Thursday, March 25, 2010

In defense of listing


I have noticed in several books on birding that there are derogatory comments made towards those members of the birding community known as "listers." A lister, in case you are wondering, is someone who not only enjoys going out and seeing birds, but feels the need to list them, perhaps somewhat fanatically. Many birders keep some sort of list, notably the "life list," which is a tally of all the species they have seen, or a "yard list," of all the species they have noticed in their yards.

But listers go one, or several, steps further. Either the number of lists grows into the dozens, or the desire to add a species to a list spurs one to a birding frenzy, or both. This is often considered to be a bad thing, as if listers were a deranged sub-category of birders, so obsessed with their lists that they are unable to stop and smell the roses--or rather, admire the birds--before them. A lister is, perhaps, a sort of collector, and even if they are not stockpiling the dead bodies of birds they have seen as they did in Audubon's time, as anyone who has read the novel by John Fowles of that title knows, being "a collector" is not a good thing. Or perhaps it is the snobbery of the process-over-product debate, the idea that life is a journey and not a destination. To the most hardcore of listers, the bird they have seen is irrelevant; it's the check before its name on their checklist that counts.

So it is in the sense of the confessional that I must admit, My name is Esmerelda, and I am a lister.... It's true. I have a whole binder devoted to my lists (not to mention that wonderful database by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology people, ebird, which allows one to help science and compare their ranking to all the other birders in the database simultaneously!) I have: my Life List, State Lists, County Lists, Year Lists (Year State and Year County), Park Lists. I once made my mom drive all over Livingston County until we saw rock pigeons (yes, pigeons) because I needed to add them to my Livingston County list. That was last year, so we'll probably end up on a wild pigeon chase again this year when I bird there. It's like a free-form scavenger hunt with unpredictable prizes.

Is all of this listing a sign of insanity or a coping mechanism to keep me sane? I'm probably not capable of judging that. All I can say for certain is: I was a lister before I was a birder, and listing birds does NOT mean I don't love to see them (even if they're already on every list I have).

Before I took up birding, I used to keep lists of books, a habit that I started in junior high. It was simple enough at first, just a tally of books I'd read and their authors, and a number of stars to show how much I'd enjoyed them on a scale of one to five. But then over the years I started more lists -- books I wanted to read, books by category, before I knew it I had over a dozen book lists going. So I guess it's not surprise that almost immediately after discovering the joys of birding, I added the joys of listing.

Besides being a personality quirk, listing has several good points. Most importantly, it keeps birding fresh and interesting. I love to see even the most common of birds, but sometimes it does get a little boring seeing the same old "usual suspects" day after day. Once spring or fall migration is over, I can usually predict the majority of birds I will see on any given trip: goldfinch, towhee, indigo bunting. Sometimes these birds will be doing something unusual or looking especially spiffy, but I hope it doesn't make me a bad person to admit that...all too often seeing a robin is not that exciting. So, I mix it up. I can't guarantee that I'll see a new species--but I can see that same old boring robin in a new place. Or I can see my first robin of the year, or the month.... And so I look forward to going out and seeing more robins, and goldfinches, and buntings, and in the process I stumble upon birds I hadn't even thought of seeing (such as the black-crowned night heron pictured above, caught snoozing over the I&M Canal last September).

On a philosophical level, one could argue that all these lists are a way of structuring experience, shaping chaos into order. But that would entail a lot of thinking and a hefty dose of BS, so I'll concentrate instead of finding pigeons in every county I go to....

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