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To list or not to list: That is the question.


For some bird watchers, keeping track of their sightings is very satisfying. Other birders are simply content to see what they see and don’t bother with checklists. Photo by Paul Nicholson


While lots of birders create various checklists to keep track of the birds that they encounter, some are simply content to go out with their binoculars and see what they see. I’ve done both and understand the charms of each mode.

When I first started birding as a kid, I was led to believe that listing was part and parcel of the activity. Listing meant that there was some competitive element built into birding, whether one was competing with oneself or others. Did I see more birds on a May weekend at Point Pelee the previous year? I kept lists for decades. There would be a motivation to keep going out to see another species of bird or to visit a new hot spot with different habitat.

Listing can be satisfying, and occasionally frustrating. I know from experience how flat one can feel finishing a Big Day with a list of ninety-nine species instead of a hundred. I came to characterize listing as an “acquisitive” mode of bird watching, since many listers are eager to get the next species sighting or “tick.”

Listing now can still be on a paper checklist, but many birders keep track of their sightings and even bird species photographed using an automated tool such as eBird. The competitive or inspiring aspects of listing are even reflected on the eBird platform. Top area eBirders are shown by species seen and by checklists submitted.

Interestingly, there are no standardized rules in Canada that relate to listing birds seen. Some birders will count birds that they identify by sound even without having seen the bird. Some will not. Some birders will create a “yard list” of birds seen on their property while others will include birds seen from their property. And so on.

At some point a number of years ago, except for keeping track of birds that I saw with some friends on a Big Day, I stopped listing. I was happy just going out to admire whatever I found. I wasn’t trying to get a gold medal in bird watching at the Olympics. I believe that I became a more patient observer as a result. Instead of racing off to find another species, I would be more inclined to pause and watch a Red-bellied Woodpecker fly to and from its nest and observe how a Great Blue Heron stalked and consumed a fish.

Non-listers are more likely to have a lighter eco-footprint as they bird as well, since they will be less likely to criss-cross a province or a continent while chasing rarities.

Becoming more interested in bird photography and filming also slowed me down and deepened my appreciation for individual birds and bird behaviors. I characterized this mode of birdwatching as “inquisitive.”

As January 1 approached however, listing was beginning to feel like an itch that I want to scratch again, so I’m back at it. I even decided to undertake a personal Big Year. So far it’s been a lot of fun.

What about you? Are you more acquisitive or inquisitive? There’s no wrong choice, since in any case you will be admiring nature and our many birds.

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