For the Birds Radio Program: Controversy in the Birding World

Original Air Date: June 26, 1992

The big issue rocking the members of the American Birding Association these days is whether or not birders are allowed to count on lifelists birds that they have heard but not seen. (4:02) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


A year ago in May I finally added a Chuck-will’s-widow to my lifelist, many years after my first encounter with this nocturnal species. This nightjar, related to Whip-poor-wills and nighthawks, is hardly a secretive species. It yells out its whereabouts to anyone within a quarter- or even half-a-mile every night during the breeding season. But this is one heck of a well-camouflaged bird, and it sits still all day long, making it extraordinarily difficult to see. It also sits still on the ground or a thick tree branch while calling, always after dark, so it’s awfully hard to actually see the bird anytime without a lot of luck. I’ve heard Chuck-will’s-widows in Georgia and South Carolina as far back as 1976, and in Tennessee and Kentucky in 1980, but never caught a glimpse of one until I was down in the Wichita Mountains last spring. As it turns out, the anticipation somewhat exceeded the actual event.

To count a bird officially as an American Birding Association life bird, hearing it isn’t enough. According to ABA Listing Rule #4, all life birds have to actually be seen to be countable. With some species, vocalizations aren’t diagnostic, and some birds spend most of their lives in silence. Few birders would be satisfied adding a brightly colored warbler or a Bald Eagle to a lifelist after merely hearing it. You have to see most birds to really experience them. But some little flycatchers can only be accurately identified by their songs. The only way these females recognize males of their own species is by song. For these species, a birder always has to both see and hear the bird to be sure.

There are some nocturnal birds, such as rails, nightjars, and owls, that are exceedingly difficult to see. Every year, huge packs of birders trample through marshes with tape recordings, trying to flush a Yellow or Black Rail into view long enough to add it to their life lists. Some rails are known to have been trampled to death by these hordes of acquisitive birders, and who knows how many other birds and nests have been destroyed without anyone noticing.

Rare tropical owls that just barely reach the southern border of Texas or Arizona are frequently harassed during their whole breeding seasons by birders using tape recorders to lure them out into the open. The territorial instincts of owls rev them up to chase away the intruder, drawing their attention from predators and from their own eggs or chicks. Because owls fly so silently, it takes many minutes to see one and get it in the beam of a flashlight. With some popular species, this harassment occurs virtually every night, ultimately preventing successful nesting.

Right now, the American Birding Association is considering changing Rule #4 so that birders can also count on lifelists birds that are accurately identified by their songs or calls. Some birders with undeveloped listening skills or with some hearing loss are bitterly opposed to this rule change. Based on the response from birders published in Winging It, the ABA newsletter, member opinion is running pretty much 50-50. The people opposed to counting heard species either wish to cling to the old rule for tradition’s sake or because they think it would be unfair to compare the lists of people who actually went to the trouble of seeing each species with the lists of people who count merely heard birds. Virtually all the birders in favor of changing the rule express concern about protecting birds from over-eager listers. Overall, I hope the decision is made with the needs of birds rather than the egos of birdwatchers in mind.