Birder Jargon Project: Big Years not depicted on the big screen
I’ve been around this birding game for a long time such that the culture, and the language we use to express that culture, has never really seemed that odd to me. It’s second nature, and I’d be willing to bet that most of you reading this blog are like the greater birding community in never thinking twice about the language of competitive birding either. But as the press surrounding the upcoming major motion picture on, of all things, our little relatively esoteric avocation, I’ve become increasingly aware of how deep in the woods I, and the rest of us, are when it comes to birder jargon. And I’m not just talking about the nicknames we give birds here and there, but the actual language essential for discussion of birding itself.
I’ve discovered that even the concept of a “life list“, that compendium of each birder’s time in the game, in many ways the very currency with which birding experiences are traded, is not an immediately apparent concept. Throw in the fact that one’s life list is largely a self-policed document, filled with individual sightings that may be evaluated and re-evaluated at future dates with the hindsight that experience brings, and you’ve effectively blown people’s minds. I came to this startling conclusion while reading the interview with the three stars of the upcoming movie based on the the Mark Obmascik book, The Big Year, in the most recent issue of Audubon magazine. Owen Wilson, Jack Black, and Steve Martin, accomplished comic actors all, had insights into the birder psyche that I, as deep as one individual can possibly be, was blissfully unaware. And this because I generally don’t talk about birding with non-birding friends unless they specifically ask about it. I don’t go into twitches and dips and ticks and bins and grips, primarily because I understand that the idiosyncratic aspects of my niche hobby tend to make non-birder’s eyes glaze over and I do want to have non-birder friends even though they’re effectively useless when you stumble upon a flock of fall warblers in a nearby line of trees. But this interview opened eyes. So here’s a quick primer on the language of The Big Year. Hold on tight, there’s a lot to cover.
A Big Year is an attempt to see as many species of birds as possible in a 365 day span, generally from January 1 to December 31 of a given year. The grandaddy Big Year of them all is generally the ABA Area Big Year, consisting of North America north of the Mexican border, but a Big Year can take place in a state, region, county, one’s local patch (a term referring to a site an individual birder frequents regularly, often close to one’s home) or even the entire world if you have the resources. Basically any defined geographical area will work. A Big Year can be competitive with other birders racing to set a record for most birds seen, or it can be personal record. It can be as serious as one intends to make it.
The qualifier “Big” is also added to other units of time to denote a special effort for maximum bird species. Big Days, where birders seen to find the most birds in one 24 hour period, are very popular and many states have Big Day records compiled by the American Birding Association. The record Big Day stands at 264 species, in an epic Texas run by a group from Cornell Lab of Ornithology earlier this month.
A new species on a list, be it a Big Year, Day or just to one’s personal life list is a tick, referring to the checkmark next to the species name on a field checklist that birders used to carry around but are less in vogue these days. The verb form is also tick, where in one is ticking species off at an incredible pace (note: this does not mean making them angry).
Occasionally, a rare bird is discovered by another birder. This may be a new tick for your list, at which point you’d go twitching, which refers to chasing a previously reported rare bird. This is a popular British expression that has made its way to the American birding community. One who does this is a twitcher, a term sometimes used synonymously, and often pejoratively, with birder. Twitchers are often defamed for their single-minded obsession with a new tick, but those who twitch are often excellent field birders and dedicated patch workers, too. Also, birds that stay put in a predictable and accessible location are referred to as “twitchable“.
If you twitch a bird and miss it, you’ve dipped. The bird can also, at the point, be referred to as a dip. And if a birder you know goes on and on about a bird you both twitched, but you dipped on, they’re gripping you off. A good natured grip is par for the course for any pleasant meeting of birders. But if you overdo it, you’re just being a jerk.
Now you’re totally ready to enjoy the movie as a birder.