A funny thing happened a few weeks ago. On a hot late-summer day, I added a bird to my life list without ever going birding.
I owe this to a couple of sharp-eyed readers, including one in Florida. They noticed that in my August column I'd mentioned seeing and hearing a winter wren during a trip to the Olympic Peninsula. In fact, they said, what I'd found was a Pacific wren.
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How did they know? Well, it turns out I had forgotten about a taxonomic reclassification that occurred in 2010, courtesy of the American Ornithologists' Union. The winter wren, which we see occasionally in DuPage, was "split" into two separate species. In the western United States, what used to be a winter wren is now officially a Pacific wren.
Birders who keep lists love AOU splits. When they occur, our lists get longer. Mine did: Pacific wren, No. 498.
I'll admit this can all be a little bit goofy. Many birders get obsessed with "the chase," sometimes deriving greater satisfaction from growing their lists than from watching birds. We saw this quite vividly in "The Big Year," a great book converted to the big screen. Some of my non-birding friends have finally seen the movie due to its recent run on HBO. They ask me, Are birders really like that?
Some are, yes, but none that I know. Most birders keep lists, but they are not overly competitive about it. They appreciate bird listing for what it is: a game that, for some, adds a challenging and enjoyable dimension to the hobby. It's a way to keep score and, in my opinion, encourages good observation skills.
Listing is highly personal and some birders are shy about discussing their numbers. I've heard you should never ask somebody how many birds are on their life list. Really? Would that be like asking them how much money they make?
OK, that's fine. I will not ask. But if you and I cross paths in the field, feel free to inquire about my pursuit of life bird No. 500. I'll talk about life lists and lifers all day long, and then we can talk about my yard list, too!
For me, listing is just fun. I make no apologies.
Stuart Keith, one of the original world-class listers, didn't apologize either.
"Bird listing is a sport, and as such, it needs no defense, any more than baseball or bowling," Keith wrote in a 1963 article for Audubon. "Nobody feels guilty about spending a day at the World Series, nor is an evening of bowling considered to be wasted. Why, then, should people worry that their day's listing hasn't contributed anything to ornithological knowledge?"
Things are different now thanks to the Internet. The detailed lists that birders compile and submit electronically through eBird.org are actually of great value to ornithologists. The data help identify bird distribution and population trends that inform bird conservation efforts.
It's nice to see dedicated bird listers finally getting some credit. I believe they've always cared just as much about conservation as non-listers, but now, more than ever, their efforts are making a real scientific contribution.
Avid listers, however, are still routinely suspected of somehow not appreciating birds as much as those who simply watch birds and never keep a checklist. One group cares about numbers, the other about beauty. One group ticks, the other one observes.
It is not that simple, of course. Birding attracts all kinds of people for many different reasons. For some it is indeed a sport. For most of us, it's a hobby or pastime. Maybe for you it's just a few looks out the kitchen window every morning to check the feeder. We all approach birding a little differently.
Birders of every persuasion can be mesmerized by beautiful birds and fascinated by avian behavior. Even common species can provide a thrill, as I often witness during bird walks at Cantigny Park in Wheaton. Last May it was a tree swallow that captured and held the group's attention. The sun hit that bird perfectly, revealing a stunning iridescence.
In August, our group spotted a male indigo bunting feeding in the rose garden. For five minutes we all feasted on close, eye-level views of this striking, electric-blue bird.
As we admired these birds, there were no listers or non-listers among us. There were no experts, beginners or anything in between. We were all just birders, enjoying the moment.
The next time I catch myself worrying a bit too much about The List or "getting the bird," I'll think about that swallow and bunting. If birds like that ever fail to grab my attention, I'll know it's time to give up the hobby. Lifers are great, but the birds all around us are pretty special, too.
• Jeff Reiter's column appears monthly in the Daily Herald. You can reach him via his blog, Words on Birds.