Tuesday, July 16, 2002

Of What Value is Bird Listing?

Birders (or birdwatchers, if you prefer–some have gone to great pains to draw distinctions between the two groups, but I tend to lump them) are obsessed with keeping lists of the birds they have seen and identified. This affliction is known as listing. One of the major driving forces behind the establishment of the American Birding Association in the early 1970s was the desire of the organizers to compile annual lists of the number of species tallied by members, an activity that continues. There are life lists (a list of species seen at some point in your life), year lists (seen during a given calendar year), monthly lists, weekly lists, and daily lists. Each of the above categories can be further divided into world lists, continent lists, country lists, State lists, county lists, city and town lists, garden lists, yard lists, and so forth. The variations are endless. There are lists of birds seen from the office window, birds seen while driving to work, birds seen at the feeder, birds seen copulating, birds photographed, birds banded, and on and on.

Everybody seems to be doing it, but what is the end result of all this listing? Most of the lists end up in desk drawers, filing cabinets, notebooks, bookcases, closets, boxes in the attic, etc. A few of the more sophisticated and dedicated listers have adopted electronic formats for keeping their lists, either adopting databases or spreadsheets, or buying one of the several dedicated software packages available on the market. The latter allow individuals to retrieve historical data, and to order and sort their lists by species, locality, or date. But still, in the end, the information is largely of value and interest only to the individual who has gathered it–not being much different from a stamp collection in that regard. Individual bird lists seem to serve no useful purpose for bird conservation. In fact, one could argue (and many have) that the time and resources (think gas and oil) spent tracking down rarities–for the sole purpose of ticking them off on your life, year, or State bird list–is counterproductive to bird conservation. I suspect, but don't have the facts to prove it, that a very small percentage of the bird sightings made by listers find their way into publicly accessible data sets (databases and publications) where they could contribute to our knowledge of bird distribution and abundance, which are the building blocks of effective bird conservation.


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