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In defense of the lister

March 19, 2010
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I and the Bird #121 up now at The Birder’s Lounge

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So, my friend Mike Bergin of 10,000 Birds is not keeping a year list this year, a decision he explains in his post List Luster Lost.  Of course, I respect his right to make that decision; birding is, after all, flexible enough to incorp0rate many different ways of enjoying birds and if keeping a list gets in the way of your enjoyment of birds and birding, then you owe it to yourself to stop.  But it worried me that there still seems to be the pervasive idea that there is something inauthentic about keeping lots of lists.  Not from Mike, of course, but being perpetuated in the comments.  So instead of leaving a post length comment on Mike’s blog, I decided I could turn such a response into a post in and of itself.  So here is my response…

I rebel against the concept that one’s authentic appreciation for birding exists in inverse proportion to the number of lists they keep.  The idea that at a certain point, birds become nothing more than a single checkmark on one’s list, that they exist simply as something to be collected, has been worn indelibly into the concept of the “birder” since we first put glass to eyes.  For that reason, it’s become too easy to assume that just because one keeps lists upon lists, that one doesn’t do any of the following things: 1) watch birds closely 2) appreciate common species or 3) become a skilled birder.  The stereotype of the green-eyed lister with list so large it has natural satellites but who doesn’t know a chickadee from a hole in the ground is so ubiquitous that it’s often wielded as a form of reverse discrimination.  The idea that the big lister would look down upon the lowly patch birder and thus, the patch birder, in feeling defensive at the perceived and often non-existent slight, questions the big lister’s sincerity and ability, is as unfair a characterization as the unfortunate stereotypes.

If I am to say that I’m a lister, and I most certainly am, what does that say about me?  After all, I’ve met birders that keep meticulous lists of thousands of species who are some of the finest field birders I’ve been around and I’ve met patch birders who love birds without question but don’t care to identify sparrows to species.  Whether or not this is a good or bad thing isn’t really important, it’s the idea that there is a good or a bad way to appreciate birds that’s the problem, and we do ourselves and our fellow birders a disservice by continuing to act as though there’s any sort of consistent truth to these ideas.

Besides, listing is hardly the bogey man some may have you believe.  With the proliferation of high quality birding software in which the average birder can manage their lists for free, there’s no reason not to keep a tally of your outings.  With Birdstack you can share your lists with friends from around the world.  With eBird your data goes to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology where it’s applied to studies concerned with bird population dynamics.  Both sites put your lists to work doing outreach and conservation with real-world applications that go beyond personal gamesmanship.

And what of gamesmanship anyway?  Listing fills many roles for birders who choose to take part.  Not only is there the obvious advantage of having an easily accessible way to remember what you see for your own personal records and to jump start old memories, but the search for the next state or county bird encourages the birder to discover new areas looking for that next bird.  It can be easy to fall into a rut of visiting only well-worn or popular places.  With the promise of discovery in the form of a new bird for a list or two, you’ve suddenly got the impetus to get off the beaten path for a change.  And that’s a good thing.

Certainly the stereotype of the single-minded twitcher still has power in our community, but it shouldn’t be that way.  Appreciation of birds comes in all forms, from Mike’s abstention of a year list this year to the run for 100 species in a new county to the whole enchilada of the Big Year.  We all find our place in this world of birds in our own way and its unfortunate to imply that one way is better or more authentic than another.  Just enjoy birds, you know?  With or without structure or implications about what “kind” of birder you are.

Say it with me.  I’m a lister.  And I’m ok with that.

Now go look at some birds, yeah?

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11 Comments
  1. March 19, 2010 9:13 am

    I don’t know why but keeping “sub-lists” of my life list – like year lists etc. – simply never occured to me as the German birding scene is more, you know, conservative. Even today, I doubt that birders would venture beyond “life” and “Germany” lists and as far as I know, there has only been one half-serious attempt at a Big Year.
    If I had more time to go birding, I would possibly start year listing not for the gamesmanship but because it is a valuable tool of seeing as many bird species as possible and therefore keep your ID skillz in good shape.
    I fully agree with you that passion for the birds (and not just the list) and keeping lists can and mostly do go together.

  2. March 19, 2010 9:17 am

    Addendum
    Just to give you an example of my reason for year listing: just by the pure coincidence of a comments exchange with Carrie, I realized that I have not actually SEEN a Tawny Owl (the most common owl in Germany by far) in what is likely nearly a freaking decade! I had seen them quite a few times and also nicely before, they can often be heard (and so I did in all those years) and therefore they were simply off my radar. Now that I’ve noticed, I’ll make sure I get to see one again as soon as possible.

  3. Nate permalink*
    March 19, 2010 9:20 am

    @Jochen- I keep a year list pretty much for myself, because I like to look back and remember particularly good years or experiences and it helps me do that. For instance, because of Guatemala this is going to be a pretty good year and even though I’m not actively working on it, I’d like to see where I end up and praise great sightings and wallow in those I miss.

    I do have to say, however, without eBird it would be much harder.

  4. March 19, 2010 1:33 pm

    Thank goodness for eBird!

    And, yeah, we’re all birders. Or are we birdwatchers? Or should I not start that debate? 🙂

  5. March 19, 2010 3:17 pm

    I don’t really keep lists, except for my sightings logs from bird walks or daily lists from around my home. EBird does all the list keeping for me – life lists, year lists, etc. Lists are a good way to know what birds I’ve seen and which ones I haven’t, and the possibility of seeing a new one (for any of my various lists) is a little extra motivation to go out and study birds.

  6. March 19, 2010 7:38 pm

    I like your points Nate – listing does help push me to look more often in different places. I can also kick back and enjoy long watches of the birds in my backyard. That’s the great thing about birding…its a hobby that welcomes everyone! I also appreciated your point that there is no morally superior way to be a birder.

  7. March 20, 2010 4:16 pm

    I couldn’t agree more, Nate. The question is not “to list or not to list” but whether we can respect other bird watchers and nature lovers who enjoy and appreciate nature differently than we do.

    As a group, we’re passionate about nature, and sometime carried away by our passion to the point we stop listening to other voices. A reminder to tune in, not out, is both timely and appreciated.

  8. April 1, 2010 10:44 pm

    Interesting discussion. As a new, uh, let’s just say,” person who watches birds” (I have no clue what distinguishes a birder from a birdwatcher, so I’m not going to go there), the discussion is beyond my ken. But I just wanted to say that most of the bird watchers and birders that I’ve met – whether they are listers, non-listers, anti-listers or quasi-listers – are passionate about birds, and open and welcoming to newcomers.

  9. Nate permalink*
    April 2, 2010 9:33 am

    @Corey- Yeah, we’re birdists or something. I guess I don’t have a problem with making the distinction as much as the implication that one is a pejorative when you do it. It’s like if people label themselves one, it’s because they have a problem with the other.

    @John- I think you nailed it. I enjoy seeing new birds, and if I can’t remember what’s new or not, it may make seeing an otherwise non-flashy bird as cool as it could be.

    @Idaho-birder – I couldn’t agree more. I enjoy taking the time to bird with experts and newbies, alone and in a group depending on what I’m in the mood for. There are so many ways to enjoy birds, why limit ourselves to just one.

    @Wren- Well said!

    @Melissa – I agree. There’s a time and place for everything and everyone, regardless of how we enjoy the birds themselves.

  10. April 3, 2010 11:45 am

    Great post Nate. As you say “appreciation of birds comes in all forms” and none is better or worse than another.

    The important thing is that we are all nature lovers and concerned with our environment and maintaining the planet’s biodiversity so that future generations can make a choice whether they want to list the species they see or not. Obviously, the important thing is that future generations have as many species to observe as we do.

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