Bird Life List: The Ultimate Guide (2021)

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Ask to see a bird life list and the birder you ask will fall over in haste to show you. This list of birds is the crowning glory of a bird watcher’s journey. So if you’re wondering whether you should start your own life bird list, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Read on to find out how.

What is A Bird Life List?

A birding life list is a list count of all the avians a birder has ever observed and properly identified. Many dedicated birders allocate time and resources just to be able to keep their lists growing.

woman writing into a journal

For some, it is simply a list of birds and some relevant information. For others, it is a bird watching diary that includes their thoughts and emotions at the time of the sighting.

Whichever way you want to go about it, the important thing is that you have a bird watching log that you can look back on with fondness and pride.

Why do Birders Keep a Bird Life List?

The answer is as simple as “because it’s fun”. Appreciating as many birds as you can is the aim of birding, so the act of adding a new species to your birds list is concrete proof that you were successful. For more serious birders, there are other reasons to keep a birders diary.

Motivation and Prestige

National birding associations publish rankings on an annual basis, which serves as a motivator for many birders. And since the length of a bird watching list is directly proportional to the experience and dedication of a birder, it’s no wonder ranked birders are held in such high esteem.

How Many Birds Will You List?

The number of entries in a birder’s diary depends largely on how much time and travel they do for birding. If you’re a casual bird watcher who sticks to local spots, you can reach over 100 species if you live along a bird migration route.

But if you want to easily reach 300, go to wildlife reserves with different landscapes. 600 is a respectable number, earning you a spot in the prestigious “600 Club”. For reference, that’s 75% of species ever spotted in North America.

But the top birders internationally trump that by thousands:

  • 9,684 – Dr. Claes-Göran Cederlund of Sweden holds the current world record. Born in 1948, he has decades of birding experience under his belt, even traveling through 120 countries to reach the top spot.
  • 9,646 – British citizen Philip Rostron started birding at 12, and nearly five decades later, has reached the 2nd top spot. He takes 3-4 international birding trips a year.
  • 9,600 – Even years after his death in 2018, Jon Hornbuckle remains among the top international bird listers. He might have observed more by sound, but he only recorded the birds he’s seen.
  • 9,494 – Peter Kaestner is the only American in the top 5. He is not only an avid birder but a retired diplomat as well.
  • 9,478 – Jürgen Lehnert of Germany rounds off the list.

Birds That Count For a Bird Life List

You’re free to add any bird you’ve observed to your birding notebook if it’s just meant to be a casual record of your birding experiences. However, if you want to be in the same league as competitive birders, there are additional parameters about bird lists you’ll have to follow:

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Positively Identified

According to the Longdom Entomology, Ornithology, and Herpetology Research Journal, positive identification means determining the bird’s identity based on physical characteristics, habitat, and feeding methods (1). So make sure that the species you add to your bird watching journal match the appearance, calls, habitat, and behavior of the bird you’re observing.

Ethically Observed

Birds observed under circumstances violating birding ethics should not be ticked off a birding checklist. Remember that above all, birding is about respecting birds and their habitats. You may be desperate to see a particular bird, but know that you are not allowed to add it if the sighting is the result of flushing, violating local laws, trespassing private property, among others.

Only Alive Birds

According to the eBird rules and best practices, a birder’s list of bird species should only include species seen alive. Stuffed birds in museums, birds killed by neighborhood cats, or eggs without their parents should not be included in your bird diary.

Observed in The Wild

Your birders’ journal should not include pet birds, birds displayed in zoos, or domesticated species. Bird watching is about appreciating birds in their natural habitat and witnessing their natural behavior. Part of the joy of birding is the chase, so enjoy it!

Birds Need to Be Free

Birds that are caged, tied, or otherwise restrained are not to be counted in official bird lists. Likewise, watching as a rehabilitated bird is released back into the wild is not considered birdwatching. However, if you see that same bird later on already behaving naturally in its natural habitat, then it can be counted.

Birds In Their Native Habitat

There is a reason that the legendary bird listers recognized by official associations travel so much. For their list to be considered, the birds listed in it should have been observed in their natural habitat. Migration or any form of bird travel without human assistance is also allowed.

Birds You Shouldn’t Add to Your Life List

Aside from meeting certain conditions about the circumstances of bird observation, there are also restrictions about the kinds of birds that can be counted.

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Morphs

Within a species, birds may have different colored plumage. Even if you have seen multiple color morphs, all of them only count as one species.

Genders

Some avian species exhibit dimorphism, in which the physical appearances of the female and males are distinct. You can only list them as one species.

Hybrids

Hybrids birds have parentage from two different species. For example, a swoose is a cross between a goose and a swan. While fascinating, they are not generally accepted in birding lists.

Subspecies

Subspecies are not counted separately. For example, if you see a Eurasian green-winged Teal and an American green-winged Teal, you can only list them as one species.

Artificial Marks

Artificial marks include leg bands, which are typically used to identify a specific individual for research purposes. In birding, the basis of identification should be the natural markings, sounds, and behaviors.

How to Start a Bird List?

If you want to start making a list of all birds you’ve observed, you can choose from three main record types: a handwritten record, a ready-made bird watching checklist, bird life list app. There are pros and cons to each, so choose the one that is most convenient for you.

eBird

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird is the gold standard in bird listing software. It is ideal for birding outdoors with offline mode, GPS tracking, and bird counts. It may be hard to navigate at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s indispensable.

Merlin Bird ID

Merlin Bird ID is another option if you want to keep your bird life list online but with less effort. It’s very easy to use for beginners because of its handy identification system: either answer 5 simple questions or upload a photo of the bird, and the app will narrow the list for you.

Sibley Birder’s Life List and Field Diary

If you prefer taking handwritten notes, Sibley Birder’s Field Diary is a great choice for you. It has ready-made entries for 923 species found in North America and Canada arranged by group. All you have to do is fill in the date, location, and notes you have on a sighting.

Birder’s Life List & Journal

If you find a bird checklist app is difficult to use, you might prefer to go for a manual bird checklist book like Birder’s Life List and Journal. This has ready-made entries for North American and Hawaiian birds, as well as an easy indexing system to help you input information quickly.

DIY Checklists

A printable birding checklist is great if you want birding identification to be as easy as ticking off a box. Popular options are the ABA Checklist and the Avibase Bird Checklists of the World which have offer lists per state or region. Pick the one appropriate to you and tick away!

Other Bird Lists

Keeping a record of all the birds observed throughout one’s lifetime takes effort and organization. For more casual birders, you can start with smaller lists.

If specially made are too much for you, you can just make your own record. This is ideal for casual beginner birders of any age.

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Big Day List

This entails making a list of every bird you observed within one 24-hour period. You can use bird list apps, bird software, birding journals, or checklists.

Big Night List

For night owls for whom waking up at dawn seems challenging, why not try sundown to sunrise birding session? Then list down your entries in your big night list.

Big Year List

Bring it up a notch by recording all the birds you’ve seen between January 1 and December 31 of the year. Great practice for a life list!

Backyard List

Sometimes, a list based on area is easier than a list based on time. A simple idea is to keep a running list of all the birds you see from your backyard.

State List

A lot of online bird lists are arranged by state. You can use the same copy every time you take a trip to your locality!

Zoo List

Keeping a record of all the exotic birds you see in the zoo allows you to get a feel of international birding sans the cost.

Trip List

Going out of town? Look for a bird list in the area you’re visiting and check off whatever you’re able to observe during your stay.



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