Birds that Deserve the Honorific “Birb”

Photo: Tara Tanaka/Audubon Photography Awards
A Northern Parula like this definitely qualifies for the affectionate label “birb.” In fact, in its fluffed-up form, it also fits the birb subcategory “floof.” (All in fun.)

You can discover some entertaining things on twitter, especially when someone you follow retweets an unusual item from someone else. I keep tabs on a lot of nature lovers, and that’s how I learned about birbs.

Asher Elbein writes at Audubon magazine that because birbs have been an internet meme for seven years (who knew?), “it’s high time we establish some ground rules. …

“For those not terminally online, birb is affectionate internet-speak for birds. The word began, as near as anyone can tell, when the absurdist Twitter account BirdsRightsActivist tweeted the single word ‘Birb’ out on November 2012. … The term is seemingly designed for the internet: one syllable, beginning and ending with ‘b,’ connoting a pleasant roundness, a warm mouth-feel. ‘What a good birb,’ you might say, or ‘I’m so glad we went birb-watching,’ or ‘I love Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birbs.’

“Birb is a slightly daffy word from the same school of internet absurdity that gave us LOLCats (‘I Can Haz Cheezburger’). … Yet unlike these online gags, or memes, birb functions as a category rather than a stock character. It is roughly akin to ‘doggo,’ or ‘snek,’ yet all dogs and snakes are contained within those words; birb remains amorphous. … Are some birds more birb-like than others? What is a birb, really?

“First, let’s consider the canonized usages. The subreddit r/birbs defines a birb as any bird that’s ‘being funny, cute, or silly in some way.’ Urban Dictionary has a more varied set of definitions, many of which allude to a generalized smallness. …

“What this question requires, therefore, are some basic operational rules.

“Rule 1: Birbs are often (though not conclusively) small. Adult Ostriches are thus disqualified, as is any bird larger than a turkey; warblers, sparrows, flycatchers, and other songbirds are the most likely demographic. Even large birds start small, however: An ostrich or crane chick is absolutely a birb. We may understand, then, that while ‘birb’ can be a developmental stage, some birds are birbs their whole lives.

“Rule 2: Birbs are often (though not always) round. People tend to regard round animals as cuter, and round objects in general to be more pleasant. … Classic songbirds and rotund groundbirds like grouse and ptarmigans have the advantage: They look like little balls of fluff, an important component for birbness. … If the Pileated Woodpecker didn’t lose its birb status under Rule 1, it does now, though smaller and rounder woodpeckers like the Downy or Red-bellied are most certainly birbs.

“Rule 3: Birbs appear cute. This gets into slightly dicier territory: Isn’t cuteness subjective? Up to a point, but Rule 2 helps here. Humans tend to like looking at round and fluffy things. So much so, in fact, that violent or unseemly behavior doesn’t disqualify a bird from birbness: the aggression of hummingbirds, the Vlad-the-impaler antics of shrikes, brood parasitism of cuckoos, and brain-eating of Great Tits are immaterial to their round fluffiness. You could post a picture of any of these on reddit under ‘murder birb’ and nobody would blink. … Silliness and absurdity also come into play: The potoo bird is large and not particularly fluffy, but its general muppety appearance makes it a contender for the title. …

“The following can be unquestionably judged as birbs, hitting the natural sweet spot of round, fluffy, and small: The vast majority of songbirds. Burrowing Owls, Elf Owls, both screech-owls, American Kestrels, and other small raptors also qualify. So do prairie chickens, quail, shorebirds like sandpipers, and smaller seabirds like puffins and penguins. … Little waders like the Green Heron are in, but the Great Blue Heron? Sorry, not a birb.

“Big raptors, while incredible and fascinating creatures, are not birbs. … Most cranes, herons, and storks are too large and lanky. And then you get to birds like the Cassowary, which is perhaps the least birb-like bird on the planet. Its chicks may qualify as birbs (see Rule 1), but the adults most definitely do not.

“Now, one might reasonably ask why it matters which birds qualify as birbs. Strictly speaking, of course, it doesn’t. But viewed sidelong, it becomes a taxonomic game, akin to ‘is a hot dog a sandwich?’ ”

Which, you have to admit, is one of the more urgent questions of our time.

Photo: Honest to Paws
The Muppet-like goofiness of the Great Potoo allows it to qualify as a birb.

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