What is a Bird Life List?

So, you have probably heard birders taking about their bird life lists and wondered what they were referring to. If you are new to birding/birdwatching or you just want to know what people are talking about, then this explanation will give you some insight into a life list and the minds of the birders that keep them.

A birding life list is typically a list of all the species that a person has seen over their lifetime. Birders describe adding a new species to their list as seeing a new ‘lifer’. For example, after a recent birding trip, a birder may say: “I saw 5 new lifers on my trip to Madera Canyon, Arizona last week.”

Why do birders keep life lists?

Birders keep life lists for many reasons. These are probably the top 4 reasons why:

  • The first is to keep track and monitor what they have and haven’t seen. When you consider that there are around 11,000 species globally and around 1,000 of these in North America alone, you can quickly see how a list of all the species you have seen is pretty important. As a record keeping tool, a life list also helps birders keep track and prioritize what they need to look out for and where they need to go to add more species to their life list.
  • Life lists are also a means by which birders can reminisce about their birdwatching adventures. The first time one sees a distinct species is normally a moment to remember, and an experience that a birder may recount on many occasions, especially when it comes to adding a particularly rare species to their life list.
  • Birders are social creatures that love to share information so a life list can also be used as a basis for birders to debate identifications, discuss specific species as well as share location-based information about where and when they saw a specific species.
  • Lastly, many birders have a competitive streak and use the number of birds on their list as a means to compete with other birders and to show off their experience and dedication to their hobby.

What other information do people store in their life lists?

Birders normally collect a lot more data in their life list than just the species they saw. In addition to the species, most birders also record the date, time and location of the sighting. This is where technology has really helped birders. phones. Due to the rapid development in smartphone technology, birders have been able to collect a huge amount of data relating to their bird sighting with very little effort. Take eBird for example. The eBird platform records the species, date, time, location and even your effort is recorded in the form of the time and distance covered. All of this high quality data has proved invaluable to conservation researchers.

What species can and can’t be included in a birding life list?

If you think you can add just any old bird to your life list, you are probably going to be caught out by your birding peers. This is because organizations such as the American Birding Association (ABA) maintain list of all the species (common and vagrant) recorded in a specific area (ABA Area in the case of the ABA). So, if you were to see a species not on the ABA’s list, your sighting is going to be met with a lot of scrutiny, especially if there is a possibility that what you saw was a domestic rather than wild bird. This principle also applies to other regions around the globe.

What happens if I only hear a bird call. Does it count?

Some people do count bird calls but they are normally specifically labelled as only being heard rather than seen. Identifying birds based on their call alone is not an easy task when one considers that species such as the mockingbirds, thrashers, and catbirds will mimic the call of other species. Therefore, identification by calls is generally only done by more experienced birders.

What role does location play in a birding life list?

With the advent of apps and software packages to manage birders life lists, it is becoming easier and easier for birders to disaggregate their life lists among various geographic scales. For example, your North American life list may be further divided into countries, States/Province and even nature reserves. For the birding fanatics that get the privilege of birdwatching across multiple regions all over the world, they typically also keep a global life list that consolidates everything they have seen over the various regions.

Are life lists verified in any way? Can’t people just cheat?

In most cases, birders life lists are not officially verified in any way. It generally comes down to a bit of scrutiny and debate which enables the birding community to self-regulate itself to an extent. So, if a you are competitive enough to be bragging about your impressive life list, then you should probably be prepared to have a few probing questions from the birding community. In my experience, when there are differences in opinions or even simple mistaken ID’s everyone involved comes away having learned a little bit more about the species discussed. This is what helps people grow from beginners to experts over time!
For a sighting to have credibility amongst the community, especially rare or difficult to ID birds, it ideally needs to be accompanied by a good quality photo or to have been seen by at least a few experienced birders rather than just a single person.

The improvements in photography over the last couple of decades has had a huge impact on birding and changes the way many birders identify their sightings. Many birders are supplementing their binoculars with a long lens camera to take photographic records of all the species they have seen. With modern cameras now recording the date, time, GPS coordinates and even the direction the lens was pointing, a single birder is for the first time able to independently lay claim to a credible sighting.

Is keeping a life list time consuming?

Not anymore! With the introduction of biridng apps, keeping a life list has never been quicker or easier. Modern birding apps automatically record the date, time and location so only the species name needs to be recorded. Some apps will even keep your life list updated with any taxonomic changes.

How does taxonomy impact life lists?

If you are using the same taxonomy as the checklist you are using as reference, then there will not be any impact on your life list as there will be a perfect match between species in your life list and the checklist. There are a few major taxonomic authorities though and if your life list is based on a taxonomic authority different to a checklist authority, then you may find some discrepancies. The issue is that all the taxonomic authorities classify some of their species differently. So, a bird that your taxonomic authority may classify as a species may only be classified as a subspecies by another taxonomic authority. In theory, if two people have seen the exact same birds, their life list count may differ based on what taxonomic authority they use. This is generally more of a problem for global birders as most country’s birders favor a single taxonomic authority.

Getting started with your life list

To get started with your own bird life list, you just need two things. The first is a means to identify the birds that you have seen. This can be in the form of bird book or app. The second is something to record your sightings. This could be an app such as Chirp Birding, a printed checklist (e.g. the ABA Area checklist) a notepad or even writing the sightings into your bird book next to the relevant species.

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