Making a List

LAH_0464I recently helped two long-time friends become birders. It was a thrill introducing two of my favorite people to a pastime I enjoy so much. We went birding and I offered ID tips. We discussed how to use binoculars, which field guides they might want to purchase, and some of the best places to look for birds. And inevitably, the topic of listing came up.

One friend really wasn’t all that interested in compiling a personal “life list,” but was eager to know what species were on her five acre property. The other friend has a small city lot, unlikely to attract much diversity, but was keen to keep track of the birds seen on our outings. That got me to thinking about all the different ways birders keep lists.


SacramentoNWR-CA_LAH_1754The simple yard list is perhaps the most popular. Typically, a yard list includes all the birds you find on or above one’s property, but not birds somewhere else that you simply view from inside the boundary. For example, a robin in your backyard counts, as do the Canada Geese flying directly overhead (or this vulture). But the bluebird next door does not count, even though I can see it from my back door.

Next comes the life list. Simply put, it’s a list of all the different bird species one has seen over one’s lifetime. Some people include birds heard but not seen. The American Bird Association (ABA) has specific guidelines defining what sightings qualify for listing. In general, it’s what you might expect:

(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 AOU Check-list for lists outside the ABA Area and within the AOU 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.

LAH_0539The ABA website goes into more detail, explaining terms and clarifying any possible sources of confusion. I find myself most tempted to cheat when it comes to the bird being “alive, wild, and unrestrained.” That means birds in banders’ mist nets, at the zoo, or being rehabilitated do not count. Neither does road kill.

Also note that number (4) allows the inclusion of birds heard but not seen—if you’re skilled enough for a positive ID. I happened to hear Soras on three different occasions before I finally caught a glimpse of one. I did add it to my list—their call is quite distinctive—but it felt so unsatisfying that I’ve since decided that for myself, I need to see the bird before it counts.

I happen to follow these guidelines, although it doesn’t really matter unless you’ve vying for a Big Year record, or something similar. You can even submit your list to Listing Central, the ABA repository of birding lists, for official recognition.

But these lists are just the beginning. Listing enthusiasts might have year lists, trip lists, state lists, and/or county lists. I know one birder who won’t add a new bird to her life list until she’s seen it at least three times. (I never asked if these had to be three individual birds, or three sightings of the same one—and if so, how far apart these sightings need to be.) Another avid photographer only counts birds she’s photographed.

Then there are those for whom the listing is more interesting than the actual birds. They might count species seen on TV or in movies, species seen from a moving car, species at a specific webcam, ad infinitum.

Ultimately, when we look at birds—and perhaps make lists—for our own pleasure, we can make up any rules we want. If you want to include zoo species, go ahead! Who’s to tell you “no”?

My advice to new birders is, make your list. If you eventually decide you don’t care, you can always delete it. But if, a year from now, you find you enjoy keeping track, you’ll be glad you started at the beginning.
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Birds, from top: Anna’s Hummingbird, Turkey Vulture, Western Scrub Jay—all on my friend’s new yard list!

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