Just for the birds: The life list – Idaho Press

House sparrow (my first life bird) by Mary Miller Rumple.
Lesser whistling-duck (my last life bird on earth) by Hiyashi Haka.
Arctic tern (my last life bird in the U.S.) by Lindsay Robinson.
Siberian accentor (a life bird seen in Idaho that’s not from here) by redeyedvideo.
Barred fruiteater (a favorite life bird) by Arley Vargas.

House sparrow (my first life bird) by Mary Miller Rumple.
Lesser whistling-duck (my last life bird on earth) by Hiyashi Haka.
Arctic tern (my last life bird in the U.S.) by Lindsay Robinson.
Siberian accentor (a life bird seen in Idaho that’s not from here) by redeyedvideo.
Barred fruiteater (a favorite life bird) by Arley Vargas.


A life list is a tally of all the species of birds a person has seen in their lifetime. The simple words describing the life list bely the seriousness with which many birders seek to make it bigger. I have touched on this birder holy grail in a number of previous columns, including a close call on getting my own 4,000th species (Finding What You Didn’t Chase, Dec. 16, 2020).
But it has come back into fresh perspective with the prospect of seeing hundreds of new species in India this spring. After two years of COVID, and no trips beyond our borders, I still sit at 3,999 species. I could have gotten No. 4,000 in the U.S., but the odds are long.
A life list is a sort of lifetime achievement award. But unlike a wall plaque and a rubber chicken dinner, it’s not just a one-time event. You get the award again every time you see a new species. Bonus — you don’t have to find wall space for another plaque each time or face that chicken. It’s a pretty good metric for those who care because most of us can’t, or won’t, take a shortcut.
Yes, there is a shortcut. You don’t have to spend your whole life slowly accumulating species, like me, taking one or two special birding trips a year. You can do a “big year” and get a bunch of the world’s 10,625 species (more on this number below) in one year. And although a year is the traditional time period for this expensive adventure, it could be any other amount of time. Admittedly, a “big 15 months” or a “big 2.35 years” do not have much of a ring to them.
Although many people have done big years over time, the current big year record for the world is 6,852 species or 65% of the bird species on earth. This was accomplished in 2016 by Arjan Dwarshuis of the Netherlands. Only one year earlier, Noah Strycker set the record with 6,042 species. Although Arjan saw more species, his book, “Een bevlogen jaar,” is only available in Dutch. Most of us will find Noah’s book, “Birding Without Borders,” 2018, to be more accessible.
The movie, “The Big Year,” 2011, will give you a quicker picture of how a big year goes — flying at the last minute to some location where a rare bird has suddenly appeared and essentially birding 24/7 for 365 days. This film is about a big year only in North America north of Mexico, not the entire planet. But you’ll get the idea. And while Jack Black, Owen Wilson and Steve Martin are funnier than most people, I’ve had a lot of laughs with my birding friends. As long as you don’t take anything too seriously, it’s a lot of fun.
For me, my life list is a byproduct of exploring new places. As I wrote recently, it’s not about the number of species I’ve seen. It’s about the next one — the anticipation of seeing something entirely new and then the “wow!” moment. So, I have no goal for some particular number, and I won’t do a big year at any scale as a result.
For perspective, let’s ask what is even possible for a life list? As of this date, Peter Kaestner has the No. 1 list on eBird with 9,448 species, or 88.92% of the birds on earth. I birded with Peter in Chile many years ago and he’s a good guy who readily helped a number of other birders find some local tapaculos. I recently asked Peter what his goal is. He said, “I’d love to get to 10,000.” Ambitious. The first 552 species are easy — you can get them all in the U.S. The last 552 are the hardest. They’re scattered all over the world, and he already has the easy ones.
Another well-known birder, Pete Dunne, in a 2019 magazine article wrote in regard to keeping bird lists, “I like birding, but I dislike bookkeeping.” Record keeping can get tedious, particularly at the global scale. Common and scientific names are periodically revised as new research and other information is brought to bear.
As I hinted above, we don’t even know how many bird species there are, despite the fact birds are the best-known group of vertebrates. Estimates include 10,400, “around 10,000 species,” 9,700 species, “more than 11,000,” and, according to a paper published in 2016, “about 18,000 bird species.” eBird has 10,625 species, the number I’ll use for now.
The fuzziness about this number is due to a variety of factors, including how we define a “species.” As researchers employ DNA analysis, we get both clearer pictures and more questions. Simply observing species can still help, just like in the old days. Some species have been split because, although they look the same, their behaviors are different. A great example from right here in the U.S. was the realization the Gunnison sage-grouse was different from the greater sage-grouse. We can also look at the Clark’s grebe and western grebe here in The West. So, imagine how many species in the Andes or the Amazon might still be hiding.
When I first learned about life lists, as I became interested in birds some time in junior high, I was immediately excited about the prospect of just making my list bigger. Most of my birding friends over the years kept a life list. But then I started running into people who were birding, but who weren’t keeping track of what they saw. Of course, I thought they were nuts. How ridiculous to go birding and not keep a list! Over the decades since then, I learned there are all sorts of birders.
As a part of my Ph.D. research on birders and their bird conservation actions, I surveyed 5,502 birders from every state in the U.S. To gauge their level of interest, one of the questions I asked was about what types of bird lists they kept. The results surprised me. Only about 62% reported keeping a life list.
But there are other types of bird lists. From most to least frequent, the results were yard list (48%), state list (32%), year list (32%) and county list (25%). Over 14% of my sample kept no type of list.
So, what should we think about lists? Should non-listers start listing? Should listers relax and let the birds flow? I think we can do both, and I’ll use eBird as an example. I love eBird. It’s made me a better birder because now I go birding every time of the year, not just when species are singing their mostly unmistakable songs. eBird has given us the opportunity to contribute to something besides our own enjoyment and our own lists. Now, all those bird sightings that would have been tossed in the trash by our family shortly after we died, live on forever. We’re helping to build ever better — literally every hour, it’s better — knowledge of bird occurrence in space and time.
So, I am a committed eBirder. I do it. I have the t-shirt. eBird now keeps track of my life list for me. I just have to enter the thousands of bird sightings I recorded before eBird existed. Dull bookkeeping, and I’ve yet to do it.
Want to talk about something I call rBirding. What I discovered after a few years of solid eBirding was my right brain no longer had a chance to play. By turning every bird into data, I was no longer giving myself time for feeling, pondering, wondering, wandering and dreaming. This realization was a coming home, because I am actually a hiker and explorer first, and a birder second.
What to do? At first, I thought, I’ll just not eBird sometimes. No way that was going to work. I always have my binoculars, and I always look at birds. If I’m outside, I’m birding.
My workable solution ended up being very simple. I eBird part of the time, and then I rBird the rest. This works beautifully on out-and-back trails. Stop the count at the end, and free the right brain for the trip back. While at a camp site, I eBird for a while and then rBird for a while. Contribute to society, and then contribute to yourself. I think that’s a good balance.
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