Thursday, August 28, 2014

GBRS Rule 8425.8: Exterminating The Mystery Bird

Female and immature Brown-headed Cowbirds are one of the most abundant American Mystery Birds. An impressive portion of birding America are not capable of identifying them, despite their horrific abundance and depressing distribution, which is almost everywhere. Can this bird be difficult to identify? Yes. Is it...mysterious? No. Photographed off of Half Moon Bay, CA.

You may have heard by now...I am the Global Birder Ranking System's #7 U.S. birder. I don't like to talk about it, but I think it serves as a salient starting point for today's topic. With high ranking comes great authority. With great authority comes great power. With great power comes great responsibility.

Today, we are talking about the "Mystery Bird". If you are reading this blog, you know what that means. In fact, taking a different route I have previously tried to put this topic to rest, but the Mystery Bird lives on. The Mystery Bird is as popular and widely distributed as a Bald Eagle or Red-tailed Hawk. But before we get into the current status of the Mystery Bird, a little background.

I began birding in 1994. Back then, we didn't really have the internet. The internet was in a sort of fetal state back then. Birders communicated through phone trees and rare bird hotlines. Mystery birds, per se, did not exist, as there was almost no public, electronic forum for them to be talked about. A few years later, email lists became a popular tool for birders, and the Mystery Bird was born. At first, Mystery Birds were not used in the abundance that you see today. Experienced birders tended to use the phrase, because if you are an experienced birder and saw a bird you could not identify, the bird's identity was truly a mystery. Use of the Mystery Bird title was very select and discrete. So when a Mystery Bird was reported, it often was of interest to many other birders. It was a meaningful phrase.

Orange-crowned warblers are apparently very mysterious. Ugh. Coyote Hills Regional Park, CA.

Now, of course, we are in the Facebook Generation of birding. The usage and meaning of the phrase "Mystery Bird" has changed considerably. The phrase is now most often used by relatively new and inexperienced birders, and it is used a lot. The unsaid but obvious definition of the phrase is "I cannot identify this bird". But inexperienced birders are not supposed to be able to identify everything correctly. We have all gone through this stage; it's part of birding. So now the real meaning of the phrase is: "I cannot identify this bird because I am not good at bird identification." This could, in fact, explain why a certain bird can not be identified...there is nothing mysterious about that. We are left with a simple truth: there is no mystery left in the Mystery Bird. 

Greater Yellowlegs know what it's like to be a Mystery Bird. So do their relatives, Lesser Yellowlegs and Solitary Sandpipers. They should all be renamed "mysterylegs". Famosa Slough, San Diego, CA.

And with this in mind, I come to you bearing exciting news...none other than the Global Birder Ranking System has issued a new ruling regarding Mystery Birds, and I have been authorized to release it! Without further delay, I present it to you in it's entirety:

"Rule 8425.8: A mystery bird is defined as a bird that is extremely difficult to identify by expert birders, even when provided passable documentation. A bird that cannot be identified by inexperienced or otherwise unskilled birders is not mysterious; it is a bird that cannot be identified because said observer does not possess the necessary knowledge and/or skills to make an accurate identification, and/or they failed to obtain useful documentation.

GBRS highly recommends that birders discontinue the use of the phrase "mystery bird" in subject lines of email messages or forum/messageboard posts, or any other context. In recent years, it overwhelmingly and wrongly communicates to other birders that the bird's identity is a mystery. GBRS finds "identification help needed" to be acceptable in place of "mystery bird". Research conducted by GBRS in 2013 concluded that of all ABA Area reported mystery birds, approximately 4 percent warranted that phrase; in 2012, that figure was only 2.9 percent. Since the exact definition of "mystery bird" has become so clouded, experienced birders are now directed to post mystery birds as "interesting"; for example, instead of titling a listserv message "Mystery Bird" or "Mystery Booby", experienced birders will instead post "Interesting Flycatcher", "Interesting Shearwater", etc.

With these new rules in place, please remain conscientious of GBRS Rule 8336.1, which remains in place and reads as follows: "Birders shall not ever, for any reason, title a message "Interesting Bird", as this phrase carries almost no meaning, has been proven to be found exceptionally obnoxious, and is rarely true."

Violation of these rules may result in a decrease in your GBRS score, which could lead to a lowering of rank."

Even the ubiquitous Red-tailed Hawk knows how to play the Mystery Bird role. And if a Red-tailed Hawk can be a popular Mystery Bird, then we know that we cannot tolerate this so-called "mystery" for any longer. Carrizo Plain, CA.

So lets come correct birders. Let our GBRS overlords smile down upon us, and let their love (that we so need and desire) seep into our bones. Let us put the old Mystery Bird on the shelf, and let it collect some dust...forever. I know we can do it...after my colleague and awful friend The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive put "Birds have wings. They use them." in the spotlight, this phrase has almost been extirpated from the ABA birder lexicon.

If we can accomplish this, perhaps one day, birds can have some mystery again.


  1. The next time I don't have enough shits left to scope a distant Tringa at the end of a day, I am totally entering it at eBird as Mysterylegs sp.

  2. Mysterylegs is my new favorite thing.

    Fun Fact: 'Mystery', traced back to its Greek origin, means 'initiated' (like a mystic was initiated into the realm of the spirits, etc.). So only those wearing sufficiently heavy and glorious GBRS mantle could really have a 'mystery' bird.

  3. I agree. People should use "New Species?" instead. ;)

    Btw - one of these days you ought to change your icon to a full eight ball, ala this, but with a 7 on it!

  4. On this and the other post you link to, you don't show juvenile or female American Redstarts or Red-Winged Blackbirds. Maybe the only stump midwesterners.