What is a Birding Life List?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A birding life list is a compendium of all of the avian species which an individual birder has positively identified while bird watching. Given that there are over 9,000 bird species in the world, a birder is unlikely to end up with a complete list of every bird on Earth, but a birder can accumulate a lengthy life list if he or she starts birding early and keeps the list well organized. The organization of birding life lists has been greatly facilitated by the advent of computer programs specifically designed for managing life lists, along with Internet sites for birders to exchange information with each other.

Birders might keep a list of all the avian species they've seen.
Birders might keep a list of all the avian species they've seen.

As a general rule, a birder must be thoroughly confident about the identification of a bird before placing it on his or her life list. With some bird species identification can be obvious. Others, however, are more complex, as many bird species closely resemble each other, or have different stages of plumage which can fool casual observers. The birder closely examines the bird while consulting a field guide, and may take a picture as well to confirm the identification. If the birder is confident about what he or she has seen, the bird will be added to the life list.

Birders must be confident about the identity of a bird before placing it on their list.
Birders must be confident about the identity of a bird before placing it on their list.

There are a number of ways to organize a life list. The classic technique is to put a life list in chronological order, and many birders have binders documenting sightings from individual trips, like a journal, on unique pages which are later entered into a computer. Most birders also like to sort their life lists by order, family, genus, and species, so that they can look at the life list and take note of all of the ducks they have seen at a glance, for example. This type of organization also highlights the close link between many bird species which may seem radically different, but are actually related.

In addition to serving as a record of all the birds someone has seen, a life list is also like a diary of the birder's life. The life list includes the location and time that a bird was spotted, allowing birders to look up all the birds seen on a trip to Guatemala, or remember a remarkable trip to Thailand. Especially when a birder has seen a rare species, an entirely new species, or a bird thought to be extinct, a life list can be an object of pride and even some bragging.

The networking of life lists through the Internet also serves the scientific community. Ornithologists can use life lists to track species all over the world, looking for areas where unique species are frequently sighted and identifying species which may be at risk. Life lists can also identify scientific discoveries; on occasion, a birder who includes a photograph of the bird on an Internet site has been informed that he or she has actually found a new species of bird, which is a cause for celebration.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Iluviaporos - The local conservation groups in my area do a bird count every year where they ask people to spend an hour in their garden and count the number of different birds they see. I've always thought this was a fun way of contributing, but it would be even nicer and more useful to be able to do it all year around.

I'm also quite competitive, so I think I would fit into the bird watching community quite well.


@Fa5t3r - I remember looking this up a while ago and there are actually some really good apps that have been developed by bird watching societies and wildlife societies that list the different birds you might see in each area.

I believe one of the advantages of using an app like this is that the information can be anonymously donated to the organization to help with their tracking of different bird species in different areas.

This is even more important these days with climate change having such a big impact on bird populations. Even those species which are not endangered could be changing their habits and habitats so it's good to keep track of it.


I really do need to start an official life list of bird sightings for myself. I love bird watching informally at least and I've traveled quite a bit. Many of my favorite memories involve seeing a new type of bird, or a rare bird that isn't seen very often. But it's difficult to remember exactly when or where you saw them all unless you keep track of it.

I'm guessing there are probably books available with checklists already made up, or I suppose I could just get a book for myself and design it the way I want to.

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