– They once were called bird-watchers. Now the preferred term is birders. And bird-watching is regularly referred to as birding.

A bird-watcher was once oversimplified, thought of as the gray-haired woman who lived down the alley who each day filled her backyard bird feeders and watched for her feathered friends out the kitchen window. Too, there was the image of a person who drove a gas-conservative foreign car, wore a tan vest, fancy pants and a fedora, and donned $1,000-plus binoculars around his neck.

No longer.

Birders come from all walks of life, with different motivations. It’s a popular pastime for many people, some of whom are serious, often times traveling great distances at the drop of hat, sometimes across the state or the United States and even the world to add bird sightings to their life lists.

Others are happy just to watch various species of birds seen only in their yards.

What is the attraction? After all, birds have forever been a part of our lives; even if you live deep in a metro area, there always have been city birds to watch, from pigeons and starlings to house sparrows.

“I got into birding when I was 12 years old,” said Bill Brown, a die-hard birder and outdoorsman from Backus, Minn. “That was 64 years ago. A friend pointed out a male American redstart [a small orange and black bird in the warbler family], and I was hooked. It blew me away.”

Brown bought a bird identification book. The rest is history.

“At the time my friends and I were rowdy teens like most kids,” said Brown, 75. “We were approached by law enforcement several times. After all, all kids with binoculars must be up to no good.”

Brown held various jobs, most associated with the outdoors. For Brown, birding became more than the act of spotting a particular species, adding it to his list and then moving on.

“I became interested in all of nature, including insects and flowers. To me every day, outdoors developed into a new adventure. I began to notice patterns in nature. The relationship between birds, plants and times of year became more and more apparent [phenology]. I experienced the joy and excitement of discovery.

“For me birding is a spiritual experience, too.”.

Others birders find satisfaction in the detective work: What species am I seeing or hearing? Gulls and shorebirds can be particularly challenging to identify, especially during fall when they are not always sporting their springtime breeding plumage.

Some birders like to certify their sightings by photographing birds. Image quality is not necessarily important, so cellphones and relatively cheap optics often suffice as long as the bird species is identifiable.

Birding combines exploring new places with comrades. What better than to share with friends the sighting of a brilliant male indigo bunting in spring or that of a stately great gray owl hunting from an old spruce snag before sunset on a winter day.

Serious birders usually keep a list of species. There are backyard lists, county lists, state lists, daily lists, yearly lists and even lift lists.

I’ve found that most birders are generous, willing to share rare sightings with anyone, which nowadays is virtually instantaneous because of social media, cellphones and global positioning systems. And birders frequently know the best local restaurants where they gather for lunchtime pie and coffee or, at day’s end, a steak and cocktail.

One apt description of birding: “Social partying with binoculars.”


Bill Marchel is an outdoors writer and photographer. He lives near Brainerd. Reach him at bill@billmarchel.com.