Birding the world: What drives big listers

Wallace's Fruit-Dove
Wallace’s Fruit-Dove is found on a few islands in Indonesia. In 2012, it was the 9,000th life bird for Tom Gullick, the first birder to reach the milestone. Photo by Dubi Shapiro

The original big listers

Big Listing as a hobby began courtesy of the same people who popularized the Big Year. In a footnote of the 1955 book he co-authored, Wild America, Roger Tory Peterson disclosed that he had spotted 572 bird species while touring North America two years earlier. In 1956, Stuart Keith, a co-founder of the American Birding Association, identified 594 species, a record that would stand until 1971. Meanwhile, not satisfied with seeing only North American birds, Peterson and Keith (and some others) broadcast their desire to see half the world’s birds, which at the time was thought to be 4,300 species. Keith was the first to reach that goal in 1973, declaring in an article that “getting to ‘half’ was the most exciting moment of my birding career.”

Peterson would also reach “half,” though not until the mid-1980s. By that time, Snetsinger had jumped onto the scene. Diagnosed with terminal melanoma in 1981, she began birding the globe with a single-minded obsessiveness. Her cancer mostly stayed in remission, and she managed to rack up a life list of 8,400 prior to her untimely death in 1999. Known for her dogged preparedness, which included writing extensive notes on subspecies, she was the first Big Lister to crack the 8,000-species mark and held the top spot in the Big Lister rankings for years. (Even now, she ranks 30th in the world.) Tom Gullick, who in 2012 became the first birder to see 9,000 species, was one of those who eventually surpassed her.

Notable also is that Snetsinger reached the top of the Big Listing community as a woman. In 2018, nearly 20 years after her death, she remains the top-ranked female Big Lister, and only three other women are among the top 50, according to Surfbirds.

Since Keith and Peterson’s time, Big Listing has become a lot easier. Better binoculars, field guides, and digital cameras make identification less challenging. Air travel is more affordable and comprehensive. Bird-rich countries that were previously extremely dangerous, like Cambodia and Colombia, are now safe. International birding tour companies have proliferated, and knowledgeable local guides are found virtually everywhere.

Brown-cheeked Rail
The world’s top lister, the late Jon Hornbuckle, added Brown-cheeked Rail to his life list during his final birding trip — in Mongolia in 2017. Photo by Atiwich Kaewchum/Shutterstock

In addition, the Internet provides a wealth of information, from rare-bird alerts to trip reports and song recordings. Social media and cell phones allow birders to chase down rarities in real time. And, not insignificantly, the world bird list has increased over the past few decades from about 8,600 to over 10,500 thanks to an abundance of taxonomical splits. “The fact that I was able to see half the birds in the world in one year I think shows how birding has changed,” Strycker says.

Despite these improvements, Big Listers wistfully admit that no one will ever see them all. Yet some are getting spectacularly close, even as the cost per life bird goes up with each sighting. (Buck, for example, saw only two life birds on his last trip to the United States: Yellow Rail and Nelson’s Sparrow. A first trip to the United States, by contrast, could yield hundreds of lifers.)

Motivation is in no short supply. David Shackelford, who at age 30 became the youngest birder to see 8,000 species, spent more than a decade doing essentially nothing but traveling and birding (and largely getting paid for it as a tour leader). One year, the Texas native spent 345 days on the road. Now 37 and with a life list of more than 8,700 species, he says that he sacrificed his share of relationships tracking down the “next bird, the next adrenaline rush, the next adventure,” and that he has since taken a break from competitive birding to raise a family and establish a career in healthcare. He points out, though, that his life list will always be there and that he “can’t walk out the door and not unconsciously ID every sound, every squeak.”

For his part, Strycker worried that 365 straight days of intensive birding during his 2015 global Big Year would burn him out and turn him off to birding for good. Instead, the opposite happened; he even set his alarm for 5 a.m. on January 1, 2016, and headed back into the field. “You have to treat it like an addiction,” he says. “If you feed an addiction, it’s not going to go away. It’s just going to make it harder to stop.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of BirdWatching magazine. 

Read our newsletter!

Sign up for our free e-newsletter to receive news, photos of birds, attracting and ID tips, and more delivered to your inbox.

Sign Up for Free

Jesse Greenspan

Jesse Greenspan is a Berkeley-based freelance journalist who writes about history and the environment. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Scientific American, Audubon, the History Channel, and other outlets.

Jesse Greenspan on social media