June 4, 2009
California Condor in flight
California Condor in flight
In my March 17, 2006 column, shortly after the birth of "Bird Is A Verb," I wrote about listing and suggested five reasons new birders should consider becoming listers.  Today's column is about the "dark side" of listing.  For many experienced birders, "list" is a four letter word which trivializes the beauty of birds and precludes the study of their natural history.  Let me explain.

For full disclosure, I am a lister and there was a time, before I became involved in photography, when I straddled the fence and peered over into the dark side.  Photography pulled me back, slowed me down, made me appreciate the birds rather than the list, and saved me from mindless obsession.  I am still a lister, but now my list is simply a tool, not the reason.

Arizona is the premier birding destination in this country.  Every spring and summer literally thousands of out-of-state birders fly into Phoenix Sky Harbor, rent a car, and drive . . . south.  Many, if not the majority, are listers and come to Arizona for the Mexican species that reach the northern limit of their breeding range in the canyons of the Sky Islands south of Tucson, birds that are all "countable" according to the rules for listing by the American Birding Association (ABA).

Those who drive south solely for ticks on a list are willfully missing what is arguably the most spectacular bird in this country, if not the world--a bird that is the icon of avian conservation now at home in an iconic national park right here in Arizona.  With its nine foot wingspan it is the largest bird on earth, a prehistoric relic of a species that many listers won't drive north to the Grand Canyon to see and just don't care about because, having been reintroduced by man, the California Condors are not countable by the rules of the ABA's listing game.  This is totally nuts!

It reminds me of a tale, sad but true, that I recently heard.  On the first day of a birding tour in Africa a lady in one of the vehicles dropped her head into her lap and refused to look when the caravan encountered a female leopard with two cubs lounging in a roadside tree.  When questioned about her odd behavior, she disdainfully said, "This is a birding tour.  I didn't come to see big cats."  This is what listing, carried to its illogical extremes, can do to those who have forgotten why they began birding in the first place.

This is not an indictment of all listers, nor is it a knock on the ABA which works to introduce its members and the public to the beauty of the natural world and has many conservation programs in place to preserve our environment.  But birding should be a joyous, lifelong journey of appreciation for, and reintroduction to, a natural world from which our species has unfortunately become disconnected, not some sterile race to see who can chalk up the most life birds.

Be a real birder!  Drive north for a look at a truly awesome species, an ugly, songless, giant vulture, a charter member of earth's "charismatic megafauna"--wolves, bears, whales--animals at the top of the food chain whose size and personality allow us to identify with them and understand that our world would be a lesser place without them.  Leave your list at home.