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Long Live Lister!

It's been said that listing is the heart-and-soul of the ABA. The roots. The base. There's a lot of truth to that, even though the ABA is much, much more. Conservation efforts like Birder's Exchange. Education efforts like the Young Birder Program, and of course, the fine publications like Birding, Winging It, and this blog.

My friend Matt Fraker says that birding has "…three primary colors: listing; competitive birding; and just going out for the enjoyment of watching birds." I agree. No matter how you come at it, birding can ultimately be distilled into one of those primaries.

What I mean by that is when you go out in the field to look for birds, how you approach it is almost always through one of those prisms. Of course, everything can fall into "enjoyment of watching birds".

Listing is just that: keeping lists (oh, and notes). You go out and you keep detailed, accurate lists of what you see, how many, when and where. eBird listing is a great example, although people have been doing that for generations before the internet was even a gleam in the eye of Tim Berners-Lee. It's listing for your own reasons. Maybe to keep track, over the years, of birds in your local park … or your life's travels. You'll never submit the totals, and even if you do, you don't really care where you stand compared to others, and rarely twitch.

Until the end. Photo by Jeff Skrentny.

Competitive birding leads to uncontrollable twitching. You submit all of your lists, and you know who's in front of you—and who you just left in the dust. You spend hours planning things like big days, or vacations around picking up as many new species as possible. You jump at the first report of a rarity, and a 5-hour drive is nothing … if it will get you the bird. When you're not chasing or doing something big, you're a lister. Even if you go out to a family picnic, you keep all the birds in your head and enter them in eBird after the family is asleep. If you haven't done one already, you dream of doing an ABA-area Big Year … and probably have a couple of state big years under your belt.

Or you might be like my mother-in-law. She knows her birds better than the average Joan. She's got a big Sibley's on the kitchen table, where she watches the feeders in the back yard. She's interested in learning new birds, but if she doesn't … it's no big thing if she can't identify everything she sees. She's got a Great Horned Owl pair that hunt her back yard, and she thrills every time she sees one. But she also thrills the same way when she gets a good look at a Cedar Waxwing, or a male Myrtle Warbler. She keeps a list of things she's seen at her feeders tucked in the pages of that Sibley's—and she enjoys going out with me to a local forest preserve where we might see all kinds of things—but the stuff outside her yard is for the moment and a memory. No writing required.

Of course, you can add a camera to all of the above. I even know of a couple of "twitching photographers". Birders who don't really keep lists, don't submit numbers, but are the among the first to show up at a twitch. For them, it's simply the excitement of the chase.

But for me, listing is the core of the activity, whether it be life, year, state, province, county, day or patch—and I'm competitive about it. Even if I'm simply relaxing in my yard, I'm constantly aware of the birds around me and always ready for a new yard bird.

Recently, my friend Jeff and I completed our 20th consecutive monthly big day in Illinois. In those 20 efforts, we've set 3 state records (June, September and October … although the October record fell 6 days later to another team), and 11 regional records. It's a lot of work, requires sacrifice and is always exhausting. A big day is the pinnacle of competitive birding. The 100-yard-dash to the marathon of a big year. It's always exhilarating. Always a learning experience. And every one makes us better birders.

Big day birding is fast-paced and a team should be well rounded in terms of ability. The thing that always amazes me is how we'll stop for a flock of migrants—usually warblers and such—and other members of the team will pick up birds that I would have certainly missed, and vice-versa. Each time that happens, everyone involved gets just a little bit better. You might learn a chip or a flight call that you wouldn't have recognized before. Part of the reason that big days are such intense learning experiences is that everyone has to see/hear and agree on almost every species (the ABA 95% rule). 

But the inspiration for this post was not big days. It was county listing.

Rather recently, I was introduced to county listing. County listing takes a different mindset, with long-term plans and goals, attention to detail … and above all integrity. My friend Andy (a fanatical county lister in Illinois) warned me, "…this is an old man's game. You're gonna hate it."

Anything but! For our big day efforts, Andy is our "Q" (James Bond fans will get this). While he doesn't participate on the day, he helps plan the route and scout the difficult birds beforehand. He's great at this because of his county listing jones. In an Illinois county that is 90% row crops, he knows the one pond where you can find waterbirds, the one farmhouse where there are Eurasian Tree Sparrows, he's driven every back-road and knows every sewage pond—and he has this level of intel for just about all of the state's 102 counties.

Speaking of our 102 counties, the state's top county listers have over 15,000 total ticks each. That's an average of 147 species per county. Of course it doesn't actually work out that way, but no matter how you slice it, that's a lot of birding!

As a result of listing, our knowledge and understanding of the state's birds—especially their breeding distribution—is growing exponentially. The county listers are tireless, and the sub-games are even more sublime … like the Total Counties per Species List. In how many counties in your home state have you recorded Mallard? How about Tree Swallow? To be a county lister is to be always alert, and trying to identify every bird that you encounter. Swallow sp. doesn't help much.

And "mushing" your IDs doesn't help at all. Birders seem to have a 6th sense, and know very well who is calling birds too quickly or padding their lists. This game is done on the honor system, and your integrity and reputation are the currency. To paraphrase Mark Obmascik in The Big Year, everyone in the club house knows the guy who cheats on his golf score. Do you wanna be that guy?

As the owner of the Illinois Birders' Forum, I often see young-uns and newbies get bit by the listing bug. They'll often post a picture they took of a relatively common bird that's new to them, asking for help to ID it. When someone else chimes in with the ID, they'll often reply, "Great!! a lifer!!"

That's fine. These things work themselves out, and they'll learn the integrity of keeping lists. They'll see many more Tennessee Warblers—the excitement factor is worth the faux pas—and they'll learn how to identify those birds for themselves.

Listing makes birding exciting. On our big day runs, we'll often pull up to a popular birding spot in a vehicle that's going too fast. All four doors fly open, and like Keystone Cops, we pile out and form a loose cluster (the team has to be within conversational distance at all times). Within seconds—all 4 of us facing in different directions— we begin calling out birds. Ten minutes later we're gone with a "WHOOSH!", like Krikkit robots.

Others standing there enjoying the tranquility of the marsh overlook or woodland trail shake their heads and smile, wondering what we get out of it. "Oh, they must be doing a big day … I hope they're having fun," I've heard as we speed away.

We are, in fact, having a blast!

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Greg Neise

Greg Neise

Web Development at American Birding Association
Greg Neise developed his interests in birds, photography and conservation as a youngster growing up in Chicago, across the street from Lincoln Park Zoo. At the age of 13, he worked alongside Dr. William S. Beecher, then Director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and a pioneering ornithologist, and learned to photograph wildlife, an interest that developed into a career supplying images for magazines, newspapers, institutions and books, including National Geographic (print, web and television), Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe, Nature, Lincoln Park Zoo, Miami Zoo, Jacksonville Zoo, The Field Museum and a host of others. He has served as President of the Rainforest Conservation Fund, a volunteer organization dedicated to preserving the world's tropical rainforests. Greg is a web developer for the ABA, and of course, a fanatical birder.
Greg Neise

Latest posts by Greg Neise (see all)

  • Maybe this falls under “going out for the enjoyment of watching birds” but it’s kind of disappointing that one of these primary colors is not “contributing to citizen science.” Especially with eBird, you have an opportunity to contribute to our understanding of what birds are where and what is going on with them. Although I enjoy keeping a list as well, I get satisfaction out of knowing that when I enter a checklist, I’m contributing in some small way to that understanding. I wish that were a more prominently advertized aspect of birding.

    I also think that compulsive listing almost encourages something a little perverse, namely to rejoice when birds that aren’t native to our area nonetheless appear here. Should we rejoice when more Carolina wrens show up in Wisconsin because we can add them to our list, or should we be concerned that suddenly more “southern” birds are now finding Wisconsin, which led the nation this summer in record-breaking high temps, is now hosting birds that used to find our area to be inhospitable. I’m not saying the two are necessarily mutually exclusive, but it’s something I sometimes find disturbing. So for me personally, I get more excited every time I go up and see one of our northern birds that have been there for centuries (which I fear may one day be gone from our state), and a little dismayed when I hear about a “new” species showing up in the south.

  • Fourth paragraph: “Listing is just that: keeping lists (oh, and notes). You go out and you keep detailed, accurate lists of what you see, how many, when and where. eBird listing is a great example …”

    As for your suggestion that Carolina Wrens aren’t “native” to Wisconsin; they most certainly are. Just as Roseate Spoonbills are “native” to Iowa. Birds have wings, and unlike us, move when the conditions are right (or wrong). Birds expand (or contract) their range in response to weather patterns, as well as all sorts of other things such as human agriculture … and conservation efforts. The term “non-native” is used for species like Rock Pigeon or House Sparrow, which are introduced to new areas by humans, rather than getting there under their own power, for their own reasons.

  • Alan Wormington

    I agree. And I would add “obtaining knowledge” as another colour. Not only that, but many birders get great satisfaction in ensuring that their detailed observations are sent to anyone who wants or needs them. Super-rarities of course get submitted to a bird records committee. Another prime example is of course your local compiler, who in turn submits another summary to the state or provincial compiler, who then writes a seasonal summary for North American Birds — an ABA publication!

  • I’m painting in broad strokes, to define essence, not necessarily specifics. Look at it like this:

    Listing: yellow
    Competitive Birding: blue
    “Enjoyment”: green

    I would say that what Alan and Facebook User are describing are shades of yellow.

  • New blogpost idea: Fifty Shades of Yellow!

  • I think it’s possible to “do citizen science” or be an ornithological researcher or data collector without being a birder. Greg’s point is that birding for FUN includes these three elements. When I started birding, I immediately started listing because I’d first read Joe Hickey’s A Guide to Bird Watching, in which he talked about keeping a list and notes. That fun element of listing is what got me focused and good at identification, and what has in the long run made my field notes from the ’70s and ’80s rife with valuable data that I will one day in the murky future add to eBird. And the pleasure of adding it, rather than the sense of fulfilling an important but onerous duty, will stem from reliving my birding days, and enjoying reviewing my lists.

    By the way, when I started birding in 1975, books were already saying that cardinals and Carolina Wrens were “extending their range northward.” It is indeed scary to consider the potential changes due to climate change. But focusing on the crisis and working on conservation is what we should be doing in our serious time. If we suck all the fun out of birding and scold people for listing or simply for enjoying the birds they see no matter how or why those birds are there, we’re going to be losing a lot of people who list and chase for fun, and as Greg so elegantly explains, those lists are the very basis of a lot of what we know about bird distributions and provide the underpinnings for fundamental if humorless conservation work.

  • Great post Greg. I enjoy a wide range of activities within the realm of birding. When I first got into birding it was simply out of amazement of seeing colors I had never taken the time to notice before. Then it turned into wanting to see and keep track of as many as I could, which led me to find and love eBird. I love knowing that I am contributing to citizen science, but it wasn’t the reason I started eBirding. Citizen science is the big reason I continue being an eBirder and not just reporting new life birds. I’m starting to gear up for more county listing, just for my own fun and I hope to do some county or state big days in the future.

    As far as concerns about vagrant birds…I’m confident that there have been those weird-wired birds forever and its super fun to see them where they aren’t expected. The bird may be moribund, but such is the great circle of life. With birds expanding or contracting their ranges, I think that has been happening forever too. For anyone to declare an ideal number of any given species or a static range for a bird, that’s just plain arrogant on the part of mankind. I’m all for lessening mankind’s influence and impact on such range changes unless it is in the form of conservation,preservation or restoration of habitat.

  • Bernie Sloan

    My favorite listing is keeping track of the birds I find in my local “patch” through the course of the year. I used to call it a BIGBY (Big Green Big Year), but lately I’ve started to call it my “Little Big Year”. Here’s a blog post about it:

  • matt fraker

    I guess as the person Greg quoted concerning the “primary colors” and the feedback regarding how “citizen science” or “obtaining knowledge” was lacking from that quote…

    Citizen science only exists because of a birdwatcher’s passion already developed (as Robert more or less stated). Citizen science exists because people “just” enjoy birds, because people competitively list and share their results, and because people list for their own personal reasons and document/submit that info. Citizen science is a beautiful blend of these primary colors. I have yet to meet a person who decided to start birding only because they wanted to eBird.

    If a birder doesn’t just like birds, or doesn’t compete, or doesn’t list with obsession, how can they possibly know that certain birds are out of range as a result of climate change? If that climate change extension is recognized with concern, then that person has to have a working knowledge of that bird which has to come from somewhere.

    And once that passion is there, finding a way to transmogrify that passion to general knowledge accessible and helpful to the greater cause becomes a mission in itself — to me, that is a purple, an orange, or a green, or any of Carl’s humorous 50 shades of yellow. And that is the point (perhaps with not quite THAT much passion) — from those bases comes an infinite amount of

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