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Pissy Politics (Birds of a Feather)

There is the issue of scientific ethics, the issues of collecting, the issue of colonial scientific research and environmentalism, the issue of well-known birders and ornithologists lining up on opposite sides, and the issue of nonprofits in the “selling” of naming rights. Is a bird no different than a football stadium when it comes to a name?

Pissy politics isn’t the exclusive domain of the American democracy. Birding itself can be pissy at times. This morning’s Science published the following story.

Last May, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and its partner in Colombia, Fundación ProAves, announced the discovery of a new species of Neotropical bird. ABC touted the feat as “remarkable” for being one of the first times a new species had been scientifically described from an individual captured, measured, photographed, and then released. For George Fenwick, head of ABC, it was a proud moment: The bird, Fenwick’s antpitta (Grallaria fenwickorum), was named in honor of his family. But the announcement made no mention of the bird’s actual discoverer, a former employee of ProAves named Diego Carantón, and the two preserved specimens he had already collected. How Carantón, his specimens, and the name he had chosen—Grallaria urraoensis—came to be omitted from the taxonomic record is generating bitter debate between Colombia’s leading university ornithologists and ProAves, the country’s best-known private conservation organization, over scientific standards and credit for new discoveries.

Without prejudicing my readers, I will simply say that this article is fascinating on a number of levels. There is the issue of scientific ethics, the issue of collecting, the issue of colonial scientific research and environmentalism, the issue of well-known birders and ornithologists lining up on opposite sides, and the issue of nonprofits in the “selling” of naming rights. Is a bird no different than a football stadium when it comes to a name? Here is a quote from ProAves:

All the intellectual property of the discovery belongs to ProAves, and we have every right to authorize a publication or not, considering the bird was discovered on our reserve,” read one e-mail that Sara Lara, currently director of inter national affairs for ABC, sent to scientists and ProAves staff.

Here are important links to the story. Thanks to everyone who has forwarded me the pertinent links. Please feel free to send others if they help flesh out this story.

  • Decription of new species by Ayala-Caronton and Cubrillos in May 2010 issue of Ornitologia Columbiana
  • Description of new species by Luis Felipe Barrera, Avery Bartels, and Fundación ProAves de Colombia in the ProAves publication Conservacion Columbiana
  • Article in Science (for fee)
  • Editorial in Conservation Columbiana outlining the ProAves position
  • Editorial in Ornitolgia Columbiana responding to ProAves
  • Editorial in Conservacion Columbiana responding to Ornitologia Columbiana

Here are questions that come to me. How is a bird “intellectual property?” Does this imply that any organism found on private property is owned, at least from an intellectual property stand point, by the property owner? Does this also imply that the property owner rather than the discoverer retains naming rights?

Perhaps this quote from the article helps put this point into perspective. The quote is from David Caro, identified in the article as the outgoing director of ProAves.

When Carantón eventually decided to publish the discovery independently—and name the bird G. urraoensis, after the local municipality of Urrao—ProAves countered by hosting a hastily arranged field expedition. In May 2010, two junior field guides scooped Carantón, publishing a description of G. fenwickorum in ProAves’s in-house magazine, Conservación Colombiana, grabbing the right to name the bird. “It came down to the name,” says Caro. “We needed the name to raise more funds.”

There is a personal irony in this ivory-billed-woodpecker-type flap. I have been personally involved in intellectual property disputes with some of the same people raising the question now. I guess it just depends on which shoe and whose foot.

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Ted Lee Eubanks

Ted Lee Eubanks

Ted Lee Eubanks is president and CEO of Fermata Inc. an Austin-based global leader is sustainable tourism and outdoor recreation. Eubanks and Fermata were responsible for developing the first birding trails, in Texas, in the early 1990s. He has served on the national boards of Audubon and the CLO, and received the first ABA Chan Robbins Award in 2000. Eubanks writes extensively about birds, conservation, and sustainability, and has coauthored two books about birds (The Birdlife of Houston, Galveston, and the Upper Texas Coast, and Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail). To continue his work connecting people to places, birders to birds, Eubanks has formed a new company, Great American Trails, which is using new technologies to attract new constituents to the outdoors.
Ted Lee Eubanks

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