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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

Latest posts by Ted Lee Eubanks (see all)

  • Naming rights is one thing. I don’t have an opinion on that, but…

    I think it is shameful to not mention the original discoverer of the bird. That is a seminal moment in anyone’s life, and for it to not even make the announcement is short-sghted and sends the wrong message to our Latin American partners.

    I hope some attempt is made to make up for it.

    If nothing else, what if Birding magazine invites ProAves and Diego to submit an article about their find. It may lessen the sting and demonstrate respect for their role in this amazing discovery.

  • Laura: Indeed, Birding has been covering this story. Check out:

    Birding, July 2010, p. 22

    Birding, November 2010, pp. 14-16

    Birding, January 2011, pp. 12-17

    And a little birdie tells me there may more to come… 😉

  • Good news, Ted. Relief.

    And thanks for pointing it out.

  • Chris W

    Interesting you should post this. I’ve been talking to Diego Calderon about it a bit. Crazy story and some underhanded political stuff going on there. To me, Urrao Antpitta makes the most sense for the common name with the scientific name being G fenwickorum.

  • gralario

    In last part of this post only the ProAves distorted version of the story is referenced (their editorial and paper of the description published IN THEIR VERY OWN MAGAZINE) – However, readers should also be referred to the side of the story that people in academics and birders in Latin America stand by – Blind, wealthy American donors are simply receiving ProAves propaganda; at least there is hope that the Science article works as an eye opener. ABC-ProAves-EcoTours are NOT non-profit organizations in Colombia.

  • Gralario, thanks for the link. I updated the article to include the editorial.


  • Ted:
    A statement has now been posted by ProAves about the circumstances of the
    discovery. This could not be done before as the outcome of an investigation
    by the authorities into the illegal actions of the discoverer in relation to
    the collection was awaited. You can see this at:

    The Science story by Antonio failed to mention that the Colombian regional governmental environmental authority had ruled that Carantón had acted illegally in failing to report the collection of bird specimens from ProAves bird reserve. He was also found to have breached ProAves’ internal regulations. A fine of c.USD $10,600 has been imposed by CORPOURABÁ as a consequence of Mr. Carantón’ sactions.

    The question should be raised – if a bird that cannot be identified within a
    registered protected area, is it acceptable to immediately proceed to
    collect it and keep it secret in the knowledge that it was illegal? What
    precedent does this set for researchers working in protected areas?

    To answer Ted’s earlier point about the intellectual property, I don’t think anyone was suggesting that an NGO has any intellectual rights to discoveries in itsreserves by virtue of land ownership, it’s just that when a paid researcher discovers something in the course of his work, it’s not normally allowed to hide the discovery from the employer and try to publish it independently in secret.

    Due to the successful work Luis Rubelio Garcia (ProAves reserve
    guard) in feeding the species with worms, many people have had the
    opportunity to see this species at close quarters in the ProAves Dusky
    Starfrontlet reserve. It remains the sole location for this Critically
    Endangered species and fortunately the 20-30 pairs are well protected by

  • Thanks, Robert. I had made a reference to that paper (I received the ProAves email yesterday, I believe), but forgot to hyperlink the URL! The link is now live. Thanks.

  • Missing from the links (or did I overlook it?) is the paper describing the bird in the May 2010 issue of Ornitologia Colombiana:

    It is interesting compare this one with the paper published in Conservacion Colombiana.

  • Thanks, Paul. I have reworded the article and included the bullet list of all of the related papers and editorials. Hopefully I have caught them all.

  • A statement has been released by RNOA, the Colombian OSNA/ABA equivalent and unites 21 governmental and non-governamental ornithology associations and birding groups.

    “1.RNOA unconditionally supports the position of the Colombian Association of Ornithology (Asociación Colombiana de Ornitología-ACO, a member of RNOA), regarding the nomination of Grallaria urraoensis as a new species, according to the editorial published in the peer reviewed electronic journal Ornitologia Colombiana

    “2.RNOA does not support illegal activities, any actions that compromise the ethics of ornithological research, nor anything that threatens the dignity and honor of people and their rights. In consequence, RNOA does not support the unethical behavior of Fundación ProAves, an institution that has been questioned on previous occasions for their methods. In this case, they have distorted the situation by pointing fingers at the biologist, Diego
Carantón, a young ornithologist that had every right to publish his discovery of a new species of Grallaria. We respectfully remind the
community that moral rights are indispensable, inalienable, and indefeasible 
principles that have been flagrantly violated by ProAves in this situation.”

    “5.RNOA demands the respect deserved by the Colombian ornithological community and requests that, in the future, its opinion be taken into account before making accusations that put into question the integrity of any of its members. We sincerely hope that future conservation actions undertaken by Fundación ProAves, which we acknowledge and appreciate, will be developed according to ethical principles and through an open dialogue with Colombian Ornithologists.”

    Fot the complete release, go here:

  • Greetings.

    In this link you can find a letter from Michael Patton about this Grallaria mess:

    Also, here is a declaration signed by Diego Lizcano (Curator of the Pamplona University’s Zoological Collection). The document is in spanish, but these are some of the exposed points:

    – The material recieved from proaves (feathers from the holotype of “G. fenwickorum”) was never catalogued.
    – Contrary to the G. fenwickorum description’s statement, there is no tissue collections at the Pamplona University. Therefore, tissue collection No. 699 does not exist.
    – The materias was recieved identified only with the generic name, and the collector’s name.
    – Proaves never informed about the importance of the material. Therefore, the material lacks of the collect permissions documents (Proaves never deliver this material to the museum).
    – Until recently, the material was consider part of the “teaching material”. Now, the material was delivered to a “competent authority” (no name or institution is mentioned)

    As we can see, this is probably the last chapter of this Grallaria episode.



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