March 17, 2006
Sandhill Cranes landing
Sandhill Cranes landing
So, are you keeping a list yet?  Writing down in a little black book, or on your computer, the birds you’ve seen and identified since you began your new activity?  Before you start, there are a couple things you need to know.  “List,” like “bird,” is a verb now, and it can bring focus and meaning to your new avocation, but for many experienced birders it is also a four-letter word.  They feel listing trivializes the complexity and passion of that avocation.  That’s alright.  I’d like for you to keep a list anyway.  Here are some of the reasons why.

A written record of the species you’ve seen will give you a reference point for the species you haven’t seen and are looking for, the field marks you’ve learned and those you need to learn, and seasonal and geographical expectations.  Many listers will log in date, time of day, weather conditions, habitat, and behavior observed.  As you progress to species that are more difficult to find and more difficult to identify, your birdlog becomes an invaluable study guide.

Runners log their miles.  Dieters log their weight loss.  Your bird list will give you a sense of progress and personal accomplishment, and if you’re competitive you can submit your list to the American Birding Association ( and see how it stacks up against other birders from around the country.

Listing, in its various forms such as the Christmas Bird Counts, fall hawkwatches, and state breeding bird atlases, was the harbinger of the decline of many of our endangered species and their critical habitat.  And competitive birding events such as the World Series Of Birding, which are based on listing, have become important fundraisers for many conservation projects.

Baseball cards.  Antique dolls.  Classic cars.  The need to collect is a primitive, deeply ingrained facet of our human nature.  As birders grow older, though, and their lists longer and more diverse, most realize they haven’t simply been collecting marks on a checklist, but memories.  Remembrances of people, places, and things.  A fellow birder who became a close friend, an isolated desert spring that became a personal shrine, a favorite field guide that became more valuable as it slowly dog eared and fell apart.

Many birders keep all manner of lists that beginners can’t yet fathom--yard lists, state lists, year lists, lists of species seen copulating.  Keep as many or as few as you like, but for sure keep a Life List--the flock of snow geese, one dark phase bird amongst all the white ones, that flew over the day you signed the adoption papers for your second son; the Henslow’s sparrow that burst from the dew drenched grass in northern Missouri the last trip you made to visit your father-in-law in the Alzheimer’s home; the sandhill cranes, “landing gear” down, dropping across a sunset on your first trip to Bosque Del Apache, the famous refuge in New Mexico.  It’s not really your Life List.  It’s a chronicle of your life.