Thursday, August 4, 2011

Bad Scene, Everyone's Fault: Listers vs. Nonlisters

"This is a nonlister's worst nightmare." - Anonymous longtime lister and gull aficionado. First-winter Herring Gull, San Francisco, CA.

Birders. There are all kinds of skill levels and personalities out there....from the feeder watcher to the power birder, from the seemingly homeless recluse to the life of the birding party...a Felonious Jive figure, if you will. Birders are usually pretty open-minded about other birders (we're just a bunch of weirdos anyway), and do not attempt to label others beyond extremely skilled or unreliable. But there is one concrete category that gets bandied about, often to the detriment of us all.

Birders are often separated into two camps; listers and nonlisters. Today's blog attempts to identify what this entails, and the problems associated with such stereotypes.

On the surface, the definitions are simple. Listers keep lists of the birds they see. This can be just limited to a life list, or can go on to almost microscopic levels of specificty...ABA Area lists, country lists, state lists, county lists, year lists, yard lists, location lists, etc. Several birders I know record species they see while taking a dump.

Nonlisters are even easier to define....they do not do this.

But what is not immediately clear with these simple explanations is the stigma associated with belonging to either camp...particularly the persecution of listers by nonlisters.

In the mind of the ignorant and vengeful nonlister, listers are a crime against nature. The nonlister will always look down their nose at the lister...a bougouise-proletariat metaphor would not be inappropriate here. They see the lister as a birder who does not appreciate nature, does not appreciate the, they see the lister as an addict, a junkie. The lister's fix is the new bird on the list...once properly identified, it is thought that the lister dismisses their quarry and moves on to the next bird.

"After seeing a couple of these, a lister would consider them a hideous blight upon the earth." - Anonymous jaded nonlister. Yellow-headed Blackbird, Camas National Wildlife Refuge, ID.

To add new birds to the list, of course, one must do a lot of birding. This often is comes down to nothing but "chasing" rare birds...birds unusual to the area that other birders have already located. Thus, in the nonlister's eye, listers are reduced to nothing but driving hours at a time to find another bird that someone else found.

So, to sum it up: listers don't give a shit about enjoying wildlife, finding birds themselves, and will burn insane amounts of fuel to see birds they can't find on their own.

Listers, on the other hand, do not take nonlisters seriously. To the lister, it is inconceivable that any serious observer of birds would not want to keep track of what they see. Don't even keep a life list? You're crazy!!!!!! And it follows that if a birder is not very serious, they must therefore be not very skilled at their craft....thus they are cast aside as worthless casual observers, more prone to misidentify a common bird for a rare bird then make any contribution to the birding community (whose currency is usually rare birds). They probably don't even care about birds that are hard to identify...let the Sprague's Pipit go extinct! The less "LBJs" the better.

"If nonlisters were in charge of bird conservation, every little brown bird would be left for dead." - Anonymous bitter lister. Juvenile Pacific Wren, Buldir Island, AK.

As with practically all stereotypes, there is some truth to all of this. I have met a number of people who seem to fit in well with all of the above personalities. The complete die-hard lister strikes one as being essentially worthless, and the staunch nonlister can be terrified at the thought of identifying shorebirds or gulls, which is just no fun for anybody. But overall, the bulk of the judgement and misunderstanding being cast here is undeniably coming from the nonlisters. I'm sorry, it's true, and we don't appreciate it, assholes. I've never seen a birder meet another birder and ask if they were a "nonlister", whereas the other way around is a frequent occurrence. You can just hear the scorn in their voice when they ask...more often than not the question comes from a young field biologist who learned birds existed in their first ornithology class. The vast majority of listers are welcoming, encouraging and understanding of those who do not relish in making checkmarks and obsessively filling out Ebird reports.

As for me? The only list I am currently updating is my Año Tranquilo list (472...last new bird was Ruddy Turnstone). I do keep mental track of my life list, of course, but I couldn't tell you what that was without some research. That said, I do consider myself a bird addict....not for the lists, but who doesn't want to see a whole bunch of birds? Why would you not be secretly plotting birding trips to Cape May or Big Bend or Saint Paul Island at any given moment? There's so much to see....and birds are sick.

Can't we all just get along?

And that is my nerd rant for the day. Go see new birds, it is good for you...but for God's sake don't ignore the familiar feathers.


  1. I’m a nonlister and, if anything, I’m jealous of listers for having the discipline to keep the list(s).

  2. Weird, I guess because I rarely talk to other birders I don't really know much about the tension between listers and nonlisters.

    On a side note, I went to a party last night..

  3. Preach it, Jive... er... Steve

    Listing forever! Otherwise you'll forget everything, anyway.

  4. @Ashley - It looks like discipline, but its actually just pure, unbridled nerdiness.

    @Jen - There is almost no tension, but as you know dramatizing everything is fun. I think parties are illegal in North Dakota.

    @Nate - Yeah, I forgot to mention it does serve a practical purpose. LISTERSFTW!!!!!

  5. You forgot the third type, which is the vicarious birder who looks mostly at bird blogs and occasionally gets a thrilling sight of an oriole in real life. What's that 'hideous blight' bird in the first picture? It's a beaut.

  6. Oops, just fixed that. It's a Yellow-headed Blackbird!

  7. I totally disagree. I've been searching the web for any posting by a nonlister who trashes listing and havn't found any. I guess nonlisters aren't the type to maintain a "list" (i.e. blog or forum) where they trash other birders. But I've found any number of listers who do.

    1. Its not at all rare to see the irate nonlisting faction in action in Facebook birding groups and to hear in person (gasp)...and nonlisters whinging about listers on local listservs is a very regular occurrence. I'm not making this up, I assure you.