New Year, New List

CFO Birders_MarshallPass-CO_LAH_1433

It’s a brand new year, and we’re celebrating with old traditions. Were you up late last night? Did you watch the Rose Parade this morning? Did you make resolutions? Did you decide what bird lists you’re going to keep this year?

Starting a new list, or setting a year goal, has a lot to recommend it. Birders are often passionate collectors. We’re no different from someone who collects stamps or teapots—we just collect birds, accumulating a life list. (And we don’t have to find space for our collection, or dust it.)

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Checklist Changes

Yellow-rumped Warbler- Myrtle's_Patagonia-AZ_LAH_3751Many serious birders keep a life list of the bird species they’ve seen. We can tell you exactly how many birds are on that list, and there’s great excitement when we can add a new “lifer.” We may also have a list of “target birds,” those not yet seen, and we often spend considerable effort tracking them down. But once a year, we have an opportunity to add a new bird or two without lifting a finger.

All year, ornithologists are busy debating bird taxonomy. They present evidence—behavioral, morphological, a new DNA analysis, etc.—to support their opinions as to which species need to be split into two, which need to be lumped together as one (perhaps as subspecies), which need to be moved to a different genus, and other taxonomic changes. Every July, the AOS (American Ornithological Society) publishes the agreed-upon changes, and we all scramble to update our life lists.

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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.

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Starting Over

12175 Howells Rd viewI miss my birds. Until a month ago, we lived on almost five acres outside of town, with huge Ponderosa pine trees and a two-acre field. My yard list numbered over 60 species. I could stand at the kitchen window and watch three species of hummingbird at the feeder hanging from the eaves, and enjoy the antics of the Bluejays, Steller’s Jays, and Scrub Jays as they competed with the magpies for peanuts left on our balcony railing.

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Resolved: Join eBird

ebird-welcomeDo you watch birds? And if so, are you a “lister”? That is, when you go out to look at birds, do you keep a list of which species you’ve seen?

While most of us start listing for our own sense of accomplishment (or compulsion!), those notebooks can actually help ornithologists determine where the birds live, whether their populations are thriving, stable, or in decline, and the human and environmental factors affecting them.

At the same time, we birders can benefit from one another’s sightings. Are you looking for a particular species to add to your life list? Did you know that you can find out where others have seen that bird?

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Who Gives a Hoot?

burrowing-owls_bixleynwr-ca_lah_9641At some time of another, most birders have a “nemesis bird”—that species you really want to see but you always seem to show up a minute too late. Or you show up in the wrong spot. Or you hear, “We always get that bird on this trip; I don’t know why it’s not here now!”

I’ve come to realize that I don’t just have a nemesis species—I have a nemesis family! For some reason, I have an extraordinarily hard time finding owls.

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Lumpers and Splitters

Scrub Jay_TurkeyCreek-FtCarson-CO_LAH_9808From the big questions (how many species of birds are there?) to specifics (should the Bullock’s Oriole and the Baltimore Oriole be merged into one species called the Northern Oriole?), birders have long endured a bit of confusion. It seems even the most eminent ornithologists disagree on these and similar conundrums.

In 1946, a paper published by Ernst Mayr asserted that there were  8,616 species of  bird worldwide. Today, the consensus is that there are closer to 10,000 although estimates vary widely. What happened?

In 1973, scientists decided that the two most common American orioles, the Bullock’s Oriole in the west and the Baltimore Oriole in the east, were really the same bird. Where their ranges overlapped, they mated and produced fertile young. Then, in 1995, the two species were separated again! Why?

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