What Is a Lifer Bird?

That New Bird on Your Life List

Orange-Breasted Sunbird

Derek Keats / Flickr / CC by 2.0

The term "lifer" means something different for birds than it does for humans. What makes a bird a lifer? Learn the qualifications, how to count them, and why adding more lifer birds to your list is not always good.

What Is a Lifer Bird?

(noun) The term lifer refers to a bird species when it is first seen and positively identified by an individual birder. Lifer is a designation for a species that individual birder has never seen previously, not a returning migrant, new sighting for the year, or other repeat sighting. A bird can only be a lifer the very first time it is seen by a specific birder, and many birders fondly recall memories of when they added certain lifers to their lists.


(rhymes with cipher, fifer, "knife fur" and "wife her")

Lifer Qualifications

There are no worldwide, officially recognized guidelines for how a bird species can be considered a lifer. In general, birds must be observed in the wild and under appropriate conditions to be added to a life list. Dead birds or captive birds, either pets or in zoos, private collections, or aviaries, are not usually considered acceptable under any circumstances.

Individual organizations may have their own criteria for record-keeping or competition purposes. If birders plan to submit their life lists to organizations to be ranked or recognized in a contest, they need to strictly follow that organization's criteria for counting lifers. For example, some organizations may require a positive visual identification of the species, while others may be willing to accept auditory identifications or may verify a sighting if more than one observer authenticates the bird.

Different birders may have their own individual standards for recording life birds. Some birders may choose to only count birds they identify without assistance, or only if they are able to hear the bird while birding by ear. In the case of dimorphic birds, some birders may choose not to record a new species on their life list until they have seen the more spectacular gender, or until both genders have been positively identified. Birders may also choose not to count juvenile birds or birds in less distinctive non-breeding or molting plumage.

There is no wrong way to record individual lifers, but birders who have more unique personal qualifications should be careful to explain their preferences to other birders when comparing life lists.

Getting New Lifers

Many birders travel to birding festivals, take birding tours, or otherwise deliberately attempt to add lifers to their count list. This is also possible by staying aware of local vagrant sightings or unusual bird irruptions, and taking steps to see those new or rare birds whenever possible.

It is also possible to attract lifers to birders' yards and gardens through bird-friendly landscaping, appropriate bird feeders, water sources, and otherwise making a suitable habitat. Over time, however, it will become more difficult to attract lifers to a yard when all local species have already been observed. The more bird-friendly a yard or garden is, however, the more species it will attract, and there is always the possibility of a new and unexpected guest visiting a good habitat.

On rare occasions, birders may count new lifers without actually seeing any new birds. This can happen when several subspecies are split into new species, if a birder is certain to have seen the individual subspecies. Of course, if species are lumped together and their individual distinctions are removed, birders can also lose lifers.

When bird names are changed, birders may or may not get new lifers automatically. For instance, the western scrub-jay was renamed the Woodhouse's scrub-jay in 2016. Birders who had previously counted this bird could change their lists, but no new lifer would be recorded because the bird remained the same and only the name had changed. At the same time, however, the California scrub-jay species was split from the original western bird. If a birder could confirm the ranges in which they had previously seen scrub-jays, they may have been able to count both new birds on their life list: the newly created California scrub-jay as well as the renamed Woodhouse's scrub-jay.

Birds that are often considered for species splits that could give birders easy new lifers in the future include the different types of juncos, the different subspecies of the Eurasian jay, and the burrowing owl.

Not Counting Lifers

Lifers are frequently counted by dedicated listers or twitchers, but many birders choose not to keep a life list. This can be true for birders who feel the momentary excitement or intense drive to add a new species to the list may detract from the overall pleasure of the birding experience, or for birders who simply have no interest in any competitive or list-keeping aspect of birding. Keeping a life list is not necessarily competitive, but when lifers become disputed, hard feelings or tarnished reputations may be the result. Ultimately, it is up to individual birders not only how they may count lifers, but if they keep a life list at all.

Fun Fact

"Twitching" is a British term meaning "the pursuit of a previously located rare bird." Twitchers travel long distances to see a rare bird that they then "tick," or count, on a list.

Also Known As

Life Bird, Tick Bird, Tick