project presents my choices for the "fifty best birds in the world."
This is a concept with which I have been toying since 1974, and by this
writing that is 35+ years ago. An introduction to the concept and its
background is below; my actual choices are reached via the links to the
The concept is to weigh and balance how impressive, how unique, how rare, and how hard to find each extant bird is, consider any special circumstances
surrounding that species (e.g., almost went extinct or a history of
mystery), and ensure a diverse selection across continents and oceans,
and throughout the spectrum of bird families.
This is not a list of the "rarest birds" on earth. If it were, species like Seychelles Warbler Acrocephalus sechellensis (population down to 50 birds in 1965 but since recovered) or Raso Lark Alauda razae
(only 92 birds found in a 1998 survey) would have been considered. It
would be great to see such rarities — indeed, I have gone to see the
Seychelles Warbler — but there are dozens of Acrocephalus warblers and several Alauda
larks in the world, many of which are very similar and none of which
are very impressive compared to, say, a Harpy Eagle or Resplendent
Quetzal. I'd love to see all the world's birds but if I could only have
one view of either a Harpy Eagle or a Raso Lark, well, I'll chose the
eagle any day. Although I am very keen on "little brown jobs," there
are no brush-warblers, cisticolas, or Empidonax flycatchers
in my list of the "50 Best Birds." There are, however, two rather dull
birds on the list because they do astonishing things: building a
spectacular bower or engage in dramatic courtship flights.
my project was an original idea when I started it in 1974, the concept
of picking "best birds" or "50 birds to see before you die" (sometimes
called a "bucket list") gained popularity after the 2007 movie The Bucket List
with Jack Nicholson & Morgan Freeman (about a list of things to do
or places to visit before you die). I've recently seen on-line "bucket
lists" proposed from the U.K. to Peru to Australia. More details on my
process is below.
concept has gone through various versions over the years as I learned
more about some of the world's great birds, and as I refined my
thinking on the topic. This is my third or fourth major version of the
list, and I still dicker with it now and then.
first effort was during college, in about 1974. I created a loose-leaf
binder before my first world birding trip (which was to Colombia in
1975) with my initial choices, each one represented with a page that
included a photo of some artwork and hand-written details and a map. [I
couldn't find a picture of Hose's (Blue-bellied) Broadbill, so I tried
painting my own.] I considered this my "most wanted world birds" list,
and since it was a loose-leaf notebook, the choices could be rearranged
as my thoughts changed over the years. Back in 1974, my "top 50"
choices included birds such as Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Ou, Imperial
Woodpecker, Kauai Oo, and others then nearing extinction. None of these
are included now, even though some are rumored to have a tenuous hold
my initial project, as I was able to observe some early choices (e.g.,
Scarlet Macaw or California Condor, right) they dropped off the list
and new selections were added. I'd stamp "Observed" on the old page and
write in a few details of my own sighting. My original "top 50" list in
1974 included 10 pheasants and 4 curassows. Although all were wonderful
birds, that was just "too many chickens," as Guy McCaskie said when he
saw the binder, and I've since made a conscious effort to diversify
among the bird families.
In the next major
incarnation of the list, placed on my web site in 1999, whether or not
I'd personally seen a bird became irrelevant (except to me!) in
evaluating the "best birds" of the world. Otherwise my general concept
remained similar but I added a layer of "requirements" that forced
diversity across the glove, limiting myself to only 10 "best birds"
each from Asia and the Neotropics, 7 each from Africa & Australasia
& the Oceanic Island (Madagascar etc.), 3 each from the Nearctic
& the Western Palearctic, 2 pelagics in the Ocean realm, and 1 in
Antarctica. But forcing myself to include a certain number of North
American or European species, instead of some tropical birds that
captured my imagination more, eventually became tiresome. These
restrictions have been abandoned.
In preparing the predecessor to this current version, I assigned points between 0–5 in five separate categories: (1) how impressive, (2) how unique, (3) how rare, (4) how hard to find, and (5) special circumstances, and tallied the points on a spreadsheet. Here's a bit more on the system:
- Impressive? Big powerful raptors, huge albatrosses and cranes, and gorgeous tropical birds are "more impressive" to me than cisticolas or Cookilaria petrels. Although I love cisticolas and have done research on the small Pterodromas,
we humans are stirred by wildlife that is big, fast, fierce, and
colorful. On the other hand, in some species sexual dimorphism has
produced spectacular males and smaller, drabber females (e.g.,
hummingbirds, manakins, birds-of-paradise). I have taken this into
account to some degree, but still chose species in which it is the male
that is "impressive," recognizing that sometimes the birder must
"settle" for views of the less-impressive female or young. I also chose
one bowerbird whose bower is overwhelmingly impressive, even though
both sexes of the bird itself are very plain.
- Unique? The Kagu and Shoebill are unique birds and rate "5" in that category. Contrast that with the seven blue cotingas the genus Cotinga.
Each is an absolutely stunning bird but none is "unique" with six close
relatives looking equally beautiful. When it narrows down to just two
or three similar birds, however, I begin to think of them as almost
unique. To facilitate the list and create diversity, I permitted myself
the choice of "any" of three or more closely-related species (usually
within the same genus) when (a) as a group they are indeed unique, (b)
together the sibling species form a superspecies in a similar
geographic region, and (c) each of the various species is scarce and
hard to see. You will thus find the choices any Tragopan, any Kiwi or any Cassowary; in a way this makes the project the "top 60" birds, but I can live with that. However, when there are only
two such similar species, each is entitled to a separate place on the
list when they individually score high enough in the other categories.
Such pairs included are both rockfowl, both cock-of-the-rocks, and both
huge white cranes.
Almost all birdwatchers enjoy rare birds; it is a special feeling to be
in the presence of something rare. I have often referred to BirdLife
International's (2000) Threatened Birds of the World for
population estimates. In general, the rarer a bird is the more it is
desired. Note, however, that I have not included in my consideration
those species teetering on the edge of extinction where a currently
extant population is not proven (e.g., Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Ou,
Night Parrot, Kinglet Calyptera, White-eyed River-Martin), even when it
is possible the species still exists.
- Hard to find? This is not the same thing as "rare." The Seychelles Magpie-Robin Copsychus sechellarum
was definitely rare when I saw it — only 23 birds left in the world —
but it was not hard to find. Assuming you had time and money, you could
fly to the Seychelles easily and no political turmoil prevents that;
you could then fly to Fregate I. in a small plane, land and see the
magpie-robin within a short level 10 minute walk. In contrast, while
the Kakapo currently exists on only a couple tiny islets (just as does
the magpie-robin), it is very hard get there. They are entirely
off-limits to non-researchers and even if you volunteered several weeks
of your time, you must be willing to volunteer on their schedule,
making it very difficult to plan. And no amount of time or money will
guarantee you a look at a Congo Peafowl.
- Special circumstance?
Almost any bird considered for the list is special; this category is my
own much more subjective category and may include the bird's history.
The Short-tailed Albatross was almost entirely wiped out a half-century
ago; when I began birding it was considered impossible to see. So when
I did see one, it was extra special for me. The California Condors
became extinct the wild in 1987 when the last six were captured for
captive breeding, but now two of those original birds are flying again,
and others are attempting to nest. The Mauritius Kestrel went through
an evolutionary bottleneck when only a lone breeding pair remained in
1974, and they have recovered. I've always wanted to see these birds.
In addition, birds like Great Argus and Long-tailed Ground-Roller were
considered near mythical when I started birding the world about 1975,
and the search for them has been a wonderful quest. This category is
personal and elevates a few birds to the list over some equally
qualified candidates that don't mean as much to me.
Let me explain how my system works with two examples. Palmchat Dulus dominicus
of Hispaniola is generally assigned to its own monotypic family; it is
thus "unique" in some sense and might score at 3 or 4 in that category.
But it is neither "impressive" nor "rare," and it is about the easiest
native bird to see in the Dominican Republic. You just have to get
there. So the points in those categories might be 0, 0, and 1. Without
any special personal connection or history, it will total out at about
4 or 5 points.
Or consider my personal web moniker, the Swallow-tailed Gull Creagrus furcatus
(right) of the Galapagos Is., and wintering in the Peru Current. It is
"unique" in its family as a night-feeding gull but it still is just a
gull (give it 2 points). It is rather scarce (3 points) but surely
gulls cannot rate too high as "impressive" (maybe 3 max) and it is easy
to see if you get to the Galapagos or off coastal Peru, in season (say
2 points). So it might max out at about 10 "objective" points. Even its
vagrancy to Monterey Bay, and my special affection for it, can't kick
it up enough to make my "top 50," even though it and Ross's Gull Rhodostethia rosea might be the world's "best" gulls.
wanted diversity around the globe, and across the bird families; these
50 choices belong to 36 different families. There are many tropical
birds included but also some long-distance migrants, some species of
the cold north, and one from deepest Antarctica. Several birds have
ranges across several continents or oceans, but my choices essentially
fall as 13 in Asia, 11 in the Neotropics (Central & South America),
8 in Australasia, 6 in Africa, 4 in North America/Caribbean, 5 in the
Pacific and two in the Indian Ocean, and one in Antarctica. They
include 4 birds-of-paradise, 3 pheasants, 3 parrots, 3 cotingas, 2
eagles, 2 seabirds (an albatross and a penguin), 2 pittas, 2 cranes, 2
rockfowl, a condor, a guan, a bustard, a wader, an owl, a hummingbird,
a trogon, a barbet, a broadbill, a ground-roller, a manakin, a vanga, a
bowerbird, a wattlebird, a helmet-shrike, a grasswren, a myna, a
tanager, a honeyguide, and 8 species assigned to their own monotypic
the descriptive text on the linked pages, I mention ~30 other species
that could easily be on someone's "top 50" list using the criteria
described here. A fine selection of great birds are right on the cusp.
Diademed Sandpiper-Plover Phegornis mitchelli (left) of high
elevation bogs from s. Peru to Chile, nominated by several world
birders, scored 12 on my spreadsheet. Also scoring well were several
species from previous versions of my list: Crested Ibis Nipponia nippon, Ringed Storm-Petrel Oceanodroma hornbyi, Mauritius Kestrel Falco punctatus, Northern Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita, Great Bustard Otis tarda, Slender-billed Curlew Numenius tenuirostris, Victoria Crowned-Pigeon Goura victoria, African River-Martin Pseudochelidon eurystomina, Arfak Astrapia Astrapia nigra, and Multicolored Tanager Chlorochrysa nitidissima. In the same category are such wonderful birds as Giant Ibis Pseudibis gigantea, Pel's Fishing Owl Scotopelia peli, Shovel-billed Kingfisher Clytoceyx rex, Standard-winged Nightjar Macrodipteryx longipennis, Jocotoco Antpitta Grallaria ridgelyi, Calfbird Perissocephalus tricolor, Maui Parrotbill Pseudonestor xanthophrys, and 'Akohekohe Palmeria dolei.
Yet even all this leaves me without a flamingo, falcon, hornbill,
toucan, woodpecker, New World warbler or sunbird — and there are superb
birds in all those families!
Nov 2003 and again in Feb 2010 and Jan 2012, I made slight revisions to
some choices; dropping six prior picks to add six new ones, and
somewhat reordering the picks. As noted above, a lot of other birds are
also in the running for the "Top 50" and these final choices are
You can also see comments
on my list from other birders. I thank Chris Carpenter, who
photographed the Diademed Sandpiper-Plover (Chile), for use of his
photo and to all other photographers and artists who made this project
possible (providing photos or art on linked pages). I am also indebted
to the many world birders who shared their thoughts on this topic,
including Rita Carratello, S.F. Bailey, Victor Emanuel, Jon Hornbuckle,
the late Stuart Keith, Jon King, Harold Lebo, Murray Lord, Blake
Matheson, Phil Rostron, Dan Singer, and the late Arnold Small.
You can also find my choices for "50 Best Mammals" in a similar project: