Nikon Monarch 7

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The big Big Year debate: What’s the number to beat, anyway?



Today's debaters: Greg Neise (l), ABA Web Developer; and Ted Floyd (r), editor Birding magazine

Editor's Note
: With Colorado birder John Vanderpoel coming down to the wire in his attempt to knock off Sandy Komito's top ABA-area Big Year (or rather, as the movie The Big Year would have you believe, attain the title of 'best birder in the world"), Birding editor Ted Floyd and ABA web developer Greg Neise take a look at some of the questions surrounding Komito's very big year and ask whether Vanderpoel's final tally will eclipse it, fall short of it, or maybe manage both at the very same time.

Confused?  Read on…


Greg Neise: For those readers who may not know what we’re talking about—or why—the story is basically this:

In 1998 Sandy Komito completed an ABA big year, finishing with 745 species. That record has stood since, and no one has come even close to it.

Komito BookBut Komito contends that his record is actually 748, because that’s how many countable species he saw that year. In addition to the 745 species published, he saw four birds that were not on the ABA Checklist at the time: Elegant Quail, Belcher’s Gull, Bulwer’s Petrel, and Yellow-throated Bunting. The Big Year rules state that only birds that are on the ABA checklist are countable.

Those four species had to be accepted by the record committees in the states they were seen, and then the ABA can accept them to the checklist. In the case of 1998, this took months, and the ABA list totals, and indeed even Komito’s own book about his big year, had gone to press.

Of the four species, three were accepted (Elegant Quail was not). So therefore, Komito saw 748 that were eventually added to the ABA Checklist. But is his record 745 or 748?

This was pretty much an academic question, or something relegated to birding trivia, because the chances of anyone beating that record were considered by some to very low. But now, John Vanderpoel has seen 740 species through Dec. 19th, 2011, and it’s conceivable that he might set a new record.


Ted Floyd: Records are made to be broken!

But never mess with the records themselves! The numbers stand forever. Babe Ruth's career 714 home runs, his single-season record of 60 homers, etc. I'm delighted to have those records broken. But don't mess with the actual numbers.


GN: I agree … but how do we arrive at "the number"? Is what was published at the time set in stone, or is there room for some revisions?


TF: Yeah, I'm inclined to go with what was published at the time. So, yes, it's “set in stone.”

You can revisit practically any record, reanalyze it, tweak it, update it…

So many of the famous records in Major League Baseball (and other sports) are actually wrong! Even some of the most famous numbers. When you go back and look at the actual historical record, you realize they're off by one or two or sometimes more. You can analyze that stuff forever. It's better, I think, to go with the number that was published at the time.


GN: Okay … so how does that work for the ABA Big Year contest? Komito played by the rules, because he did not count the three birds in question until they had been accepted. So, in one sense, he's getting bit by a technicality.

But going forward, others would look at this and simply count those species. If they were not accepted, well … then what happens?


TF: Two responses, Greg, one contrarian, the other more harmonious.

On the one hand, yeah, he got bit. Here's a (presumably) neutral example: Rock Pigeons (Rock Doves, back then) didn't "count" on Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) until, I believe, 1973. I'm fine with that. Now we all know there were Rock Pigeons on CBCs in New York, Philadelphia, and elsewhere in, say, the 1960s. But we don't go back and add +1 to all those CBCs. I'm okay with that. Yeah, those old CBCs got bit by the technicality. Tough!

On the other hand, I get the "spirit of the law" you're talking about here. In comparing records, you have to look at the context. That's true for Barry Bonds vs. Babe Ruth, it's true for the 2011 Pittsburgh CBC vs. the 1969 Pittsburgh CBC, it's true for Vanderpoel vs. Komito.


GN: I see your point, but that still leaves a lot of gray area where I think there shouldn't be any.

Let's say a big year birder rushes to California to see a first ABA record. The bird is positively identified, and documented, but it takes the California records committee 9 months to make a ruling on the record.

Does the birder count that bird in his/her total before it's been accepted? 

Or should birders simply not waste the money chasing first ABA records, because there's a significant chance they won't make it through committee in time to be published?


TF: I agree with you 100% on something: There's a lot of gray area!

But I'm fine with that. That's what makes it fun.

For the strict purpose of playing the big year game, I think you have to go with the rules at the time. Thus, you get multiple Dark-eyed Junco "ticks" prior to the 1973 "lump"; or you get two species of "white-cheeked geese" (Canada, Cackling) in 2011, but not in, say, 1998 (prior to the split). And who knows?—in 2025, maybe we'll say there are five species of Dark-eyed Juncos, 80 species of "white-cheeked geese," and only one species of gull!! But you don't go back and tweak the numbers; you just stay with the number from the particular year in question.

(By the way, I think it is definitely worth it to go and see a bird—whether or not it's countable or “listable.”)


GN: Okay … so, when are the official ABA big year totals published? Actually, the correct question is, by what date to contestants have to have their numbers submitted?


TF: I should know the answer to that question…

But, to go back to the "spirit of the law," I think we're basically talking about "countable" birds during the big year in question.

And there's the rub. The list of "countable" birds changes practically every single year.

In a sense—a felicitous sense, if you ask me—this debate will never be resolved. Let's say Vanderpoel gets 746. Okay, simplistically speaking, he "broke the record" (or so I would say; you might disagree). But that doesn't end the debate!! Thus:

"No fair! Vanderpoel didn't have access to 'the fallout of the century' at Attu in 1998."


 "No fair! Komito didn't benefit, as Vanderpoel surely has, from the near ubiquity of cell phones—and instant info on all North American rarities, everywhere, all the time."

The debate will go on and on. I like that. Closure is boring.


GN: I understand all of that, and agree wholeheartedly.

My question concerns only what is countable and when it's countable. We know (and agree) that splits and lumps don't count either way. What it is at the time, is what it is. 

Fairness?! Ha! If the world were fair, I'd have the Big Year record. But life isn't fair.

My concern is for how this affects the contest going forward. I think the ABA is going to have to set some kind of rule concerning first ABA Area records. To simply leave it to the leisure of the state records committees seems wrong to me.

Or maybe that's part of the game too? If you're lucky, and your ABA-first birds make it through committee in time, bingo! If not … sorry, Charlie.


TF: Two points:

1. I totally agree with you. This particular matter needs clarity. If I see the Hooded Crane (wow!) today, and the ABA Checklist Committee puts that species on the ABA Checklist, but not until 2015 (lots of rounds of voting, let's say), do I get to count it for my hypothetical 2011 big year?

2. But are we sure there's not already a "solution" to this problem? I confess, I'm not 100% up on all the rules. Needless to say, this is an item for the ABA's Recording Standards & Ethics (RSE) Committee to weigh in on.


GN: 1. Some would say that if the ABA Checklist Committee puts the species on the ABA Checklist because of the sighting of the bird you saw in 2011, then yes. If it is another, later sighting of the same species, then obviously no.

2: I'm not certain either … but I will say that when I interviewed him about this, Komito was very certain that that is the way the rules work.


TF: You can probably anticipate my response. As always, I am of two minds!

Part of me says, sure, go ahead, update his total—especially if that's the way the rules work.

But the other part of me says, sheesh, you've sure opened up a can of worms with this. Once you start tweaking records, there's just no stopping it. I mentioned splits and lumps already. But what if we were to change the definition of the ABA Area? (See Kingbird Highway; that's not an idle question.) Y'know what this reminds me of: The notorious "asterisk" by Roger Maris's single-season home run record. (Because they had "changed the playing field," so to speak, with a 162-game season, instead of a 154-game season.) Once we change Komito's record, we've gone down a slippery slope…we'll soon be revisiting practically ever other listing record.


GN: Here's the rule we’re concerned with, from the 2010 ABA Big Day & List Report:

"The species must be (a) included in the current published ABA Checklist, as modified by subsequent Supplements, or (b) formally accepted for inclusion in the next ABA Checklist or Supplement. Species listed as ‘species of hypothetical origin’ and species that have been deleted from the main ABA Checklist are NOT considered to be accepted;"

So, if I'm reading the rule correctly, Komito's number would be 748, yes? The "subsequent supplements" bit is a little gray … but I take that to mean the individual bird in question.


TF: Okay, but what's the "statute of limitations," if you will?

I assume Komito got Pacific Wren (and Winter Wren), Mexican Whip-poor-will (and Eastern Whip-poor-will), Cackling Goose (and Canada Goose), etc. Those armchair splits surely qualify under "modified under subsequent Supplements." But as of *when*? That's the question. If he can go back and count Belcher's Gull, Bulwer's Petrel, and Yellow-throated Bunting, why can't he also add a wren, a whip-poor-will, and a goose?


GN: Because they were not species *at the time*. Even if the wren or the whips were split on January 2 1999, they wouldn’t be countable. They didn't exist.

The case of the petrel, the gull, and the bunting is different. These were species at the time … they did exist. They were in committee while the report was being published.

So, here’s what I think—how I interpret the rule pertaining to this situation.

Armchair ticks or losses don’t count. If you see a subspecies that’s split, even immediately after your big year, it doesn’t count. The same goes for lumps. If a species is lumped after your big year, you don’t lose that tick. 

But in the case of first ABA-area vagrants, I think the rule is interpreted differently. If you see an bird that represents the first ABA record of that species, and that record—the individual bird you saw—is accepted, then that species should be added to your big year total.

So, by my reckoning, Komito’s number to beat is 748. 

But I also think that if that is the way the rule is to be interpreted, it needs to be written a bit more clearly.


TF: Summing up, I have two overall points:

1. If we rewrite the record books (i.e., change Komito's published 745 to a revised 748), we've opened a Pandora's box. Does Komito have to remove Crested Myna from his list? But if he saw Rosy-faced Lovebird (addition to the ABA Checklist likely), can he add it? What about California Condor? Why can't he add Cackling Goose and Pacific Wren? Do we really have to wait until 2077 (let's say) for the AOU to re-split the Dark-eyed Junco complex? What about big years from before the Gadsden Purchase? Heck, what about big years from before the founding of the ABA? (People did big years back then, of course.) What if Greenland gets added to the ABA Area, as has been proposed? This just goes on and on and on.

2. Let the published numbers stand as they are, and…let the real fun begin! Vanderpoel vs. Komito, (Jim) Vardaman vs. (Ted) Parker, (Kenn) Kaufman vs. (Floyd) Murdoch, (Ludlow) Griscom vs. (Roger Tory) Peterson, Lynds Jones vs. whoever else was doing big years 100 years ago… It's just like Ruth vs. Maris vs. McGwire vs. Bonds… We hobbyists will talk about it forever, and that's what makes it so fun.

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  • Ted, you really are being contrarian here! I love it.

    But the really provocative part of this discussion is Greg’s disingenuously throw-away line here: “Because they were not species *at the time*. Even if the wren or the whips were split on January 2 1999, they wouldn’t be countable. They didn’t exist.”

    They didn’t _exist_? Or they weren’t _recognized_? Or _correctly_ recognized? This reminds me of a recent conversation on this very blog….

  • Disingenuous? Rick, you hurt my feelings.

    They didn’t exist in the context of *that year’s listing game*. You can go all existential, if you want … but at the end of the day, we’re talking about the specific rules of a game.

    In the larger context, of course the species existed, and they weren’t recognized (or correctly recognized).

  • Rick,

    Good point. But I think that a good argument can be made for Greg’s formulation, as he’s explicitly talking about a game here, not science. And games need unambiguous rules.

    One of the great things about birding is that is has one foot in the science field station and another on the playing field. I’d also say it’s got a foot in the realm of aesthetics and other feet elsewhere, but that’s for another day.

    So while I loved the complexity that Ted explored in his, “Darwin, Schoenberg, and Sibley,” post, there’s still a need for simple rules if there are to be games. I think we have to find ways to embrace this contradiction.

    I know I’m not bringing up anything novel here. But I think what would be a breakthrough is the ABA helping sort out, in an easily understandable way, the areas of overlap and divergence between the study of birds and the various games of listing. I think the ABA should celebrate and support them both.

  • Dave Tannahill

    I am a little disappointed that the ABA Code of Birding Ethics is not mentioned by either of you. ABA Recording Rules (as Amended 1999)Section 5. Code of Birding Ethics Rule 2 Section 2(a)
    In the “Big Year” there is at least one case were the code is broken.
    Now this would be a Pandora’s Box to open if you are judging the value of a list. But the Code of Birding Ethics IS THE HEART AND SOUL OF THE ABA.
    Dave Tannahill
    Ontario, Canada

  • Greg, I’m happy to know you’re more spiritually resilient than that! 🙂

    I love the jesuitical ins and outs of these listing games. There’s a sense, for example, in which Nebraska from 1854 to 1861 had the largest list of any state or territory ever.

    Isn’t the late Mrs. Snetsinger’s life list still being curated to keep it taxonomically up to date?

  • I’m not sure I understand, Dave. Code of Birding Ethics Rule 2 Section 2(a):

    “Do not enter private property without the owner’s explicit permission.”

    I agree wholeheartedly with your statement about the code of ethics, but I’m not sure how that rule applies to this conversation.

  • I’d like to hear that Nebraska story sometime, Rick!

    I’m not sure what anyone is or is not doing about updating Phoebe’s life list, but I would say there’s a big difference between more ongoing lists (life, state, province, perhaps yard?) and very temporally defined ones (day, month, year). To my mind, the former could alter with taxonomic thinking, the latter would be frozen in the time frame in which they were recorded.

    But I’d also say that once the life of the lister is over, taxonomic updating should also cease. My opinion.

  • Renée Haip

    Thanks for the intriguing post. Records are an interesting thing. If you’re not on the same playing field, it’s really hard to compare one contest to another. I do agree with Ted that records are meant to be broken; they give others something to aim for. Who would have thought that anyone would even come close to Komito’s record without the ability to bird Attu Island? Whether or not Vanderpoel breaks 745, he’s taken the time to have his Big Year and it has been a BIG YEAR.

    By the way, John Vanderpoel saw a Whiskered Auklet yesterday, so he’s at 741. Today I’m wishing him a Whooper Swan!

  • Dedrick Benz

    Fun discussion! I’m surprised the Aplomado Falcon from TX that Sandy Komito counted hasn’t come up yet! Vanderpoel got it, too, since Komito got it. These birds seem to be doing well, but to my knowledge, shouldn’t be countable. I like the 745 number, but only because I think Vanderpoel could beat it, and it’s exciting! I think 748 is out of reach. Unless he can add things like Common Teal, haha.

  • Fascinating stuff indeed. Like Dredrick I’m intrigued as to how people view the Aplomado Falcon. This opens the question out in an interesting way; in terms of taxonomic splits (and for that matter reintroduced or self-supporting feral populations) accepted by the ABA how do we judge a declared sighting at the time of the Big Year – in the UK for example it is not unusual for serious twitchers to keep an eye on the science for likely splits and when, say, a specific race bird turns up twitch it as an “insurance tick” on the basis it may subsequently get split and become an “armchair tick”. So to use the wren example above how would we feel if at the time of writing his list/memoir Sandy put an asterisk next to wren and noted he saw both populations and expected them to be split. I would view this differently to someone who saw both populations by accident and subsequently claimed the split because they made the effort to see a bird they expected to be countable and I think this is the essence of the Big Year for me. At the end of December 31st your list should be a list of the species you saw which you expect to be countable (with appropriate details). At any subsequent time your Big Year score would be the number of those species accepted by ABA at a given moment. I think this gives you comparability and “fairness” to the fullest extent possible. The issue would be with populations that “become countable” at a certain point (eg the Aplomados) but I think even with that at least you have 2 dates to compare.

  • Morgan Churchill

    It’s weird to think that birders doing a big year should AVOID first ABA records (unless it is early enough in the year to get it reviewed), but it does make a sort of sense.

    I guess this thread does a pretty good job though of squashing one argument for the expansion of the ABA area. If every big year is a time capsule, than it makes no difference if the ABA area is expanded or not. Big years from ten years ago are not directly comparable anyway, what with changes in taxonomy, what birds are on the list, etc.

  • Carl Bendorf

    Jeff, that sounds like a cool example of how the ABA works to “make birding better!”

  • I’ll bet you $10,000 that this question only really matters to about 1% of the bird-watching world…

  • Elias Elias

    A species is a species is a species. The record numbers should be ambulatory to reflect the most recent concensus thought on the limits of taxa. Furthermore, I take strong issue with the free flying and unrestrained qualification of the listing rules. This one dogma has hindered humanity’s ability to know what is living in our ecosystem. For example Pin-tailed Whydahs appear to be low density residents in the Los Angeles area. Free flying young have been documented. What are these brood parasites using as hosts? These birds and their likely hosts (Munias) are devalued by the very people who ought to care. Birders are de facto historians and we document what has occurred when and where.
    I am of the mind that birders ought to open up the playing field and count ALL birds wild and unrestrained as well as caged and captive. So long as they are correctly identified and I suppose alive. After all there are only so many bird species on the planet.

  • PS Apologies Dedrick for misspelling your name.

  • Laurent

    Is it “subsequent supplements”, or “subsequent supplement”?

  • Ted Floyd

    This will come as a huge surprise to everybody [emphatic not!, insert wry, grinning smiley-face here], but I am, of course, 100% aligned with Elias Elias’s unimpeachably and inarguably brilliant mode of thinking.

    And that reminds me of something I’d been meaning to get around to saying.

    A little while ago, I reminded folks of the fuzziness, for want of a better word, that surrounds such problematic records as the fascinating Rufous-collared Sparrow that was present for many months earlier in 2011 in Georgetown, Colorado:

    Then “Derek” reminded us of the following, earlier post, about the equally problematic status of zoo-dependent, Passer-eating “wild” Merlins at City Park, Denver:

    “Derek” couldn’t have made the point better for me! Brilliant, “Derek”! Thank you, brother. (Folks, he’s not a shill for me. Honest.)

    The divide between countable and uncountable birds is a persistent fantasy. In Colorado’s Front Range region, we have breeding peafowl…alongside Merlins that hang around zoo cages looking for House Sparrows. Up in the high country, we have a territorial Rufous-collared Sparrow…alongside banded White-crowned Sparrows that hang out at bird feeders for months at a time.

    If we want clear, unambiguous rules, let’s do exactly as Elias Elias calls us to: Let’s “open up the playing field and count ALL birds wild and unrestrained as well as caged and captive.”

    For further, detailed commentary on the matter, see:

    Thanks, everybody! Great discussion!

  • Stefan Zaremba

    From an auditing perspective the BIG YEAR is a discreet period beginning JAN 01 ending DEC 31.

    Beginning the endeavour with so many boxes
    available to be ticked, at the end this may have
    changed or not.

    So total boxes ticked can only be verified against what was extant on the final day of the year.

  • Morgan Churchill

    listing, especially the listing involved in a big year or any sort of competition, involves rules. That means deciding what should and shouldn’t count. I suspect most birders have their own sense of what they count, and I don’t think ABA has ever said they are the list police for everyone. BUT, if you are doing a big year, big day, or simply submitting your ABA checklist to any sort of ranking system, than you need rules.

    I do question though your last paragraph though, on counting captive and caged birds. I seriously doubt most people think of a day of birding as going through a walk in aviary at a zoo. If you count captive birds what should stop a person counting birds they see in nature documentaries? Or via google images? Birding should be about wild birds, whatever definition of wild you might want to use.

  • Laura Erickson

    I never submit my lists because I lack the competitive gene, but enjoy Big Years as a spectator sport, and so the rules of listing do seem important to me. I would agree with Ted that Big Year totals should not change from year to year as species/subspecies designations change—the ABA list for that year is that year’s scorecard. But I do think that individual birds new to the ABA area which are seen during a Big Year, if those individuals are the ones that led to a change in the ABA list, should indeed be countable even after the fact, just as a record-breaking speed in a race obviously counts even though it isn’t within the range of speeds ever recorded before that race. Even though I’m not a chaser, the thrill of chasing down the biggest rarities of all are part of the essence of a Big Year, and so I think Sandy Komito’s record should indeed be 748.

  • Elias, just a fair warning: I’m definitely going to be quoting you frequently and regularly. “Birders are de facto historians.” Bravo!

  • Ted Floyd

    Jeff says, “there’s still a need for simple rules if there are to be games. I think we have to find ways to embrace this contradiction.”


    And that takes us back to my main point, which perhaps got lost in all the back-and-forth between Greg Neise and me. (An aside: The live chat with Greg was great fun. It was a novel medium for me, I have to say. Greg and I actually like each other. We just see things a little differently–at least when it comes to the rules of the Big Year game.)

    Anyhow, that main point of mine is, I do in fact put forth a (very!) simple rule: Just go with the published total. 745. End of story–at least as far as the “record” itself is concerned.

    Here’s a “comp” from the Sacred Annals of Baseball Records. Years ago, I heard an interesting interview with the late Bobby Bonds, on the subject of “40-40” players, that is to say, players with at least 40 home runs and at least 40 stolen bases in a single season. José Canseco is credited with being the first to reach that milestone, in 1988. But Bonds had come oh-so-close in 1973, with 39 home runs and 43 stolen bases.

    Not so fast!

    Bonds noted in the interview that he had actually hit 41 home runs that season. How can that be? It’s because he hit two home runs in a rain-shortened game that wound up getting erased from the record books. Nevertheless, he did hit 41 home runs during regulation play that year. But the record stands. Canseco is credited with being first; Bonds doesn’t make the cut.

    Did you know that Ty Cobb’s famous base hits total is “wrong”? Did you know that there’s a problem even with Babe Ruth’s immortal 714 home runs? And there was the most notorious record of all: Roger Maris’s *61 home runs in 1961.

    There is always the temptation to rewrite history, whether it’s Maris’s *61 home runs or Komito’s *745 birds. I get that. But in the end, the numbers are what they are. The notorious asterisk was removed from Maris’s 61 home runs. Let’s not affix an asterisk to Komito’s 745.

    Let’s agree on the official, published, unalterable, sacred, canonical 745…and then the real fun begins!

  • Wow, living on the West Coast is tough — I’m really late to this discussion. Anyway, I’ll skip trying to say this eloquently: It’s bull**** if you can’t count a first NA record on a Big Year.

    To me, if feels like it goes against the spirit of a Big Year and the spirit of “old school” ABA birding. (I’m not claiming chasing and listing is the only thing that birding should be about or ever was about, but it is one aspect popular with many.)

    Allowing Sandy those three birds does not have to be a slippery slope as long as the rules are clear. Sandy himself played by clear cut rules. If he hadn’t, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. He could have easily reported his original list total as 748 and have been done with it, but he stuck with the rules. He’s also never updated his list to reflect splits and lumps. His opinion is they don’t count after the fact. (I think counting the Aplomado was dubious, but he likely conformed to ABA listing rules. Also, there’s been some discussion behind the scenes whether or not he counted Gray Vireo, but that’s another discussion and if true, appears to be an honest mistake.)

    If anyone wants to nominate be to the listing committee (or competition committee or whatever it’s called), here’s the rules I’d support: 1) First North American records count even if they’re added to the checklist after the year is over, 2) splits and lumps after the year don’t count, 3) introduced species accepted after the year don’t count, 4) introduced species removed from the checklist after the year are still count on the big year.

    FWIW, it appears Lynn Barber counted two first NA records on her big year total even though they weren’t accepted during the year (to the best of my knowledge): White-crested Elaenia and Sinaloa Wren. I haven’t checked on Bob Ake’s or Chris Hitt’s totals to see how they handled it.

  • I meant to say “If anyone wants to nominate me”, not “If anyone wants to nominate be”. Maybe that was clear but I don’t want anyone thinking that I made a different typo and was suggesting that a bee should be nominated to the committee.

  • I completely agree, Mike.

  • Derek

    I am definitely not a shill for Ted. In fact, I disagree whole-heartedly with almost everything he has written in the context of this blog. My comment was a flippant remark to Ted’s equally flippant comment about the Hooded Crane. He thinks everything is wild, everything is countable, doesn’t care for the ABA’s Ethical guidelines, whatever. Honestly, I don’t know. The other Ted has already stated that whatever he writes on the blog may not align with what he actually believes. Maybe Ted F. is the same. I am unsure why Ted F. would even engage in the discussion. If the species and subspecies (and really why not genera, families, orders, etc.) are, in the holistic sense, really just one big mess then counting seems as trivial as the completely human ideas of taxonomic classification. And why are you still using capital letters Ted if, as you said, they were pointless 🙂

    Regardless, I think Greg’s position is right on the money. It is a little disappointing that the ABA hasn’t done anything to address this formally. Heck, just copy Greg’s thoughts into a simple paragraph, ratify it, and the issue is solved. But whatever anyone believes is the true # for the Big Year record, the rules HAVE TO BE THE SAME! Thus, no matter what he says or publishes on his blog, or what have you. John’s current # seems not to be 741. He has counted at least Aplomado Falcon (currently uncountable in Texas,) and Greylag Goose (certainly a possible wild bird, but not accepted and unlikely to be so). If people are giving him credit because that is the “published” total then they must equally credit Komito with 748 or whatever number beyond that would fit the same criteria.

    The MAJOR problem with Elias’s comment (and everyone who subsequently repeated the sentiment) is not with a “species is a species is a species”. The problem is that splitting or lumping of species usually entails some sort of information used to decide upon the split or lump. In the case of splitting, it cannot be assumed that a big year participant would know or use that information in the context of his/her big year. For instance if Audubon’s and Myrtle are split, I am sure John would have seen both this year and known how to separate them. But, would Komito know how to separate Winter and Pacific wrens by vocalization (maybe but uncertain). Likewise, if the Red Crossbills are split into 4564 different species based on call type, would anyone have known how to separate them in the past? I feel comfortable saying no on that one. So taking away Red Crossbill from everyone’s Big Year total seems poor form too. Following Greg’s thoughts then, future splits and lumps should not alter previous Big Year totals. Seems simple, logical, and fair enough for everyone.

  • Ned Brinkley

    All very interesting. Ultimately, one could question not just the Aplomado Falcon (not yet countable) but also White-cheeked Pintail. Most people don’t count the pintail, but Komito did. So if one were truly a stickler for rules, Komito’s list would need to be reduced by a few birds to be squeaky clean. But birding is messy and subjective – listers can make arguments for particular birds or practices in multiple directions, and because there is no one who umpires these lists – unlike in sports – then the number reported when the list is submitted is the meaningful number. It’s all in the eye of the lister at the time of the submission. There are very few people with large lists of birds (on state and country levels) who do not carry species/individual birds that others would not or will not; that has not changed in four decades. And that’s an interesting thing about the practice of listing – the lister gets to make decisions about “gray area” (or not-so-gray-area) birds and either add or not add them. I don’t think anyone at ABA stepped in to vet each species on Komito’s list, and I don’t think anyone will come in to make decisions about Vanderpoel’s. The implications of “updating” (increasing) one’s number years later because a contender is nearing that number – and causing a commotion about “rules” and standards – are not very savory. Potentially, that sort of practice opens up the lists to adjustment by armchair listers (or even committees!), which is, as Ted calls it, a can of worms. It seems the most reasonable procedure is to report the number when ready and then live with that number.

  • Ted Floyd

    Ah. White-cheeked Pintail.

    At the 2003 ABA Convention in Eugene, the late Craig Roberts told us a wonderful cautionary tale.

    Shortly before that convention, Craig had just joined the 800 club. He and three other pals in the “800 Club” were in Florida looking at–wait for it–a White-cheeked Pintail.

    There was absolutely no question about the bird’s ID. There was, however, a fair bit of question about the bird’s provenance. The four 800 Club members, who were all pals, couldn’t agree. Two of them felt the pintail was a “wild” bird; two of them felt it was perhaps an escape from captivity.

    The upshot? Two of them put it on their life list. Two of them did not. (It would have been a lifer for all four of them.)

    And here’s the rub: That’s fine! That’s okay. That’s what the “rules” say. Just as Ned notes, “the lister gets to make decisions about ‘gray area’ (or not-so-gray-area) birds and either add or not add them.”

    That pintail was +1 on two birders’ life lists, and it was +0 on two other birders’ life lists–all four of whom “needed” the species for their ABA life lists, and all four of whom were looking at the exact same bird.

    Them’s the rules.

    And that, to me, is one of the most glorious things about birding: It’s fuzzy, it’s messy, it’s indeterminate. Birding is all about shades of gray. It’s about debate and discussion. Birding is all about the fascinating questions, not about the vain search for meaningless “answers.”

  • Ted Floyd

    Oh. To anticipate a possible response:

    It doesn’t matter what the Florida Ornithological Society Records Committee eventually “ruled” regarding that bird’s provenance. That’s right, It doesn’t matter.

    I used to think it matters. Indeed, I was, ahem, certain of it. But Ken Hollinga convinced me that that view is wrong. Nowhere in the rules does it require that the lister follow the judgments of state or provincial records committees. The only requirement is that the bird be on the ABA Checklist. (Qualifier: Code 6 species “need not apply.”) Thus, you can count a Budgerigar flying around a Wal-Mart parking lot on a cold January day in North Dakota–because Budgerigar is on the ABA list. But you cannot count the Lineated Woodpecker you’re absolutely, utterly, 100% positive you saw at Bentsen–because Lineated Woodpecker is not on the ABA list.

    As long as the species is on the ABA Checklist (and not a Code 6 species), you can count it. Them’s the rules. Now, should you count it? That’s a different question. It’s like belief in Santa. As my wife tells my kids, “What does your heart tell you?” If your heart tells you there’s a Santa, or if your heart tells you that a White-cheeked Pintail is “wild,” then Go For It!

    (Me? I told my kids, years ago, that S-A-N-T-A is an anagram for S-A-T-A-N. Which they gleefully told their friends at daycare. That was a huge hit with the grown-ups there, let me tell you.)

  • R. Gordon Payne

    I think once the game is played, the score should stand. Much like a football or a hockey game, the score never changes once the game is over – even when the slow motion playback shows that a goal shouldn’t have counted, it doesn’t change the final score.

    A Big Year is a game too, and once it’s played, the final score should stand. This game is played over 365 days, and if a listing rule changes within that year (ie. a split), it’s fair game. Life listing, is also a game, but it is a game played over your lifetime, or until you give it up. Since it is played over a longer time, the rules change more often, so you are always making changes to your totals. We shouldn’t apply the life listing rules to the Big Year.

    I would, however like to suggest a compromise. Big Year totals could be listed as two numbers, with the second number in brackets. The first number would represent “the final score” after the year has been completed. The second number would represent what the list looks like “now”, months or even years later. In this number, all lumps, splits, additions, and deletions to the ABA list are considered. The second number is not static and changes are ongoing. This allows for more accurate comparisons “after the fact.” So Sandy Komito’s list would be: 745 (748). Note that I put 748 for convenience – the number would actually be different, once all the splits, etc. are considered (he likely knows what that number should be).

    Something to consider as we play out this interesting thread!

  • [email protected]

    The “record” is what was written regardless of whether it was written in stone or sand on the beach.

    That said, I ask: what was written and why? My answer would be the number of birds seen by individuals that year in order to honor their achievement. The number of birds seen can be revised as new facts and interpretations arise. However the honor was specific to that year and can’t be revised. If you hypothetically change anything in the past, everything changes and nothing is known. So the honor will always be Sandy Komito’s.

    BTW, who discovered America? Was it an Italian explorer, a Viking settler or an Asian birder passing through Attu Island?

  • Rob

    I like the brackets idea. But might add a second set of brackets for known or presumed escapees not on the ABA list as well, so Komito might end up with something like 745/750/757 for his total. Only the first number would count for the “record” but the rest would be interesting for Big Year wonks like us to play with 🙂

    Also, the personal aspect of what counts is awesome, and lends more to the performance aspect of Big Year listing. Love, love, love Big Years as performance and this just adds to the fun!

  • This could end up with three sets of brackets if first records have to be bracketed. We’d have the Actual Total for that year, and then parenthetically 1. the total with new records, after final acceptance by ABA, 2. the total with those and also introduced species now counted by ABA, and 3. the total of both those plus splits and subtracting lumps. And then someone would revise that to also include something I haven’t thought of.

  • Ted Floyd

    Hey, y’all. Here’s a thought experiment.

    It’s December 31st, 2012. These two guys, Greg Neise and Ted Floyd, have been doing ABA Big Years. Both are at 750 species. Coincidentally, they’ve seen the same 750 species. Neise got Wryneck at Adak, and Floyd followed up with one of his own at Attu. Floyd got Collared Plover and Double-striped Thick-knee at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, then Neise found both species at South Padre Island. Both birders claimed Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Arkansas, but, of course, those sightings didn’t count toward their 750. Both counted Monk Parakeets nesting in Philadelphia–even though the Pennsylvania Ornithological Records Committee hadn’t yet “ruled” on those birds. Both declined to look for Himalayan Snowcock; it’s just a chicken. Both dipped on Brown-headed Cowbird. Neither know what to do with their Rosy-faced Lovebirds in Phoenix. Etc., etc.

    Now, on the last day of the year, Neise and Floyd decide to team up for some 11th-hour bird-finding near Fort Lauderdale. At precisely the same moment, they shriek, “White-cheeked Pintail!” There’s no question about the ID, but Neise wonders if the bird could be an escape from captivity. So he doesn’t count it. Floyd, though, judges that it is a wild bird. So he counts it.

    Final totals: Floyd 751, Neise 750.

    Them’s the rules… 😉

  • Ron Cyger

    Elias (and Greg and Ted, etc.) are all, of course, correct. eBird has done a wonderful thing in expanding my mind on what is “countable.” But, games and contests need rules.

    I think the ABA rules state pretty clearly (assumption on my part?) that Sandy has a total of 748. Congratulations Sandy and GO JOHN!

  • Robert Kyse

    Speaking of gaming the game, perhaps the count should be handicapped according to the difficulty of the species.

  • Ron Cyger

    Taking the “can” and “should” argument a step further. . . I don’t care (well, not really) what the Big Year rules are, as long as we have rules that all can follow.

    But, a Big Year is different from Birding. As stated earlier, Birding is the act of documentation. A Big Year is a game/contest. Both are important, but different. And the “should” should be different.

  • andrew haffenden

    I personally can’t see the logic of not including first record ABA birds. As was said above, they are definite, identifiable species at the time of the sighting. I’ll wager there’s not a birder out there who doesn’t put a first state record on their list the day they see it, if the provenance is clear that it’s wild; if they have to wait for it to be cleared then the sighting date is still the same, it’s not the date the species was cleared. Imagine the situation where the big day birder is on a pelagic, everyone on the boat, which just happens to include the ABA records committee or whatever they are called, sees a new record, there’s photos, videos and then the bird flies onto the boat and into a window, falls down dead; specimen in hand. World authority on petrels, also on the boat, unequivocally identifies it. Everyone on the boat naturally puts this bird on their ABA, state and annual list – except the big day birder? How does that make sense? Splits and lumps are quite different animals, I think most people will feel that. Including them would definitely make things messy, although an argument could be made for asterisking field-identifiable subspp and bracketing splits where the birder made clear the intent to see the form for this reason. First records are way more clear cut, and my vote would be to not include splits and lumps, just current species can be counted.

    Then there is the simple fairness. Birder Bob sees a first record Jan 1; 10 months pass and the gods on high determine the bird is wild and countable. Birder Barbara sees a first record Oct 1, and 10 months pass and the gods etc. One get counted for a big year, the other not. Nothing wrong with the second sighting, just later in the year.

    With the sports score analogy, there is doubt whether a goal has been scored -seen – or not. There’s no doubt with a first record, the bird was definitely “scored” – seen. The only question is provenance, and establishing provenance takes time. A goal scored, or not, during a game changes how the game progresses from that point, it doesn’t just add a figure to the scoreboard. Not so with an extra tick, no change is made to subsequent play that could lead to a different outcome, just the final score.

  • Ned Brinkley

    This may be more merriment than I can handle without egg-nog fortification!

    I may have missed it in the abundant commentary, and if so I apologize – but the most salient point, for me, is one that several people have implied but no one has said outright, namely: it is not possible to compare Big Years that are run in different calendar years. Partly, this incomparability is a product of the many recent splits, yes. Did so-and-so “bank” Mexican Whip-poor-will in 1991, anticipating a split? Maybe, maybe not. Did another so-and-so do so in spring 2010? You bet – the writing was on the wall. If you consider the metamorphosis of the ABA Checklist over the years, the trend is clearly toward more and more possibilities, but the playing field is never the same from year to year, and one can argue that it’s impossible to anticipate splits (and which introduced birds will fall in and out of fashion in a given year, etc.), so the way one makes the architecture of one’s Big Year strategy (very important) is specific to that year. It’s fine to compare efforts within a year, but to compare an effort from the 1990s with an effort in 2011 is not an apples-to-apples comparison, and not just because we no longer have dozens of birders combing Attu for three weeks each spring. And what if 20 established exotics in Texas, Florida, and California become countable?

    One could also argue – as Ted does above – that even comparing different listers’ Big Year totals from within a year is problematic. What if so-and-so Big Year birder in 2001 spent six days riding dusty roads in southern New Mexico, eventually finding a wild Aplomado Falcon? But his best buddy saw one (from the reintroduction efforts) at 75 miles per hour while heading down to Laguna Atascosa NWR on the Texas coast? Both listers include the species on their lists, but the buddy counted a noncountable bird (at least by ABA rules), which freed up nearly an extra week for him to pursue other birds – or relax, visit with spouse, or save money for other chases. The differences in opportunity costs, actual costs, and just wear-and-tear are stark in this case, but these differences don’t appear on the lists, which both bear a tick mark next to Aplomado Falcon.

    My personal sense is that birders enjoy these falcons wherever they see them, just as they enjoy California Condors immensely. Most birders seem nonplussed to learn that these remarkable birds don’t “count,” so it is not surprising to see varying behaviors attach to the falcon even when it comes to Big Year birders. As Ted suggests above, with his Craig Roberts pintail tale, I’m not sure that anyone thinks it’s a Big Deal. After all, unless I see a band on the leg of an Aplomado Falcon on the coast of Texas, can I really prove that it didn’t fly there from southern Mexico (or southern New Mexico)? 😉

  • I would have gone for the Snowcock … I love helicopters.

  • Oh … now THAT’S interesting! A second score, which is the total of the ABA code numbers of each species you include on your final list. In fact, it could be a whole different competition … kind of like total ticks.

  • I’m thinking that the Barry Bonds home run analogy is the strongest for limiting the “score” of a Big Year to species accepted by ABA by the deadline for reporting the total. But that does put rather a big burden on the ABA checklist committee to make decisions fast, especially for vagrants that turn up in late fall, or they’ll be accused of favoritism. But then, I guess that’s what umpires always have to deal with.

  • Indeed! I like that. And maybe bonus points if you find a 1st ABA record?

  • Robert Kyse

    Actually I’m thinking each higher ABA category would have a 10X multiplier (each higher level is 10 times harder). This would deemphasize the financial advantage to those who can afford to travel to locations where species are easier to get.

    I also have a “locayear” concept (as in the new word “locavour” for eating locally grown foods) in which ABA area sub districts would be defined. This would encourage regional competitions. The handicapping could also be applied locally.

  • Dave Tannahill

    Continuing the hypothetical: But to see the bird Floyd had trespassed with out permission. Neise challenged him under the ABA Code of Ethics. They are tied again. If they were playing golf what would have been Floyd’s penalty?

  • Robert Kyse

    Correction: to deemphasize travel, the local difficulty level should be used in handicapping.

  • Derek

    Here’s a thought, just trying to get something more meaningful to the ABA out of this discussion. It seems that up to now the ABA’s most meaningful and celebrated numbers are 745 and 886. It also seems that there is no vetting process and ultimately the ABA at the leadership level (not the membership) doesn’t really care about the validity of said numbers. And yet, any time the inclusion of Hawaii into the ABA comes up, the seemingly largest force preventing it is the “sanctity of the list and record numbers”. That seems to me to be a rather large hypocrisy. I could be wrong, maybe there are legitimate reasons preventing it … I just haven’t heard any. And the topic seems to be taboo on the blogs.

  • So many things I’d like to say in response to all the new comments, but I’ll just add this (for now): Komito did not revise his numbers in response to Johnny V getting close. I recall seeing the numbers of his big years as 726 (1987) and 748 (1998) at least as far back as 2008 when Lynn Barber was doing her big year. I don’t have his books, but I’d wager he mentions these numbers in there, too.

  • A couple different scenarios have been mentioned with regard to changing the score. Here are my thoughts, in order from most clear-cut to ambiguous:

    1. Introduced birds. The listing rules clearly state that introduced birds cannot be counted on any list until after they are put on the checklist. So those lovebirds, whether seen by Komito in ’98 or Vanderpoel this year do not count when (if) they get added to the checklist.

    2. 1st records. If the competitor sees a bird not on the checklist, but is subsequently added based on that particular record, it should count. Doesn’t matter when it is added to the checklist – the next year, or the next decade. So Komito’s record should be 748. More on this in a second.

    3. Lumps and introduced birds subsequently removed from the checklist. If you saw a “species” then on the checklist, but was in later years removed, it should still count toward your total.

    4. Splits. Armchair ticks via splits are allowed on our lists, so why not a big year list? Actually, I’m not sure about this, and would probably come down on the side that they do not count toward a big year total.

    I respect Ted’s notion that the published record should stand. I love baseball and all its stats and records. But if you go back through the records and find a true mistake, then the record book should be updated. Say, someone goes through the box scores of all Maris’s games in ’61 and discovers that a home run was overlooked – he really hit 62. Then the record book should be updated. And this has happened with Hack Wilson’s season RBI record (for decades was considered to be 190, but was then updated to 191). I respect records, but only if they are true reflections on what actually happened. Saying that a big year record is set in stone as-published is just as ridiculous to me as saying baseball shouldn’t have updated Wilson’s record.

  • Hans

    Very interesting – thanks to all for the thoughtful commentary. One thing that no one has mentioned is that the ABA checklist usually gets updated in the middle of the year. When the Whip got split in Nov of 2010, what did that mean for Big Year Listers? If they had seen both forms earlier in the year (anticipating the official split), could they count them both? Or would they have to see them both after that November day in order for them to count? What if three species were lumped together on that day – would those extra ticks they had seen earlier in the year just go away? If not, why not? Updating the list in the middle of the year seems akin to changing the rules part-way through the game. If the official ABA list changes mid-year, can you add the new splits AND simultaneously ignore the new lumps?? If Big Years are really an important part of the ABA, then perhaps the new checklists should always be published (or maybe at least “activated”?) on January 1.

    By the way, does anyone know when the new ABA checklist (including the changes detailed in the Nov 2011 issue of Birding) will be posted to the ABA website? I have a Big Year of my own to plan! Actually, it’s more like a Medium Year. But still, the new checklist would be helpful.

  • UK birding collective the Punkbirders do a self-found competition amongst themselves which is handicapped by UK rarity value along similar lines –
    Actually on a listing related topic their self-found rules (which I guess go to the idea of listing with a local flavour too)that are well worht a read if you want to get into the technicalities and ethics of different ways to score lists:

  • Ron

    Recording the big year total as a percentage of the “countable birds” for that year would help make comparisons of the totals between years more interesting (not actually accurate, but closer). Using home run analogies that seem to be flourishing here, someone who played for a short time, say 1000 at bats and had 714 HRs would be much more impressive than someone who had 714 HRs over a career which lasted for 10000 at bats.

  • Ned Brinkley

    I agree with Ron that percentage is a better index of effort, and if all lists were standardized and vetted (not currently the case), it would provide a crude means of comparing Big Years conducted in different years (as he says, “not actually accurate, but closer”), which is not possible using raw species counts. So much of the discussion here has focused on whether Komito is permitted to add species after reporting a number (a matter for the ABA Reporting/Ethics Committee, the arbiter in all such matters) – and not on the more important, or at least more fundamental point: “What’s the number to beat?” is a question that is misconceived from the start. 1998 is not 2011. No matter whether “745” or “748” (or some other number, if adjusted further to comply with ABA rules) is the Committee’s decision about Komito’s year, it is absurd to suggest that “746” or “749” (or some other number) in 2011 or later would “beat” a number from 1998. If two people compete during a given calendar year AND hold themselves to identical standards, then one could consider the competition meaningful in terms of a single number – one person saw a Spoon-billed Sandpiper, but the other was in the latrine and missed it, so their totals were 732 and 731. But the basis for comparison (the ABA Checklist) changes so much over the decades that a simple raw number is misleading. (How many more countable birds are there now than when Jim Vardaman ran his Year in 1979?) And a more basic question: What is the drive to reduce these enormous efforts to a mere number? Even if these numbers were meaningful, why insist on ranking Big Years from different years at all? What is amazing about these efforts is never the number – the legendary stories of pursuit (Adak? in December???) and discovery are what is valuable and fascinating in the Big Year world. Honestly, why fixate on a number?

  • Vince Cavalieri

    I completely agree with Morgan (and I suspect most birders) on this one. I’ll take it a step further however, counting captive and caged birds completely destroys what birding is, or at least what I and many other people feel it should be. Sure I certainly love to go to an aviary or zoo and I enjoy watching the birds there and I appreciate them as individuals, but that is simply not birding. If we count captive and zoo birds what’s stopping us from going to the collection of a major museum and counting all the birds in the collection? Again I love collections and I think they are super valuable. Getting to see and hold study skins of eskimo curlews, bachman’s warblers and Ivory-billed woodpeckers is a super memorable (if sad) experience. But again, its not birding. Birding is ultimately about obtaining a snapshot of the wild birds utilizing a habitat at a given place and time. Certainly there are myriad other ways to enjoy birds, to expand the hobby, to be a conservationist or whatever else but I don’t think we should move away from that great and ultimate essence of what birding is; to see and identify wild birds utilizing habitats (whether a National Forest or a super altered city scape) unfettered and free.

  • Perhaps the argument could be made that, largely, the actual number doesn’t matter. The record has stood for about 13 years and we’re just now having the discussion.

    Anyway, if you were to “update” Komito’s record to make it comparable to Vanderpoel’s big year, Komito would have about 755.

    I think I could make an argument that the “percentage idea” would be essentially the same as updating a big year total to account for splits and lumps (other than saving the work of continually updating the numbers), but I have to think about that a bit more to compare and contrast the different approaches.

  • Morgan Churchill

    I agree with Derek…if the lists are really are not comparable, than there should be nothing to stop the ABA from expanding it’s boundaries. I would REALLY like to see a vote put to the public membership on adding Hawaii to the ABA (and maybe separate votes for Bermuda and Greenland)

  • andrew haffenden

    I’m not sure in the rarified atmoshphere of which we’re talking that this handicapping would make much difference. If you have to see about 85% of possible birds, I suspect pretty much all the code 3 and below birds need to be seen. Left then are code 4 & 5 birds. Probability would suggest that although they may be different species, both of these are spread relatively evenly across the years in terms of numbers on average, with some exceptions for particularly stormy or other weather-related years. But handicapping could also have a negative aspect – it would emphasize luck over good birding, in that a very good and well organized birder doing a big year in a non-weather year could not score as highly if many very rare accidentals weren’t brought to our shores. On the other hand a birder living in an area prone to one-day accidental wonders could rack up a large score, especially in a stormy year, based on the rarity of the birds, rather than primarily good birding.

  • Chris Hitt

    This is a very useful exchange of ideas because it underscores the need for the ABA clearly to establish the guidelines/rules for big years. I believe that because so few people do full ABA area big years (time and money), and the notion that Sandy Komito’s record from 1998 was unbeatable, this did not seem to be a priority. With John Vanderpoel coming very close, and the very high probability that others will again in the future, it appears to be time for the ABA to step up on this issue. I would also add that in the annual big day/year, life list report, it is time to print annually the all time top 10 big year numbers for states, the lower 48 states, the full ABA area, etc. just as the ABA already does with big day efforts.

    A few other observations might be useful based on the numerous comments already provided on the blog. First, the immense amount of effort, time and money required to complete a big year even on the state or county level is noteworthy even if the birder does not set a new record. However, since we seem to be a country that “loves” trying to beat records, then trying to compare records from different big years is possible but only if there are clear rules of the game.

    Second, lots of suggestions have already been submitted which should go a long way in helping the ABA to clarify the rules. Specifically, I believe that first NA records should be acceptable on a big year list even if it may take beyond the big year for the ABA to accept the record. Splits/lump and adds/deletions should be announced at the beginning of each year rather than in the middle as is the case now so that big year birders know from day 1 what they are dealing with for their specific big year. Splits/lumps and adds (other than new NA records)/deletions that occur after a big year would not alter a completed big year total.

    Third, I realize that big year lists have been handled thru an honor system, but I do find it surprising that when submitting a big year number that the ABA does not ask the birder to submit his/her full list plus time and place the species was first seen.

    Fourth, it is possible to compare different big years by referencing the ABA Checklist. The current 7th edition provides a table beginning in 1973 up thru 2008 of all the checklist modifications. So for example, Sandy Komito wrote in his book (I Came, I Saw, I Counted) that even though many new birds had been added between 1987 and 1998, he still thought 1998 was a better year because of the overall number of birds recorded. When you compare the birds seen and not seen between 1987 and 1998, what I mainly come away with is how similar overall the 2 years were in pushing the statistical probabilities of finding a large number of species.

    Fifth, what John Vanderpoel’s current big year is demonstrating, as did Bob Ake’s last year, is that Sandy’s number is beatable even without the benefit of Attu. Sandy even predicted in his book that someone would eventually break his record. With the relatively easy to see splits and adds since 1998, this has become even more probable.

    In conclusion, while full ABA area big years in the end are really not very common, they do seem to capture the imagination of birders, and a clear set of rules/guidelines certainly would be the next logical step.

  • Laura Sexson

    Oh my goodness! My head hurts and I only read about 1/3 of this. Good luck on coming up with some rules. It is pretty clear whatever rules you come up with will not please everyone.

  • Morgan Churchill

    Announcing splits and lumps at the start of the year probably isn’t possible, since those depend on changes to the AOU checklist, which in turn are not announced until July/August. However birders can follow the pending proposals on the AOU website, which should give a person an idea of what they need to keep track of that year

  • Joe Lill

    I don’t think Komito should be punished for playing the game correctly. Lots of birders would have counted them all and let the Committee Chips fall where they may. If I were king, the species that got approved during the following calendar year would count, as long as the birder made public that they’d gotten the species. As Komito did.
    That being said, I think the number should be 747, as the falcon shouldn’t have counted in 1998. If the 2011 sightings pass muster during 2012 I think Vanderpoel get it.
    I’m a list compiler for Illinois and I subscribe to what I call the Hermit Warbler rule: in December 2002 the first positively-identified Hermit Warbler showed up. The IL committee didn’t meet until the summer, but we were fine with people counting it on their 2002 list with the caveat that it should be removed if the bird didn’t get accepted.


  • Bird Nut

    I agree with Greg Neise. I twinged when I read the comment accusing Greg of being disingenuous for saying “Because they were not a species at the time”. That accusation is off-base and incorrect. Whether a population is considered a species or a subspecies is not a mater of absolute truth, its a matter of how the AOU classifies that population at some point in time.

    It seems to me that what Greg is saying is actually very simple, and tightens up the rules, and certainly doesn’t have to put the rules of the game on a slippery slope. It actually gives the numbers more meaning.

    Greg is not even proposing that splits & lumps affect past counts, so there’s no slippery slope here, and yet that seems to be the main argument for keeping the numbers static.

    That said, I would like to jump on the slippery slope. Why not adjust the counts based on AOU decisions? Why not? In the modern computer age, users of see their counts (and life list) automatically reduced by an AOU lump. Likewise, ebird allows users to enter sightings for subspecies, and a split by the AOU would automatically increment counts and life list.

    So I think that if a birder documented that he saw 2 sub-species of Winter Wren, one in the east and one in the west, and he was able to identify them as 2 separate sub-species, then that is what he saw, and just as with ebird, it should be automatically updated when the AOU splits those sub-species into 2 species.

    I’m not saying that if a birder merely identified a Winter Wren in the east, and merely identified a Winter Wren in the west that they be automatically counted as 2 species after a split. They shouldn’t, and they wouldn’t with ebird. BUT, if the user logged the sightings by sub-species, then they should be counted by an AOU split, and they would by ebird.

    Furthermore, ebird even allows users to change their checklists at any time, even past checklists. So if I remember that I saw a bird in 2009 on a certain date, and enter it into, then voila, my list is incremented for 2009.

    Birding is on the honor system after all. Isn’t that one of the fundamental tenets of the hobby?

    In the computer age, why not allow counts to fluctuate as they do in ebird? Otherwise, they’re just meaningless numbers, with no basis for relative comparison.

  • Ted Floyd

    “I agree with Greg Neise.”


    “In the computer age, why not allow counts to fluctuate as they do in ebird?”

    As I’ve said before, I’m of two minds about this. Either:

    1. Just stick with the original, published total, e.g., 745 for Sandy Komito’s 1998 ABA Big Year; or:

    2. Sure, allow the counts to fluctuate indefinitely. Let’s say Greg Neise gets 750 species for his upcoming 2012 Big Year. Ten years later, though, that total has risen to 755, because his Purple Swamphen and Rosy-faced Lovebird have been found to count, his Budgerigar has been found not to count (population extirpated, species deleted from ABA Checklist), his Red Fox Sparrow and Slate-colored Fox Sparrows have been found to count (armchair splits), his Thayer’s Gull was determined not to count (lumped with Iceland), his California Condor was determined to count (changed from Code 6 to Code 3), his Aplomado Falcon in New Mexico was determined not to count (stable isotope analysis; dang), his Hooded Crane was determined to count (stable isotope analysis to the rescue), his Great Reed Warbler (ABA Area first!) was determined to count (DNA; woohoo), etc., etc.

    I’m actually fine with the preceding.

    What I’m not okay with is privileging (supposedly wild) “vagrants” above all other birds. That makes no sense to me. Where’s the consistency? If Greg’s 2012 Great Reed Warbler (eventually accepted by the committee in 2017) counts, why doesn’t his Red Fox Sparrow (in committee in 2012, split published in 2013?) Why doesn’t his California Condor (wild birds count, retroactive to 2009, per 2014 committee determination)? Why doesn’t his Purple Swamphen (added to the Checklist in 2013, with comment that population was successfully established no later than 2004)? Etc., etc.

    Our lists consists of various (artificial, of course) classes or categories of birds: exotics, casuals, accidentals, widespread native species, even the occasional ABA Area first. Great. But those occasional ABA Area firsts deserve no special privilege for the purposes of listing.

    To sum up, if you want to add Belcher’s Gull to Komito’s 1998 total, go for it. At the same time, add Cackling Goose to his 1998 total. Subtract Aplomado Falcon if subsequent research or consensus shows that it didn’t count. Or just leave the total at the published 745. But don’t add Belcher’s Gull but not Cackling Goose. That makes no sense.

    Oh, and one last thought. What about “The Pintail Problem”? That White-cheeked Pintail in 1998 was +1 on Komito’s list, but the very same, exact same, individual bird was +0 on other people’s lists that year.

  • I think the huge number of comments on this particular blog entry makes it clear that people find the sport of birding fascinating (whether they like it or not), and that ABA is the entity responsible for setting the rules of the bird listing game. I think that ABA is doing a superb job of trying to balance the needs of birders/birdwatchers in general with the needs of avid, competitive listers. That’s what Jeff is talking about when he says ABA provides a “big tent.” I love the thoughtfulness of virtually all these comments, which make it pretty obvious that setting these rules isn’t as straightforward as we might like.

  • Morgan Churchill

    Tangent perhaps…

    Correct me if I am wrong, but doesn’t the ABA listing guidelines say an exotic bird seen before it’s considered “established” by the ABA and added to the checklist doesn’t count? In which case the guidelines say that you can’t backcount exotics seen that are not already on the list.

    It’s a silly rule as is but it seems to be how it was formulated

  • Chris Hitt

    In general I do not agree with your point about adding splits after the fact, but let’s say you did, then you would only add it if you in fact saw a cackling goose during your big year, rather than simply adding it because the split occurred after the fact.

  • Bird Nut

    In addition to agreeing with Greg, I also agree with Ted 😉

    It makes more sense to add Belcher’s Gull and Cackling Goose to Komito’s total, than to just add Belcher’s. And I agree that birders must use their best judgement to determine if a bird (eg. White-cheeked Pintail) is wild or not, just as they must also use their best judgement to identify a bird. Unlike Baseball and other sports, there is an honor system in Birding. And I think that is key, and one of the reasons why I think the listing game should follow the model, and let the numbers fluctuate. The more real the numbers are, the more meaningful they are to discuss and compare. I suppose a birder could jack up their total without compunction, but they wouldn’t have the respect of their peers. Sandy seemed very conservative about his IDs. I recall one of the stories in which Sandy was on a tour boat with other birders, and the tour guide called out some bird that gave a very brief look. Another birder on board, simply checked it off, saying “cha-ching”, without really getting a good look at the bird, certainly not enough to identify it. Whereas Sandy did not check it off.

  • Robert Kyse

    I would like to see a new ideal in competitive birding where personal development and effort were the primary determinants. Call it the Birding Olympics. Hand out medals. Keep the required honesty but get rid of the financial leverage.

    I imagine the greatest cost is associated with travel. So the score should be diminished by a distance factor. The score should also be adjusted for difficulty but again the local rather than national difficulty rating should be used. I don’t recall how the ABA codes are determined with respect to local prevalence.

    As an example I think the World Series of Birding (a yearly birding completion in New Jersey) is much more Olympian than the Big Year competition. I lived in south Jersey for a while and was delighted to see cars filled with young competitors running around obviously without the benefit of financial resources. And I’m sure most birders, even the noncompetitive birders like me, were tempted to give it a try just to see what they could do. It was quite inspiring.

    The Big Year is grand as it is. I’m all for tradition. But perhaps it’s time for another standard of national competition.

  • I think the rule that prevents people from going back and adding an exotic species seen before it was accepted on the AOU or ABA lists makes perfect sense. I agree that some state ornithological societies and the AOU are pretty conservative about their final determination that a species is self-sustaining, which is frustrating and sometimes takes much longer than makes scientific sense, but the truth is that some introduced species never become established, and otherwise, we might as well start counting escaped zoo birds and pets the day they get out on the hopes that one day the species may become established.

    I don’t see why we need a big national or international Birding Olympics. ABA keeps track of plenty of lists already, including Big Day lists, and many state and local bird clubs already sponsor special competitions. I love ABA’s focus on maintaining the official ABA-area checklist, setting the rules (which are followed in many other countries as well), providing THE official list reporting venue, and providing lots of resources for birds, especially the Birders’ Guides, which enable everyone, competitive or not, to have access to the best information for finding birds. New Jersey’s “World Series” has a life of its own, and imagine how furious they’d be if ABA tried to horn in on their action, or to make some new competition that New Jersey thought was stealing some of their thunder. If other state-wide organizations want to start new competitions, that would be appropriate. But plenty of people take note of the birders who do the hugest Big Days already thanks to ABA. Seems like they offer plenty of great ways to compete right now.

  • Hi Morgan, I agree we need rules. I think the current ABA listing rules are out dated. They are a left over from a more puritan era when the world was not changing as quickly as it is today. Also I think the current ABA listing rules don’t serve the environment as well as they could. I have been arguing for 20 years that listers ought to be paying attention to exotics because introduction of exotics bring changes to ecosystems. Imagine if the community of snake listers on Guam would have detected the vanguard of the Brown Tree Snakes while they were still at the airport. Imagine if they would have had the foresight to limit their spread. Imagine Guam’s ecosystem with all the bird species that have gone extinct at the hand of this one snake. It is a silly fantasy but it captures my belief of the role that listers can play in the spread of exotics.

    The current listing rules extend beyond our listing games to influence what species get included in checklists and in field guides. Our birding culture fields a small army of observers. There is no reason why we ought not count EVERY living thing in the ecosystem. The Purple Swamphens and the Anacondas are breeding in Florida. What changes are they bringing about? Lets find out…

    Sure lets count biota on video streams: It works for the biologists flying drones over the Arctic Ocean surveying for bowhead whales. So long as you have a latitude, and a longitude and a timestamp and a species diagnosis and its data than can be added to the knowledge base of humanity, I say lets do it.

  • LOL. Thanks bro.

  • Morgan Churchill

    free flying exotic birds is a bit different than captive birds. I would say the establishment rules that the ABA uses are both too restricted AND nebulous. I still think though a persistence rule should apply (i.e. a population should be present a minimum of 15 years, or show a rapid expansion and colonization. Otherwise there really isn’t anything stopping a person from ticking a bunch of birds they just realized into there backyards.

    FYI both the CNAH and SSAR Herpetology checklist regularly add exotic species, some of which might have a fairly limited range (sometimes a handful of blocks in Miami).

  • Laura, you said, “I think the rule that prevents people from going back and adding an exotic species seen before it was accepted on the AOU or ABA lists makes perfect sense.”

    Could you explain why? This rule is quite (and I’m being kind here) silly to me. If Hill Myna is added to the ABA list on 15 July 2012, why should the one could potentially see on 14 July 2012 not count after the fact? Why is the same exact bird countable when seen on one day, but not the day before? If you’re seeing birds from the same established population, what’s the big deal?

    Which leads me to one of the sillier things I think the ABA Check-list committee has done in recent years: removing Crested Myna from the list. It was added to the list because it had established itself in the Vancouver area but later removed when it was extirpated by European Starlings. But in the interim, it was a full-fledged member of the area’s avifauna. Why why, then, weren’t Passenger Pigeon, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and Bachman’s Warbler removed from the ABA list? The answer, of course, is the the committee has a history of discriminating against non-native birds. Other than that bias, I can think of no legitimate reason for this action. All were legitimate parts of the avifauna but are no longer.

  • I agree with both of you, Michael. The one thing that’s always bothered me about it is that for a species to be accepted as established, it has to be established before it’s accepted. Therefore, if you see it soon before it’s accepted, you saw an individual from an established population. It just isn’t officially established. But on the other hand, I feel like you need to have a cut-off date, prior to which the population isn’t established nor countable, just because at the beginning, the population is _not_ established (though on its way). I can see an argument that the population should be countable retroactively, but for some reason it just doesn’t feel right to me. I guess it comes down to an opinion on whether there’s really a moment in time when a species becomes “established” post-introduction.

    I also agree that the Crested Myna should be countable, but the prevailing opinion among the powers that be is that if the population was extirpated than it was never actually established (and therefore, the determination of establishment was a mistake). But when you have a population that existed for a century, the line between it and extinct native species is blurred in my eyes. So yeah, it does seem to come down to a bias against non-native birds.

    Didn’t the checklist committee decide to create a category for “established but extirpated” species, but then the committee in charge of deciding on listing matters decide that category wasn’t countable?

  • Ted Floyd

    Breaking news!

    I hereby anoint myself the winner in this debate!

    Here’s why. There have been 74 comments to this particular blog post. (Is that a record, by the way, for The ABA Blog? I suspect so.) Good comments. Great comments. Thoughtful comments. Diverse comments. Comments all over the place.

    Yes, comments all over the place, and that’s my whole point. We birders don’t agree on this. We never will. There is no closure. There is no resolution of the matter. There are no answers. And never shall there be. There are only questions. Listing is, and ever shall be, fuzzy, ambiguous, imprecise, and hopelessly, wonderfully subjective and personal.

    The only way forward, it seems to me, is to stick with the official record of 745…and then debate it endlessly.

    Life is good.

    Victoriously yours, [insert sarcastic grinning face]
    T. Floyd

    P.s. Except for the Hooded Crane and Rufous-collared Sparrow. Those birds most assuredly count. No debate there.

  • Soarabout

    “Listing, for lack of a better word, is good. Listing is right. Listing works. Listing clarifies, cuts through, and captures, the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Listing, in all of its forms; Listing for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of birders and listing, you mark my words, will not only save birdlife, but that other compromised ecosystem called the U.S.A.”. – Gordon Stalkeye

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