What Birds Count on a Life List?

Blue Jay
GeorgeB2 / Pixabay

A great way for birders to keep track of the species they've seen is with a life list, but how do you know what birds to add? What birds count for the list and which do not?

Why Keep a Life List

A life list is a cumulative record of the bird species an individual birder successfully identifies, and keeping a list is the easiest way to track which birds you have seen. Birders often keep life lists for other reasons as well, however, such as for motivation to see a greater number of species or to garner the prestige that comes from having higher count numbers. Life lists can also be submitted to some birding organizations for recognition or for contest purposes. For most birders, however, it is just fun to keep a life list and add up how many bird species you have seen.

What Species Count for a Bird Life List

When adding birds to your life list, the key characteristic to remember is that it is your list, and you are entitled to record bird species in any way you want. Casual birders may record every species they see no matter what the circumstances of the sighting may be, such as aviary or zoo birds as well as wild birds. For an "official" life list that would be accepted by most dedicated birders and birding organizations, however, birders need to follow certain guidelines.

To properly add a bird to your life list, the bird must be:

  • Positively Identified: The individual keeping the life list must be able to identify the bird in question through field markings or sounds. It is acceptable to have another birder or observer point out the bird species, but to add it to a life list the birder in question must then see the markings for themselves to be confident in their identification.
  • Ethically Observed: All proper birding ethics must be followed for a bird to count on an official life list. If laws are broken to observe the bird or the bird is harmed in the process of identification, it would not be acceptable to add it to the life list. For example, trespassing on private property without being invited is a violation of birding ethics and any observed species would not count.
  • Alive: Birds must be alive to be counted on a life list. For the purposes of listing, eggs are not considered alive, and dead birds – such as prey of other animals – are also unacceptable sightings.
  • Wild: To add a bird to a life list, it must be observed in the wild and behaving as a wild bird would be expected. Domesticated birds, escaped pets or birds that are deliberately imported such as for a zoo, petting zoo or ornamental garden are not acceptable life list sightings.
  • Free: A bird should not be captive or restrained in any way to be considered part of a life list. Birds that are in wildlife rehabilitation, for example, cannot be counted, and should not be counted immediately after their release until they have resumed wild activities for feeding, roosting, migrating and so forth. Similarly, wild birds in zoos, aviaries, and aquariums cannot be counted on a life list.
  • Established: Ideally, the most "pure" life list will only count birds seen directly in their native habitat that have established viable breeding populations for at least several generations. This is the most controversial factor to consider for building a life list, and in general, if the other conditions are met the bird's population will likely be established. Vagrant birds are an exception, but are generally considered suitable to add to a life list if they arrived outside their range without human assistance – a bird that was captured and unwillingly transported before release in a new area, for example, would not count, but a bird that migrated poorly because of storms could be added to a life list.

Birds You Can't Add to Your Life List

While there are nearly 10,000 bird species in the world, not every bird you see will be able to be added to your life list, even if the bird is wild, free and otherwise observed by accepted standards.

Birds that cannot be added to a life list as another "tick" or numeric addition include:

  • Different color morphs of the same bird species
  • Different genders of the same bird species
  • Hybrids that closely resemble more than one species
  • Subspecies, such as different types of dark-eyed juncos
  • Birds that are identified by a band or other artificial mark rather than through field markings or sounds

By understanding what birds can and can't be added to a life list, birders can enjoy keeping track of their sightings and sharing their bird list with others.