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ICYMI: Sympathy for the Twitcher

The ABA Blog has been in existence for almost 8 years, and there’s a lot of good content back in the archives that deserves an audience now that it might not have received way back when. So, semi-regularly we will bring some of that stuff back. Here’s one by Ted Floyd on a topic that never goes out of style.


Canadian birders and biologists Jason R. Straka and Devon M. E. Turner, writing in the September/October 2013 Birding, take a modern look at the age-old question of “twitching”—that is to say, “chasing” in Lower 48 parlance. But their subtitle hints at a different angle: “What Those Who Seek Rare Birds Do For Ornithology.”

(Click here for a free PDF download of Straka and Turner’s “Sympathy For The Twitcher: What Those Who Seek Rare Birds Do For Ornithology,” Birding, September/October 2013, pp. 40–46.)

For sure, Straka and Turner don’t shy away from the ethical and aesthetic aspects of twitching. Is twitching bad for birds? Is it bad for the broader environment? Is twitching somehow “lazy” or “dissatisfying”? Or are the harmful impacts, if any, mitigated by the good will, education, and “magnanimity” that so often result from twitching?

Straka and Turner’s central focus, though, is on the effect of twitching on ornithology. In the old days: We came, we saw, we “conquered.” A successful twitch resulted in the addition of a bird to a birder’s list. Today, we go a step further. A giant leap further, really. We get our bird, and then we do something else: A great many of us upload the sighting to eBird.

eBirdeBird is one of the biggest birding breakthroughs since binoculars and field guides. eBird is changing the way we bird. eBird is changing our lives. And eBird is making a difference for science and conservation.

In their commentary in Birding, Straka and Turner explore how twitching affects the eBird database. In a nutshell, twitching leads to statistical “biases”—for certain locations, habitat types, and bird species. Take a look at their article, and see what you think.


Shifting gears now, I have a question for you: Why do you twitch (or “chase”)? I’m interested in any response except this one: “To get the bird.” That’s circular, akin to, “I go to concerts to listen to music” or “I go to zoos to see animals” or “I collect beer cans because I like collecting beer cans.”

Beer Can MuseumConcerts aren’t the only way to hear music. Zoos aren’t the only way to see animals. And who needs their own beer can collection when you can just go to the Beer Can Museum in East Taunton, Massachusetts? Believe it or not, there are music lovers who eschew the whole concert scene, animal lovers who disdain zoos, and beer lovers who don’t collect beer cans.

Can you be a birder but not a twitcher? I confess, I’m basically one such individual. I’m not rigid about it, though. For example, I made multiple visits to see Colorado’s only known wild Rufous-collared Sparrow—a bird some people would say isn’t even countable.

I’ll go back to my question above: Why do you twitch? Note that I’m not asking: Why don’t you twitch? I’m interested in hearing from twitchers, from people who bird different than me. As many of you know, I most esteem people, lifestyles, and ideas that seem just a bit strange to me.

Lay it on me. And who knows?—maybe I’ll join you for your next twitch.

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

  • Greg Neise

    Well, I didn’t think I’d be the first to chime in here, but…

    …because it’s FUN! And exciting. And fun.

    That really is pretty much all there is to it. I enjoy running out to see a rarity, and all of the gnashing of teeth (will it stick? … was it misidentified?) that goes with it. Adding to my life, state or county lists is something I take a great deal of enjoyment in. Of course, finding it yourself is even that much better. But rushing out the door on a twitch with good friends is just a good-old-fashion adrenaline rush.

  • Bob Shade

    I am a half-hearted lister/twitcher whose zeal varies inversely with the distance. For example when my neighbor reported a Lewis’s Woodpecker almost in their backyard, I went to see it and photograph it. But when a Lawrence’s Goldfinch showed up at a feeder in Grand Junction a couple years ago I declined to make the eight hour round trip. Still, I want to make 400 on my Colorado list and am now 23 short.

    I am a religious person and I relate the desire to chase to the desire in every human heart to see the really rare; in religious parlance, a miracle. A Ross’s Gull at our own Cherry Creek Reservoir!! A Brambling (I saw dozens in Japan) in our own Bear Creek Lake Park!! Wow! What is it doing here? How did it get here?

  • gutenburg

    I agree that there can be statistical bias on Ebird reports of rarities but I don’t think a twitch button would help. Nobody would use it. Anyone who does not record all the birds they saw should chose that option when submitting the report. Whenever I have chased a bird I have endeavored to record all species and I think I have largely succeeded. If the bird doesn’t show up immediately it gives an opportunity to look over every bird and if it does show up I usually take some time after I have had the opportunity to study the rare bird and look at the other birds at the location.

    As far as why do I twitch – I think it is a fun thing to do. I like to add to my lists – especially my home county. To get a large list holds attraction – it isn’t so easy (in the inland NE US). It is nice to see a bird that you couldn’t see normally. I think there is a thrill of the chase. It is a challenge. That said I have only chased probably 10 birds and only one was further than 1 hour away. I have passed up dozens of rarities because of work constraints. And sometimes I just like to get out and bird (without spending alot of time getting there). I would definitely consider myself a lister still.

    • Jason Straka

      gutenburg: You make some great points. Perhaps the existing tick-box is enough.

      I’ve also been privately mulling over the potential merits of a “Green birding” button, linked with a separate category (subset) for eBird rankings.

      I realize that eBird can only have so many buttons before it starts to look like a helicopter console, but it privately drives me nuts when I try to compete (a bad habit, perhaps) with birders who drive to almost every new bird they see. I probably just need to get over it but more importantly, perhaps this button could actually change the way people bird?

      I’m very interested in birders’ (and twitchers’) relationships with cars. I don’t own one. Several people have said that their enthusiasm for twitching declines with distance. Does anybody worry about the fuel it will take to see a bird before starting that engine?

      • gutenburg


        I would like to see a green birding ranking subset or a way to filter for green birding too. I do alot of birding while biking so I am very interested in green birding. I think that is a great idea – to be able to mark checklists as a green effort.

        I actually see 75% of the birds I see in my yard and the circle about 5 miles around my house (mostly by bike-get exercise and birding at the same time!). So I understand where you come from-especially seeing that you don’t have a car. But on the other hand the nearest viable park is 15 miles from my house so I can’t just scoot down there on the bike unless I have 3 hours or so. It does get boring birding only by bike in an area where there are no close hotspots-in my township I have seen almost every bird that can be seen-about 180 with no lakes and no good shorebird fields and no real rarities. That said when I do go by car it is usually between 30 and 45 minutes away.

        Another point about birding by bicycle is that it is rewarding especially where there are no parks – you can hear birds as you pedal and it is easier and less noticeable (for nosy people-they always stare and ask what you are doing if you pull the car over to the side of the road but not with the bike). So I really like birding by bike, the main problem is that I am limited to about 10 or 15 miles most days so it does get somewhat boring sometimes. And in the winter it is hard with all the snow to bike.

        If there was a way to show rankings for a green year/life list on Ebird it would prompt me to try for more birds by bike. I would think it would encourage green birding.

        Of the twitching in my area, there have been very few rarities that I could have biked to. So if I didn’t use the car I wouldn’t have went. My enthusiasm for twitching decreases with distance. I can’t imagine spending 6 hours one way to see a bird but when a 2nd state record was found about 40 minutes away I went. I don’t worry about the fuel so much – I believe there is climate change but I think an hour or two trip once a week or so isn’t going to make much difference. The biggest problem with climate change is the cattle industry IMO, which if true I am saving the environment more by being a vegan than I could by scratching a weekly trip. Some would probably disagree.

        I am planning to do a county big year next year. I think I will be driving more than I have been but I am planning on doing alot of biking trips around the county as well. Rarities are not reported often in my county so finding as many breeding and migrant birds is most important and this will probably be largely by bike because there are not many parks and it is easier to find some birds by bike. But I will have to visit the two lakes quite a bit to get all of the waterfowl and shorebirds.

    • David Rankin

      The problem with rarities in Ebird is that even if you report all the species you see along with a twitched rarity, you’re still biasing the data towards that rarity. If you really wanted to overcome that bias, you’d have to submit lots of other complete checklists at random locations (like supermarket parking lots, random roadside pulloffs or little town parks, full of common birds). Then’d you “dilute” the bias of specifically going and looking for and then reporting that rarity.

      • gutenburg

        Hey, You are the guy that found the first Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch in NY?!


        I see that point. That is true-it is a least bias for the county. I am not sure for specific locations like Jones Beach (I know that is a hotspot but never been there) for example are really that skewed because people bird there all the time and submit checklists even if no rarity and locations such as that have more rarities.

        But it definitely does bias results on at least a larger level but so does people who are only feeder watchers. There is a birder in my county that has submitted over 3,000 checklists but has only seen 60 birds. I think that also skews the results. I think there are alot of people submitting checklists for random locations. I have submitted checklists for walmart parking lots, interstate pulloffs, etc. And I have submitted over 2200 complete checklists for regular locations (short roads and sections of longer roads) in my county. I think there are quite a few people doing this. Probably not enough in some places. So I agree with you but I think many counties are not so skewed as others.

  • Ken Cross

    If the only birding someone does is twitching that would be both sad and surprising. The joy of birding, for me, is that it is a gateway to variety and diversity; in birds yes but also places, habitats, other critters, people etc. Twitching, with its promise of the totally new, fits into birding rather than replaces it.
    Does anyone know a birder who would not try for a new spp if it was ‘close’?

    • Ted Floyd

      Me, Ken. Totally serious. And I’ve got the holes in my life list to prove it!

      But I’m listening to y’all. I’m learning.

      • Ken Cross

        But even you Ted are not rigid about it hence the Sparrow incident above. So you ‘get it’ sometimes. Why was the Rufous Collared Sparrow special in ways that other spp are not? [I’m an Aussie so I don’t know whether that is a dumb question or not?!]

  • Jennifer Rycenga

    I twitch because I learn by doing so, encountering a new species, or a familiar species in a new environment. I twitch because I have noticed a correlation between the extension of my various lists and overall skill set as a birder, as well as my understanding of bird movement, distribution, and more. I twitch because I often get to run into friends and the birding community when I do so. I twitch because I like the friendly-competitive aspect of listing, and because I’ve found that the competition is actually more with myself, in the direction of self-improvement. I twitch because memorable bird sightings create a diary of my birding life. I twitch to create more eBird entries.

  • Kirby Adams

    My twitching habits, or lack thereof, probably appear random to an outside observer. I recently twitched a Curlew Sandpiper 2 hours away and was about to pull the trigger today on the Lesser Sand-plover (3 hours) if it reappeared. Two years ago I did not twitch a Lucy’s Warbler that was three hours away. (I’m in mid-Michigan, for reference).

    I knew I’d be in SE Arizona within a few years, and I find seeing a Lucy’s Warbler in the arid scrub IMMENSELY more satisfying than seeing one in Michigan. I’m an ecologist and a biogeographer at heart, so the outliers interest me, but seeing the bird in the habitat it evolved with is what moves me. Even if I’d gotten the Michigan one as my lifer, I’d consider the one I got a couple months ago in Portal to be my “real” lifer. I found proper habitat in the right region, went at the right time of year, and I found the bird right there occupying its niche. If I’d gone to Whitefish Point, I would have driven up to a row of people with bins pointing at a tree, seen the bird that made a migration error so profound it likely removed itself from the gene pool, and I’d go home not really feeling anything.

    The Curlew Sandpiper was a bird I’d much rather see in South Africa or Siberia, but I’m not sure when, if ever, that will happen. In that case I went and got the bird to put a bird on my list that may be many years away if I wait for the “right” one. While there, however, I experienced the one big pros of twitching: camaraderie. I met some people I’d known only as names on eBird and the listservs. We’d never met, but shared a common language of birding jargon and found jokes about woodpecker taxonomy amusing. It’s a nice feeling of inclusion to walk up to strangers and feel that included. We also had a non-birder walk up to the group and inquire what we were about. That’s when my birding ambassador alter-ego kicked in, and I wove a tale about a bird making a wrong turn on the way from Siberia to Africa and ending up in Douglas, Michigan. That was satisfying, and much more rewarding than the tick was.

    So, Lesser Sand-plover – I’m there if that thing starts cooperating better. But if a White-headed Woodpecker showed up at the same place, I’m not entirely sure I’d be on it, despite my love for all things Picid. There’s a good chance I’ll be on the dry side of the Cascades in Oregon late next spring and that’s where I want to see them. Then again, it would be fun to hang out with some of the Chicago and Indiana birders, so maybe I would chase. I guess we’ll never know….or will we?

    • Jason Straka

      Well said, Kirby! I often neglect to twitch because breeding plumage, breeding behaviour, and watching a species “use” the environment in which it evolved are most fascinating to me. At the risk of anthropomorphizing, I’m an ecologist from a small town in Canada, and wouldn’t want people to first see me negotiating a cocktail party in Hong Kong!

      • Kirby Adams

        Anthropomorphizing is one of the seven deadly sins of ecology! BUT, I like your analogy so much, I may have to steal it. Ascribing beauty to a system than can be defined by mathematics is also sinful, but to me an unspoiled ecosystem is high art.

  • kestrel

    I do not know what a twitcher is and only recently heard the term. I get the sense from these thoughts that I too am not one. I appreciate these perspectives. I have used the term “chase birds” but rarely. Birds and birding are a fundamental and daily aspect of my personal and professional life. I am beginning to see that being with and learning about birds is motivated by a diverse array of perspectives. Interesting thread, thanks.

  • Mike Patterson

    I once got a phone call from a friend who lives about 40 miles away. They were inviting me to come see a Brambling that was visiting their yard. I declined politely. She said, “oh, then your not a lister?” I said, “no I’m a lister, just not a very good one.” I twitched the Hooded Warbler that turned up in a backyard last year because I could walk there. And I’d probably drive to see a bird in Seaside or the South Jetty of the Columbia River (both under 20 miles away).

    I prefer to bird a place, not a bird. If it will take me longer to drive to and from a spot than the amount of time I’m likely to spend birding the place, odds are very good I’ll wait for someone to post photographs. There’s nothing fun for me about spending time in a car. I prefer to think globally and twitch locally.

    EVERYBODY has a list, even those who don’t obsessively manage one. For some, the list is just in their head. It’s the MEANING we give to all the names and numbers that sorts us into piles. I find more meaning in keeping track of what’s happening in my local patch and I have the spreadsheets to prove it….

    • gutenburg

      “I prefer to bird a place, not a bird”.

      That is basically how I feel. I do chase birds sometimes but when I do I like to bird the location thoroughly. The local patch is my 2nd most important list (after my yard).

  • Steve

    Did anyone ask eBird about the bias? I think researchers are well aware of that and can adjust any analyses to reflect it.

    My birding and listing started pretty much at the same time. I started a life list in Jan 1986 and every new bird got entered. I started a state list around the same time but it was just marking birds off on a checklist. I can look at my life list and remember things a lot easier than if I never wrote it down. But I don’t think we are talking about that. I think we are talking about the ‘competitive’ nature of birding. It may be competition with friends, strangers or just ourselves. eBird has made me a better birder in that I keep track of all species and number seen, not just new ones. eBird also makes it easy to see how many birds I’ve seen in a particular geographic area and how my numbers compare to others. It doesn’t make me a bad person or less green than others if I try to twitch birds in my county because I want to catch up to my friend Mark. (he calls me about new birds and I call him…so it’s a very friendly competition). I think we birders are too hard on each other…whether it’s playback, twitching, or driving to see new birds (or old birds). Let’s be hard on the people that don’t care about birds, the people that think feral cats are wildlife (the CEO of ASPCA just recently). Not be hard on, but educate perhaps.

    Twitching is collecting, but it’s collecting experiences. Outdoor experiences, and frankly there should be a lot more outdoor experiences for everyone. Whether you take a photo, or make a memory, or enter it into a database, or all three at once. It’s ALL good, and a damn good time.

    • Steven Tucker

      There are many, many different biases in the data that goes into eBird besides the ones associated with twitching…this is a whole topic in and of itself.

      I wish I understood statistical analysis better, but generally speaking the more adjustments you make to the data that make it seem “cleaner”, the less confidence you can have in the results. As for the eBird staff themselves, since they are not yet actually publishing very complex research using their own data (I could be wrong on this), I doubt they have all the answers to problems with the data. That said, I know of more than one research project that utilizes eBird data…it would be very interesting to know how they overcome the hurdles of data collected via citizen science.

      Twitching rocks.

  • Kirby Adams

    I’m not enough of a stats monkey to comprehend how corrupting twitching is to the eBird database. It makes sense that it would have some negative effect, but I’m not sure how it is comparative to people just not birding unpopular locations or in unpopular seasons, which is a big deal.

    I try to do two things in mitigation of my twitches. First, I spend time at the twitch and make it a legitimate list with a prolonged effort. Second, I’ve given myself the rule that I’ll do two random lists within a day or two of any twitch list. That’s kind of like my version of carbon offsets…makes me feel good, but it’s probably less desirable than just avoiding the thing that needs mitigation in the first place. Still, more random lists are tonic for the database. I think a lot of the weird birding behaviors that give the eBird database indigestion would be of far less significance if we all got in the habit of entering a lot more painfully boring lists. If I spend the next 15 minutes in my yard, I’ll have maybe five species (three or four of them non-native), but that’s a good list.

  • Ian Gardner

    I twitch when I have the time and money to commit to a birding trip. But the rare bird is just the superficial goal of the trip. The real allure is the entire journey. I keep track of every bird I see and make several stops at hotspots along the way to really explore the area. I get more pleasure from watching a bird in its natural ecosystem and understanding how its community is connected than seeing a misplaced bird, like a Northern Wheatear in a backyard full of broken down cars. But I’m also driven to improve any list I can. So, if anything, twitching is just an excuse, a facade, for me to explore a new area and learn as much as possible. Plus it’s a great chance to meet new birders, non-birders, familiar friends, and to find the best local eatery that only residents know about.

  • Jack Snipe

    I chase a little bit, but aspire more to be the “twitch-stigator” (aka “twitchinitiator”), the guy who finds the rare bird that birders will chase. I get great pleasure on having people see rare birds that I have found, which in some cases may be lifers for them. Who knows, the rarity may be a spark bird for a beginning birder, who will carry this hobby forward into their lives.

    • Some great terms, Jack 🙂 I agree that these are the birders I really look up to. A friend of mine is fond of pointing out that rarities are everywhere if you know how to find them and are willing to spend the time. You also make a very good point about the value of “spark” birds.

  • Anya Auerbach

    I twitch for the excitement and the community, and because it encourages me to visit new birding locations I might never have heard of otherwise. Of these three, I think the community is the most important. I usually drive with friends- our chase from NYC to the Massachusetts Fieldfare last winter missed the bird by 45 minutes and had us out in the cold for 7 hours- but it was incredibly fun for both the hours in the car with two of my best friends, and the opportunity to talk to new people. We had a long conversation with some people who were involved in a breeding program for the rare breed of horse that was being kept next to the residence where the bird had been seen.

  • Mary

    Okay, so I just happen to be writing a song called “Chasing Birds”, so … well, it’s about the metaphorical take on chasing birds. Everyone chases birds in one way or another. It’s just that we twitchers actually do it literally. That’s what I think, anyway. Emily Dickenson said, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” So true. I say, there’s nothing more optimistic than a birder. Every time I look through my bins I am filled with this (maybe foolish) hope that the world will open up its magical doors and reveal to me one of its amazing secrets.
    I chase birds because I’m human.
    Chasing Birds (refrain)
    I’m chasing hopes.
    I’m chasing dreams.
    I’m chasing miracles,
    Or so it seems.
    I’m chasing truth.
    I’m chasing birds.
    I’m chasing joy.
    I’m chasing love.
    I’m chasing all these gifts
    From God above.
    I’m chasing life.
    I’m chasing birds.
    I’m chasing birds.
    But on a more serious note, you can’t know them until you see them.
    ~ Mary

  • Dan Lindsay

    I’m a lister, with every sort of list: by year, by state, by trip, etc. I’ve never considered myself a twitcher, which to me implies interest only in the list, not the rest of the birding experience.

    I list mainly because it’s a record of my birding experiences. I like to review trips, places, etc., by going over my lists and reminiscing.

    Seeing a rarity is exciting because it’s unexpected. I suspect antique collectors, people who hunt bargains at garage sales, and collectors of rare coins have similar feelings about their pursuits. What is different is more interesting than what is ordinary, as a general rule.

  • williammueller

    Ted, I don’t chase anymore, but I’m very glad to share this blog post (I just did, with a group of >1500 folks). Thanks for focusing on the hard questions.

  • sbetchkal

    I would love to personally meet a representative of each and every species of bird on this planet. It would be an honor and a joy.

  • sbetchkal

    Also…my philosophy on “chasing” is simple; In my county? and not constrained by other commitments? Go. Farther out and not on the way to somewhere I have to be anyway? No.
    List serves and electronic “boasting” have actually made it tougher on me. I hear about a bird all the way across the state and feel I’m “missing something.” — but any moment I am consoled by the fact that should I get out and bird I always have the same chance as anyone else of spotting a rarity, and that if I live long enough, the rarities will come to me.

  • Ted Floyd

    Hey, folks. Just a random thought. It is possible to be a fanatical lister while also being averse to chasing. I’m just saying.

  • David Rankin

    Ted, I’m a fanatical lister and a sometimes twitcher, and I’ll echo Greg’s sentiment, because I enjoy it. However, I’ve sometimes found myself in situations where I was chasing a bird that I didn’t enjoy. It’s 105 degrees. Full sun. 3pm. Flies. No breeze. The bird (one I’ve seen several hundred times in a different state) is nowhere to be found. No one else is around either. And yet, I persisted in looking for said bird for 2 hours. I eventually found it. Did I enjoy myself? Did I have fun? In retrospect, I have a fond memory of the occasion. But at the time I was a bit miserable. And yet I don’t regret it. I still occasionally twitch. So it’s more than just having fun in the moment. It’s a sense of accomplishment, a sense of achieving something difficult that makes me do it.

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