Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Human Birdwatcher Project Presents: Sketchy Birders Part I

The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive has a near-flawless reputation, mustache and all.

So there is a phenomenon in the birdwatching realm known as "misidentification". This simply alludes to identifying a bird as the wrong species. Nonbirders, for example, misidentify almost everything. They call jays bluebirds, finches sparrows, vultures hawks, herons storks....that kind of thing. Beginning birdwatchers, who may have only been into it for a couple of years or less, are extremely prone to this, but most will readily admit that they are not very good yet. They are generally a humble bunch. No big deal, right?

Misidentification becomes a problem when you are a full-blown bird addict, let alone when you are doing actual Science. You need to see birds. Lots of them, particularly unusual ones or ones you've never seen before. At this point in your birding career, properly identifying birds becomes a Big Deal, for several reasons.

1) Pride. You now have a reputation that you probably care about. The better birder you are (i.e. your ability to find and accurately identify birds), the better your reputation is.

2) Since a lot of birds are relatively hard to identify (see pictures of the Common Rosefinch, for example), you need to be sparticularly sharp, or you might miss that Rosefinch thats mixed in with the House Finches at your own feeder.

3) If someone misidentifies a Least Sandpiper for a Temnick's Stint, your 6-hour drive to some god-foresaken sewage pond will be pointless, and you will be pissed.

And so, identifying things correctly is not only important for you to do personally, but you (the average birder) will think its important for other people to do as well. Otherwise, they might not notice that funny looking Bewick's Wren was actually a Dusky Warbler......or, even worse....the Dusky Warbler they told everyone they saw was actually a Bewick's Wren.

Get it? So let's dip a toe into The Heart Of The Matter here. Because people are really excited about seeing new/rare birds, and they often want people to know that they found said rare birds, their emotions can get in the way. Unintentionally, they will simply will a bird to be what they want.  And you know what? It's happened to all of us. Even me.  Even The Great Ornithologist, Felonious Jive...although that was just once. Often we will come to our senses or be faced to examine some crucial piece of evidence and end up making The Right Call, but for some people....that just doesn't happen. Ever. They become chronic misidentifiers. And since birders are always reporting (aka bragging) about what they see (or think they see), people start to pick up on this after a while.

Something you may not realize, nonbirders, is that birders love to gossip. Those of us who miraculously have the ability to carry on a conversation (which is no small feat for a diehard birder) love talking about other birders. We revel in discussing is who has been finding all the hot birds lately, who we think are great, who we think are assholes, and who we can and can't trust. Yeah, it's petty, but being's all we've got sometimes. Anyways, those "loose cannons" out there are quickly named, and then the rumor mill distributes these soiled reputations accordingly. If you're a long-time birder and have never taken part in one of these might have some cause for concern. We might be talking about you.

This is a topic that I may have touched on before (I checked the 2008 archives just to make sure....boy, that was weird), but if must be discussed further. Part II is coming soon. A big thanks to The Human Birdwatcher Project for sponsoring this fascinating research.


  1. If you think birders are bad gossips, you should see bird bloggers when they get together.

    Pan. D. Monium.

    At least that's what I've heard...

  2. I, for one, have no idea what Nate is talking about.

    I do know that we have some birders in the New York area that are legendary for their reports...

  3. I've said too much. Clearly I need to go underground or something.

  4. Ive yet to hang out with another self-confessed bird blogger. I don't know if I could handle our combined nerd-powers.

  5. SO true. As a professed total-crap pretty-much-non-birder, I did enjoy when a friend (and former professor and former SD Audubon president) of mine years ago listened to me relate the story of someone (birder) who swore he'd seen a frigate bird seen soaring over the Point Loma peninsula in San Diego. "Prof" asked who it was. I told him. He looked at me and said in his best professorial voice: "He's full of shit. Always has been. Nobody trusts anything he says." Ah. Tell me how you really feel (part of what I loved about that guy). So, I did NOT count it as a bird on the peninsula virtual-list-in-my-head. =)

    And another birder is trusted 100% to species identification and not at all re: number (for CBC, etc.).

  6. Misidentifying about embarrassing...

  7. I don't know what you're talking about, but there's an entire flock of frigatebirds circling over my house right now.

  8. I should probably start telling random birders "yeah, I saw a frigatebird this morning. In fact its sitting on me right now"...which would be true, since there is one permanently engraved onto my leg..