Language Matters | Birders and ‘gamebirds’

Anyone who launches a campaign (any campaign) can be fairly certain that a) not everyone will agree with the campaign’s aims, and b) will tell you that ‘insert whatever it is you’re campaigning about‘ is a waste of time. Sure, not everyone cares about (in this case) our wildlife, preferring to shoot it or ignore it rather than protect it. They’re almost bound not to agree. But ‘a waste of time‘? Trying to change something you fundamentally disagree with is never a waste of time. Besides, it gives me a chance to explain in 1000+ words exactly why I think that raising a debate about the use of ‘gamebird’ is not a waste of time at all.


This post, incidentally, is about something close to my own heart, so I’m going to step out of team ‘WoW Project’ for a moment and write as myself, a life-long birder. I defined myself as a ‘birder’ for more than thirty years, as in, if anyone asked I would say “I am a birder”. Not much else mattered to me for a long time. From the kid who devoured the AA Book of British Birds after being stopped in his tracks by a Yellowhammer at the age of seven, to the teen who started twitching with the American Redstart at Gibraltar Point in 1982 and the adult who joined an airline as cabin crew so I could go around the world to see birds, “I am a birder”.

It’s odd, I wrote that last sentence and automatically wondered whether other birders would count me as a birder anymore. We routinely put each other in boxes (in life as well as in birding) that attempt to define who we are and what we are, and birders are as tribal as any other group of obsessives. But right now those categories simply don’t matter: whether we’re birder, twitcher, data gatherer, or charity member who doesn’t own a pair of binoculars – what matters is that birds need us (all wildlife needs us).

There are many ways we’re already stepping up to help wildlife of course. Everything from working for conservation organisations to paying membership subs, protesting in the street to talking to our family and colleagues, making choices about what we eat to putting food out for birds in winter. We do what we can. But – which brings me to the point of this post – there is one more thing that we can do: we can rethink the way we talk and write about wildlife.

As our ‘Language Matters‘ campaign says, how we use language to describe wildlife is hugely important. Language encodes and externalises our thoughts. The way we use it – verbally and in print – expresses externally what we think about the person, animal or object we are describing.

We’ve inherited a grubby pile of loaded, value-laden terms that we now use almost unthinkingly – or, at least, without really thinking about why we use them and who has handed them down to us. Terms we have disconnected ourselves from entirely. We’ll be looking at words like ‘pest’ and ‘vermin’, ‘cull’ ‘control’ and ‘manage’ in future posts, but I want to focus on the term that kickstarted this campaign and which especially rankles me: ‘gamebird’. Because in this birder’s opinion the term ‘gamebird’ has absolutely no place in birding, or in birding magazines, or in identification books.


‘Gamebird’ is a term that wouldn’t exist were it nor for shooting and hunting. Historically it was used solely to ringfence a handful of species of bird that Kings and wealthy landowners wanted for themselves. Red Grouse, Black Grouse, Ptarmigan, partridges and pheasants. It says ‘these are ours’. It is about property and ownership, not nature or science. The laws made centuries ago in an effort to try to prevent anyone from hunting grouse and partridges unless they had freeholds of at least £100 a year, or long leaseholds valued at £150 (a fortune relatively speaking) would eventually lead to the same species not given full protection under the RSPB’s 1904 Charter and left without the full protection of the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. It has led to ‘seasons’ where anyone can go and kill these species for a giggle on a day out. To mass releases of so many farmed pheasants and partridges that cumulatively they weigh more than all the other birds in Britain and have been described as an ‘ecological assault‘. There is still no basis in biology that justifies ‘gamebirds’ being hived off as targets for so-called ‘sportsmen’. There is no reason that the shooting industry should be allowed to justify slaughtering huge numbers of them under a false distinction that these are ‘game’ and therefore killing them for fun is somehow okay. It’s not okay, no matter what language you use to try and justify it.

‘Gamebird’ is a shorthand for cruelty, the persecution of raptors on shooting estates, the deaths of millions of predators in traps and snares, the seasonal slaughter of millions of birds. It also allows shooters to be incredibly lazy with identification: if everything is a ‘gamebird’ why bother learning the distinction between a Red Grouse and a Ptarmigan, a protected Brent Goose from a non-native Canada Goose, or a Woodcock from a Snipe. They’re just a ‘thing you shoot’ after all.

I can’t think of a single reason why we birders should buy into it anymore. Or why articles in birding magazines or sections in identification books should use it either. Yes, it will take a fraction longer to write out the specific names of the birds we’re referring to, but I’ve never seen a birder’s list with ‘gamebird’ on it. We’re used to identifying species, used to writing down their names. We don’t see birds as ‘brace’ or ‘bags’, we already see individuals anyway (which is one of the reasons that a shooter has no place as Patron of an organisation like the British Trust for Ornithology whose work is driven by volunteers supplying data, accurate counts and specific identifications). And if we do need to group these birds together, it takes seconds to write ‘Galliformes‘ instead…

Yes, of course, if authors are writing about gamekeepers or the shooting industry, they may need to use the terms that are common coinage in those circles – but can I ask them to make it clear when they’re doing that? And try not to use it all when they’re writing about the countryside, the environment, or birders and birdwatching? Isolate the term so its history and continued usage by the shooting industry is clearly understood.


Red-legged Partridge


Here’s a thing. I’ve been ‘told’ on social media that it’s not worth bothering with ‘the likes of pheasants and partridges’ (not my words, but an actual quote), that there are more important things to worry about, and that you can’t change history.

First of all, ‘the likes of’ pheasants and partridges? That one single line proves every point I’m trying to make about how language influences how we see wildlife. It sums up shooting’s disrespectful parcelling up of birds like no other. Some birds, ‘the likes of’ implies, are worth protecting, worth discussing, others aren’t. Did we really come to that conclusion ourselves? I doubt it. Yes, pheasants (or to be precise Ring-necked Pheasants) and partridges (and it’s the Red-legged Partridge that shooting releases in huge numbers) are ‘non-native’ – Ring-necks are Asian birds and Red-legs are south Europeans – but they are still birds. They are still sentient, living animals. If I’d seen them overseas – where they are ‘supposed to be’ – I’d have been thrilled, just as I was when I saw Cheer Pheasants in Nepal and Chukars in Pakistan. Just as I still am when I go to the Peak District and see Red Grouse or to Northumberland and see Black Grouse, when I hear not ‘gamebirds’ but the scratchy call of Grey Partridges from dense grass near Salisbury Plain. Not that it matters, but they are undeniably beautiful birds as well. Male pheasants glow with bronzes and greens. The females are wonders of freckled browns and shape-shifting patterning. Red-legged Partridges are intricately plumaged, barred black and brown on the flanks sides, their gleaming white throat surrounded by a black necklace.

We’re birders. These are birds. Not ‘gamebirds’, just birds. When we use the term – and most of us do because it’s something we’ve grown up with and never questioned before – and say ‘the likes of‘ we are colluding with history and colluding with shooting. We can do better than that.


So, yes, I think these are very much birds worth bothering about. But more so than, say, climate change or mass extinction?

That’s not the point. I campaign on many things on this site, from calling out so-called ‘trail hunting’ and the badger cull to pesticide abuse and biodiversity loss. This particular campaign is about language, and how we use it. It may not be of interest to you, but don’t think for a moment that it stops at ‘gamebirds’ or is aimed just at birders. This post might be perhaps, but.the value-laden and discriminatory terms that the shooting and hunting industries use are probably intertwined with issues that (if you’re reading this anyway) do matter to you. Pulling at one will help unravel them all. Birds may not inspire you like they do me, but ‘gamebirds’ are (temporarily) ‘protected’ from ‘vermin’ like foxes and mustelids. Millions of wild animals are killed so that ‘gamebirds’ survive long enough to be killed by someone else. Illegal fox hunts claim to be working with farmers to get rid of ‘pests’. Language, partly deliberately and partly because it’s ‘traditional’ and not been questioned enough before, is being used as propaganda (as in ‘dissemination of information – facts, arguments, rumours, half-truths, or lies – to influence public opinion’) to justify ‘sport’ and killing and cruelty. Of ownership. Of disrespect for wildlife.


And finally, yes, you can’t change history but you absolutely can change the way history is viewed and you absolutely can change the future.

Red Junglefowl by Philip :Pickart

Societal advances are often determined by changes in descriptive language. Language really does matter, and I’m convinced we need to have discussions like these. Looking back over my own life I can see how I reached this point (slowly, if I’m being honest with myself, but I grew up in different times). Moments like long ago when my father dropped the corpses of two Teal he’d shot in front of my brother and I expecting us to be thrilled to see these gorgeous ducks up close because ‘we liked birds’. Like when my new partner (who I’m very grateful to still be with) asked me how I could spend all day out birding then come home and eat a chicken? It had never really occurred to me that a chicken was a bird (despite having been awestruck by Red Junglefowl – the wild bird all chickens are descended from – in Red Junglefowla decade earlier). Learning about grouse moors, and reading Dr Mark Avery’s book ‘Inglorious’ which so cleverly undermined the grouse shooting industry’s assertion that the start of their annual kill-fest was somehow ‘glorious’. Last year’s Wild Animal Welfare Committee‘s conference in Edinburgh, where my grab bag of ideas and thinking was crystallised around the principle that the welfare and rights of animals are inextricably linked with the words we use to describe them.

These are small things perhaps, but that’s often how opinions are changed. One person at a time. One event at a time. One realisation that just because we’ve always done something one way doesn’t mean we can’t do it differently in the future. One more argument that we just can’t deny to ourselves anymore.


So, no, I don’t think that this campaign is a waste of time at all. Even if it changes very little in the short-term it will be one more step in the right direction. Maybe someone else will push us over the line, it really doesn’t matter as long as we get there in the end. Because language matters and how we use it really does make a huge difference to our wildlife.

I will say it again, in this birder’s opinion the term ‘gamebird’ has absolutely no place in birding, or in birding magazines, or in identification books. We’ll need to campaign more directly to get it confined to the waiting dustbin of history, but in the meantime fellow birders, fellow writers, and fellow activists let’s just please pledge not to use it anymore.

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