What Is a 'Life Bird'?

varied thrush
Donald Quintana/MNN Flickr Group

The importance of 'life birds' to birder

Photographer Don Quintana writes of a gorgeous bird that he photographed, "The varied thrush is another life bird for me to photograph. I must say this male is a handsome fellow."

You may hear the phrase "life bird" tossed out sometimes when you hang out with birders -- "It's a life bird" or "That's a lifer for me!" or "I can check that off my lifer list." If you've never asked, or never watched the movie The Big Year, then you might be wondering what they mean by that.

A "life bird" is a species that a birder has seen and identified in the wild for the very first time in their life. It can be any bird species at all that the birder sees for the first time, or some birders have a more specific list they're working on with species that are rare or difficult to spot in the wild. Each person's list is an individual creation based on where they live and what birds are typically around. For some birders, a lifelist may be simply all the birds native to their state, or it might be all the birds in the entire world. There are not particular species that count as lifers for all birders. For example, there may be a migratory bird that is incredibly common for someone living in California who has seen this bird around since they were a kid, but that same species may count as a lifer for someone living in Chile who rarely ever sees one so far south.

Of course, when it comes to tracking the when, where and how of spotting life birds, for some folks it is easier to just pick up a journal filled with all the species of bird in a large area, and just start checking off the list. It's quicker than creating a personalized list of lifer species that you want to see. But ultimately, the important part is just recording the date and details about the first sighting, like keeping a diary.

So the next time someone says, "That's a lifer for me!" you know it has importance to them and they're experiencing a sighting for the very first time.