Our Birds: Tick listing!

  - Submitted photo
— image credit: Submitted photo

Life list. County list. Yard list. Local patch list. First of year list. On a wire list. Poop list. Heard at night list. State list. Birding at 65 mph list. eBird list. Listing is like the drum-banging Energizer Bunny – it’s a never-ending story.

But that’s what birders do. They create lists; they fill in lists; they’re list-oriented. They tick birds seen and heard to these lists. But the world of birding lists and ticking is a world filled with not only pleasure-treasures, but also with hunger, woe, indecision, guilt and fanaticalness!

Let me back up with a bit of tick listing history with two well-known birders: Henry David Thoreau and John James Audubon. And then we’ll take a look back even further, and then slowly come into the present – and future – world of tick listing.

Looking back ...

On March 23, 1840, Thoreau shot a slate-colored junco. With the junco in hand, he explained to Edmund Sewall, that, he was able to examine it more closely. A fact and facet of birding in that era. Later that month though, he sold his gun, writing in his journal that he could learn more from watching living birds then dead ones. And then he did at Walden Pond where he kept, what we would now call a yard list. How many? 145 species. A decent list considering it wasn’t until 1853 that he owned any optics. And as to books on birds? Those which Thoreau had available only described dead ones. He tallied his birds by watching and listening.

And Audubon? Thoreau wrote about birds. Audubon drew them. He created his own bird guide, albeit, quite an impressive one. Even though he owned a scope, Audubon shot birds, too. What was Audubon’s North American life list like? The final portfolio depicts 497 species. But it’s difficult to quantitatively state what his life list was as a debate still rambles from 600-700 species.

And then some ...

Let’s go back even a little further in the history of listing to Montebourg Abbey (c. 1140) and the Benedictine monk Xavier who kept intricate records of birds found within and about the abbey; each species delicately drawn, colored and ensconced on sheepskin parchment. History shares that he was a quiet, unassuming monk with a bent toward the apothecary.

Literally, his life list – a local patch list – tallied 128 species. No gun. No optics. Just a quiet assuming of the differences in bird species before speciation was even truly appreciated.

Listing is an art form; an obsession; a way of life. Listing also can be deadly. In 1701, Francis Emerson, a surgeon and naturalist in the British Royal Navy, shot and mortally wounded Second Lt. Baker, a budding, albeit egocentric, naturalist and “watcher of birds” was Lt. Christian Baker.

The story goes like this:

Ashore on an island in the Indonesian archipelago collecting things when he saw, took intricate notes on and claimed a greater bird-of-paradise; but didn’t collect the bird as his “… powder was wet!”

Returning to the ship with his bounty of things collected, he told Emerson of this bird; showing him his notes and drawings. Beyond excited, Emerson went ashore the next day and spent weeks trying to relocate the bird without success. Returning to his ship disheveled, exhausted and irate, he confronted the young lieutenant positing that he fabricated the sighting. Pushed verbally to the limits of rank hierarchy, Baker admitted the truth.

Emerson was so enraged he pulled a flintlock pistol from his belt and shot Baker. Seems this may have been the first cases of list stringing with dire consequences.

The biggie

Let’s hone in on probably the most evocative facet of listing: the Life List. There are 10,534 extant bird species on this third rock from the sun; so says the International Ornithological Union. Few birders have Life Listed more than 7,000. And to do this it costs. Money. Time. Careers. Relationships. And more.

Phoebe Snetsinger went birding until she was killed in a road accident in Madagascar (8,398 species). David Hunt was killed by a tiger while chasing birds in Corbett National Park in India. Ted Parker, who could ID over 5,000 birds by ear, was killed in an air crash in Ecuador. Richard Koepell eventually gave up birds for butterflies because of health issues. Today, Tom Gullick has the lead for world species (9,070); and this includes “birds heard only!”

And here lies a conundrum that many birders spend a birding lifetime agonizing over. The phrase, “ … heard only!” just gives the willies to too many birders. And here’s where I drag out the soapbox. I’ve been labeled, called, branded a non-purist because I tally ‘birds heard only’ to lists. As do many other birders I know. A purist’s parsing goes like this: “ … you gotta see it — for it to count!” A retort? How about, “So, the Michigan Bird Brains’ – a team of young blind birders who participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count this year — tallies don’t count cuz they didn’t see them?”

Birders enter this game of listing today differently than the birding world of only a decade ago. Or in my case, six decades ago. Petersen’s two guides were the bibles: eastern and western birds. And then along came Robbins, Bruun, Zim and Singer in 1966 with a different approach. You didn’t have to tear out the 60 plates from the middle of a Peterson’s guide to carry around, because the entire book was a picture book! And when Leitz and Zeiss came out with their 10x40s (ohhhh woe the cost: 1968 Leitz Trinovids imported from Hong Kong for $115!) birding changed.

Literally, a weight was lifted from your shoulders. Birdwatching became birding.

And listing took on a mantra! And then in the late 1980s, bird listing truly changed with the advent of the web. And now? Where is tick listing? It’s become a world of MP3s, birding apps, digiscoping, voice and face recognition software, and more. You now can go birding with all the toys you can afford and upon finding a bird the toys will tell you what you’ve seen and heard. And with your iPhone you can open your eBird account and list, tally and note what you’ve seen right there in real time on the net.

And later you can retrieve all of this information at any time — all packaged up nice and neat. You never have to carry pencil, a little spiral-bound notebook or even really know a bird’s ID in order to tick list anymore.

There’s one more list I want to mention before I close this tale. A birder friend recently had an encounter with an old tomato trellis and the trellis won. In recovery rehab he spent a good number days staring out a window; of course being a good birder he had his Swarovskis with him and he tick listed: sharpy, house sparrow, starling and 17 other species.

However the birds saved the best tick for last for him: On leaving day, being wheel-chaired out of the front doors, he looked up and there above him were two V-winged mongers of the sky: turkey vultures. Twenty-one species on his rehab list!

Makes you wonder what your next tick list might be, eh?


Reach Denny AFMJ Van Horn at


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