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Birder Jargon Project: Abbreviatory

September 28, 2011
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The ongoing argument to define birders and bird-watchers is little more than a bunch of semantic hooey.  I mean, who cares, right?  The difference, as it has come to be understood in our community, has to do with the intensity in which you observe avians.  “Birding”, such as it is, implies action, the sort of trail-stomping that most of us look forward to every weekend (or, for those lucky few, every day).  The important thing is that you seek birds out rather than let them come to you, as the more passive “bird-watching” would suggest.

It’s complete BS, of course, and just serves to promote these completely arbitrary and divisive labels birders all across the spectrum of experience and intensity and molt-savvy can obsess over.  Who cares, you know?  Just enjoy birds. Some people are content just to bird their patch or their feeder. Great. Doesn’t make them a soft-headed yokel.  Some want to dig into molt and nocturnal flight calls and shorebird aging.  Sweet.  Doesn’t make them an elitist.

But I digress.

I think there’s actually a much more insidious bias at work here.  Not your life list or your library or your optics, but one embedded in the very word we use to describe ourselves that probably, more than implied intent, gets to the heart of why many “serious” bird enthusiasts prefer the term “birding”.  After all, we are not simply bird-watchers, are we?  Vocalizations, from the singing Carolina Wren you never get a look at to the imperceptibly soft flight calls of a passing Gray-cheeked Thrush, matter just as much as sightings.  Our appreciation of birds cannot be constrained by one sensory apparatus, we need two at minimum.  After all, so far as our brain is concerned, a bird spotted is nothing more than electromagnetic radiation exciting the photoreceptors in our eyes and sending a signal to our brain and a bird heard is a few air molecules exciting the cochleae in our ears and sending a similar signal.  In both ways we experience a bird.

But for some reason, it’s hard for many of us to really consider a bird fully experienced unless we lay eyes upon it.  I count myself in that number too; while I count heard birds on year, county, and state lists, my life list (at least my ABA one) consists of no heard-only species, despite the fact that it would be a handful of birds higher if it did.  But I stay firm, irrationally so.

Is it because we, as big-brained primates with forward facing eyes, evolved to take advantage of sight as the primary way by which we interact with the world?  Certainly our modern western culture would have use believe that, and who am I to argue with the prevailing cultural milieu, but I’m inclined to believe this obsession with the visual is cultural rather than evolutionary.  Some point to the invention of the printing press, and the subsequent importance of printed words as a means to pass on information, as the turning point towards a more visual culture.

But I really digress.

The point I’m trying to make here is that it’s perhaps understandable that so much of our birder slang – two big ones in particular – has to do with seeing a bird.  Old habits die hard, I guess.  And these two terms were meant to describe incidences surrounding seeing a bird, a life bird in particular.  We have a dichotomy here.  According this language, you can only see a bird one of two ways.  You can either be happy with that look, or desirous of something better. The terms?

BVD and SSV.

Yeeeeah, I think I'm going to need a better look at this one

They’re acronyms obviously, and woe to the birder who attempts to pronounce them.  SSV stands for “Soul-Satisfying View”.  Not only do you see the bird, but you drink it in.  You note all relevant field marks and even take in a bit of its distinctive behavior (assuming it has some).  Maybe the bird will sing for you, but that’s not required (we’re visual creatures, remember?).  You walk away from this experience in the field feeling completely satisfied to the depths of your soul.  It is gratifying.  You know this bird as you tick it on your list.

The opposite side of the coin, of course, is the BVD, or “Better View Desired”.  We all have birds like this on our respective life list.  Perhaps you had the bird pointed out to you, perhaps it was identified not by field marks but by flight call as it passed overhead.  Maybe it was distant, or the light was bad, or it was obscured by leaves.  You got the bird on your life list but, for whatever reason, the experience was lacking.  You’ll need to see it again and then, of course, things will be better.  The advantage of all this is that you essentially get a extra lifer.  The life bird itself, and the memory of the time you actually saw it well.  Bonus!

These were among the very first bits of bird slang I ever encountered as a new bird-watcher, I’ve still never completely replaced all the BVDs on my list with better observations.  Maybe I never will.  But in any case, part of the fun is searching out that once and for all SSV.

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4 Comments
  1. September 28, 2011 4:03 pm

    Surprisingly this post is my first sighting of the abbreviations SSV and BVD. Good to know!

    So, do you keep a separate life list from your eBird life list? I don’t. I’m so dedicated to the eBird process of noting the presence of the bird that if I indisputably heard it, but didn’t see it, I still count it. I think I have just a couple life birds that were heard only…Common Poorwill, Veery, and I think that is it. I have several BVD’s, most notably the Pileated Woodpecker. I did finally have a SSV of a Varied Thrush last fall after two previous fly-over BVD’s.

    Good stuff Nate!

  2. September 28, 2011 7:02 pm

    “SSV”. I like that! I knew about BVD but not SSV. As far as “birding” and “birdwatching” go, I interchange the two even though you make a good point about birding being more than just a visual endeavor. Like Robert, I’ve also got some frustrating (aren’t they all) BVDs myself, Red-fronted Parrotlet being my biggest.

  3. September 29, 2011 8:12 am

    Wonderful post, Nate! It is curious how my life as a birder has evolved: from observer (birdwatcher) 40 years ago to lister (although never chaser), to combing my patch and distant trips for exotic birds, to now a rather reluctant birder who is out every day wherever I am but loathe to disturb the birds in their habitat; especially now the migrants winging through our Nova Scotia beaches and scrub, exhausted from their travels. I make a wide skirt around them. And if I hear a yellow billed cuckoo that is enough—I have had SSVs of that bird in the past. Just to know it is there and traveling on is satisfaction. I have mixed feelings about banding; it is good for science but seems unregulated and everyone seems to be doing it. Any thoughts on this?

    • Nate permalink*
      December 29, 2011 10:04 pm

      @Jane- I always meant to come back to this, but it kept falling off my radar. Apologies.

      I think that banding, if done by skilled individuals for a very specific purpose, is a good thing. There’s generally a lot we can learn about birds having them in the hand, all sorts of good information about their general health in addition to the biometrics researchers gather, even if the recapture rate is low.

      Additionally, I think that banding as outreach, so long as it’s relatively infrequent, can also be very productive in making that connection between birds and those people that may not have given them a lot of thought. I’ve seen kids – heck, I’ve been that kid in years gone by – that just glow after having the opportunity to see a bird so close and even release it. It’s an amazing thing.

      But it’s hard to regulate, and I’ve heard some horror stories about irresponsible banders (one that even had a license revoked) so I know that those people are out there. But banders are pretty effective self-policers, and so long as the vast majority have the birds’ interest in mind (and in my experience they do), it’s a fairly benign practice from the bird’s point of view.

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