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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.
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Birders know well that the healthiest, most dynamic choruses contain many different voices. The birding community encompasses a wide variety of interests, talents, and convictions. All are welcome.
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