For the Birds Radio Program: Yard List, Part I

Original Air Date: June 10, 2003 Rerun Dates: June 8, 2004

Laura reminisces about building her “yard list” of all the birds she’s seen in her little corner of Peabody Street.

Audio missing


We moved into our house on Peabody Street 22 years ago, so I’ve had over 2 decades to work on my yard list. When we first moved here, every spring migration yielded new species, and my yard list grew by leaps and bounds. That was partly because back then there really were more songbirds, but even in the best of conditions, keeping a yard list is a game of diminishing returns—every new bird you add to a yard list is a species you can’t add again.

It’s been a while since I added a new yard bird, but suddenly last month, within a week’s time I added two new ones, bringing my yard list to a grand total of 156 species. The newest additions were a woodcock I heard flying overhead around one a.m. when we were unloading my daughter’s stuff after bringing her home from college, and then, the following week, a Scarlet Tanager whose singing in the backyard caught my attention. He didn’t stay for long—Scarlet Tanagers prefer oaks and yellow birches, two trees not found in my neck of the woods. But while they’re migrating, Scarlet Tanagers have to pass through a lot of inappropriate habitat to get to the best places, and so I knew eventually one would turn up in my yard.

Looking at my yard-list sightings over the years is a fun exercise. I saw my first American White Pelican on September 1, 1983. I was pregnant and not feeling well that day, so was laying on my back on the living room floor when I caught a flock of pelicans out the corner of my eye flying right over my house. But I thought I was dreaming, until moments later when the phone rang. It was one of my birding friends in the neighborhood calling me to have me quick look out to see the pelicans.

During that same pregnancy, which was a hard one, I was bedridden for a week or so in May, and one night heard a Whip-poor-will out the window. I was afraid it was one of my friends out there with a tape recorder, so I sent Russ out and he heard the bird under the trees in the next yard. So he set up a lawn chair and carried me out—that’s how I got my very first Whip-poor-will for Minnesota in my own backyard.

It’s exciting to get a first state bird in your own backyard, it must be even more thrilling to see a lifer there. It’s an experience I’ve missed, but not by much. I saw my first Bohemian Waxwings a few blocks away on December 1, 1981, and then had a huge flock in my own yard three weeks later. But my lifer Harris’s Sparrow was missed in my own backyard literally by minutes. Kim Eckert called me up to tell me there were some Harris’s Sparrows on Park Point on September 23, 1981. I jumped into the car and saw them right where Kim said they’d be. Then I came home, looked out at the feeder, and there were two right there.

Yard lists are fun to keep, and looking back on them, it’s fun to remember the stories that go with many of the birds. Tomorrow I’ll tell you more yard bird stories. Meanwhile, have you started keeping your own yard list?