Excuse me, are you an Ornithologist?

on 1st July 2005

Excuse me, are you an Ornithologist?
– Ramblings of a Wannabe Bird Watcher

I am a plant watcher. In fact I am more than a plant watcher. I study plants and I write about plants. A few years ago I became interested in birds. The change came when birds visited the trees that I studied. At first I ignored them. Then I shooed them away. Finally I watched them. And I have been watching them on and off ever since. Does this make me a birdwatcher? In a way it does, for I do just that – watch the birds. So I am now a birdwatcher.

Is a birdwatcher also a birder? Does a person who simply watches birds automatically become a birder? To get an answer to this question, I trawled the net. As expected, I found my answer there. The definition of a birder is someone who participates in the recreation of field identification of birds. What this means is that he or she needs to go out in the field, either in a group or alone, to watch and identify the birds that are around. According to this definition I am a sometime-birder. Why? Well, I do not join in any of the bird watching outings offered by the Nature Society. I only enjoy the birds in the comfort of my garden and try very hard to identify them from the many bird guidebooks available. Am I an armchair birder then?

Birders most often become twichers. These are the people who get “uncontrollable spasms of excitement” whenever they spot a new species of bird. They are willing to travel long distances just to see rare birds first spotted by someone else. And they keep a score of the birds they see in a checklist. Twitchers can turn into “powerbirders” when they join in bird races and tally up as many species as they can in the duration of the race. Once in a while, a powerbirder turns into a bad apple when he or she becomes obsessed with winning and in the process adds on questionable species on to the list just to be ahead of the others. Of course this is not a conscious move but because of the over-confidence of the birder in question and the desperate need to win, a few questionable species are added. In such a case the team mates may just go along with the dubious identification “in the spirit of the sport.”

Being a sometime-birder, I am definitely not a twitcher or a powerbirder. New species do not excite me and so far I have yet to join in any bird race.

Most twitchers report their sightings to an official recorder and these are subsequently published in the bird group’s bulletin. Such entries are seldom accompanied with detailed notes or photographs. Fellow twitchers accept these records without problems but not ornithologists. The latter always have problems with unauthenticated records. However, once published, these records tend to be readily quoted and re-quoted by birdwatchers throughout the world. This may end up perpetuating any earlier errors. So where do we go from here?

Photograph is one answer. Photography has not always been a part of the local bird watching activities. During the last decade or so this has changed. Many of the local articles on breeding behaviour published in the Nature Watch, Nature Society (Singapore)’s flagship magazine have been written by avid photographers like Ong Kiem Sian, Raymond Poon, Jimmy Chew and Graeme Guy, rather than by birders per se.

The advent of affordable digital cameras and the marriage of this contraception with the binoculars and telescope resulting in a digiscope opened the door to better bird photography. Digiscopers are more and more helping to authenticate bird sightings. In the local scene a group of birdwatchers has formed a discussion group in the net called “Pigeon-Holes” whereby members report observations of bird behaviour, etc supported by photographic evidence. This obviously leaves traditional twitchers out in the cold.

The advancement of better and higher resolution digital cameras has greatly improved the quality of bird photographers. Professional single lens reflex (SLR) cameras are now available with high speed shooting performance. Some of the cameras available in the market have the capacity to shoot continuously at a high burst rate of more than eight frames per second and technology is fast improving in this direction. Obviously the cost of these modern machines are rocketing sky-high, but camera retail outlets have come to the rescue of the average photographers. Monthly payment is now available. Such cameras are also offering better and better resolution images that will soon match the resolution of photographic slides, it not already so. What all these means is that photographers are able to capture action shots of birds with a single pressing of the shutter button.

Who is an ornithologist?
We now come to the definition of an ornithologist. A professional ornithologist is obviously one who has a degree in zoology and is working on birds full time. But who are the amateur ornithologist? Although I personally watch birds and even have published a few articles on the breeding behaviour of birds, I am definitely not an ornithologist, even an amateur one at that. My articles are published in Nature Watch. Unfortunately this is only a popular magazine, not a scientific journal. Also, there is no peer review of the contents. Should I strive to be an ornithologist, I need to publish in any one of the many ornithological journals. For example, my articles need to be accepted by Forktail, the scientific journal of the Oriental Bird Club. Alternatively, I need to publish in Bird Conservation International, the journal of BirdLife International. However, if I my articles are accepted for publication in either BirdingASIA or World Birdwatch, the popular magazines of the two birding organizations respectively, this does not make me an ornithologist.

Let me elaborate further. The first post-colonial checklist of birds of Singapore was published in 1984 by the NSS’s Bird Group under the Chairmanship of Clive Briffett. This has subsequently been updated. Publishing a checklist does not make one an ornithologist. But having an annotated checklist accepted for publication by the British Ornithological Union after careful peer review by fellow ornithologists, is another matter altogether. Publishing a bird guidebook with photographic illustrations only proves that the author is an accomplished bird photographer. Whether the author in question can be considered an ornithologist will have to depend on other factors.

But does an ornithologist need to have a degree? I do not think so. There are many western ornithologists, like those colonial birders who did not possess a degree in any of the biological disciplines. And there were some who did not even possess any degree at all. To qualify as an ornithologist, one needs to have a deeper understanding of birds, not just able to identify birds. The ability to identify all the birds species in Singapore, be they indigenous or exotic, does not necessarily make one an ornithologist.

The formation of the Bird Ecology Study Group, with myself as one of the founder members, may tempt me to claim to be an ornithologist. But I will have to try to resist this temptation. I should be happy to remain a simple botanist. However, I will continue to publish more popular articles on bird ecology in Nature Watch and Birding Asia, but this is only because I wish to share my observations with the local as well as foreign birders. After all, the former is distributed locally while the latter is more widely distributed throughout the region. In sharing observations, we add on to the common knowledge of our local avian fauna. My other motive is to encourage more members to publish their observations. After all, there are plenty of new behavioural traits of our birds that are begging to be noticed and reported. And I am sure anyone who spends time observing bird behaviour is sure to uncover something that has not been reported before.

Birders should not be satisfied in just knowing our birds in name only. They should strive to learn more about them. Let us not just bird watch but behaviour watch as well.

YC Wee
1st July 2005

If you like this post please tap on the Like button at the left bottom of page. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors/contributors, and are not endorsed by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM, NUS) or its affiliated institutions. Readers are encouraged to use their discretion before making any decisions or judgements based on the information presented.

YC Wee

Dr Wee played a significant role as a green advocate in Singapore through his extensive involvement in various organizations and committees: as Secretary and Chairman for the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), and with the Nature Society (Singapore) as founding President (1978-1995). He has also served in the Nature Reserve Board (1987-1989), Nature Reserves Committee (1990-1996), National Council on the Environment/Singapore Environment Council (1992-1996), Work-Group on Nature Conservation (1992) and Inter-Varsity Council on the Environment (1995-1997). He is Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society and was appointed Honorary Museum Associate of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in 2012. In 2005, Dr Wee started the Bird Ecology Study Group. With more than 6,000 entries, the website has become a valuable resource consulted by students, birdwatchers and researchers locally and internationally. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of LKCNHM, the National University of Singapore or its affiliated institutions.

Other posts by YC Wee

15 Responses

  1. Birding whatever the nomenclature is exciting, and it is a take- off to a myriad of other interesting skills. These invariably include photography, sketching, blogging to share records and experiences, and extends into habitat appreciation, botany, and insect study as well, and even appreciation of climate change. Its fascinating to observe and ponder on phenotypic differences and behaviour(are they physiologic changes, gender differences, seasonal changes etc, or even disease related) and invariably appreciating differences in bird density must lead to bigger questions on the impact of environmental change on birds or even vice versa ie the impact of birds on the enviroment itself; the days of west nile valley fever or bird flu make it impossible not to wonder about how birds themselves affect other species, including ourselves. Its a wonderful hobby, and my only regret is that I had not taken it up earlier. Cheers..

  2. I love your writeup, YC! Especially the part whereby the ornithologist does not need a degree. It is so true that some birders are only interested in ticking off their lifers list and forgetting about understanding the behaviour of the birds.
    The same thing goes to photographing birds. Reports on new sightings on birds are only supported by photographs and that way it is a bit sad. The tradition method ie. sketching the birds is not preferred these days. I’m also talking about myself too because i tend to take picture first then draw later, which is quite a bad habit and often get told off by my “sifu”.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Yes, we are four years young and we are fast reaching a million hits. Thanks to all you wonderful contributors and fans.

  4. The explanations are informative but i am not sure where to place myself. Because i started off like you ten years ago then I joined a local group- NatureUganda where we would go out with ornithologists identifying birds around the country in the monthly Nature walks. Now i dont have the time to join the group but I watch birds on Tv, at home, around my village and on sundays when I get time to go down to the lake. Whenever I set out to watch the birds, I always look out for their behaviours as well as new species that i have not seen before.I can identify three hundred birds by their looks but not behaviours. Keep up the good stuff.

  5. You have done well by moving away from twitching. By birding alone, you tend to observe birds more, rather than just looking and identifying them, especially when in a group. In a way group promotes twitching, listing and ticking. Be patient when observing birds as it takes time to understand their behaviour.

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