In Praise of the “Lazy” Year List

One of our recent sightings. Photo by Evan Heisman.

At the beginning of 2020, which feels like a lifetime ago now, I decided I was going to do something that I hadn’t in a while: I was going to keep a “year list,” a list of all the bird species that I was over the course of the year. Although I had a job that required writing about birds and thinking about birds and talking with bird scientists almost every day, I’d spent less and less time in recent years actually out birdwatching, and I wanted to change that. With travel plans that included conferences in Puerto Rico and Boulder, Colorado, as well as a week-long family trip to the Oregon coast, I knew I’d be able rack up some good variety. I made myself one promise, though: this was going to be a “lazy” list. My goal was to encourage myself to pay more attention to the birds around me, but I wasn’t going to stress out over reaching a certain “impressive” number; I was just going to see what I saw, with zero pressure on myself.

You know where this is going — none of those trips happened. Since mid-March, all of my birding has happened within about a five-mile radius of my house. But in a way, that’s been the perfect situation for working on my lazy list.

With nothing else to do, we started going on weekly nature walks as a family, returning again and again to the same tiny nature area in a city park near our house. It yielded unexpected gifts: Varied Thrushes singing as they passed through on their way to their breeding grounds closer to the coast. A Rough-legged Hawk wheeling high overhead weeks after I thought they would have all left for the Arctic. Lazuli Buntings appearing out of nowhere one week to fill every tree with flashes of turquoise. I started learning to pick out the songs of different flycatcher species (something I’ve always been fuzzy on). My two-year-old added words like “hawk,” “dove,” “robin,” and “sparrow” to his vocabulary.

As of today, my year list stands at 100 species. The most recent addition was an Eastern Kingbird I spotted earlier this month. I know plenty of birders who topped that number in a single day during spring migration. Do I care? Nah. I’m having fun.

I feel like listing can be intimidating for people just getting into birds, but I’d highly recommend some sort of “lazy” list (life list, year list, yard list, whatever) as a way to keep yourself engaged while taking the pressure off. Are you a lister? How seriously do you take it? Let me know!

Science Writing Tips

Down With Jargon

The funniest (to me) moment of my chemotherapy experience so far was hearing my oncologist tell the nurses to get me some “oral cryotherapy” during my last treatment. This sounds very fancy and technical, right? Except he was asking them to get me a cup of ice.

Doctors aren’t the only specialists who are guilty of peppering their speech and writing with phrases that make perfect sense to them but are humorous (at best) or incomprehensible (at worst) to outsiders. One of the most fun aspects of my work over the past couple years has been editing blog posts written by ornithologists about their research with birds. I’m not the first to observe, however, that many scientists have trouble letting go of jargon-filled “science speak” even when they’re writing something that’s intended to not be so technical. Here are some edits I suggested to a blog post that crossed my desk earlier this year:

OriginalMy Suggestion
“function as proxies”“be good stand-ins”
“temporal changes”“changes over time”
“more mesic habitat”“wetter habitat”
“interspecific differences”“differences between species”
“interannual variability”“variation between years”
“proximate explanation”“immediate explanation”

Most of these would be fine in a scientific paper, written for an audience of other scientists. If you want your blog post to be accessible to a broader audience, though, I’d argue that you’re often better off using simpler language, even if it means sacrificing some precision of meaning. What do you think? Are there any particular examples of unnecessary jargon that drive you nuts?