Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Human Birdwatcher Project Presents: The Democratization of Birding









This is a Broad-tailed Hummingbird. This fact is not disputable, though there are many who would put their disputing caps on and try anyway. Photographed in Miller Canyon, AZ.

Today's post is brought to you by The Human Birdwatcher Project, where "Birders are people too!" and birding-by-vote can lead down a dark path indeed.

In a true democracy, decisions are made by the majority, plain and simple. Most decisions decided by voters are based on personal values.  In these situations, wrong and right is entirely subjective.  You know this, and I don't think it needs any more explaining.

It was not long ago when the words "democracy" and "birding" could never be uttered in the same sentence...but that was Then, and this is Now.  Birders knew the other local birders, gossiped about birds and birders, and went about their business (birding).  The ABA and various Bird Record Committees made decisions, big decisions, in relative isolation and with relative impunity.  For example, I can still remember the uproar that was caused when the ABA (allegedly) forcibly removed Papa Echo Lima from his throne (Editor of Birding), and there was a huge backlash from the birding community.  Many high-ranking birders were furious, and quit the ABA altogether. Think about that for a second, and put it in your pocket...we will take it out for another look later.

The very fabric of birding rapidly began changing in the 90's with the wide availability of the internet.  First, there was email, which led to listservs, and easy communication with birders around the world.  Next came digital cameras; people could digiscope with point and shoots, and then SLRs became more affordable to the general public, and now people can get good images with their phones. Bird photography was suddenly affordable, and not very difficult either. Birding blogs were springing up left and right.  Then there was social media...most birders were too old to jump on the Myspace train, but they latched on to Facebook and never let go. EBird was the frosting on the cake.

With everyone so connected now, there is a lot of communication going on between birders. It's intense. Birders who aren't even trying to sell you something have legions of Facebook friends/fans, and get huge responses to their photographs or ramblings on whatever it is they feel like expounding upon (be it birds or not)...birders just seem to eat it right up, whether it be pure gold or utter bullshit. The ABA's main FB group has over 6,700 members, and it manages multiple groups, a staggering fact.

One of the best and worst things about all of this, be it in a listserv or in a FB group, is that everyone has a voice.  Now some of you might be thinking, "What do you mean worst? Are you some kind of fascist?  Do you hate birders?", and it is those of you who need to hear this the most.  Birding has suddenly become a democracy.  And when it comes to birding, democracy is often not our friend.



Since we are all connected so closely these days, news of something like a stray Barrow's Goldeneye travels very fast. Everyone is connected, and is capable of getting the word out quickly. This is a good thing. Could there be a downside to this new, interconnected Democracy of Birding?  This is a non-stray Barrow's Goldeneye, photographed near Lake Merritt, Oakland, CA.

Look, it is all well and good when, for example, the ABA asks its members to vote on if they want to add Hawaii to the ABA area or not.  That's great, but it's not really what I'm aiming for here.  I'm talking about far more basic things here...bird identification, for example.

Bird Records Committees, or Bird Police, if you prefer, often function to identify birds. They often are quite good at carrying out these tasks because their members are either very knowledgeable, very experienced, or willing to listen to those who know more than they do...preferably all three.  With the occasional exception, they correctly identify birds that are often very difficult to identify.

Now consider attempting bird identification with this model in the public birding arena.  This should not be difficult to imagine, since it happens constantly...but I digress.  There are a lot of birders out there, a lot of new birders...and as there always has been, a lot of birders who are not good at identifying birds.  So what happens when a bunch of random birders get together to identify birds?

Chaos.

This is the fundamental distinction between democracy as a political system and democracy when it comes to birding...there is only one right answer.  The backyard birder's opinion on fall warbler identification is not as worthy as the person who bands hundreds of warblers during fall migration every year.  I'm not trying to be harsh, just stating a simple, logical truth...no reason to get all sore about it.

The Democratization of Birding and the internet go hand in hand. If you are a birder and have spent any time on the internet, you know what I am talking about. Someone will post a picture of a bird somewhere, and disturbingly often a bunch of people will collectively decide what the bird is.  They will vote on it! Even if someone, even if multiple people correctly identify the bird using sound and unassailable logic, they may get drowned out.  The birders getting the bird wrong often inexplicably get their feelings hurt when they are corrected, and claim they are being attacked! It is insane. The level of butthurt that emerges from these minor disagreements boggles the mind.

Democratic birding raises its many-faced head in other debates as well...escapees vs. natural vagrants, the effects of climate change on birds, and all manner of theories on why some birds show up in particular places (do you remember Hurricane Sandy?)...you know, birders can disagree on just about everything. The fact that the vast majority of birders do not have a background in science compounds the amount of confusion in discussions that veer from the topic of bird ID.  The potential for misinformation to spread unchecked is very high and has been sustained for some time now. I'm going through a blatant example this right now in another browser window, looking at SFBirds...are there three Indigo Buntings in Golden Gate Park?  Is the female a Lazuli?  Is the HY bird a Indigo X Lazuli?  Is this the first breeding record for the county?  Did they even breed in the park?  Bunting Chaos.  Luckily, the birder known as The Rustic Bunting Hero has stepped in, in an attempt to quell the masses...but a flareup of Bunting Unrest is just around the corner.



When you are a birder and pay a lot of attention to listservs, the Birdosphere, and Facebook groups, it's all too easy to want to make like a dowitcher and dunk your head under water for an unhealthy period of time in order to keep the thousands of voices at bay. Fortunately for these Short-billed Dowitchers, they will never know the pain of getting in to an internet fight with a bitter birder thousands of miles away. Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, Oakland, CA.

So what is the mechanism for all this confusion?  All this hate?  It is twofold. First, some birders mistakenly believe that everyone's opinion is equally important when it comes to bird identification, where a bird comes from, etc. Well...a bird can only be one thing, and some of us are better equipped to know that bird's story than others.  There is only one right answer, and that is usually in our collective grasp.  Most birds are not first cycle, heavily worn hybrid gulls, nor are they distant murrelets with confusing facial features seen from a mile away, nor are they Yellow Grosbeaks of questionable provenance (providence???). Most birds are knowable.  Clearly, we should always tend to defer to the most experienced, most trustworthy birders, because they are the ones who will mostly like get the identification right, which is the primary goal here for most birders. A dozen beginning and sketchy birders are usually not as qualified as one good birder to tell a Lesser Yellowlegs from a Greater, a Semipalmated Sandpiper from a Western. Second, being unfamiliar with the reputation of other birders can make one assume that they aren't highly skilled.  That is totally excusable for beginners of course, not being around for very long and whatnot, but that doesn't mean we can't give people the benefit of the doubt when debating ID with unknown birders. I even know someone, a very capable birder actually, who stated that he doesn't trust field guides (I mean books, not people) if he doesn't personally know the authors...gross. Lets not go that far. If everyone who doesn't personally know Steve Howell opens up Rare Birds of North America and thinks "this guy is a complete wanker", then the wonderful world of birding as we know it would simply not exist.

So what is the solution to all of this?  Unfortunately, I don't have one for you.  This is why we so badly need the Global Birder Ranking System to release its data on the world's birders.  The fact that they have all the world's birders skillsets catalogued (from social skills to subspecific storm-petrel ID), with ranks updated daily, is truly a tremendous feat...but the day they go public may never come.

























If I posted this photo to whatbird.com or any number of Facebook birding groups asking for ID help, there would be wild conjecture.  Good guesses with good evidence would just get lost in the shuffle of folks crying out for TENNESSEE WARBLER! or ANOTHER VOTE FOR LEAST FLYCATCHER!...and I don't think that is constructive for anyone.  Since I know you are wondering, this is actually a Bell's Vireo. Funny to see that single new feather coming in, since this shot was taken in spring. Photographed at South Padre Island, TX.

On the flipside, why don't you take that fateful decision regarding Papa Echo Lima out of your pocket. If that decision with that editor happened today, in 2015, the ABA would face a catastrophic backlash as soon as the news broke. Hundreds of people would be taking up arms on Facebook, denouncing them for what they had done, shaming and trolling to no end.  The birdosphere would be aflame with hate. For good or ill, it probably never would have happened if the birding community has the collective voice that it does now. The new Democracy of Birding is not inherently evil, but it's getting a little too close to The Dark Side of Birding for comfort...but perhaps we will have to live with that if we continue to take advantage of this open and free exchange of ideas.

Actually, no...there is room for improvement. Don't be a dick. Don't get butthurt. Think before you type. Don't throw your bullshit hat into the ring if you know your hat is covered in bullshit, unless you admit it up front (people actually do this a lot, it does not go unappreciated). If you are going to challenge experts, by all means do (it's quite fun, actually), but back your claims with evidence. When someone posts a picture of a real Gray Hawk, do not reply with a hilariously dismissive "not convinced" and then quit the Facebook group after you are corrected (this really happened). Simply, be excellent to each other. With so much we can all learn, I hope birders carry on with this haphazard democracy in the right way, but only time will tell.

27 comments:

  1. Citing Wheaton's Law....good luck with that!

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    1. Had to look that one up, nice nerd reference.

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  2. Lurker here...Thank you for this perspective!

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. Good one Steve, as usual, like your perspective. One small thing- it's the rustic bunting hero we honor here.

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    2. I realized the error of my bunting ways earlier, it has been corrected to be bunting honor accurate. The Little Bunting Hero resides in Humboldt.

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  4. I think this is your magnum opus, bro.

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  5. Bullseye. c.f. The Andy Letter on Car Talk:
    http://www.cartalk.com/content/andy-scale-0

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  6. Dammit...just realized after doing laundry that I still had Papa Echo Lima in my pocket...

    Anyway, great post, something that should be included as mandatory reading in the future Beginning Birders lexicon, after we take over and birding courses become mandatory.

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    1. Papa Echo Lima is sturdy and can be laundered repeatedly, it is known. Thanks Laurence!

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  7. Thanks for the O-Kay on throwing my bullshit stained hat into the fray whenever I have a hunch, (so long as I mention I know nothing). As of now I have kept my comments to myself.

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    1. I'm looking forward to your gross hat making an appearance.

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  8. I read your post over breakfast today, and this afternoon watched it unfold live on Facebook:

    https://www.facebook.com/groups/whatsthisbird/permalink/893762877339106/

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  9. Steve, don't know if you are a fan of or even know of Car Talk - NPR show, based in MA, but c.f. http://www.cartalk.com/content/andy-scale-0

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    1. Don yes, I saw your comment from earlier, that is exactly what we have on our hands. At least the Tappet brothers would at least admit they had no idea what they were talking about sometimes, you don't get that much in these birding forums.

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  10. yes tis true.. ..in many areas as well but glad you put it out there and so eloquently.

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  11. Love the post. Many great points. One extra wrinkle is the challenge of figuring out exactly who the experts are. For a new birder, you might just assume that any of the heavy posters on a listserv are experts. But that's certainly not always the case. I can't wait for wikileaks to hack into the Global Birder Ranking System so we can really know who's who!

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    1. Yeah I don't really see a solution for that, other than maybe linguistic cues? I think an inexperienced birder might be able to take a hint from someone who is talking about tertial patterns, curve of the culmen, primary extension, etc. Of course, there are hella sketchy birders out there who can talk about all those things as well, but those of us who have been doing this for a while tend to have a larger lexicon to work with than beginners.

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