Life Listing

Moustached Antpitta

Moustached Antpitta

Depending on your taxonomic viewpoint, there are 10,404 (Clements) or 10,534 (IOC) living bird species recognized. No one human has seen them all. Many have tried.

Most birders have life lists. A simple list of birds you’ve seen. But the really intense life listers try to see every bird on the planet.

Hard core life listing – seeing as many bird species as you can over the course of your life – is an incredibly demanding, incredibly expensive obsession. As you get past the easy ones, and as you get past the hard ones, you get to the near-impossible ones. Species like Wallace’s Fruit Dove, Ptilinopus wallacii, found only on the remote Indonesian island of Yamdena, that gave Tom Gullick his 9,000th bird.

Who has seen the longest life list? Well, that’s complicated. It’s incredibly competitive. And it changes all the time. It’s mostly an honor system. But according to the semi-official tracking site,, the current world champ is Britain’s Jon Hornbuckle, who claims to have seen 9,140 species. Second place is another Brit, Philip Rostron, with 9,101 species. Third place is yet another Brit – are you seeing a pattern here? – Tom Gullick, who since 2011 has slipped from 1st to 3rd place with a “mere” 9,096 species.

The late American Phoebe Snetsinger, who died while birding in Madagascar in November 1999, was at one point the world leader with 8,400 species, but that’s only good for 13th place today.

In a sport that can’t even agree on how many species there are to see, there’s a certain amount of … controversy … over some of the counts. A few birders are worked up enough about it that they have removed their list from Surfbirds, or failed to bring it up to date. WC has birded with a few of these hardest of the hard core birders. They are intense, and arrive at a birding spot with a short list of target species. Other bird species are a kind of white noise. Scenery doesn’t register. If they get the bird, they are done and ready to leave.

An example: A few years ago, WC was given a trip into the Brooks Range, targeting the Gray-headed Chickadee. It’s probably the single most difficult North American bird to see. It nests in cavities in trees; those cavities are usually made by Northern Flickers. We searched a series of small groves of dwarf aspens along the Marsh Fork, peering at every cavity. For three days. Finally, in what was really the last possible spot, we found the bird, feeding chicks at an active nest cavity. The hardest core birder in our small group, looking at the pretty little bird in the middle of the beautiful Canning River Valley, on a beautiful sumer afternoon, said: “802. I wonder if we can fly out this afternoon?”

“802” meaning the Gray-headed Chickadee gave him 802 species on his North American life list.

That’s an obsession, WC thinks you will agree. And more than a little obnoxious. The wonder, beauty and marvel of a tough-as-nails little songbird reduced to a tick mark on a list.

WC doesn’t get along so well with the hard core life listers. WC is a birder. WC keeps a list of birds he has seen. But the list isn’t WC’s goal. There’s a difference.


Philip Rostron British 9101
jon hornbuckle British 9140 Clements seen

World’s greatest birdwatcher sets a new record – then hangs up his binoculars – Nature – Environment – The Independent.–then-hangs-up-his-binoculars-8210960.html

new record big day 354 species from Peru


One thought on “Life Listing

  1. Yes, there is a clear difference. I love birds, but I know few of their names. I’m clearly excited when short-eared owls decide to nest in our trees every once in awhile and play on my lawn. I appreciate the sense of humor of the much-despised intelligent ravens in our area. I especially laugh at their dumpster diving parties behind Pizza Hut. I never tire of seeing the doves (stupidest bird on earth) nesting all over my property. I always look forward to the fat little quail who reside at my house during hunting season. It doesn’t matter to me if the birds are rare or common; I just envy their ability to fly.

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