Birders, in an effort to introduce coolness to our unequivocally uncool hobby or perhaps just as subterfuge to conceal our embarrassing passion from chortling eavesdroppers, seem to get a kick out of using inscrutable lingo and esoteric jargon. If we can’t mystify anyone with talk of lores, stringers, morphs, or pishing, we’ll steel our in-group unity by replacing perfectly good words with dumb ones. We’re less creative about it than, say, the drug users who gave the world brilliant terms like doobie, spliff, and angel dust. No, we just call our binoculars “binos” and grin at each other knowingly. Like the total dorks we are.
If it’s to make us feel cooler, it’s working on this guy. I can’t wait to show off my insider knowledge. And like an unscrupulous magician, I’m going to reveal the best and worst of bird words right here, right now.
The following list is a combination of 1) actual words ripped from biology textbooks that no one but ornithologists and birders would ever need to use, 2) made-up words that exist only for birders referencing concepts for which only birders would need a word, and 3) entirely unnecessary slang and abbreviations.
Maybe the terms aren’t entirely unnecessary—maybe there comes a point when you’ve said “sharp-shinned hawk” so often that you really must shorten the term to “sharpie” lest you run out of breath or patience. Or perhaps it’s a shibboleth: REAL birders don’t “look for a particular bird species”; no, no—we twitch.
In any case, here are some terms you dummies should know, in no particular order:
Binoculars are called bins, binos, nocs, or even barrels. (Ex.: Did everyone bring their eye trumpets?) We haven’t decided yet. I call my pair “Benny.”
Scopes are called scopes. These are the big single-eye telescope-looking lenses on tripods. I don’t have one, probably because there’s not a good slang term for them. If we were clever enough to call them cyclopes or winkies or chick magnets or puffin peekers or vulture tubes or eye fluffers or gnostic optics or subcelestial-dimension canopy intrusion devices, I’d be all over it.
Twitching is what you do when your goal for the day is to find a particular species. This is clearly less cool than twerking, tweaking, or even wearing tweed. Worst word in the birding lexicon.
Pishing refers to a birder making stupid pish pish pishhh noises to attract birds. This is the other worst word in the birding lexicon. Don’t pish. And if you do, don’t call it pishing. And if you do call it pishing, don’t make puns about it. It pishes the birds off.
Birding itself is a word no one who isn’t a birder uses. Most people say bird-watching, which describes perfectly well the activity grandma performs through her kitchen window while sucking on her eighth Werther’s Original of the morning. Alas, if you’re into bird-watching but don’t call it birding, you’ll be labeled an amateur. Your life list—if you even have one on eBird, you loser—is probably, like, three entries long. You’ve probably never even seen 400 species in your Big Year. You’ve probably never even DONE a Big Year! Get a load of this “bird-watcher,” everybody! Guffaw! In all seriousness, “birding” does seem to connote a competitiveness or aggressiveness that “bird-watching” does not. Me? I’m usually more bird-watcher than bird-stalker. Perhaps I’m bi.
A Big Year is a big secret, known only to insiders unless you read that one best-selling book or that other book or saw that one movie with Owen Wilson and Jack Black and Steve freakin’ Martin. But seriously, it’s a secret. You don’t know about it. You know nothing.
You’ll hear birders talk about eBird. It’s a website/database where we all religiously keep track of each and every bird we’ve ever seen, ever, and when and where (offering even GPS coordinates because we are serious). Among birders, nothing could be more embarrassing than not having an eBird account. But among non-birders (which is what we call you soulless muggle garbage people, by the way), nothing could be more embarrassing than admitting you have freely and of your own will logged hundreds of hours and thousands of bird sightings into an online database for no reason but personal satisfaction. Fitbits and Untappd are bad enough, but at least you can talk about that at the office without blushing, even if you really really shouldn’t. Ever since the Ashley Madison hack, I’ve had nightmares about an eBird data breach exposing my naked life list to the world.
A life list is, of course, the full list of every species of bird a given individual has seen and identified. For many birders, a complete list of every species not on their life list constitutes, quite conveniently, their bucket list.
A syrinx is both a beautiful word and an example of avian evolutionary bad-assery. Humans reading this blog have a larynx (unless very poor fortune has visited them), but birds have instead a syrinx, which puts our larynx to shame. It’s the difference between a harmonica and a pipe organ. The syrinx allows birds to sing high, low, and even both at once. Learn more about it here so you’re less dumb (also: cool graphics). If you don’t have a syrinx—and you don’t—accept your biological inferiority. Proceed to sneer at human vocalists, or as I like to call them, the Washington Generals of singing.
A bird’s lores are located between its eyes and nostrils, which matters because we like saying it, giving an air of romance to an otherwise ho-hum bit of anatomy. My plan is to introduce regalia as a term for rings on a bird’s neck or breast. Make it so.
A bill is a beak. A beak is a bill. In a shocking departure from our typical snootiness, birders aren’t real particular about this.
Legs refer, believe it or not, to a bird’s legs. I mean, we can recognize the tarsus and the tibia, but I swear to God, we all just say legs. And their little claw talon things? We call them toes. Yep.
Chiti WEEW wewidoo is a universally accepted transcription of the song of an Eastern Bluebird. Obviously. I can’t believe I have to explain this.
A stringer is a birder who, through deceit at worst or ignorance at best, gives false reports about his or her bird sightings. Imagine Donald Trump after a birding expedition and you’ll get the idea: “I saw the best birds, tremendous birds, great genes, did you see them? Someone told me, everyone said, this is true, really great birds. In the history of birds, it’s a beautiful history, NO ONE has seen birds like this. Everyone’s telling me they were dragons, ok? I saw things you wouldn’t believe, trust me. I got a call from one of these birds, we had a really great conversation, ok?, this bird loved me like you wouldn’t believe. Obama didn’t see these birds, no one in the fake news media was talking about these birds. No one even knew these birds were here, ok? I alone can find them.”
Owling is the practice of stumbling through the woods in the middle of the damn night while suffering cold or mosquito bites or branches to the eye or skunk attacks because that’s when the owls are out and real OG birders are fearless beasts, as ridiculous by night as by day.
Aberrant plumage, by the way, describes birds with, you know, aberrant plumage—those whose color patterns differ from the norm for one reason or another. They flap to the beat of a different painter. A rhythm-less, fame-less, talentless painter. We birders love them because we can sympathize.
That’s all you get today, folks. Will there be a sequel? Depends on whether the funding comes in from Nat Geo. Or, in lieu of that unlikely windfall, it depends on how bored I am in the near future on nights when I’m definitely not owling, but trust me, I’m never owling.