Is Birdwatching a Sport?

Someone with a casual interest in birds who likes to quietly observe their garden comings and goings, or who enjoys seeing birds on their Sunday walk is likely to be described as a birdwatcher. Could this sort of activity be considered a sport? No, probably not. And for most of us the idea of ‘sport’ conjures up images of participants at least trying to break into a sweat. Not something you are likely to do from a garden bench with a pair of binoculars.

Birding on the other hand is a whole different story and certainly has the atributes to be considered a sport. It’s adrenaline-fuelled and active, chasing a rare bird into the depths of a thorn-infested woodland for hours is exhausting. Its competitiveness knows no bounds, if you’ve ever seen The Big Year, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Birding vs birdwatching in the context of sport

Defining these terms is not a particularly easy task as there are many grey areas and, this may surprise some of you, although they are often used interchangeably birdwatching is not the same as birding. They are completely different beasts. And if you are someone who enjoys this activity, you will likely know which category you fall into.

Looking back at the origins of the word birding explains why it’s used differently to birdwatching. The term birding was first used for the practice of fowling or hunting birds with firearms (Source: Wikipedia). This goes some way towards explaining why the active pursuit of seeking out birds is now more commonly referred to as birding and the passive activity of observing birds is described to as birdwatching.

The table below gives a high-level overview of how birdwatching differs from birding. 




The activity



Physical effort involved



Skills Requirement



Do people compete?



Do rules apply?



Birdwatching sits comfortably in the category of pastime; a largely gentle activity conducted at a slow, ambling pace through the countryside whilst enjoying the twittering of birds in the hedgerows. As a birdwatcher you probably still own a pair of binoculars but you didn’t need a second mortgage to buy them and although you probably also have a bird book, it’s not the latest edition, nor is it one of a whole shelf-full. However, dropping everything to chase a rare bird definitely makes you a birder. As does having many life lists – a backyard list, a county list, a country list, a region list – you get the picture. 

How is a sport defined?

The Oxford Dictionary defines sport as: “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.”

According to this and other popular dictionaries, sport therefore has the following main characteristics:

  • An activity, competition or game
  • Requires physical effort and skill
  • Competition amongst individuals or as teams
  • Has a set of fixed rules

Is birdwatching an activity, competition or game?

Birdwatching is most certainly an activity and birding is both an activity and a competition. The act of birding is a bit of a treasure hunt where everyone is looking for a prize. The benefit with birding is that everyone that sees the bird gets to share and enjoy the prize.

The competitive aspect of birding is based on individual life lists or potentially even team lists. Whilst a casual birdwatcher will probably keep a life list, they are undoubtedly not too phased about how many birds they have seen comparative to others. And they probably won’t travel to the next county to get a chance at adding another bird to their list.

Birders normally compete formally or informally based on the number of species in their life list. A person’s global life list consisting of the total number of birds they have seen anywhere in the world can be disaggregated into smaller geographical units, such as into a regional life list (e.g. North America), a country life list (e.g. USA), a State/Province life list (e.g. California) and then even into a protected area life list (e.g. Yosemite). So, if I were to see a new lifer in Yosemite, it would increase my Yosemite, California, USA and North American lists by one species. It is these consolidated or separated lists that serious birders use to compete against one another.

Does birding require physical effort and skill?

Birding requires physical effort, and in some cases, a lot of it! I have had to climb trees, wade though water and trek through dense forest all to get a glimpse of a lifer. A birdwatcher would most likely take a less energetic approach and just sit and watch birds come to a bird feeder but this limits them to seeing only the few species that occur in their garden. If you are keen to experience the amazing diversity of species that the world has to offer, then you have no choice but to get off your butt and make the effort to find them.

There are also a multitude of skills that you need to master to become a good birder. The ability to remember and identify hundreds of species of birds, sometimes by nothing more that it’s call, is an incredible skill. Apart from the skill of identifying birds, here are a few other skills required to make you a competent birder:

1. Patience to find what you are looking for:

Wild animals do not always play by the rules. It doesn’t matter how much effort and planning you put into a seeing a specific species, sometimes it is just not meant to be. Successful birders are incredibly patient and are prepared to put in hours and hours to find their quarry.

2. Ability to spot birds:

Learning to spot birds by sound and in your peripheral vision is not a skill that you can achieve overnight. Most people have difficulty noticing shapes and movement outside of the near-peripheral vision. This makes it very difficult for them to see birds unless they are specifically pointed out to them. If you take a trip with a professional birding guide, you’ll be amazed at how they can pick up on subtle sounds and get eyes on birds way before anyone they are guiding. The only way to improve your spotting skills is thorough practice and experience in the outdoors.

3. Identifying birds visually:

One of the first skills that birdwatchers learn is to categorise birds into their various groups. This is a crucial step as it simplifies the identification process by significantly narrowing down the focus area. As you become more experienced and have encountered more and more species, you will find yourself recognising birds in the field that you may have only ever seen in a book. That is a good feeling and a nice reward that the time you have spent reading about different species is starting to pay off!

How to start birdwatching - different shapes of birds
 4. Identifying bird calls:

Identifying birds by their call is a skill that most birders only start learning once they are more experienced. It can give you a distinct advantage when searching for what you are looking for or even if you are trying to help someone identify a bird they heard.

Taking it to a whole new level are the people who can imitate bird calls. This can be very useful with territorial birds who will respond to and approach you if you are able to imitate their calls. Probably the most amazing example of this is by a guide by the name of Sonto Tembe at Ndumo Game Reserve in South Africa.

Sonto Tembe imitating Southern African bird calls

5. Approaching birds:

Approaching birds without scaring them off is another skill that is important to birders. Whenever you are out birding, you generally want to get close enough so that you can observe a bird in a natural and unstressed state. As soon as you get too close, they will become concerned about your proximity and will change their behaviour. The trick is to know your limits for different species of birds. For example, some species will be comfortable with someone within 15 yards of them and others will be ready to fly if you get within 100 yards of them.

Do birdwatchers compete as individuals or as teams?

We’ve already touched on this criteria above, the birders amongst us will definitely be in tune with their competitive side and use their life list to compete. Birdwatchers, not so much. There are also a number of team birding events such as the Champions of the Flyway and the New Jersey Audubon World Series of Birding where competition is the name of the game and winning the top prize will be something a birder can dine out on for quite a while. 

Does birding have a set of fixed rules?

Yes, birders are subject to fixed rules. At least the serious ones of us anyway. Members of the American Birding Association (ABA) who submit a life list or other lists to the ABA’s “Listing Central” must observe the ABA Recording Rules.  Here is a list of the 5 ABA rules. For interpretation of the recording rules, please visit the ABA Recording Rules and Interpretations.


  1. The bird must have been within the prescribed area when encountered, and the encounter must have occurred within the prescribed time period.
  2. The bird must have been a member of a species currently listed on the ABA Checklist for lists within the ABA Area, on the AOS Check-list for lists outside the ABA Area and within the AOS Area, or on the Clements Checklist for all other areas.
  3. The bird must have been alive, wild, and unrestrained when encountered.
  4. Diagnostic characteristics, sufficient for the recorder to identify it to species, must have been seen and/or heard and/or documented for the bird encountered.
  5. The bird must have been encountered under conditions that conform to the ABA Code of Birding Ethics.

Source: ABA

So, how many people participate in the sport of birding?

There’s a sign at Roma Bluffs, part of the World Birding Centre that claims that birding is the most popular sport in the United States. In fact, data from 2016 suggests that cycling (road and mountain) claimed the top spot at nearly 46 million people whilst birding had a total of 45 million people, 18 million more participants than golf. Whatever the numbers, and however seriously you take it, it is clear to say that birding is an activity that is good for your physical and mental health. The real ‘sport’ of it may mostly be about the chase and one’s competitive prowess but it’s the taking part that counts. We don’t all have to run marathons to be a runner.

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