Introducing Once Upon a Checklist

Cover art by Alex Tomlinson (@hootalex)

Every day birders from all around the world make checklists. They tally tanagers, count crows, iterate ibis and enumerate emus. Just this month, people will submit more than one million lists to eBird, the world’s most popular citizen science platform.

A million checklists a month! That’s a lot of counting, and a lot of numbers. It’s also lot of early morning walks on damp forest paths, a lot of tires pop-popping on gravel roads, a lot of sea spray and sunscreen, a lot of soggy socks and lost lens-caps. It’s a lot of conversations and arguments about IDs with a lot of friends, old and new.

It’s a lot of stories.

Right this minute, eBird’s data scientists are busy trimming all of this messy human stuff out of the data, to build population estimates and migratory models. Every day they’re learning more about species ranges, abundances, and environmental associations.

It’s critical, necessary work. Let’s leave them to it.

With Once Upon a Checklist, I want to do just the opposite: to pick up the stories left behind. The sentences that didn’t fit into the comments fields, the bits of wonder and chaos (and love!) that have no place in a database. I’ll bring these stories to you, and the people behind them, in 40 minute podcast episodes that’ll feature interviews and research, strange birdy facts and surprising human tales.

Once Upon a Checklist is a podcast fully enamored with all of the messy human stories behind birding’s tidy lists. In the very first episode, coming on August 29th, I’ll tell you about what might just be The Saddest Checklist Ever (TM). You’ll meet Don Roberson who, on a hot summer morning in 1978, was birding the Northern tip of Guam, carrying a hand-drawn list of birds he’d made himself in lieu of a field guide. You’ll hear what it was like for Don to see three of the world’s rarest birds, and how it feels to know he’ll never see some of them again. I’ll take you into the collection drawers of the American Museum of Natural History and into the notebook pages of explorers working in Guam in the early 20th century. You’ll find out what a 100 year-old flycatcher skin smells like, consider the benefits of the Grinnell Method of Field Journalling, and learn a lot about invasive snakes (afterward you might not think the same way about Tylenol ever again).

In further episodes we’ll hear about some more checklists that are truly remarkable (what does it feel like to see a million puffins?) and some which start off looking pretty darned ordinary and end up… pretty darned not. Once Upon a Checklist is a podcast about birding and birders, but it’s really for anyone who loves nature and marginalia in roughly equal measures.

Once Upon a Checklist is a free podcast. You’ll be able to listen to every episode here, and on any podcast platform that you might already use. I’ll be posting free transcripts of the episodes here as well, along with a generous scattering of interesting things I’ve learned along the way.

If you become a paid subscriber to Once Upon a Checklist (for just $7 per month), you’ll get access to a whole lot more, including photos, full-length interviews, and custom bird-y data visualizations created just for subscribers.

If you become a founding member (for $200) you’ll get a set of signed and numbered bird-tastic data visualization prints, one for each of the first 10 episodes. Sign up to be a founding member before the first episode releases and I’ll also send you a free t-shirt.

Once Upon a Checklist is a strange little project, driven by equal parts curiosity and love. I’m not sure just exactly where we’ll end up, but I do I hope you’ll join me along the way.

If any of this sounds interesting, you can subscribe now.

If you know someone who might particularly enjoy OUAC, you could give them a gift subscription.

Did I mention we have spiffy sweatshirts?

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Jer Thorp

Jer Thorp

Jer Thorp is an artist, writer & teacher. He is Innovator-in-Residence at the Library of Congress. His book Living in Data is out now from MCDxFSG.