What Is A Bird Life List? – Your complete what and how-to guide

There are more than 11,000 bird species in the world and many birdwatchers and birders are keen to see them all. To keep track, a lot of them use a bird life list. But what exactly is a bird life list?

A bird life list is a record of every bird species a person has seen in their lifetime. Also called a ‘life list’ or ‘lifer list’, it is recorded either digitally on a birding app or website, or in a paper journal or field guide. Birders will fill their life list with as many species as they can.

If you are just getting into birding you will want to continue reading. In the remainder of this article, I’m going to go into more detail about bird life lists. I will also give you some great tips about apps and books you can use to record your very own life list.

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Why Keep A Bird Life List?

Birders keep a life list to keep track of and count the bird species they see in their lifetime. Some birders become obsessed with seeing as many of the more than 11,000 species in the world as they can. A life list is a record they keep of their tally.

Some birdwatchers will keep a life list simply for the fun of it. It can be enjoyable to record each new bird species as you see them. It lets you know which birds you have seen and it can also be motivational, getting you fired up to see more.

Birder’s gear – image by kickstand from Getty Images Signature

Each bird species in the world has its unique traits. They can be colorful, majestic, humorous, cute, intriguing, and so much more. Every new species you encounter brings with it new feather colorings, sounds, and behaviors that are unique to that particular species. This is what drives birders to start a life list; it’s the “collect them all” adage.

Another advantage of bird life lists, especially those recorded online or in phone apps, is that they help scientists keep track of bird numbers. Knowing how many of each species there are and also where they are is crucial to bird conservation on a global scale.

Are bird populations worldwide increasing? Learn the answer in this post here on my blog.

A Paradise Tanager – image by Thorsten Spoerlein from Getty Images

What Is A Life Bird?

A life bird is what birders call a new species they are encountering for the first time. Most birdwatchers or birders will keep a life list; any new species added to this list is referred to as a life bird or lifer. It is a slang term for “I have never seen this bird in my life before.”

This is a common term in the birding community. Often birders will say “I got another lifer today” or “I ticked off 3 lifers yesterday.” They are referring to seeing new species they have not previously encountered.

A birdwatching couple – image by avid_creative from Getty Images Signature.

Learn about choosing the right binoculars for birdwatching in this article.

How To Start A Bird Life List

If you are interested in birdwatching and want to start your bird life list, there are several ways you can do it.

Use Pen And Paper

This is for those who still enjoy the feeling only brought on by putting pen to paper.

You can start a bird life list with any notepad and a pen or pencil. It helps if the notepad is small enough to fit into your pocket so that you can easily carry it with you in the field.

A small notepad bird life list is best – image by joxxxxjo from Getty Images. (Edited from the original).

You can keep it as simple as listing the names of each bird you see. If you like, you could get more technical and add checkboxes and the names of birds that are commonly seen in the area you are going to. You could then tick them off as you see them and record how many of each species you saw.

It’s up to you how you do it, you can personalize it any way you like.

You may also choose to make use of a bird list journal or diary such as the Sibley Bird Life List and Field Diary. This book by ornithologist and author David Allen Sibley is a handy size at 5.2 x 1.15 x 7.7 inches (13.2 X 2.9 X 19.6 cm) and contains entries for 923 bird species in the United States and Canada.

For a more general bird life list book, you could try something like this one from Zoe Swan. This 6 X 9 in. (15.2 X 22.9 cm) softcover book has 120 pages with sections to record things such as the date, time of spotting, weather conditions, location, species, and more.

If you get serious about your birdwatching, you will no doubt fill this book quite quickly. At just 7.69 USD, it’s not going to break the bank to just purchase another one.

Try these links for more options on amazon.com, amazon.com.au, and amzon.co.uk.

Use A Bird List App

Many great birding apps on the market will keep your bird list right there on your smartphone. These are a quick and handy way to enter any sightings you have and all the data is kept in the cloud for you so you don’t have to worry.

The best apps for this are Merlin and eBird, both from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Merlin is a bird ID app to help you identify the birds you see, whereas eBird is a database of bird observations where you record your sightings.


The Home screen of the eBird app

The eBird app is where you enter all of your bird sightings. These are entered into the app over a period of 24 hours or you can input incidental sightings as you see them. eBird gives you a list of likely species in the area you are in, or you can enter a species manually.

eBird Checklist page

The data gathered in eBird is linked to your Life List in the Merlin app. eBird is a perfect, hassle-free way to update your bird life list.


The Merlin bird app is the place to go to identify over 8500 bird species worldwide. This app is powered by the information gathered in eBird, it is available in 77 languages, and…it’s free, just like eBird!

As you can see in the screenshot above, Merlin can identify birds by photo, sound, or via its ingenious Start Bird ID option. This is a five-step process that asks you various questions about where you saw the bird:

What date you saw the bird:

What size it was:

What colors it was:

And what it was doing at the time:

Merlin then gives you various options for what your bird might be.

If you see a match, you click on the ‘This Is My Bird!’ button which helps the app to provide the best matches for you and other users.

This barely scratches the surface of what the Merlin bird app can do. Check it out for yourself via the links below:

How To Find New Life Birds To Add To Your Bird Life List

Finding new life birds is something birders quickly become obsessed with. It really does become addictive. So how do you find new life birds or lifers?

The first and best way is just to be out in the field as often as you can. If you constantly explore new places, habitats, and environments, you will undoubtedly find new life birds to add to your list.

Finding new lifers is easy with the eBird app’s “explore” section. When you click ‘explore’, the app brings up information about recent sightings in your area. You can browse details about what species have been seen and also what locations they were found in.

If there is a particular bird you want to see, you can type it into the ‘search species in this area’ box and get information about where that species has been seen recently. It’s just too easy!

You will find more tips on how to find birds in this article.


Hopefully, you now fully understand what a bird life list is. You also have some options for how to start your life list.

I also hope that I have inspired you to get out and do some birdwatching if you are not already. It is a hobby that will bring you hours of relaxation, enjoyment, and wonder. You can read all about the various benefits of birdwatching in my Why Watch Birds? article.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article today. Happy birding, I hope to see you out there someday.

Barry Callister

Barry is a bird photographer and bird watcher with over 7 years of experience. He runs his own YouTube channel about photography and promotes his nature photography on his personal website barrycallisterphotography.com.au.

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