For the Birds Radio Program: Bucket List

Original Air Date: Feb. 15, 2008 Rerun Dates: Feb. 1, 2013; Jan. 27, 2011; Feb. 16, 2009

Planning to see exotic birds can be a wonderful part of a bucket list, but so can savoring things right at home.

Duration: 4′30″


I was in Duluth this week, so Russ and I went to the movies and saw The Bucket List. Not long afterward, I found myself in a bookstore looking at a book titled 50 Places to Go Birding before You Die. I looked over the list—I’ve been to only 14 of the 50 places, so I guess it means I’d better get crackin’. But on the other hand, it didn’t list the one place I most yearn to go to before I die, Cuba, to see the tiniest bird in the known universe, the Bee Hummingbird, and the most adorable bird in the known universe, the Cuban Tody. Going to Cuba and seeing those two species is high on my personal bucket list.

I’ve made lists in the past of goals I’d like to accomplish during my lifetime, but most of the items on my bucket list have been more about lovely or splendid things I’d like to experience than achievements I’d like to make. One of the items on my current bucket list is that I want to get a Tufted Titmouse to alight on my hand. I’m going to be ordering mealworms when I get back to Ithaca next week so I can start working on that one. It will be fun to entice New York chickadees to light on my hand—a whole new group of friends—and my heart beats harder just imagining the thrill if I could feel the tiny feet of a titmouse!

I think a bucket list should include only things you can actually plan and do, not things you have no control over. So much as I yearn to be invited to be a guest on The Colbert Report or The Daily Show, talking to Stephen or Jon as the Dr. Ruth of Ornithology, I can’t put it on my bucket list because I don’t know any strategy for actually making it happen. That’s also the problem with yearning to see an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. My office at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is right next to Tim Gallagher’s—he’s one person who has seen an Ivory-bill with his own eyes, but he could hardly have planned on that. Right now one British couple is trying to see more bird species in a single calendar year than anyone ever has before. They may or may not make it, but it’s a legitimate bucket list goal, since they have planned out their year of world travel to be at the right places at the right times to theoretically be able to see at least one more bird than the current record of 3662 species. They’d be fools to spend any time in Arkansas looking for an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, though, losing days to a search with virtually no probability of seeing one when they could be spending that time in exotic places with endemic species they could definitely see. You can follow their exploits at

Planning out the ways we want to fill our days and the experiences and achievements we want to look back on to know our life was well-lived can be fun or frustrating. It’s easy to set our sights so far away that we stop noticing all the splendid experiences we’re in the midst of. All you have to do is listen to the joy in Larry Weber’s voice when he talks about a cool frog he’s seen to know that there is enormous pleasure and joy at home if we know where to look for it. It’s good to think about bucket lists and all the things we yearn to do during our finite number of years, but taking time to savor the lovely everyday experiences we have is probably even more important in the final analysis, since except in a movie, few people ever get to achieve and experience everything they yearn to. When I’m standing out there on my balcony trying to get titmice to alight on my hand, whether they come that close or not, I’ll be savoring every moment.