Thursday, August 8, 2013

"Caution Is Always Warranted": A Conversation on Bird Policing with Officer Adam Searcy

The Human Birdwatcher Project ("Birders are people too!") is happy to bring you another soon-to-be-legendary interview, this time with one of the most powerful and mysterious people in world of birding. That's right: today, you will be hearing from a real live member of the Bird Police.

Officer Adam Searcy is a current member of the California Bird Records Committee (CBRC), which of course is California's Bird Police department. After he went through the CBRC's rite of passage (which consists of murdering and stuffing 6 Barn Owls in one night), Officer Searcy was granted the power to break a birder's spirit when he votes to reject their submission of a rare bird record; conversely, with a vote to accept, Officer Searcy can permit a birder's wildest dreams to come true. During his brief reign of power, he has already been dogged by rumors of accepting drugs, cash, and particularly heinous sex acts in order to vote to accept certain records; but despite the merciless birder rumor mill, none of these allegations have been proven, and no senior Bird Police members have moved to impeach. As long as BB&B did not bring any of this up, Officer Searcy was kind enough to sit down for a very deep interview that covers everything from the CBRC to his intensely secret personal birding life. Today we cover the side of Officer Searcy that is all things Bird Police.

BB&B: You are a bird policeman. How did that come to pass? What is it like to protect and serve the birding community?

Officer Searcy: I wake up every day surprised at the position I hold.  It boggles my mind, daily, right before breakfast, then it slowly sinks in—but I wake up the next day and it starts all over again at boggled.  I somehow convinced a group of old men (and one younger woman and some Mexican kid ) that I was capable of correctly identifying rare birds and meting out punishment to the birding community for mis-identifying the same rare birds.  I expected my nomination to pass without incident (i.e., without consequence, i.e., without my getting on to the committee.)  The fact that Jon Dunn and other luminaries were convinced not to veto my appointment is astounding (if vetoes are even allowed).  If The Godfather could have vetoed me, I’m sure that he would have.  I hear that my tardiness in record submission was pointedly mentioned...

What is it like to be a bird policeperson—to protect and to serve—I’m glad you asked me that question, Steve.  It’s basically like being a non-bird policeperson, but minus the weapons, chick-magnet uniform, and relevant authority—and with a very different beat.  Paperwork—it boils down to reading lots of reports and looking at lots of photographs.  Most difficult for me has been the fear that I am going to accept something only to find that the record goes 8-1 and I was the only idiot that misidentified a bird in a photograph—cue derisive laughter from Dunn, Pyle, McCaskie, et al.  Drown in tears—resign committee position—hara-kiri. That sort of thing.

Officer Searcy, being a hot-shit birder, found Cave Swallows at the Salton Sea last winter. The Global Birder Ranking System awarded him a fantastic 30 points, and the California birderscape has not been the same since. Photo by Officer Searcy.

Interpreting photos is huge; the identification of birds in photos is an acquired skill that many birders neither have nor cultivate, and one which is essential, obviously, in evaluating records. And that shit can be really hard (I hate public photo quizzes).  For example: a recent Hawaiian Petrel record had one photo that I immediately decided was a Cookilaria—only to find that Peter Pyle had also thought this. Specifically, he thought it might be a Black-winged Petrel, a bird I could not have named without reference consultation.

I smell the Two Bird Theory coming.

The photographer (thank God) had taken several photos—all of the others clearly showed a Dark-rumped Petrel—and had taken this photo within that sequence.  Others present confirmed that there was one bird. The lighting in this one photo was so fucked up that it turned this thing into a totally different animal.  A cautionary tale?  Yes.  Caution is always warranted.

We must proceed with caution, forever and always. Reckless birding can lead to felony vagrant misidentification.

My least favorite aspect of being a birding "official" is the fear that I am going to go birding when there are a bunch of people around and have someone ask a question about a particular ID challenge. I turn and have neither Jon Dunn nor Oscar Johnson nor any memory of relevant field marks applicable to the case at hand (I have had situations close to this actually occur).  I used to be able to ignore people when they asked such questions—now I feel obligated to provide an accurate and somewhat intelligent answer.  Fuck.  I guess this is what forces you to learn how to better teach bird identification, which (they say) makes you better at identifying birds.

What can California birders expect from the current bird police? How long will they insist on pointless descriptions when crushing photos are obtained? Many birders are looking to you to crack down on the epidemic of horrible misidentifications of rare birds.

The current crowd is really the same crowd that has been voting on birds for decades— a few names have changed, some surgeries have been performed, but that's about it—I look to the recent past to guess how they will act/react/vote, and have used past records to inform my own philosophy on such sticky situations as "seagull" ID.  I am still scrabbling about trying to come up with a personal voting philosophy—I have found that it's hard to standardize one's voting habits.  Some days I think we should burn all records that don't have diagnostic photographs.  Other days I want to accept everything.  I blame the lunar cycle.

I agree that the written description insistence is ridiculous; however, I think what most members are actually insisting on is some written context for photographs, which I support.  This can be a simple description describing lighting conditions, time of day, details regarding optics and anything not obvious in the photos. This can be invaluable in interpreting weird looking pictures (N.B.—I have seen relevant written details ignored completely even when they describe aspects of the bird that are not visible in the photo...).

Nothing interrupts my sleep like the perpetuation of a fucking misidentified bird.  I hate it (see photo at left - SS).  I understand/accept/commit in-the-moment mistakes—they are embarrassing, but inevitable and not uncommon: everyone makes them (e.g., just the other day, a sandpiper of common occurrence was identified as a sandpiper of slightly-less-common occurrence by one "Don Mastwell"—similarly, several months ago, I called a Whimbrel a Long-billed Curlew—in front of Felonious mother-fucking Jive, no less!).  Such mistakes are usually corrected very quickly, either by another birder or by later photo examination, or by anyone who can tell the three species of phalaropes apart.  These are trivial things—non-trivial is when someone “sees” a bird that they insist was a rarity even after the photos are examined (“I photographed the wrong bird” and other tripe) or after other birders search for and find a suggestive individual of a more common species.   Thankfully, no such "records" scar my past—anyone who thinks otherwise is welcome to come forward*.

*(Officer Searcy was heard to mutter something like "if they want to be destroyed" under his breath at this point)

No one knows what really goes on at bird committee meetings. Are there hooded cloaks and sacrifices? Does everyone call Guy McCaskie "Godfather"? Are you even allowed to look him in the eye?

Star Wars, Episode IV, top-level meeting on The Death Star:  Darth Vader uses The Force and makes a dude spit what appears to be a raw egg onto the table before Admiral Tarkin stops him.  It’s similar to that scene, but without uniforms.  And no Admiral Tarkin.

I have only been to one meeting but I expect it was somewhat representative.  Birds are a major topic of conversation.  By-laws are mentioned frequently, and sometimes physically consulted (although Dunn has them just about memorized).

Fascinating and unexpected.

I can't talk details without fear of severe punitive measures at the next meeting.

Guy definitely holds power—he is intimately involved with everything, except voting.  But he has a hell of a lobbying position as secretary.  He is also an invaluable asset.  Constant constructive and frequently hilarious commentary.  If anyone has been birding with him, they know what I mean.  He's a very quick witted and very funny man.  His eventual descent from the position of Secretary will be a serious blow to the committee. To answer the last part of your question: you can glance him in the eye—looking is too much.

Some birders have a deep mistrust for the bird police, for a number of reasons. There even appears to be a sort of divide in the birding community; those who worship the bird police like gods and those who think the bird police rule with a sort of right-wing, heavy and atavistic hand. What do you think have been some of the worst miscues of bird committees in the past? What could the nation's bird police departments be doing better? 

I’m glad you brought this question to the table, Seagull—it's important stuff.  Committee relevance is something over which the birding community is in total control—if people neglect to submit records, The Committee quickly becomes irrelevant.  The Committee must strive to engage the birding community in a positive give/take relationship.  I feel that most of the hostility (God that’s funny—hostility within the birding community) stems from a few cases regarding sensitive records and individuals (peruse Muscivora records for one prime example) —but I could be wrong.  It is definitely a top-down relationship and can appear heavy-handedly atavistic (a word I cherish, especially as an insult—excellent usage, Steve—perhaps you should have consulted for TPAD), especially to young/new members of the community.

Unfortunately but necessarily, individuals must be evaluated alongside their records (especially single observer records and especially single observer sight records).  If the Committee blindly reviewed any photo sent to them without knowing anything about an individual and their reputation, then we could be accepting some egregious shit.  All you need is a picture of a White-collared Swift against blue sky and you can send it in and say you took it over a shopping center in Ridgecrest.  Identifying individuals who accrue long-term and consistent patterns of wackiness (lots of rarities that are not photographed and which no one else sees, etc.) is necessary—the tricky part comes in determining what this wackiness means—is the observer out birding alone 8+ hours 286 days per year (and actually seeing all of this wacky shit)?  Or are they out 24 days a year, magically happening upon mega-shit (i.e., actually seeing none of this wacky shit)?

Officer Searcy with Don Mastwell, a shorebird expert well-known for his expansive and cunning use of vocabulary. Sandals are one of the few required components of the Bird Police uniform. 

In these cases, Committee members must rely on their own relationships with observers and what they can gather from other members and from the whole birding community.  This can be a difficult path to tread—bad blood can boil over into reviewing what would otherwise be a straightforward record, and toes can easily be bloodily crushed into oblivion.  The risk with conservative voting is that valid records might be rejected due to opinions/rumors/facts about personal character and trustworthiness—but this is better than promiscuous voting which might result in sleep-interrupting shit records being perpetuated.  It's simply a dangerous business, policing the birding world.

What could we be doing better...Lots more than I am going to write about here.  Communication, namely (but far from limited to) the following: better outreach and education regarding The Committee's purposes and methods, the actual “fate” of records, and Committee decision’s bearing on individuals and individual lists.  If Felonious Jive is convinced that he saw a Little Stint and the committee is not convinced, he can still count it on his state list, county list, etc., the consequences to his reputation be damned (I am aware that this could be an issue if one is closely vying for a top spot in a global (e.g., GBRS), state or local listing category—but this is rare).  I'm not being naive here—I know that most birders take it as a personal assault on their abilities when a record is rejected.

In most cases it neither is nor should be an assault on the individual, but rather an interpretation of what the individual noted and how they noted it (whether that notation was sketches, a written description, photos, or all of these).  The Committee needs to be sure that decisions are shown to be addressing the record, with the caveat that an individual's reputation and past history are essential to an interpretive framework regarding any record.

Right, which is where the Global Birder Ranking System comes in to play.

For me, it boils down to this—If there are any doubts about a bird’s identity, records committees should not accept them.  IMPORTANT: this does not damn these records to an irrelevant hell but, rather, to a modestly relevant purgatory.  The records are still archived, and any researcher is free to re-evaluate them in the future and treat them as valid/invalid as they so desire (and at their peril…)  In short, a rejected record is not instantly and forever damned to irrelevance (some of them are damned before they are even submitted) but remains a record of an observation and is permanently archived alongside the accepted records (they aren’t even in different drawers).

At this point, Officer Searcy is quiet for some time, then blurts out something completely unexpected:

I would love to be the first assassinated member of the CBRC.

Hmmm...a diplomatic yet twisted response. I always considered the "natural origin" question to be the bane of any Bird Police department...California hasn't had a truly problematic bird in that vein in a few years, but just wait until the next Silky-Flycatcher or Blue Mockingbird turns up...if you vote the wrong way, you might look out your window one night to see a crowd of enraged birders burning your house down. There is no shortage of birders (many rather good) who struggle with taking the Bird Police seriously...some have reasons more valid than others.

And let's be real; the vast majority of rejected records will not have Christ-like resurrections, to be accepted by the world and welcomed with open arms. Some of the surprising provenance-uncertain records have some potential to rise from the dead, however.

You spoke of public outreach. I think it would be exciting if the nomination and election of new CBRC members were a bigger event, with a lot more drama and festivities involved...perhaps certain birders would not view the bird police like the KGB or Gestapo if there was some kind of birder red carpet event. Hell, I could even live blog it. Thoughts?

Another excellent idea, Steve.  I think secrecy is the enemy of free birders around the globe.  Perhaps we need a Bradley Manning/Edward Snowden of the CBRC to crack things wide open.  It is an insular affair, to be sure, but what alternatives are there?  A vote of the people?

Sure. Felonious Jive could be the whip for the Whiskey Delegation.

We could have an Egypt on our hands.  Festivities, however, I can support.  I think the annual meeting should be telecast globally and with great fanfare.  We could call in experts to weigh in on ID issues and have celebrity guest reviewers for problem groups.  A birder beauty pageant (i.e., a beauty pageant staged for birders, but not with actual birders competing) could be arranged.  A BB&B live-blogging would be necessary!

Birder media is already buzzing with who might be elected to the next bird police administration. Who would you pick to serve that hasn't already been on the committee?

I think Dan Maxwell would be a good committee man—he’d have to leave his woman behind, though, as this is a full time job.  Couples need not apply.  I also think that D. van der Pluym of Colorado River fame and [Lauren Harter] would be assets to the committee (separately—not as coevals).  They both have their hands, heads and various other parts well inserted into the ornithological happenings of Arizona at present, so this might be a few years down the road.  Additionally, I think that Felonious Jive has serious potential as a committee man.

I don't know if there is room in any list enforcement agency for a man as crude and foul as Felonious Jive, The Great Ornithologist. I'm sure he appreciates the sentiment though.

The second half of Officer Searcy's interview will be up soon. In the mean time, be sure to get your overdue reports of review birds in, and check the footwear of any new birder you meet.


  1. Outstanding blog post! Well done Adam.

  2. This interview is astounding in its depth and downright virtuosic in its lofty banter. Please tell me you're kidding that there's another half though.

    1. The Human Birdwatcher Project appreciates your kind words. There IS a second half, but its not about bird policing.

  3. That's reassuring. Between this interview and the Bachelorette finale, I don't know if I can take any more shocking revelations for a while.

  4. I didn't find the Bachelorette finale too shocking... uh.. I mean, uh... what? Since when are police uniforms chick-magnets? And now that I see the Bird Police wear sandals, well, it's all over for them too. I WOULD like to see this election night red carpet affair, keep that idea on the table.

    1. Yeah I'm pretty sure the only chicks attracted to policemen (of law, not birds) are chicks I would not want to hang out with.

  5. Bah! Records Committees!

    Records were made to be broken, which is why Committee members are nothing more than uber-enfranchised Janitors with a bit of elan!

    Which is why the proletariot are rising!

    Which is why my 19 records of Red-legged Kittiwake in San Diego should be accepted.

    (A-tops Pappy van Winkel class interview).