Bird card (Photo by Don Reimer)
Bird card (Photo by Don Reimer)
Since humans are the only species with list-keeping skills, this phenomenon is undoubtedly a distinct capacity of the human brain. The classic “to-do” list serves as a daily reminder of things needing to get done. Lists can also give confirmations of completed tasks and be used for setting new goals for future tasks. That’s basically how most bird watchers use bird checklists  — to summarize species they’ve already seen and to formulate a “wish list” of possible or desirable future sightings.

There are numerous possibilities for bird lists, depending on your individual preferences. Some birders keep a yearly checklist of species seen during one calendar year;  others pare the list down to a monthly level. Tell-tale signs that a birder’s interest is sufficiently piqued by a given sighting include the familiar refrain “I need that bird!” 

Other listing options include state and county lists. Many birders keep a yard list of birds seen at their feeders or in the nearby vicinity. And ultimately, many birders maintain lists of every species encountered throughout their lifetime. For many folks, these venerated Life Lists are a personalized testament to their persistence and may also define the scope of their birding prowess. It should come as no surprise that, in some cases, Life Lists are brandished as bragging rights. But truthfully, a lengthy bird list does not automatically confer deep knowledge about the birds in question. Like most other worthwhile endeavors, that requires time and effort.

Life Lists are preserved in some treasured old notebook, on field trip cards, or in modern online databases such as eBird. Media entities such as eBird provide immediate access to all individual entries made into that system (an up-to-date and cumulative bird list). Through the data-crunching power of eBird, regional range maps for specific species are generated as well.

Several friends employ their favorite birding field guide as a record repository, noting the date and location of sightings next to the guide’s illustrated images. While some birders may forget to register their vehicle, they can probably recall vivid details of when and where they saw a vagrant warbler, hawk or shorebird.

This practice of listing has its devotees and detractors. A high-caliber British birder once stated, “There is no serious birding without lists.” Could that possibly be true? My personal experience with checklists has run hot and cold through time. Today I have no comprehensive list of all birds seen during my lifetime. Instead I have remnants of local and regional bird lists generated over various time spans. During my adolescence, compiling a checklist was instructive and satisfying since I was constantly discovering new birds back then.

Some years ago, I began keeping an inclusive “life list” of all birds I’d seen inside Maine borders. I used a printed checklist form containing birds that had occurred within the state. When that listing card eventually filled to near capacity, I penciled in occasional rare or vagrant species not mentioned on the card. When I ran out of space on the back of the card form, I ceased making entries altogether. And since I seldom chase rare bird sightings, I’ve consequently passed on a number of obvious rarities. On the other hand, I’ve also savored some memorable excursions with fellow birders when a hot “target bird” was the primary objective of the day.

I’ll end with a hypothetical self-query: If an ivory-billed woodpecker sighting were confirmed somewhere in the southern U.S., would I travel there to see it? No. But there’s a conditional maybe here — that’s if the legendary (and most likely extinct) species were spotted somewhere well north of Kittery.