As fans of The ABA Blog well know, the birding community in North America has been experiencing something of an identity crisis. Ted Eubanks, Jeff Gordon, and others have blogged about the essence of being a birder. And a great many of you—thoughtful folks who follow The ABA Blog—have chimed in with comments on your own. It’s a fascinating discussion, and I’m delighted to be a part of it. And there’s something else: It’s not exactly new. The “conversation” has been going on for decades. (Left: Photo by © Bill Schmoker.)
You may have picked up on a bit of the conversation if you saw my tribute last month to the very first publication ever issued by what was then known as the American Birdwatcher’s Association. That’s right; as long ago as vol. 0 no. 0 (1968) of The Birdwatcher’s Digest, folks were pondering the matter of what it means to identify oneself as a birder.
All right, that’s probably enough preamble. Let’s go straight to the archives. Let’s take a look now at two items appearing in the January/February 1969 issue of the official publication of the organization which we today know as the American Birding Association. First is this short, anonymous item appearing mid-way down p. 3:
BIRDWATCHER VERSUS BIRDER
The response to the November-December  "Birdwatcher's Digest" was most impressive. It appears that there is a difinite [sic] interest on the part of (birders, birdwatchers) in America to have a bulletin of some kind especially for them.
The one issue which seemed to dominate the correspondence concerns the choice of the best word to describe our field of activity. Is an individual who enjoys avian binocularizing to be called a birder or a birdwatcher?
It was the general concensus [sic] of those who wrote the editor that the name, "Birdwacher's Digest," as a title for our newsletter was a bit heavy and perhaps a misnomer. Stuart Keith suggested that we call the bulletin simply BIRDINGñ [sic] and upon the concurrence of the other members consulted, this was done. The indicated preferrence [sic] for the term "birder" does not, however, close the debate. There are still those who feel that the term "birdwatcher" even though weighted with various connotations is the best descriptive term to use. So we are in a dilemmas as to what our association shall be called. Should it remain American Birdwatcher's Association or would another name be more fitting? This is a question that you, the membership, will have to answer.
Next is a longer piece—a full-on commentary—by Mike Einhorn of Atlanta, Georgia. It appears on pp. 2–3 of the January/February 1969 issue of Birding, and it's reproduced in its entirety below. Please do read the whole thing; I think it will be worth your time. (Left: Photo by © Bill Schmoker.)
WHAT IS A BIRDWATCHER?
With reference to your editorial on 'What is a Birdwatcher?' the individual who merely observes birds in a backyard and whose enjoyment does not depend on how many kinds of birds he sees or who may not have enough curiosity to make an effort to learn the identity of a strange bird is definitely an aesthetic and not a competitive birder. We have people who are interested in birds solely from a scientific standpoint. The individual who lists birds is consciously or unconsciously working toward a goal involving a certain number and in so doing is competing against other individuals who may have attained or hope to attain this same goal. One who is interested in birds only from the standpoint of listing could be termed a competitive birder.
Man is instinctively a hunter. If he hunts birds with a gun, he may satisfy this instinct by keeping within established limits and using birds killed for food. In some persons, supplying food for the table is of little consequence and hunting offers a means of bolstering one's ego by proving that a high degree of marksmanship has been attained. This represents competition. Some individuals use hunting to satisfy a killer instinct and will shoot at anything alive, in or out of season, and without regard to limits. The male birder often satisfies the hunter instinct by hunting without a gun. He may substitute a camera for a gun. He may be satisfied with a check on his life list versus a photograph. He probably finds that the challenge of identifying a bird by color, form, flight, feeding habits, etc. is infinitely more rewarding than blasting a bird out of the sky with a gun. It is not too difficult to aim a gun and pull a trigger in pursuit of an extremely limited number of species but birding involves numerous species and almost infinite areas of identification.
The woman birder initially is probably attracted by the beauty of a bird's color or song. She may be concerned over the bird's welfare because she related its small size with a certain amount of helplessness. She puts out food for the birds in a spirit of protectiveness.
However, as interest in birds grows, we find both men and women becoming interested in bird banding, photography, song recording, etc. Each of these endeavors can be done to further appreciate birds from an aesthetic standpoint. The number of birds or the number of species banded, the number of birds photographed or the quality of the recording could definitely be a matter of competing with others having the same interest. Each of these extensions of bird observation could be in the interest of making a scientific contribution. A person strongly interested in listing from a competitive standpoint could at the same time be interested in adding birds to various state lists in the interest of science.
Therefore, I suggest that at the extremes, we have the birdwatcher and the scientist. In between, we have the true birder who is probably interested in birds from an aesthetic, competitive, and scientific angle.
Well! What do y’all think of that? Please, let’s not just write it off as a quaint specimen from a bygone, sexist, politically incorrect era. If we’re honest with ourselves, I think we’ll agree that much of what Mike Einhorn puts before us has come to pass, in one way or another, during the 43-year history of the ABA. We employ different—perhaps less honest and more obfuscatory?—language these days, but the issues are the same: the question(s) of gender; an (undeniable?) competitive aspect of birding; the tension between “scientific” and “casual” bird study; and the tension between listing and pretty much everything. (Right: Photo by © Kei Sochi.)
Have we really come all that far? One thing bears repeating: The conversation is still ongoing.