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What Is A Twitcher?


Nothing ruffles feathers more in the birding world than twitching. It’s a contentious term, and although the words twitcher and bird watcher, or birder, are often used interchangeably, particularly in the media, or by anyone who has a low opinion of people who enjoy watching birds, the word twitcher has a specific definition.

A twitcher is someone who goes to great lengths to view new bird species. Whereas most bird watchers will be content with spotting birds on their local patch or anything they come across while out in the field or on their travels, twitchers actively hunt down birds, usually to add to their life list.

For some twitchers, their pursuit can turn into an obsession on par with an Olympic sport, and can involve extensive travel, dedicated monitoring of birding hotspots, rare bird alerts, apps, and websites, and networking with other twitchers. Some twitchers have even been known to charter aeroplanes to achieve their goals. Hardcore twitching can ruin friendships, marriages, employment prospects, and drain one’s bank account.

Where does the word twitcher come from?

The use of the term twitcher arose in the 1950s to describe the nervous behaviour of British bird watcher, Howard Medhurst. On bird watching trips, one of Medhurst’s friends used to give him a lift on the back of his motorcycle. Upon arrival at their destination Medhust would get off the back of the bike and ‘shiveringly light up a cigarette’. It became a standing joke amongst his friends and when trying to spot a particular bird they would mimic his behaviour, acting out a nervous twitch. This led them to describe a trip to see a rare bird as ‘being on a twitch’. The expression soon spread through the birding world but by the late 1960s it had already become a derogatory term.

Prior to this, enthusiastic bird watchers were described variously as pot-hunters, tally-hunters, or tick-hunters. In the US, the term chaser is sometimes used instead of twitcher.

What’s the difference between a twitcher and a bird watcher?

The main difference between twitchers and bird watchers is twitchers are much more active in their pursuit of birds whereas bird watchers tend to be passive and happy to spot any bird.

Twitchers do not necessarily spend more time bird watching than any other birder. Instead, they will have life lists and are more interested in getting new ticks (see twitching vocabulary below) on their list. Many will also be in competition with each other to complete their list first or accumulate the longest species list.

Unfortunately, twitchers have a bad reputation, and this is the reason regular bird watchers don’t like the association. Twitchers have been known to disturb rare birds and damage nature reserves. And as they chase around the globe, they burn unnecessary fossil fuels which is at odds with the respect many bird watchers have for the environment.

Twitching is particularly popular in the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland, Sweden, and Finland, because the small size of these countries means it is relatively easy to travel quickly across them.

In the UK, twitches can draw large crowds and receive extensive press coverage. In May of this year twitchers flocked to Monkwood Nature Reserve in Worcestershire to see a golden oriole that had made a flying visit. And in July a black-browed albatross caused a surge in visitors to Bempton Cliffs near Flamborough, East Yorkshire.

In 2021, during the Covid-19 pandemic, a number of twitchers travelled to Exmouth to catch a glimpse of a Northern mockingbird spotted in a garden, and were fined for breaching lockdown rules.

The twitchers’ vocabulary

If you’ve ever tried to talk to a twitcher you may have a hard time understanding what they’re on about. They have their own vocabulary made up of jargon, slang, and abbreviations. Some of the more common terms are listed below:

Big Day – a birding event when birders try and see as many species as possible in a single day

Big Year – a birding event when birds try and see as many species as possible in a year

Burn out – to have done so much bird watching there is no pleasure in continuing

Burn up – to beat around in the undergrowth hoping to flush out a bird

BVD – Better View Desired. Identifying a lifer but not seeing enough of it to enjoy it

CBC – Christmas Bird Count

CFW – Confusing Fall Warbler. A warbler in non-breeding plumage that has few distinguishing marks

Chooks – Australian term meaning common birds

Crippler – a rare and spectacular brilliant bird

Crush – American term meaning to get very high-quality photos of a bird

Dip – to miss seeing a bird which you were looking for

Dude – a novice birdwatcher

Empid – any of the flycatchers of genus Empidonax, which are hard to identify without hearing their songs

Fallout – natural occurrence where bad weather forces migratory birds to land

First – the first record of a species

Grip – to see a bird which another twitcher missed and to tell them you’ve seen it

Hammer – to take a high-quality photo of a bird

Jizz – the overall impression given by the general shape, movement or behaviour of a bird

LBJ – Little Brown Job. Drab songbirds that are hard to identify

Lifer – the first-ever sighting of a bird species by an observer

List – a list of all bird species seen

Mega or Megatick – a very rare bird

Plastic – a bird that has escaped from captivity rather than a truly wild bird

Sibe – a bird from Siberia

Tick – the addition of a bird species to a life list

Yank – a bird from North America



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6 Responses

  1. Saw a painted bunting near Oswestry this morning up at the old racecourse. Vivid red, yellow, green and dark blue head.petet

    1. I am fortunate to have two (or sometime 3) pairs of buntings visit my backyard feeders every year. I love to watch them take a bath in the birdbath because they “bulk up” and you can really see them. Travel with the cardinals. Watching them is a gift!

  2. Spotted a beautiful gyr falcon in the Black Isle a few weeks
    Ago.Are they known to be in Scotland?

  3. thanks for this explanation!
    i mixed up twitter and twitcher as regards to birds’ sounds!

    Often I wonder whether wild birds are be fed in Winter..

  4. Little egret spotted in Burbage, Leicestershire, 11/02/2022. Just off Featherstone Park, near Boyslade Rd, public area by the brook adjacent to Dr’s surgery. Unfortunately, it was disturbed before a photograph could be taken. Certainly a first spot of the species locally for us.

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