Thursday, August 2, 2012

How to Make a List for Your Life

Hi, there! I hope everyone is having a good summer. Have any of you been noticing birds around your house? If so, you may want to keep track of all of the species you find. Many birders keep a "life list," which is basically a list of how many bird species they've seen throughout their life. When you see a new bird, it's called a "lifer."

A life list is a great way to keep track of when and where you saw a species. But for most people, it's more than just a list. It becomes a bit of a competition. No, I'm not saying that people get into fist fights over their life lists. But it can be fun to compare your list with someone else. It's a confidence boost when you find someone with less lifers than you. It's a humility check when you find someone with more. I've talked to beginning birders who are happy with a life list that's a few dozen species long. I've heard of birders that have traveled the world and seen over 3,000 species.

But if 3,000 birds isn't crazy enough for you, the American Birding Association (ABA) holds an annual contest where people can submit their life lists and see where they rank compared to other birders around the world. In 2010, Tom Gullick had the highest life list in the world with 8,811 species. And he wasn't the only one with over 8,000 lifers. That's crazy stuff, peeps. These birders are within reach of seeing all the estimated 10,000 species of birds on the planet.

For most of us, however, 8,000 is an insanely high number. My life list is approaching 200 species, and that's good enough for me.

Even when you're not comparing your list with someone else, the idea of a "lifer" is really motivating. Of course, seeing a new species is amazing enough by itself. When I identified my lifer Tricolored Blackbird last week, it was in a giant flock of very similar looking Red-winged Blackbirds. I was so proud of myself for being able to pick out one special bird from the midst of a hundred similar ones. But, then, to make the experience even more exciting, I got to write "Tricolored Blackbird" on my life list. Now, I'm one step closer to that awesome milestone of 200 birds.

Do you feel like you want to make your own life list? Go ahead! I encourage you to! But if you're going to be serious about listing, you might want to have some guidelines. My guidelines, for one, go something like this:
  1. Do not count dead birds. (Fair enough, right? I mean, it is called a life list.)
  2. Try to find and identify the bird yourself. If someone else points out the bird to you, make sure that you could have identified it yourself. (My life list is supposed to be a list of all the birds that I have seen. Can I say that I have seen a bird if I don't actually know what the bird looks like?)
  3. Make sure that you have a quality experience with that bird. (I don't count species if I only glimpse them for half a second through the trees. It's true that I've only seen some of the birds on my list once, but in those cases I tried to really look at the bird, maybe take a picture, maybe make a sketch. I want to make sure that I can remember that bird when I think about it a year later.)
That's basically it! And of course other people have different guidelines. Some people don't count introduced species. When I went to Hawaii, both the Java Sparrow and the Gray Francolin were lifers for me. But someone else might have said, "Those birds aren't native to Hawaii! They were introduced from Asia! That does not count as a lifer!" Fine! It's your list! Do what you want.

The ABA has a pretty detailed set of guidelines for their Life List competition. If you want to read it, here's the link to the PDF. It's a bit jargon-heavy, but I'm sure you can figure out what it means. I have faith in you.

There are also people who make all kinds of other lists. In fact, if you love lists, birding may be the sport for you. Some people have lists for all of the birds that they see in their backyards. Some divide the places they go birding into counties, states, and countries. Some have lists for all the birds that they see per year. Others have separate lists for the birds that they see while driving, biking, and walking. I don't have all of those lists, but I can see why it might be fun. Go crazy! They're your lists.

So, there you are! I hope you've learned a bit about life lists. Even if you aren't serious about birding, you can try making a little list. It's a great way to learn the names of species. You can have a list 5 species long, if you want. It's your list! Do what you want.


  1. This reminds me of the recent Steve Martin Movie "Really Big Year". Some of it may be too "R", you might want to check. I think you'd really get a kick out of the movie though.

  2. Yeah, I saw "The Big Year!" I didn't remember it being R, that was probably for language or something. It was a pretty good movie. I didn't want to bring it up, though, because then I might have to explain what a Big Year is and the post would be even fatter than it already was.

    Thanks for your comment! I'm glad to know that you're still reading my posts.