists.

In 365 days, birders will try to see as many different unique species as they can – often trying to comprehensively record the birdlife within a particular region.

Bins/ Bino

Binoculars are, of course, one of the most important tools for many birders and birdwatchers.

Both bins and bino are used as shorthand for binoculars that allow you to get a closer look at birds from afar.

Bushwhack

To bushwhack, also to burn up or flog, are verbs used to refer to the process of searching thick vegetation or a dense brush to seek out and flush out warblers, sparrows, or other small birds.

BVD

An abbreviation term often seen in birdwatchers’ journals, BVD stands for ‘better view desired.’ It is used to note that though a bird has been seen, the one who saw it would like to get a better look.

Chase

Birders will often refer to the chase when talking about a long trip they have taken to see a specific species that they strongly desire to see.

Crush

Don’t be alarmed if you hear US birds talking about crushing birds. To crush a bird here is simply to succeed in taking a high-quality photograph of it.

Likewise, getting the perfect shot is often photography rather than hunting-related in birding circles.

Dip/ Dipped Out

Birders are often obsessed with seeking and seeing a particularly elusive species. If they ‘dipped out,’ that means they missed seeing the rare bird that they traveled to see. Sometimes, the rare bird that they missed seeing is referred to as a ‘dip’.

Giss

Experienced birders can identify birds by their ‘giss.’ This is a slang term, kind of like ‘vibe,’ that refers to their overall shape, appearance, behavior, and movement.

Hammer

In US birding circles, a ‘hammer’ is a high-quality photo taken of a bird when a birder has crushed it.

Jinx

Sometimes, luck can feel lacking when birders are trying to tick even relatively common birds off their life lists.

A ‘jinx bird’ is a bird that others seem to see without too much difficulty, but that still eludes you no matter how hard you try.

Lifer

Many birders will keep lists of the birds that they have seen. There may be country or area lists, year lists, and also full life lists which can, for some, become an obsession. A lifer is a bird that a birder has never before seen and that they can add to their life list.

Lister

This can be a non-judgemental term used to describe someone who is passionate about birdwatching and likes to think about the length of their life list and how many species are on it.

Also, it can also be a pejorative term about a birder who is overly fixated on cataloging the birds they have seen and is more of a box ticker than a bird lover.

NFC

NFC is another common abbreviation used in birding circles. NFC stands for nocturnal flight count. During an NFC, birdwatchers will survey migratory birds during the night, often using a special microphone.

Patch

Some birders can be quite territorial about their ‘patch’ – the area they frequent for their birdwatching activities, while others will share a patch good for birdwatching quite happily.

Rack

To ‘rack’ or ‘rack up’ bird species means to add many birds to a list in a short period of time.

Scope

If birders refer to the fact that they plan to scope or scope out an area, they may simply be referring to checking an area out. But it can also mean, more precisely, looking at an area over using a spotting scope.

Seawatching

This term means exactly what it sounds like. It is simply birdwatching by the sea, to check out coastal and maritime species.

Skywatch

A skywatch is also self-explanatory. It refers to an activity during which birdwatchers look upwards – remaining in one place and gazing skywards to observe the passing of migratory birds and look at other birds in flight.

Tick

‘Tick’ can be both a noun and a verb in birding. A bird species that have been checked off a list might be referred to as a tick. Also, to ‘tick’ a species can also mean the act of checking that species off a list.

Vagrant

If a bird is described as a vagrant, it has strayed outside its usual ecological range. A vagrant is a bird that typically wouldn’t be expected as a visitor or resident in a particular area.

Vis Mig

This is an abbreviation sometimes used when talking about a visible migration. This is when you can see a group of birds that are clearly on their migratory route. Skeins of geese or ducks, for instance, are common examples.

As you get into birdwatching, you are sure to encounter at least some of the above terms, and likely many more relating to the activities, tools, and practices of birdwatching.

Terminology Relating to Naming Birds:

Brown-Headed Cowbird

All birds have scientific names in Latin that allow for their identification. But in birdwatching, you will soon see that birds have many different names.

They have their usual common names but are referred to by many different names – often regionally distinctive.

Many common names and nicknames can also be used for US bird species, and these can be more universal, or particular to a certain area.

To name a few examples, birders may refer to:

  • Baldpates (American wigeons)
  • Barwits (Bar-tailed Godwits)
  • Basketbirds (Baltimore or Northern Orioles)
  • Bee martins (Eastern Kingbirds)
  • Bogbumper (American bittern)
  • Bogsucker (Woodcock)
  • Boney/ Bonie (Bonaparte’s Gull)
  • Butter butts (Yellow-rumped warblers)
  • Chewinks (Towhees)
  • Coops (Cooper’s Hawks)
  • Cutwaters (Black Skimmers)
  • Dabchicks (Little Grebes)
  • Dark Larks (European starlings)
  • Goat Suckers (Nightjars)
  • Gos (Northern goshawks)
  • Growls or Hoot Owls (Great horned owls)
  • Homers (Hooded mergansers)
  • Ickys (Icterine warblers)
  • Jaybirds (Blue jays)
  • Junks (Juncos)
  • Log Cocks (Pileated woodpeckers)
  • Lord God Birds (Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers)
  • Moo Tweets (Cowbirds)
  • Mud hens (Coots)
  • Pibbles (Pied-billed grebes)
  • Redbirds (Northern Cardinals)
  • Sawbills (Mergansers or divers)
  • Thunder pumpers (American bitterns)
  • Water hens (Moorhens)
  • Woodies (Wood ducks)
  • Zonos (Sparrows – from the Zonotrichia genus)

Birds may also be referred to by letter codes in birding circles.

For example, the common bird Turdus migratorius is typically referred to as the American robin, or sometimes just a robin.

However, birders may also sometimes refer to it by the ‘alpha’ codes used by the American Ornithological Society.

These are four or six-letter alphabet codes based on their common or scientific names. In the case of the American robin, Turdus migratorius these are AMRO and TURMIG.

Four and six-letter alpha codes can also be derived in the same way for any other bird species.

Learning which birds others are referring to isn’t always straightforward. However, learning the different names of the birds you see can help you to hone your skills in bird identification, and communicate effectively with others doing the same.

What Do You Need to Start Bird Watching?

Young woman using binocular for bird watching

All you need is to look and listen, but if you want a longer and closer look, then there are other things you can do to reach that goal.

For bird watching in your outdoor space, then some plant life, (trees, shrubbery, or flowers) is all you need and birds will visit your yard.

 Even if your yard doesn’t have trees or bushes, you will likely be able to attract birds.

The first thing you can do is erect a bird feeder on a pole. Creating a perching spot by attaching a branch to a fence or pole works well, within ten feet of the feeder.

If there are no trees within 20 feet of your feeder, then a pile of brush will serve as a place for birds to take refuge to hide from predators and for rest, while they wait their turn at your feeder.

There are numerous types of wild bird feeders that will hold different types of food and attract many species of birds.

There are many other things you can do to draw birds up close, like adding a birdbath or birdhouse.

If you don’t have a yard, then a bird-watching club will be helpful in locating the best bird-watching spots.

Of course, any local park will have wild birds inhabiting its grounds that you can enjoy watching!

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Bird Watching Supplies

Bird-watching doesn’t have to be an expensive hobby. Just putting a little food on your window ledge or taking a walk will provide ample opportunities for viewing wild birds.

If you attract birds up close with food, then you won’t even need binoculars. But, if you want a closer look, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get enough magnification to aid in seeing birds more clearly.

A field guide will also help for identifying the wild birds you are seeing. Again, this doesn’t have to be costly, and both binoculars and ID material will last for many years.

Here is a list of items you may want to consider if you decide you want to go on bird-watching expeditions that require hiking short or long distances:

List of Bird Watching Supplies

This is a list of items to consider:

  • You will need good walking shoes
  • a hat
  • sunglasses
  • sunscreen
  • clothing that is appropriate for the weather you will meet that day
  • a compact, light-weight raincoat will be handy
  • water
  • snacks and/or meals depending on how long you plan to be on your birding expedition
  • A first aid kit will come in handy if you develop blisters from your footwear or need a bandage for a cut.
  • bird guide – in book form or software
  • note pad or bird diary & pencil and/or pen
  • comfortable backpack
  • A pair of bird-watching binoculars, or bird-watching scopes
  • By purchasing a digital camera binocular, you would not have to carry a camera and a pair of binoculars
  • Bird Watching Cameras

More Help to Attract & Watch Birds

  • 3 Top Tips to Attract Birds Fast – Use these best methods to entice wild birds. They cannot resist coming to your backyard bird-friendly space if you do.
  • Choosing Birding Binos –  Selecting birding binoculars is an important decision. There are many considerations to be explored when purchasing the best binoculars for your wild bird-watching pleasure.
  • Compact Binoculars – Compact binoculars with their high-quality optics offer excellent edge-to-edge contrast and sharpness. Read this enlightening review.
  • Bird-Watching Binoculars – Bird-watching binoculars are assumed by many people to be expensive and difficult to use. However, the contrary is true. They can be a terrific asset to the backyard bird watcher.
  • Backyard Bird Photography Tips – By professional photographer Sandra Rust. Learn how to take great photos of your favorite birds.
  • Best Birdlife Webcams – Having a webcam setup to take those moments at your bird feeder or bird bath that you can’t always be around to see is exciting. Four of the best here.
  • Bird Watching Club – A bird-watching club can be a very enjoyable and helpful group to belong to. Many clubs provide group activities and many more benefits such as…
  • Unusual Bird Sighting – Occasionally unusual birds arrive at our backyard bird feeders. These birds often delight us and this sighting is no exception.
  • Migration Flyways – There are a number of major migration flyways around the world. Let’s have a look at your proximity to these avian paths.
  • Thayer Birding Software Review – This birding software would make an excellent gift for anyone who is interested in bird watching or nature in general.
  • Bird Watching – This is simply listening to or watching birds wherever you are, inside your house, driving, walking in a park, or hiking in the wild. Learn how.

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Elizabeth Waddington

Elizabeth Waddington is a conservation, rewilding, organic gardening and sustainability specialist who loves everything nature-related. She loves helping others around the world connect with the wildlife and wonders around them. When not creating wildlife-wise, eco-friendly designs, or writing about the topics that inspire her, she loves spending time watching the birds on and around her own rural property, or heading out on camping or hiking adventures to spot birds and other wildlife in a range of habitats.