Twitchers, Megas, and Life Lists: A Brief Guide to Birdwatching Lingo

“Birdwatching in Panama” by Alex Proimos (CC BY 2.0)

Avian celebration is definitely not for the birds. There are no fewer than four days that fete our feathered friends: National Bird Day from the Avian Welfare Coalition on Jan. 5; World Migratory Bird Day from the Environment of the Americas on the second Saturday in May in the U.S. and Canada and the second Saturday in October in Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean; and finally Bird Day on May 4 as established in 1894 by Charles Almanzo Babcock, a superintendent of schools in Oil City, Pa.

Whichever day you choose to honor these winged creatures, we hope you enjoy these birdwatching terms.


Those who practice ornithoscopy have a few different names. Birder is American English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), first appearing in a 1945 issue of, appropriately enough, Audubon Magazine: “As a birder and a soldier, I’ve wandered up and down the country.”

Twitcher is a British English term that came about later and refers specifically to a birdwatcher “whose main aim is to make sightings of rare birds,” says the OED, often traveling “great distances to do so.” It might also mean an “enthusiastic or obsessive birdwatcher.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation from a 1974 article in The Guardian: “An exhausted North American spotted sandpiper..has become the latest target for the ornithological ‘tick-hunters’ or ‘twitchers’ of Britain.” As for twitcher’s origin, it might come from “the nervous excitement of a birdwatcher.” To twitch is to spot or seek a rare bird.

Or stringers and lists

If someone calls you a stringer, watch out: it might be the worst insult in birding. A stringer is someone who not only often misidentifies birds, they add such mistaken identities to their life list, a record of all the species a birder has seen in their lifetime.

A correctly identified species seen for the first time by someone keeping a life list is a lifer, which can also refer to the sighting itself. A regular addition to a life list is a tick., which the OED defines as “a ticked item on a list, esp. a list of birds to be observed.”

While it’s not clear where stringer comes from, life list dates back to 1900, lifer to 1958, and tick to 1975, all according to the OED. 

Birdwatching hits and misses

Want to attract a little bird’s attention? You might make a noise like pish. Just miss seeing a rare bird? You’ve dipped or dipped out. Meanwhile, the just-missed bird is a dip. Someone else see your dip and tell you about it? They’ve gripped or gripped off

The birds themselves

Of course the birds themselves have nicknames as well. A common species might be referred to as a peep or LBJ, which stands for “little brown job,” while a BOP is a bird of prey. Rare birds might be called mega, mega-find, mega-rarity, and mega-tick.

Battle of the birdwatchers

If you haven’t already noticed, birdwatching can get pretty competitive. Hence, the big year, an informal competition brought to you by the American Birding Association in which twitchers see who can observe “the largest number of species of birds within a single calendar year and within a specific geographical area.” It’s also the inspiration for a book and a movie.

Want more bird words? Check out these singular bird names and these “wirds” of a feather.