What is birdwatching actually?

Birdwatching may be exactly that – watching birds. More generally, birdwatching is actually about observing and identifying the birds around us. Once one has noticed a bird and seen how it behaves the next question is: what is it? This is where birdwatching (as most people enjoy it) starts. The next step is a pair of binoculars to help get a better view of the birds you see, as well as a field-guide or reference book to help with identification. 

 The attraction of birdwatching

Birdwatching has grown in appeal in recent years alongside a whole host of other outdoor activities. It is generally a leisurely and relaxing hobby which fulfils our natural curiosity and desire to learn as well as meeting the need to challenge oneself. While people watch birds for many different reasons, here are some of the biggest attractions:

  • Birds are among the most beautiful and accessible animals on earth. Birds are literally everywhere, and if one appreciates nature, one cannot help but appreciate birds too.
  • There is a tremendous variety of birds. Worldwide there are over 9 000 different species. Birds exhibit a vast array of different behaviours, including many which humans can relate to. Many birds are sociable and exhibit a remarkable range of adaptive behaviours. Even some of the more common species (for example, the Arrow-marked Babbler) have habits which bird scientists (ornithologists) are only beginning to understand.
  • One never knows what one is going to see. There is a large element of surprise in birdwatching – uncommon species can pop up in unexpected places, secretive species may appear in the open, and one may also see interesting behaviour that one has never seen before.
  • Birdwatching takes one outdoors, and to many of the most beautiful and exciting places on Earth. If you want to meet someone who has seen the country – and knows every hidden treasure – just find an obsessive birder.
  • Birdwatching is a challenge. The key challenge is to identify the birds you see, and to find and identify particular birds you want to see. Birding grows from being an interest to being a skill. The skill of finding and identifying birds involves knowledge about the habitat, habits, plumage and shape of a bird. The more one gets to know about birds, the greater the degree to which one can judge size and shape from a distance, or pick up a fast moving bird quickly and notice the key features which tell you with certainty, for example, what kind of sparrowhawk it is.
  • Birdwatching offers non-scientists an opportunity to play a valuable role in scientific research by contributing their sightings data to atlassing projects, among others.
  • Birdwatching is sociable. Most birders enjoy sharing their experiences and knowledge of birds with others, and birding is often a group activity.

 Keeping lists (or ticking)

Once you are into the fun and challenge of identifying birds, the next step is to keep some sort of record of what you have seen. This is where listing starts, and for most birders the most important list is a life list – a list of all the birds seen in one’s lifetime. But listing is about far more than just a life list, it is a way of keeping track of observations or of organising a vast number of experiences and ensuring that they are not lost. Listing is given special meaning and value when it is part of an organised scientific effort to gather information. The Southern African Bird Atlas Project involves thousands of birdwatchers who collect millions of bits of data and help to build up a comprehensive picture of the distribution and movement of most of our bird species.


Once you have a life list, and become obsessive about building it up, then you become a twitcher. A twitcher is someone who actively seeks out new birds to put on their life list. The word is supposed to describe the uncontrollable spasms of excitement when seeing a new bird for the first time. Many birders are twitchers to some extent, but the degree to which the ticking of new species is important is a personal thing. Some birders can be described as ‘hard-core twitchers’ and are interested in nothing other than ticking new species, while some of the country's most knowledgeable bird experts do not consider themselves to be twitchers. Twitching has led to a whole vocabulary to describe what happens when you go twitching. ‘Gripping’ a bird means that you have ‘got it’ – you can add it to your life list. Conversely, when you go looking for birds and miss out on something that you should have seen then you ‘dipped out’ on that species.

Most birders still enjoy seeing birds they have already seen. Birdwatching which is not oriented towards twitching (not about new species) is usually more leisurely, except when it becomes ‘power-birding’ (seeing as many species as possible in a limited amount of time).


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