Imagine the thrill of discovering something live and in person that you have only ever read about. Whether you are a professor who finally sees the Inca ruins you have taught about for years, or you are seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time, a person’s sense of wonder and awe is real in the face of these phenomena they spy for the first time ever. For birders, the same feeling of euphoria comes from seeing a lifer bird. That is the premise of the movie Big Year, which chronicles Owen Wilson, Jack Black, and Steve Martin as they go after some lifer birds, racing to be able to find the most species in a calendar year.
So What Exactly Qualifies as a Lifer Bird?
A lifer bird is one that you have been wanting to see for your whole life. This is a very personal undertaking. There is no national list, and there really are no specific parameters, or list of birds you MUST see. A lifer bird refers to the first time that you see a bird in the wild, and the bird must be free from captivity and positively identified. This means that birds in sanctuaries or zoos will not count for your list. Birders study the calls and shape of birds they are hunting for so they know what they find when they find it. Lifer birds are identified by both the sounds that they make and the field markings on their bodies. Birding goes hand in hand with photography. Often birders will snap a photo of a lifer bird, but that is not mandatory.
You Make the Rules
The great thing about looking for a lifer bird is that you make the rules. There is no passport to stamp, no list to check off, and you don’t have to register the birds you find with anyone. The birds do not have to be rare or exotic, but they simply have to be birds that you want to see and that have meaning to you. Many people think that finding lifer birds needs to be a grand activity, but that is incorrect. There is no need to twitch, or travel extensively to see a bird; you can even find lifer birds in your own backyard! Although many people do enjoy a trip to find an elusive lifer bird, and travel goes hand-in-hand with serious birding, this is not mandatory. Whether you travel to the Amazon to see the rare Yapacana Antbird or see a red-headed woodpecker in your own backyard, each new species of bird matters to a birder.
How Should You Keep Track?
For most people, keeping a journal of the birds that they find is a great way to keep track of the lifers. Birders often become obsessed with the list as it grows, and the thrill of writing down new species names keeps birders in the game. The “how” is up to you. Many birders have gone high-tech to keep track of all their lifer birds, utilizing websites like ebird.org. But serious birders often use a field journal, something they can carry in a small bag along with their binoculars while they are hunting. If you don’t have a journal yet, don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. You can check out our picks for the 5 best birding journals and find the ideal one for you.
No matter which lifer birds you hunt for and how you choose to record them, seeing a lifer bird for the first time is thrilling. And unlike receiving your first kiss or hitting your first home run, birding allows you to have many firsts, and enjoy the thrill each time you find a new species. The American Museum of History asserts that there are over 18,000 different species of birds in the world, so that should keep you busy for a while as you search for your lifer birds.