The Bird Photo Count: The Totals Are In

Male Cassia Crossbill, South Hills, Idaho

Male Cassia Crossbill, South Hills, Idaho

WC has been counting the number of bird species he has photographed. It’s been a much more difficult and complex task than anyone thought when Ron Dudley innocently asked the question, or when WC undertook an answer that was more than a guess. The process is – mostly – completed. But before the Big Reveal, if any readers still care, some qualifications.

The number of bird species in the world is a hotly debted topic. There are at least three authorized lists. WC settled on the IOC List (published, confusingly enough, by the IOU). WC’s totals would likely be different if he used a different list, which might have different splits, lumps and new species.1

Early in his bird photography career, WC wasn’t diligent about labeling photos. With the passage of time and shabby photo quality, it’s now impossible to identify the species with any certainty. In other words, WC knows it is a different species, but not which species. So it wasn’t counted.

A few species are still a work in progress. The poor Fox Sparrow has been split by the IOC into four (!) different species. WC has a ton of Fox Sparrow photos from a variety of locations but, unhappily, not all of them are labelled as to where they were seen. That makes keying out the Fox Sparrows nearly impossible. WC is pretty sure of two. The others will require some more follow up.

Photographs WC knows he has seem to have been lost or misplaced. For example, photos WC knows he took of Blue Grouse at Seven Devils have gone missing. Blue Grouse have since been split, and are now Dusky and Sooty Grouse. That split changed those Blue Grouse into Sooty Grouse. But since WC has not yet found the photos, they weren’t counted. There are probably others in this category.

There are photos that are certainly mis-labelled, but the photo quality doesn’t permit a correct identification. A few of the bird guides WC has used sometimes got the ID wrong, especially the guide on the first trip to Costa Rica. The labels on the photos are patently incorrect. So those species weren’t counted, either.

A few notes on methodology. WC imported the IOC World Species List into a FileMaker Pro database.2 WC then worked his way through his Aperture photo libraries, a total of about 170,000 photos. Where WC found a photo of a species, a copy of the photo was inserted into the appropriate field of the database. A happy outcome of this exercise is that WC now has a database of bird species photographed.

Alright then, with those qualifications, quibbles and cautions, based upon the January 2018 IOC World Species List, it looks like WC has photographed at least 1,163 species of birds. That may sound like a lot, but keep the number in perspective. It’s only slightly more than half of the total bird species WC has seen. There are 10,872 species on the IOC World Species List. Call WC’s photo collection 10.5% of the world’s species. Pretty pitiful. The current world record, if you are curious, is held by Ron Hoff, at 4,711.


  1. “Splits” happen when ornithologists conclude one species is actually two or more. Example: the IOC and others recently concluded the Red Crossbills in the South Hills of Idaho are a different species, so they split them off as the Cassia Crossbill. “Lumps” occur when ornithologists conclude what they thought were two different species are actually one. Example: a while back the Myrtle Warbler and the Audubon’s Warbler were lumped into a single species, the Yellow-rumped Warbler. 
  2. Note to users of FileMaker Pro. A thousand photos slows the product to a crawl. That might be because WC’s version of FMP is ancient, but the upgrade price is outrageous. WC is exploring options: an advantage of FMP is that it’s easy to get data in and out of the product. 

3 thoughts on “The Bird Photo Count: The Totals Are In

  1. I am so impressed with how quickly and efficiently you have done this . I can’t even manage to organize a couple of thousand travel slides. l

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