Keeping lists.  We all do this at one time or another: grocery lists, errands to run, lists of friends to invite to a party, lists of names for a new baby…. But there are a group of people who, more than any other likes to keep lists.  You guessed it, bird watchers.  In fact, among other birdwatchers, they are referred to as “listers”.  I can’t tell you when this habit actually began, but in recent times it has become a huge component of the pleasure and practice of watching birds.

bald eagle 23

Our beautiful National bird – the Bald Eagle


American Kestrel in a typical hunting location

I have been keeping an annual checklist for nearly 30 years. I’m not fanatical about it, however. Since I don’t carry the little booklet with me at all times, I figure I’ll mark down the bird I’ve seen later when I have time, but generally I forget, so end of year total does not necessarily match what I actually saw during the year.

Bird watching is a mild mannered, genteel sort of avocation, but don’t for a minute think competition doesn’t exist.  While many people keep lists just for their own pleasure and knowledge, you can be sure there are others who are only too happy to tell you that they saw 300, or 500, or even 1000 species in a year.  North America, north of Mexico, is said to have approximately 850 species.  The world has somewhere around 9000 species!  So you will not be impressed when I tell you that my best year was in 2002, when I counted (and recorded) 208 species.

flying redtail hawk

Soaring Red-tailed Hawk

I started keeping track of the birds I saw in 1981, when I took an ornithology class at the University of Minnesota and got a Golden Guide to the Birds of North America.  In the index there were handy little squares where I could check off a species when I saw it and jot in the date and state where the bird was seen. In 1986, I got my first little Travelers List and Checklist for the Birds of North America.  These little booklets are good for 10 years of records and are generally held together with tape by the 10th year.  I am now nearing the end of my third booklet and I save all of them, as well as miscellaneous checklists I’ve made on trips to Iceland, Venezuela, Trinidad, and Belize.  I have no idea who might be interested in this information after I’m gone, but that won’t stop me from continuing to record my observations.

Now it’s that time of excitement and anticipation as we look at a new year and a new column just waiting for checkmarks.  We should (and do) appreciate any birds we see after January one, as the amazing creatures they are, but it is something like the beginning of a treasure hunt, or even a race, to get those first sightings.

Cardinal in snow

Male Cardinal

Besides our personal checklists, we have also kept one for our home and with this list we remember our best year as 2002 when we saw 87 species.  2015 was one of our lowest with only 58 species.  A lot of this has to do with luck – being at home, in our woods, or at the window when a new species shows up and this year we were gone a lot, at critical times.  This information has been gathered over 29 years and someday a future resident of this property may be able to compare what species we saw with what they see.


Rough-legged Hawk

If you travel, you can make a list of birds you see in each new state.  There are even lists specific to National Parks and Forests.  But, it’s easy to start small, by just looking out your windows.  You don’t have to know all the names of all the different birds.  If you recognize that they are different from one another, you are on your way to making a list, and it will probably lead you to learn even more about the birds that share your yard.

The photos shown here are the first five bird species we saw this year. (We were driving north from Iowa).  What did you see?

By Kate Crowley