Shopping lists, grocery lists, to-do lists.  People love to keep lists.  That habit is found in many birders who keep lists of birds they have seen.  Such lists are called life lists.

The first mention of a bird life list that I can find appeared in an editorial in 1927 in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology.  A life list was defined as “a total list of birds with which the observer has made a field acquaintance”.  The editorial writer advocated listing of species but not subspecies because the latter cannot often be identified in the field.  The writer thought that a life list of 150-250 birds would be a reasonable expectation for most regions of the United States.  Higher totals would require the observer to travel.

The editorial concluded with thoughts on the value of a life list.  Keeping the list and adding to it is certainly enjoyable.  But is knowing a few species well better than having a passing acquaintance with many species?

Although the concept of the life list was associated with ornithologists, most people who keep bird life lists are not professional ornithologists.  For a portion of these birders, a life list represents the medium of a competitive sport.

The American Birdwatchers’ Association (now the American Birding Association) was organized in 1968 primarily to support birding (and listing) as a hobby.  List totals of subscribers were published so members could see how their lists compared to others.  The game was on!

A great milestone was reached in 1972.  Joe Taylor reported a North American list of 700 species, the first person to reach this then lofty goal.

The ABA continued to grow, fueling the growth of competitive birding, but also through the pages of Birding magazine, providing tips on identification of tricky species and site guides to birding hotspots.

Each year, ABA members have the option of reporting their list totals for publication.  Much has changed since Joe Taylor first cracked the 700 species barrier.  Increased communication has made reporting of rarities much more efficient.  In the 1970’s and 1980’s, one could pay to subscribe to a North American telephone rare-bird-alert to learn of unusual birds on our continent.  With the development of the Internet, cell phones and digital cameras, reporting of rarities became even more timely.  Now, a birder on a remote Alaskan island can send photographs of a Terek Sandpiper to the world only minutes after taking the photograph.

The twin effects of increased competition and efficient communication can be seen by looking at the most recent Life List report, reporting totals through 2008.  One can see that 282 birders have cracked the 700 species barrier and 28 birders have seen 800 species or more.  The highest total reported is that of Macklin Smith, an English Professor at the University of Michigan; Smith reports 879 species.  The next closest is Ted Koundakjian of California at 868 species.

Competing at this level is difficult because of the time and financial resources required.  If a super-rarity shows up in southeastern Arizona, these birders need to make a special trip because their competitors will likely be making the trip.

Both Smith’s and Koundakjian’s lists are notable because they do not contain any heard-only birds.  The ABA allows the listing of birds that are heard but not seen.  In part, this rule is an effort to minimize disturbance of nocturnal birds like owls or secretive birds like Yellow Rails or Black Rails.  These species can usually be reliably identified by voice.  There are purists, however, who will not put a species on their life lists unless they see the bird.

For birders with more limited time and money, life lists can be kept at more local levels.  People can report state lists for the ABA Life List Report.  For Maine, 423 species have been reported in the state.  Julie Suchecki reported the highest total of 349 species with Frank Paul a close second at 338.  I suspect other birders in the state have comparably impressive lists but choose not to report their totals.

Some people keep county or township lists.  Yard lists are popular as well.

Annual lists are kept by many birders.  These lists can be over large geographic areas (world list, North American list) or more local areas.  For 2008, Doug Hitchcox reported the highest total of species in Maine (219 species).

Some birders do not bother to keep any life lists.  Others will maintain lists for their own personal satisfaction but do not report them.  And yet others enjoy the competitive side of birding that listing provides.

[Originally published on December 27, 2009]