Sunday, March 27, 2016

HBP Presents: Hybrid Theory Revisited

As the #7 birder in the U.S., I am a public figure. Even my nonbirder friends introduce me to others as #7, inevitably leading to wide eyes and gaping mouths. It's a ranking that should not be taken with nonchalance, and rest assured I do not take it lightly. I have no choice but to wear many hats...teacher, mentor, arbiter, birding tastemaker, identification wizard, dispenser of wisdom to all. Periodically I am compelled to call out to the dark and huddled birding masses when I can no longer bear their confusion and pain. I am nothing if not compassionate. From Mount Olympus (where the Global Birder Ranking System's Top Ten reside), I will hurl mighty thunderbolts of knowledge down to my people far below. I do it not for myself, but for them....and only when the very future of birding is at stake.

Long-time readers of BB&B are familiar with these disgruntled screeds of mine, and readers usually agree with me...if they are not blinded by rage or butthurt, which any discussion of The Bird Police tends to invoke. In fact, shortly after I admonished birderdom for overusing the cringe-inducing phase, "Birds have wings. They use them.", almost every birder in the entire world cut it from their vocabulary in a matter of months. The birder pandemic was stopped cold in its tracks. What a relief! So if you are wondering what happened with that, now you know. However, there is another topic where I have not had such success. In fact, the problem has grown steadily worse...hybrid theory.

If I posted this booby photo somewhere on the internets today and presented it as a Brown X Red-footed Booby hybrid, a lot of people would be inclined to believe me...despite this hybrid never being documented before. If this were 1996, birders would universally snort and laugh. I miss 1996. This Brown Booby was photographed at the Farallon Islands, CA.

More and more, birders rely on the poorly-constructed crutch of identifying birds as hybrids whenever they look at all atypical. For those who do not drop h-bombs to explain away anything unusual about a bird's appearance, this has become very frustrating. For some leading birders, it is considered one of the biggest problems our people face. Although I cannot speak freely of what goes on in these inner circles, I will admit that Mount Olympus is a pretty sad place to be these days. It's not the Mountain of Glory it used to be...#4 has even started calling it the Mountain of Shame. So what are we to do?

I'm not sure. There is little new to discuss...but the first step in tackling any problem of this magnitude is public awareness. Hybrid theory is here, it is happening now, and no one is safe. If all I can do is talk about it, then that is what I shall do.

The problem remains the same: birders will default to calling a bird a hybrid if it does not fit their rigidly constructed confines for how a species is allowed to appear. The problem becomes particularly pronounced in regard to examining birds in digital photos. It simply is not fact it drags down meaningful conversation about bird identification and how a species may appear. What is new is the increasing tendency for birders to go the hybrid route; a number of birders even fixate on hybrids, mistakenly believing that mixed blood is the answer for anything and everything that can explain a mildly bizarre field mark or two. In fact, proponents of hybrid theory can often get going (get off?) just by seeing photos of a bird that feature unusual lighting or just overall poor quality. It frightens me. Is this what birding has become?

When looking at photos, a lot of birders (including good ones) often think they can land a solid ID without taking bad angles and poor lighting into account. The poor light, weird angle and mildly embarrassing photo quality you see here may render this something it is not. A hybrid theorist would perhaps say [in a very casual, lackadaisical voice, as if lounging in the sun wearing worn-in overalls and chewing a piece of straw] it could be, oh, say a Nashville X Yellow Warbler.  However, common sense calls for extraordinary claims to be backed by suitably impressive evidence, which certainly is absent from this photo and in many hybridcentric discussions. Are birders becoming divorced from common sense? This Mourning Warbler was photographed in San Francisco, CA.

Obviously (and I should not even have to say this, but I will) there are a not insignificant number of species that hybridize on the regular - large gulls, ducks, geese, sapsuckers, western flycatchers (is a lump on the horizon?), titmice, some warblers, etc...I know all this. You know all this. Hell, I've seen a Great Knot X Surfbird hybrid. How do you like that? Yet my foundation has not been shaken...not every single bird is fair game for being a hybrid. You can't apply the gull perspective of hybridization and poorly-defined species limits to every other bird. You cannot believe, for example, that Great Frigatebirds are secretly (under cover of darkness?) genetically swamping Magnificent Frigatebirds out of existence...that 10,000 Savannah Sparrows are all going to look like a "textbook" Savannah Sparrow. And if you truly find those ideas plausible...that is why you fail.

My god, look at this! Scaly-breasted Munias have finally started crossing cloacas with White-crowned Sparrows...right? No. This beautiful creature is, logically, a melanistic Song Sparrow. Photographed in Samoa, CA, by Rob Fowler.

Thankfully, cooler heads (generally with higher GBRS scores) usually prevail in these conversations. Usually. Sadly...that is not always the case. Good birders must consider all possibilities when confronted with avian weirdness...but some fall victim to the hybrid [conspiracy] theorists. Good birders can sometimes lose sight of what is realistic, even if there is an ample lack of evidence to shut down someone who is sold on promoting a rarely or never described hybrid as the solution to an ID problem.

If you have gotten this far into the post and are experiencing an unsettling combination of guilt, self-doubt and rage, then you surely have the tendencies that I am decrying above. Search your feelings, you know it to be true. But I say this to you: you can save yourself, quiet those who seek to put an end to the idea of any genetic purity in birds. Let go of your confusion, silence the voice inside you who whispers not of the wonders of natural variation, but of unrelated species conspiring to create unimaginable spawn in a corner of a dark and distant forest. Join me, and we can correct the thousands of hybrid theorists who are overthrowing common sense in a quest to rule the birding galaxy.

Come with me. It is the only way.


  1. Yes! Made it through guilt free!
    I have a hard time sympathizing with hybrid theorists because, in the first place, simple aberrations from a common genetic line seem much more common than the successful crossing of two different genetic lines, especially with most passerines.
    Secondly, hybrid birds are not countable birds, so why would one even WANT it to be a hybrid? Because it's not disprovable, so it is safe.

    I postulate that many of the weaker proponents of widespread or default hybrid theory are, in fact, compensating for a lack of real ID skill (and as someone who lacks real ID skill, I can say this with some confidence).

  2. Wow, I think you're on to something. Like the proverbial frog in the slowly warming pot, I hadn't really noticed this. Why is the trend happening? Perhaps it's just easier to go the sexual deviation route than to put the time into the arcane and occult study of molt and variation.

  3. I'm with you! That melanistic Song Sparrow is a dazzler!

  4. I'm with you! That melanistic Song Sparrow is a dazzler!