Build Your Birding Life List

Lesser Goldfinch

Kathy & sam / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

One of the most exciting parts of becoming a birder is starting your life list and realizing how many birds you are already familiar with. Through these five stages of building a life list, both novice and experienced birders can keep a record of how many different species they have seen.

The Five Stages of Listing

  1. Before You Go Into the Field - Armchair Birding
    Note all the common birds you have seen before you even go into the field. Browse a comprehensive field guide, paying particular attention to birds that are abundant in your area. Many beginning birders are surprised to discover they are familiar with a dozen or more bird species, even if they didn't know the birds' official names before they started birding.
    Compare birds’ characteristics carefully for accurate identification: not every species is easily identified. Many gulls, for example, look similar except for small differences in their markings, size or behavior. Check bird range maps and population densities when necessary for a confident identification, but don't fuss over identifying every single species. If you have doubts, you can take the time to see the birds in the field locally and be certain they belong on your life list.
  2. Start In Your Backyard
    Offer tempting treats in backyard feeders, or if you already have bird feeders, offer more exotic seeds and food to attract a greater variety of species.
    Commercial birdseed mixes will attract basic finches, sparrows, and songbirds, but choose black oil sunflower seed to entice even more species. Nyjer (thistle) seed will attract siskins and goldfinches and nectar is irresistible to hummingbirds and orioles. Use suet to attract woodpeckers and larger birds, and invite jays to your backyard with peanuts.
    Not all birds will eat from backyard feeders, but all birds need water, shelter, and nesting sites. Add a birdbath or fountain to your yard to attract more birds, and consider adding shelter such as a brush pile or birdhouses as well.
  3. Get Out for Local Birding
    Once you have exhausted the immediate appeal of your backyard, you can venture past your property lines to find more birds. Even in a single neighborhood, different landscaping, tree species, and flowers will attract a wide range of birds. A simple neighborhood walk may yield several new bird species to observe.
    Venture slightly further afield to find additional birds. River pathways, nature walks, lakes, parks, and gardens with a wide variety of trees, shrubs, and flowers are great locations to find birds locally. Visit different habitats such as a forest, farmland, and marsh to see the widest variety of birds.
  4. Join Up With Other Birders
    To make the most of your local birding hotspots, join a local or regional birding organization. Birdwatchers’ clubs and bird conservation associations frequently sponsor local birding walks or day trips to regional birding sites. Occasional walks may also be organized through birding supply stores, libraries or other community groups. On any trip, you may be able to connect with other birders who share your passion, and you can exchange tips and advice for finding and identifying new species.
  5. Plan Birding Travel
    The most experienced and enthusiastic birders often plan vacations that coincide with popular birding festivals or to visit new areas with great bird watching opportunities. Once you have chosen a travel destination, look for local birding locations, and contact a local expert or birding organization for tips on where to go to see specific species. You may even find a willing accomplice in the form of a local guide who can take you to the best-hidden birding spots in the area. As you get more advanced, you may even want to take a specialized birding tour or another dedicated trip.

Life List Tips

Finding dozens of new bird species is not helpful if you don’t add them to your life list properly. Keep a comprehensive, cumulative birding journal to record your observations and the species you have seen. Many field guides offer species checklists as an appendix, or you can create your own list in a notebook. To ensure accuracy, record each bird’s common name as well as the scientific name – many widespread species have different common names in different areas.

Building your life list can quickly become a lifelong hobby, and if you know how and where to find new lifers, you'll never be disappointed with the birds you see.