Listing Addiction

Facdscf0365-1e it, you’re hooked. You didn’t think it would happen to you. All you wanted was to know the name of one bird. You naively picked up that field guide. Was that bird at the feeder a Black-headed Grosbeak? Or perhaps it’s a Spotted Towhee? Hmmm… there are so many birds in here. And they all look so interesting! You’re familiar with a few—Robins and Pigeons, House Finches and House Sparrows. But wait! Is that really a House Sparrow? Perhaps it’s a Black-throated Sparrow instead! And there are two kinds of goldfinches at your feeder? Better look more closely.

Then you realize that lots of those birds in the field guide never come to your backyard feeder. Where are they all? Maybe it would be fun to plan an outing to the local nature center. Better bring those binos, just in case.

One day you wake up and realize that what all began so innocently is now a full-fledged addiction. You’re a birder. Now what?

Once you have started finding and identifying birds, the natural next step is to want to keep a record of what you have seen. While not all birders keep lists, most do. Many keep more than one list. It all depends on your personality.

A “Life List” is a list of bird species seen during a person’s lifetime. It usually includes information about the first time they saw (or perhaps heard), and positively identified, a bird of a given species. Most American birders keep a list of birds they’ve seen in North America. Typically they mean the American Birding Association (ABA) region which includes everything north of the Mexican border. (The American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) considers the North American area to include everything from Panama to the North Pole, including Hawaii.) Many birders keep country, state, county and/or yard lists. Some keep track of which birds they see in a particular month or year, or on a specific trip. The goal of listing should be to record and organize your sightings, demonstrate your growing expertise, and perhaps reveal trends in bird populations and ranges. And, there’s always the chance of some friendly competition with your fellow birders.

Lists vary in complexity from a simple tick mark in the field guide to a journal or spreadsheet that records date, location, habitat, conditions, interesting behavior, sex (of the bird), who you were with when you saw the bird, and anything else of conceivable interest. There are several computer software programs designed just for this purpose. At you can keep your list online, while contributing your sightings to a scientific database maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

While most birders focus more on the birds than on their lists, for some, listing itself becomes the goal. Some listers tackle a “Big Day,” “Big Month,” or “Big Year, in which they try to see as many North American birds as possible in the respective time period. The current ABA record for a North American “Big Year” is 745 species, set by Sandy Komito in 1998. There are some “Big Listers” whose international lists may number upwards of 5,000 species.

Birding can even be a sport. In events organized around the country, groups of enthusiastic birders compete at finding as many different species as possible in a given area and time period, usually 24 to 72 hours.

Keeping lists can add to the enjoyment of finding and identifying birds. Beware, however, if listing takes over your life. Addictive listing has been known to destroy common sense, finances and families. Maybe the time is right for “Listers Anonymous”?

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