The birding family tree bears many twisted branches from feederwatchers to world birders. Yet, few are considered as twisted as the slavering hordes of ‘listers’ and ‘twitchers’. As a card-carrying member, I should know. You probably already know that a lister is a birder who keeps track of birds spotted through the use of checklists ranging from simplistic to Byzantine. Twitchers take listing to another level.
To ‘twitch’ is to deliberately pursue rare birds to add to your life list, as in, “My first successful twitch was the Willow Ptarmigan.” To twitch is to deliberately pursue rare birds to add to your life list.
Twitch is a verb, but it may also be used as a noun. One who twitches is, of course, a twitcher. You may be one yourself. There is nothing wrong with twitching. I do it all the time. But twitching is very far to one end of the birding continuum. Twitchers will travel across the world just to see one special bird. They will brave the most adverse conditions and penetrate the most forbidding terrain. Twitching may be fun, but it is also very serious.
Since ‘twitch’ is, to my knowledge, a U.K. term, I would like to quote Rich Bonser of British Isles Birding:
The pursuit of seeing rare species of bird, known as ‘twitching’, has developed into a culture in which individuals travel the length and breadth of the country in order to increase the number of species that they have seen. ‘Twitching’ involves a fanatical group of individuals who are obsessed about birds yet despite being rooted in this obsession with natural history, their traveling is a form of ‘collecting’ in a similar vein to philanthropists and train-spotters. The notion of ‘twitching’ contests the boundary between nature and culture and allows one to become increasingly aware of a community that is shaped by nature.
And yes, the term twitch does have something to do with the spastic exultations a successful bird sighting has been known to induce.