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Birder Jargon Project: Dimensions in Rarities

September 14, 2011
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Chasing rare birds is an aspect of birding on which there is a wide range of opinions.  There are those who would deem twitching (the chasing of rare birds) and twitchers (those who twitch) with all the respect one would give an exhaust-belching SUV in your face, but for most of us the opportunity to discovery a rare bird, especially one that’s twitchable for someone else, is part of what drives our birding.  Sure it’s great to head out to your local patch and see the birds presage the changing of the seasons week in and week out, to gain a deep understanding of the regular, everyday birds or your region, but don’t you dream about that day you find that one-off rare bird?  It’s that sort of experience that, in one fell swoop, makes your hours of dedicated patchwork completely worth it and is rewarding in a way that dutiful census just isn’t. It’s the fun side of birding and there’s nothing wrong with it, though there may be those who seek to denigrate the happy twitcher.  Nonsense, says I.  Whatever way you’re enjoying birding is the right way to bird, but that’s a soapbox for another time.

No, today I seek to categorize those rarities that birding so much fun simply and easily.  You see, rarities generally come in two flavors:  Zooties and Megas.

Birding can definitely trend towards the bizarre when it comes to jargon (ask any birder about the polite way to talk about “jizz” in mixed company), and zootie is no different.  What is a zootie?  It’s a rarity, but not generally a big one.  A zootie can be those mildly out of range birds that you expect on an annual or semi-annual basis in your local patch.  Those western birds that slide into the eastern half of the continent every early summer, or those eastern warblers that show up in migrant traps in New Mexico and California.  It’s anything out of the ordinary, anything you’d report to the listserv of get flagged in eBird.  Anything “good”, and if you’re a birder you know how subjective that word can be.

American Avocet, definite zootie in these parts

I don’t know the etymology of zootie, and google is no help, but it’s one of those phrases you hear from time to time among established birders but has fallen out of favor for the most part.  A shame, really.  I think it’s one of those phrases we should aspire to use more, as it adds a little bit of fun to the serious business of rare bird finding.  Try saying it and not smiling.

Occasionally a zootie crosses that arbitrary line to become something more.  Maybe a White-chinned Petrel clears the deck of a pelagic expedition, or the broken glass fluting of a Brown-backed Solitaire floats down from an Arizona sky mountain canyon.  No mere zootie, these.  You’ve got yourself a mega.

White-tailed Tropicbird, maybe not a mega, but not far off

A mega is just like it sounds. It’s big news, a very rare bird.  A once in a blue moon type bird.  The ABA assigns a number from 1 to 5 to every species of bird reported in the continental US and Canada and all those designated with a 5 (and even a few 4s) would be well-considered to be a mega.  This is the sort of bird that lights up the phone lines.  The sort of bird people jump in planes for. The sort of bird nearly every birder dreams of finding.  I’ve only ever seen one, a European Storm-Petrel on a pelagic voyage a few years back.  It was a heady experience to be in the presence of such a fantastic bird.  Truly an adrenaline rush in and of itself.

The funny thing about “mega” is that unlike zootie, which can be applied to even very local-level rarities, it’s generally only used to describe the super “good” birds.  Even a first state record is not generally considered a mega unless it’s rare on that continental level too.  There are no state megas, or county megas, unless the term is used somewhat ironically.  It’s a strange thing, and typical of that unspoken, and completely imagined, hierarchy between continent level twitchers and patch birders.  And sadly more fuel for inter-birding arguments and turf wars.

I’ve no such compunction with the words though.  And I wish all my readers lots of zooties, and even a mega or two if you’re so lucky, however you chose to enjoy them.

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9 Comments
  1. September 14, 2011 8:18 am

    Admit it. You made up “zootie” on the spot. No one says that…

  2. September 14, 2011 10:07 am

    I’ve always thought that Joe Grzybowski made that word up. Joe, y’out there?

  3. September 14, 2011 11:19 am

    I’ve never heard the term “zootie” before, not even the older birders who talk about “dickie birds.”

  4. September 14, 2011 11:21 am

    I’ve never heard it spoken, either, but it’s been appearing regularly in the Southern Plains reports in NAB for years now.

  5. September 14, 2011 11:48 am

    Never heard zootie either and mega is used quite a bit for state-level up here.
    Also, judging by other names involved, you’ve seen at least one other.

  6. Nate permalink*
    September 14, 2011 2:57 pm

    @Corey, John, et al – I totally did not make up zootie. I don’t hear it often, but I do hear it enough to wonder where they hell it came from every time.

    @Rick- I did first hear it among Missouri birders. Not quite the southern plains, but not far geographically.

    @Jason- I’ve never heard mega used for state level rarities. For instance, NC’s first Cassin’s Sparrow, while a fantastic bird, doesn’t feel like a mega to me. But that’s just how I’ve always heard it used. Your mileage may vary, obviously.

  7. Nate permalink*
    September 14, 2011 9:53 pm

    @Jason- You’re right! How could I forget Common Chaffinch!

  8. September 19, 2011 3:42 pm

    I will join the mob and also say that Ive not heard of a “Zootie” in 17 years of birding. Maybe you overheard conversations about Zootie Terns? Zootie Shearwater? 😉

  9. June 24, 2012 12:49 pm

    http://elibrary.unm.edu/sora/NAB/v041n05/p01405-p01410.pdf . 1987. Page 1408. Joe seems to claim “zootie birds” as his own invention.

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