People who enjoy birds as a hobby come in many flavors. They run the gamut from those whose experience is purely recreational to those who elevate the pastime to intense competition. I classify them as birdwatchers, birders and listers.
A birdwatcher is one whose experience is largely esthetic and hardly aerobic. Sitting inside a comfy house with a cup of cocoa and enjoying the visitors to a feeder on the back porch is a pleasant activity for a birdwatcher. The greatest joy may be the visit of a striking male lazuli bunting decked out in turquoise blue or a western tanager boldly marked in black, orange and yellow. The windowsill will probably sport a modest pair of binoculars and a field guide. Don't bother to ask a birdwatcher about the finer points in distinguishing a second-year western gull from a third-year bird. It's just not important.
The birder, however, is more intense. The birder will disappear on a Saturday when the lawn really should be mowed. The birder will wear boots, carry a more expensive set of binoculars and a spotting scope. There will still be a feeder in the backyard, but the binoculars are probably in the car. The bookshelf will contain at least three field guides, more likely a half dozen.
The birder will display a competitive aspect; when he or she is first to spot a rare bird they'll be eager to post the sighting on one of the birding websites and claim the points (really a sense of elevated status among the birding community). It is this group that revels in the finer points of bird identification. The scale runs from the mild birder to hardcore.
The lister is a Type A through and through. Birding is still an esthetic activity, but it is buried under an intense need to add just one more species to the list. Ask a lister how many species are on their county, state or life list, and they know to a bird. The field-guide shelf or shelves abound with field guides from many parts of the world. A website posting of a wood sandpiper (an incredibly rare visitor from Asia) near Eugene will have the serious lister heading up I-5 within 24 hours. To a lister, this qualifies as sick leave.
The ultimate lister is the one undertaking a "Big Year." These listers are on a competitive quest to locate as many species of birds as possible in Canada and the continental U.S. in a calendar year. This is not an adventure for those with thin bank accounts, regular jobs or spouses (at least one they wish to keep, unless the spouse is a lister, too). Such an endeavor involves frequent trips to Alaska, Arizona, Florida and southern Texas, as well as every place in between, wherever a misplaced bird is encountered.
These people seem normal until someone calls out "Cassin's Auklet" or some other bird not yet on their list. Then, watch out!
"The Big Year" by Mark Obmascik will give you some insights (and a few laughs) on this somewhat odd form of obsessive behavior.
Somewhat tamer are those who confine their "Big Year" to a state or county.
It matters little how you enjoy birds; it's all good. So grab the cocoa, boots or list and go for it.
Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at email@example.com.