What Is a Lifer Bird?

A lifer bird refers to any bird species that a birder sees and identifies for the first time. It goes on the birder’s life list as a new bird species they can check off as spotted. For passionate birdwatchers, expanding their life list becomes a lifelong adventure. Spotting and identifying new lifer birds in the wild provides an exhilarating experience and sense of accomplishment.

What Does “Lifer” Mean for Birders?

The term “lifer” originated from the concept of a life list for birders. A life list catalogs all the species of birds that an individual birder has personally sighted and identified over their birdwatching career. It may contain hundreds or even thousands of different birds.

“Lifer” refers to each new species added to the life list. When a birder sees a bird they haven’t observed before, they “tick” it or “check it off” their list, making it a lifer. Some birders keep detailed records of the date and location of each lifer sighting. Ticking off new lifers is an integral part of birding.

Why Are Lifer Birds So Meaningful for Birdwatchers?

Expanding one’s life list by spotting lifer birds is meaningful to birders for several key reasons:

Personal Achievement

Identifying a new species provides a sense of personal accomplishment. It shows growth in a birder’s knowledge, observational skills, and experience. As their life list expands, so does their expertise as a birder.

Connection to Nature

Lifer sightings enable birders to form deeper connections with the natural world. Each new species allows them to expand their awareness of avian biodiversity.

Adventure in Birding

Pursuing new lifer birds provides motivation to travel, explore new habitats and territories, and challenge oneself as a birder. New lifers are often spotted during travel to exotic birding destinations.


Sharing lifer sightings and comparing life lists with other birding enthusiasts fosters a sense of community. Lifer birds spark excitement and storytelling among birding circles.

For passionate birders, the thrill of spotting a “lifer” never seems to fade, no matter how advanced in birding experience. Each lifer sits prominently as a badge of honor on their life lists.

How Do Birders Keep Track of Lifer Birds?

Dedicated birders have systematic methods for recording lifer birds and their life lists:

Life List Journal

A journal or logbook allows birders to catalog each new species spotted, along with the date, location, and details of the sighting. Some birders keep detailed notes or include photographs.

Field Checklists

Printable checklists help birders tick off species during outings and travels. They can be customized by region, such as a “California Bird Checklist”.

eBird Mobile App

Many birders use the eBird app, managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. eBird provides a database to log bird sightings by location and share lists with the birding community.

Birder Websites/Blogs

Birders often track lifers and life lists using birder community websites and blogs. These provide tools to create searchable databases and share sightings.

What Does It Mean When a Bird is “Ticked Off” a Life List?

When a birder adds a newly sighted bird species to their life list, they say the bird has been “ticked off” or “checked off” the list. This simply means it has been recorded as a lifer in their logbook, journal, app, or website bird list.

Some key things to know about ticking off lifer birds:

  • The bird must be fully identified by sight or sound. Usually, a visual ID is required.
  • The birder must encounter the bird in the wild, not in captivity. Backyard bird sightings do count.
  • Ticks are based on the birder directly observing the bird. Photos, videos, or second-hand reports don’t count as ticks.
  • Many lists are based on species, not subspecies. However, some birders separately tick off distinct subspecies.
  • Once ticked, a species remains checked on the birder’s list, even if they don’t see it again.
  • To stay ticked, rare or unusual sightings may need documentation submitted to records committees.

How Many Birds Do Experienced Birders Have on Their Life Lists?

The size of a birder’s life list is loosely correlated with their experience level in birding:

  • Beginner birders – Often have under 100 species on their lists initially. Lifers are spotted on local outings.
  • Intermediate birders – May have life lists up to 300-500 species. Travel more widely in their home country to spot lifers.
  • Advanced birders – Experienced birders have usually spotted and ticked off over 500 species, sometimes up to 1,000 or more. Extensive domestic and international travel helps rack up lifers.
  • Expert/Master birders – It’s not uncommon for enthusiast birders, naturalists, and ornithologists with many years of experience to log well over 3,000 species on their life lists. Some elite lists even top 10,000 birds.

Of course, the size of one’s list is not necessarily an indicator of skill. Local and regional experts make vital contributions to knowledge without trotting the globe. Ultimately, the joy of observing and studying birds trumps the raw numbers.

Do Lifer Birds Have to Be Seen Within a Certain Geography?

The general rule of thumb is that a lifer must be personally sighted in the wild by the birder adding it to their list. However, the precise geographic restrictions depend on how a birder chooses to structure their life list:

  • World life list – Includes any species spotted anywhere in the world. This is the most common for serious birders.
  • Country life list – Limited only to species seen within the birder’s home country.
  • State life list – Sightings are restricted to only one U.S. state or similarly sized region.
  • Yard list – Some birders keep a separate yard list for species seen on their property.
  • Day list – A list tracking all species spotted in one day. Often used during competitions and birdathons.

The choice comes down to personal preference and goals. A world list allows more opportunities to add new lifers, while a localized list focuses on becoming an expert on birds within a specific area.

What Are Some Tips for Spotting “Lifer” Birds?

Any birder’s holy grail is observing a rare, elusive new species for the first time to add it to their life list. Here are some top tips for upping the odds of scoring that treasured sighting:

  • Head where the birds are. Travel to birding hotspots known for rare species.
  • Time it right. Migrate to wintering or breeding grounds during peak seasons.
  • Go on birding tours with expert local guides around the world. A good guide knows where to spot “needle in a haystack” species.
  • Read rare bird alerts and chase down recent sightings. But make sure to follow proper birding ethics.
  • If a located bird sticks around, other birders will flock to spot it. Network to find out where the action is.
  • Sometimes a bit of luck can help! Stop to scan flocks of birds to spot that unexpected jewel.
  • Patience pays. Sit quietly in optimal vantage points to allow shy species to emerge.
  • Follow up on second-hand reports, but make sure to independently confirm the ID yourself. Photos don’t cut it for ticks!
  • Consider attracting certain species to your yard through careful landscaping and feeding.

Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to racking up lifers. Persistence, knowledge, and passion are key ingredients for success.

What Are Some Challenges in Spotting Lifer Birds?

While a thrilling experience, the pursuit of lifer birds poses some inherent challenges:

Difficulty of Observation

Rare or endangered species are by nature elusive, hard to find, and fleeting in the wild. Cryptic plumage and reclusive habits make observation tough.

Identifier Expertise

Correctly identifying a species not seen before requires specialized expertise. Misidentification risks marring a list’s integrity.

Access Issues

Finding many species necessitates expensive, long-distance travel to remote terrain. Permit access can limit opportunities.

Ethical Concerns

Increasing ecological impacts make some fear lifer pursuit leads to questionable practices like disturbing breeding birds.

Competition and Secrecy

Rare bird hotspots spark “twitching” crowds and information hoarding rather than cooperation. This is improving with online communities enabling sharing.

Despite the hurdles, most birders feel the rewards outweigh the required effort. Pursuing lifers cultivates a priceless spirit of discovery.

What Are Some Examples of Highly Coveted Lifer Birds?

Every birder dreams of crossing some plum and iconic species off their life list. Although magical experiences, spotting these often takes intrepid quests and a bit of luck:

  • Ivory-billed Woodpecker – Thislargest woodpecker species in the U.S. is critically endangered. Sightings in dense Southern swamps make news in the birding world but remain controversial.
  • Resplendent Quetzal – With its iridescent green plumage and incredibly long tail feathers, this aptly named Central American species tops many must-see lists.
  • Greater Sage-Grouse – Its elaborate mating ritual performances on traditional leks in the Western sagebrush draw birders from across the globe.
  • Snowy Owl – This Arctic visitor’s occasional irruptions south delight birders by bringing this evocative white raptor into view.
  • California Condor – Seeing this huge vulture with its 10-foot wingspan soaring over the Grand Canyon provides an awe-inspiring spectacle.
  • Bird-of-Paradise – The sight of these New Guinea species displaying their wildly colorful and oddly shaped plumage makes for an unforgettable experience.

For veteran birders, some of the most coveted ticks are species considered extinct. A verified sighting would make headlines in the ornithology world. Top examples are the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (possibly extinct) and the Passenger Pigeon (extinct in 1914). Even the slimmest chance electrifies an expedition.

Do Ethical Guidelines Exist for Lifer Birding?

With the rising popularity of listing, debate continues on how to make lifer pursuits as ethical as possible. Most birders agree that responsible practices should be followed:

  • Respect all laws and regulations – Obtain necessary permits and access permission when required. Follow all rules protecting habitats and species when traveling.
  • Prioritize bird welfare – Never bait or use recordings to lure birds. Be cautious not to flush nesting birds or interfere with normal behaviors.
  • Avoid undue environmental impact – Stay on trails and prevent habitat damage when chasing rarities. Follow minimum impact principles.
  • Share sightings responsibly – Help enable others’ appreciation but be careful not to attract excessive disruptive crowds. Avoid revealing nest locations.
  • Maintain data integrity – Make conservation-minded decisions on taxonomy. Only tick confirmed IDs and submit documentation to justify exceptionally rare ticks.
  • Promote conservation – Consider supporting ornithology and conservation efforts as a counterbalance to any environmental damage caused by travel.

Following high ethical birding standards helps make lifer pursuits more sustainable. It enables continuing opportunities for discovery by future generations of birders.

Does Digital Media Diminish the Thrill of Spotting Lifer Birds?

Some birders lament that apps, online tick lists, rare bird alerts, digital photography, and other technologies detract from the mystique of observing lifer birds. However, most embrace these tools’ role in enhancing the listing experience:

  • Enables participation – Digital communities allow more people to engage in lifer pursuits, especially those with constraints on travel. Backyard bird sightings can expand life lists.
  • Provides motivation – Apps make recording and tracking life lists highly accessible. The visibility fuels motivation to get out birding more actively.
  • Aids documentation – Photos help in verifying rare and tricky species identifications to uphold list integrity. Archived photos allow fond reflections on past great sightings.
  • Promotes learning – Information sharing aids learning about new species before and after they are spotted as lifers. Being engaged helps hone ID expertise.
  • ** Allows connecting** – With apps like eBird, the joys of lifer sightings can be shared with a wider community of enthusiasts who understand their meaning.

Rather than diminishing lifer experiences, most technology enriches them by removing logistical barriers and linking birders together. But the awe of observing these species firsthand remains irreplaceable.

Can Birders Feel Competitive about Spotting Lifer Birds?

While lifer spotting is fundamentally personal, some element of friendly competition often occurs naturally:

  • Self-competition – Birders strive to continually expand skills to add more species. Lifetime goals motivate pushing limits.
  • Friendly rivalry – Groups of birding friends often spar back and forth comparing recent great sightings and travel brags. A spirit of gamesmanship emerges.
  • eBird leaderboards – eBird generates regional and global lists by species counts. Birders browse for bragging rights.
  • Big Day – Some birders compete in intense Big Day contests to see the most species possible in 24 hours or a year. Lifers add excitement.
  • Twitchers – Some birders known as twitchers focus intently on rapidly chasing down and ticking newly reported rarities. Speed matters.

However, most birders aim to keep listing competitions light-hearted and avoid undermining conservation ethics just for higher scores. Having fun, not rankings, should be the focus.

In Summary: The Allure of the Lifer Bird

For devoted birdwatchers, few thrills compare with observing and ticking off new species from their life list. Each lifer marks a milestone that feeds a lifelong passion for birding adventure, knowledge, and wonder. From backyards to remote rainforests, the magical moment when a lifer is spotted stands as a cherished memory on a birder’s journey of discovery. Though challenging, the rewards of seeking out lifer birds greatly enrich an enthusiast’s connection to the natural world.

FAQs About Lifer Birds

What does it mean when a birder “ticks” a bird?

When a birder spots and identifies a new bird species, they “tick” or “check it off” their life list. This means they have added it as a “lifer” species to their cumulative list of all birds observed.

How long are life lists maintained?

Life lists are lifelong endeavors for most birders. The list continually expands over months, years, and decades of birdwatching. Once a species is ticked, it remains on the list permanently.

Can previously seen birds be ticked off again on separate occasions?

No, species only get ticked once on a birder’s life list, even if they are observed and identified again on multiple occasions. The focus is on total species seen over a lifetime.

Do rare subspecies of birds count as separate ticks?

This depends on personal preference. Many birders tick a species once. But some also separately tick highly distinct subspecies, mutations, or regional forms found in specific locations.

Why are extinct or probably extinct species still ticked?

Birders often leave these species ticked if they were observed historically, as a record of their past sighting. Some however remove extinct species if they could no longer be seen presently.

Can birds in captivity be ticked off life lists?

Most birders insist that to be “tickable,” birds must be encountered fully wild and free-flying in their native or naturalized habitats. Birds seen in cages or confinement typically don’t qualify.

If a birder misidentifies a species, should they remove it?

Yes, most birders feel integrity is essential in lists. If adequate proof of misidentification arises, the species should be deleted or get proper verification to remain ticked.

Do rare sightings need to be documented to stay ticked?

For exceptionally unusual sightings, most birders submit photos or written details to bird records committees or publications. This validates rare ticks as legitimate.

Why don’t more novice birders keep serious life lists?

Beginners often find listing daunting. But as experience grows, the appeal of tracking sightings and ticking lifers tends to increase naturally for many birders.

Can a group travel life list be maintained collectively?

Certainly! Spouses, friends, and birding tour groups often keep collective trip life lists when traveling. Later, individuals add new species to personal lifetime tallies.

How Birders Can Get StartedListing “Lifer” Birds

Expanding your life list by spotting and identifying new species provides rewarding adventures and goals for birdwatchers. Here are some top tips to get started:

Learn Bird Identification

Sharpen your skills at accurately identifying species visually and by call. Resources like field guides, apps, online courses, and experts will help build proficiency.

Explore Birding Hotspots

Visit renowned local and regional birding sites where the chances of spotting less common species improve in different habitats.

Join the eBird Community

Use the free eBird app or website to easily log sightings and get motivated by exploring shared life lists in your area.

Follow Online Communities

Participate in birding blogs, forums, and social media to learn of lifer sightings and new places to explore.

Go Birding with Enthusiasts

Head into the field with experienced birders who can provide mentorship in tricky identifications.

Take Birding Day Trips and Tours

Sign up for guided single or multi