Life Lists are extremely important to many birders. Wherever particularly interesting birds congregate, you can bet that birders will be there "searching for the rare ones" to add to their Life Lists. Expensive cruises to the Antarctica and river trips to isolated regions of the Amazon are staged just for people hoping to add new birds to their Life List.
If you should start your own Life List right now, and for some reason during the rest of your life you never travel beyond your neighborhood, you might well end up listing a hundred species or more -- many species being spotted during migration. If you should expand your birding trips to include local parks and nature reserves, you could end up with 300 or more species. If somehow you were to see all the bird species ever sighted in all of North America, your list would hold about 850 names. So far no one has seen all the earth's more than 9,000 bird species. There's a "600 Club" for birders who have listed more than 600 species, so listing that many is considered doing pretty well.
There are many ways to organize a Life List, including just writing down the English names in the order in which newly identified birds are seen, and this may be the most common approach for rank beginners. What follows, however, is a small sample from my own Life List, which is organized in "checklist order," sometimes called "phylogenetic order." This method, using Latin names, is useful for lists holding several hundred names and compiled in various countries where English names may not always be standardized. Here it is:
The headings CORACIIFORMES and CUCULIFORMES, are the Latin names for two of the 30-odd bird orders. The Coraciiformes is the "kingfisher order," and the Cuculiformes is the "cuckoo order." In the list, family names end with the letters "ae," as in the "Cuculidae," which is the cuckoo family.
This "checklist" manner of listing -- following the order established by the American Ornithological Union -- causes closely related birds to be grouped together. In the above list, for instance, all kingfishers appear in one place, and all motmots appear in another. Such grouping answers at a glance the question, "Just how many species of kingfisher have I seen?" Also, it highlights the fact that kingfishers and motmots are closely related, which isn't immediately obvious in the field.
In the above list the code "vii-11-80-SPA" translates to, "this bird was seen on July 11, 1980, in Spain." If I want to know where in Spain it was seen, in what kind of habitat, and what the weather was like that day, it's easy enough to dig out the big three-ring binder in which all my daily bird-lists of that time are kept (now I keep lists on my hard drive...) I use three capital letters when referring to countries other than the United States (MAD is Madagascar, GUA is Guatemala); two letters are used for U.S. states.
Keeping a Life List on the computer is pretty handy. When a new kingfisher is seen, for example, the Life-List file can be loaded with a word processor, the SEARCH option can be used to go immediately to "kingfisher," and then it's a nice ceremony to type the new sighting in with all the others.
Again, this is just one listing method. More serious birders might find fault with it because, for one thing, it doesn't mention races or subspecies, which in the future could be lumped into or split from other species.
Life Lists are fun! Looking over these hard-won entries gives immense satisfaction. Each entry evokes memories of travel in interesting places, and is nothing less than a "trophy" testifying to bird-spotting successes!
The only rule for any kind of list is this: Don't list any species unless you're 100 percent sure your identification is correct. Well, maybe there's a second, rule, too, and that is Don't get so obsessed with collecting names that you begin ignoring the beauty in birds and bird habitats. For some unfortunate souls, their Life-Listing has taken on the character of stamp collecting. Just get a name, add it, and move on to the next...
In preparation for starting your own Life List, if you are in North America you may want to view and perhaps print out the list of birds for your area found online on the page Bird Checklists by State & Province presented by Thayer Birding Software.
Wikipedia has a page called "List of birds of Canada and the United States." The American Ornithologists' Union presents a page called The A.O.U. Check-list of North American Birds, where you can see a list of all the bird species known to occur in North and Middle America -- over 2,000 of them.
Finally, if you're really serious about listing birds, you may want to visit the comprehensive page A Proposed Format for Local Bird Checklists, presented by the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center.