Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Proctologist, The House Finch, and The eBird Checklist

Birders run the gamut from utterly boring to insufferable to eccentric to assholes to flat out crazy. Some are even fun to be around. All may not be interesting, but most are weird, whether the weirdness is worn on the sleeve or buried deep down inside where it grows and festers and makes you a little sicker every day. It is known. I could talk about it, but I'm not gonna. Sorry.

What is fascinating is how a birder's use of eBird can really highlight certain personality traits that would not be so obvious.  Yes, eBird not only sciences, keeps your lists for you, and tells you where to find birds, it is a tool of expression!  Why do you think people actually get banned from eBird? It's not just because they are sketchy birders, I will tell you that much.

But I'm not going to go down the wide and worn path of inflated numbers or misidentifications or not reporting perfectly chaseable rarities until it is too late.  Anyone can whinge about that. I'm going to talk about a singular phenomenon; the pointless checklist.

EBirding can be fun. I get it. I've eBirded humorous things, whether just to log a county tick or a new patch bird or to add a bird to a day list. Guilty! Right here!  What I am talking about is how certain people go out of their way to eBird everything, because it is in their obsessive nature, and because they are somehow under the belief that they are making an important contribution to science.

Look, birding is not inherently science, I'm sorry. It's just not. Live someplace where there are lots of Rock Pigeons? Don't worry about doing an incidental checklist for every one you see. Really, don't. How about someplace where there is a thriving grackle population?  Trust me, grackle students will not hold it against you for not busting out an eBird checklist when you see one fly over the freeway. Just because you see a House Finch while driving to the proctologist and enter it in eBird does not make it sweet sweet valuable science. There are a number of eBird users out there who enter the proverbial House Finch into eBird while doing the proverbial drive to the proctologist office. Sure you have entered it into a data depository, and maybe that brings you satisfaction...but have you thought it through?  Or is this just an obsessive-compulsive tendency that eBird has decided to drag out of your brain?

This is the kind of checklist I'm talking about...the proctology House Finch. It is one thing if you go birding someplace for 20 minutes and all you see is a Mourning Dove. That sucks, I feel bad for you. You squeeze all the satisfaction you can out of putting that MODO in eBird, you earned it. Not only did you document a Mourning Dove, you also documented that there was nothing else observed at the time, which can actually be more valuable information than your dove sighting. You were looking specifically for birds, not doing anything else, and you saw what you saw. Great. Again, this is not a bad checklist...it is the Proctology House Finch that grinds the gears of many birders.

Proctology House Finch is, of course, something that should be entered as an "incidental" checklist. Most eBird users know that, whether they feel the compulsion to get every single bird they see into eBird or they only use it once a month. You are not really birding when you see Proctology House Finch, you are on your way to the proctologist, of course. If you are not entering your proctology birds as incidentals, you have brought great shame and dishonor to you and your family. Now that we have established this, I'll borrow a quote from the eBird website: "The importance of using Incidental Observations only as a last resort cannot be...overstated. Data recorded without effort are of use for more limited analyses, typically mapping and seasonal distribution information."

Do you see?  It really is that simple.  Unless you are entering an incidental observation of an uncommon or seasonally uncommon bird, or are in an area poorly represented in eBird data, there is really no point in eBirding the Proctology House Finch unless it's to beef up one of your own lists, or worse, to boost your number of total submitted checklists, which is embarrassing. Here in Alameda County, entering all my House Finches I see (which is a lot, they nest in my house) into eBird really does not contribute any sort of knowledge to anyone; they are abundant, well-established, year-round residents captured in other checklists constantly and there is no one who needs to be convinced of this...so both on a practical and statistical level, Proctology House Finch would not accomplish anything.  Maybe if we had some nuclear fallout to deal with, I might change my tune.

Proctology House Finches ultimately serve no other purpose besides scratching some itch in your own head...an itch that all other eBird users can now see. Rest easy, anxious eBird users...you don't have to eBird all birds. The birds, and eBird, are going to be ok without your constant vigilance. Maybe you could focus your energies on educating people on outdoor cats, or finding Vague Runts.

Remember, eBird is not just a scientific and birding tool...it is also a window to the soul.

12 comments:

  1. You can be banned from eBird? Please tell me you know someone who has been banned and a human birdwatcher project is already in the works...

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    1. This one resulted in a ban.

      http://seagullsteve.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-human-birdwatcher-project-presents.html

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    2. Ooh, forgot about that guy. Perhaps Steve can interview him for a "Where are they now?" kind of piece.

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    3. He is probably giddily pretending that it never happened.

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    4. He ain't the only one with a ban though.

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  2. The thing that pisses me off the most is the January 1st midnight checklist. I get that some people want to start a new year list immediately, and some birds very well might be observed at Zulu hour. But I am talking about the people who clearly only want to be the first person to log Northern Cardinal for the year.

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    1. I would totally be guilty of that if I lived someplace with an avifauna that was not postapocalyptic and I wasn't incredibly intoxicated every year.

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  3. I can't believe I'm enough of an eBird geek to point this out but incidental checklists no longer count in total checklists submitted. So the proverbial proctological House Finch incidental checklist wouldn't even beef up your total number of checklists.

    What I find amazing is that the top number of checklists entered into eBird this year is 5,150 (by someone named David Suddjian) which means that he has been entering 21.8 checklists a day, or nearly 1 every hour, asleep or not. Talk about obsessive-compulsive!

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    1. Oh yeah, word of his eBird statistics has traveled far and wide. I am grateful that I have other things to do besides eBird.

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  4. We had a local birder that would enter a checklist for movement of certain birds. So, one for the bird at the feeder. Then a second for them now in a tree. Needless to say, they no longer are on ebird.

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