The Hollywood film The Big Year presents what seems to be an exaggeration of the extremes birding enthusiasts will go to in boosting their number of sightings, particularly of rare birds, with camaraderie turning to cut-throat competition in the blink of an eye, or the twitch of a feathered tail. But the reality is that competitive birding, referred to as “twitching”, has reportedly become an obsession with some birders as they attempt to beat rivals at adding birds to their list. While this activity is very popular in the United States, according to those in the know, British twitchers are among the fiercest competitors in the world.
There are various definitions of “twitching” and descriptions of “twitchers”, but in general it refers to birding enthusiasts who are prepared to stop whatever they are doing immediately to follow up on reports of birds not yet on their list of sightings, or that they have not yet ticked off their list of birds they hope to see. The verb “twitching” is thought to be a reference to the nervous anticipation, stress and anxiety experienced by a birder in pursuit of his/her hobby which often includes traveling long distances and overcoming physical and other obstacles, with the single-minded goal of getting to see (or hear) an elusive bird. There are also varying rules as to when a twitcher can tick a bird off a list, with some saying that hearing the bird is enough and others insisting the seeing the bird should be the rule. Either way, twitchers are not required to provide photographic evidence of their sightings, so the system relies on honor among twitchers.
As with most serious hobbies, twitching has its own vocabulary, and when a twitcher fails to sight the bird he rushed off to see, he considers himself to have “dipped out”, and if his competitors managed to see the bird, he is likely to feel “gripped off”. Some twitchers have compiled a “life list” of birds they hope to see in their lifetime, while others set goals for a season, or specific time period such as 24-hours, which increases the competitive spirit.
Modern technology has aided twitchers immensely as information on rare bird sightings can be sent out immediately, with updates alerting twitchers to the bird’s whereabouts as they are en route to view it. Based in Norwich in the United Kingdom, Rare Bird Alert has been operating since 1991, with a team of experienced birders making information available to birders fifteen hours a day, every day of the year. Similar organizations exist in other countries where birders take their hobby seriously.