Grocery lists, to-do lists, bucket lists. Making lists is a common human behavior. Birders engage in this practice, keeping lists of birds seen on trips or birds seen at their feeders. But the most common list is the life list, a compendium of all the species of birds seen in one’s lifetime.

Some birders keep a life list but don’t even bother to count how many species are on their list. Others keep close track but keep the total to themselves. Yet others are interested in publishing their list and comparing it to others.

Let’s step back in time to 1970. Jim Tucker of Texas had envisioned a birding publication that would focus on publishing top species lists for different areas, identification tips for hard-to-identify birds and descriptions of sites where rare species might be seen. The first issue of his brainchild, “Birding,” was published in February 1970, and soon thereafter the American Birding Association (ABA) was created with “Birding” as its flagship journal. The early members thought “Birding” should not contain articles on ornithological research or on conservation efforts but rather should fill a perceived void for competitive birders and birding hobbyists. Thus a formal mechanism for competitive listing began. Birders submitted their list totals and could see how they stacked up against other birders. Game on.

The ABA has thousands of members now. The mission has expanded considerably to cover avian conservation, book reviews and ornithological history. But maintaining members’ list totals is still a mainstay of the organization.

You can check out list totals at the Listing Central page on the ABA website ( For Maine, the top lifetime lister is Doug Hitchcox with 374 species seen. The top year list for Maine (the total birds seen in a calendar year) is also Hitchcox for his 2011 effort. Frank Paul has the largest life list for Cumberland County.

Keep in mind that not all birders submit lists to ABA Listing Central. The popular eBird site ( has the capacity to generate lists at different geographic levels and for different time intervals. I see that Pat Moynahan has a Maine life list of 380 species. I know there is at least one other birder in Maine whose lists do not appear in the ABA or the eBird database, who has seen even more species in Maine. Some top listers simply choose to not play the game.


I’ve been thinking about listing lately because of the success of several birders who are doing a Big Year in North America, setting out to traverse the continent while trying to surpass the total of 749 species seen in 2013 by Neil Hayward.

Completing a successful Big Year requires finding all of the 671 species that occur regularly and widely in North America. One must target another 82 species that occur in North America each year but are rare. Finally, one has to make trips to places like the Aleutian Islands, southern Texas and southeastern Arizona to find vagrants. The time and money to be able to jump on a plane at a moment’s notice to see a rare bird is essential.

It turns out that 2016 has been a phenomenal year for rarities. Four birders have broken the 700 species mark – the first time that has ever happened in a calendar year. Furthermore, the record of 749 species was shattered early, in July. John Wiegel, an Australian, saw a buller’s shearwater on July 16 for his 750th species. Olaf Danielson, a doctor from South Dakota, racked up his 750th with a red-faced cormorant in Alaska. Currently, Wiegel is in the lead with 770 species to Danielson’s 765. Wow.

Laura Keene has found 737 species to date, besting the prior women’s record. In addition, Christian Hagenlocher has tallied 734 species.

Herb Wilson teaches ornithology and other biology courses at Colby College. He welcomes reader comments and questions at

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