Bird Records Committees: A Modest Proposal
by Ted Floyd
“Great news, honey! I’ve found a doctor who can treat my infection. He practices medicine just as they did in the early 1920s—before that silly penicillin fad became all the rage.”
“Mom, Dad: I’ve finally decided on a major. Anthropology. I love this department because all the profs use textbooks from the 1880s!”
“Can you help me? I’m looking for a new computer. I’d like the Commodore 64, please. And I can get a 5¼ -inch diskette drive with that, right?”
Needless to say, you wouldn’t go to a doctor who doesn’t “believe in” antibiotics. Neither would you send your kid to a college where the faculty are unaware of what’s happened in the past 125 years. And of course you wouldn’t buy a Commodore 64 for all your internet and database-management needs.
But how about the following?—
“We need for bird records committees to function just as they did in the 1970s!”
Back in the 1970s, bird records committees (BRCs) served the following, interrelated and interconnected, functions:
- to maintain an official list of all the bird species recorded in a particular state or province;
- to provide a quantitative understanding of the status and distribution of a state or province’s rare birds, or “vagrants”; and
- to accept or reject, on a case-by-case basis, records of occurrence of vagrants.
Great. I think that was great, back in the 1970s. Back then, people cared about “official” state lists; back then, people were keenly interested in figuring out patterns of vagrancy; and back then, when birding was simpler and more competitive, up-or-down Accept/Reject decisions were the order of the day.
Fast forward to 2012.
First, let’s face chronological reality. It’s been more than 35 years since Jimmy Carter was inaugurated. That’s more than a third of a century; that’s more than a human generation. That’s a long time. It is normal—normal and salutary—for ideas and institutions to change over the course of 35 years.
Right: Do you remember when Jimmy Carter was running for President of the United States? If so, then you're above the median age of an American.
It would be weird if today’s birders had the same needs, outlooks, and expectations as the birders from the era of disco, eight-track players, and Sanford and Son.
We’re well into the second decade of the 21st century, and the idea of an “official” state list is increasingly quixotic. Can we really say that any extralimital American Black Duck is “pure,” and therefore countable? And if we count American Black Ducks, why can’t we count Mexican Ducks? What about Muscovy Ducks? What about Smews and Falcated Ducks? What about well-established populations of Egyptian Geese and Mandarin Ducks?
These days, we just know too danged much. We know so much about hybrids, introgression, cryptic species, the proliferation of exotic species, and the prevalence of ship-assisted vagrancy. We know that practically every entry on an official state or provincial list is problematic in one way or another.
We also know a great deal, these days, about vagrancy. How did we come to obtain all that knowledge? Well, we owe that knowledge, in large part, to the brilliant work of the BRCs of the 1970s. I am, and forever well be, in awe of and grateful for—oh, and I’ll come right out and say it—the work of the California Bird Records Committee (CBRC) back in the Disco Age. That committee figured out when and where to find everything from Tropical Kingbirds to Rufous-backed Robins to Kentucky Warblers.
I’ll say it again: I’m in awe of the CBRC. I’ll also say this: I’m in awe of Galileo and Newton.
You see the problem, don’t you? Today’s physicists don’t spend a lot of time testing the laws of classical mechanics. We know that the acceleration due to gravity at sea level is 9.80665 meters per second per second. Physicists don’t get research grants to reestablish that fact. Physicists have moved on to other matters.
Shouldn’t it be the same with BRCs? In 2012, do we really need ever-more-fine-tuned knowledge about patterns of vagrancy? Do we even need official lists?
My answer: “No.” But it’s a qualified “No.” I’m not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’m going to argue that there’s still plenty more to learn about the birds in our states and provinces—although not so much about vagrants as about well-established populations of breeders, transients, and winter visitants. And I’m going to argue that state and provincial lists—although not of the sort envisaged by our birding forebears in the 1970s—remain relevant in the 21st century.
But first we need to turn to another matter. Thus far, I’ve commented on the first and second functions of BRCs from the 1970s. To recap: Function #1 was to keep a state or provincial list; Function #2 was to understand vagrancy. Now what about the biggie? What about #3?—for a committee to vote to accept or reject, on a case-by-case basis, records of occurrence of vagrants?
No beating around the bush: I hereby declare that it is no longer necessary or appropriate for BRCs to accept or reject records. Note carefully: no longer necessary or appropriate. That is to say, I, ahem, accept that this practice was reasonable in the 1970s and ’80s, and even in the ’90s and right through the aughts. But no longer. Something has changed. Something fundamental.
Back in the day, the “user” community—everybody from listers to state nongame agencies—lacked access to the corpus of records in care of a BRC. In theory, those records were accessible: Alls you had to do was drive across the state to the BRC’s secretary’s mother’s basement, rummage through the mildew and baseball cards till you found the committee’s archives, then spend the weekend trying to track down the cryptically labeled Kodak (Google it) print (Google it) of the Sharp-tailed Sparrow (Google it).
Left: Back in the day, Sanford and Son was cool. Watching Sanford and Son reruns in 2012?—not so cool.
But you wouldn’t really do that. Of course not. Instead, you would rely on the committee to do all the work for you. Your basic question boiled down to this: Was it a “Sharp-tailed Sparrow,” or wasn’t it? And the committee had the answer to your question: Yes or No. Those Yes/No (Accept/Reject) votes were published every other year or so in state or provincial ornithological journals, and they were the foundation of the user community’s understanding of the status and distribution of regional rarities.
That was then.
Today it is trivially easy to put it all on the internet. The slide of the “Sharp-tailed Sparrow”?—make a scan and get it online. The written description and field sketches?—same thing. The audio recording?—create a soundfile and upload. Piece of cake.
Next step: The user visits the BRC’s website, tracks down the record, and reviews the data. The something catches her eye: a record in a nearby marsh of a Demoiselle Crane.
Her determinations: The sparrow may well have referred to what we today call Nelson’s Sparrow, but the user isn’t convinced. As to the crane, however, she believes the bird to have been a naturally occurring vagrant, not an escape from captivity.
Of some interest is that our hypothetical user’s determinations are precisely the opposite of the committee’s. In a not-quite-unanimous vote, the committee accepted the sparrow; but our user’s standard of evidence was evidently different. In a split vote, however, the committee rejected the crane; but the user sided with those committee members who accepted the crane.
Folks, that’s totally fine.
Different users have different needs. Our models and methods differ, user by user. Our knowledge and understanding are constantly evolving; we know more about Ammodramus sparrow ID and crane vagrancy than we did in the old days. And the culture’s changing: Slowly but surely, we’re embracing a more probabilistic view of the material universe. The old black-and-white (cf. Accept/Reject) worldview is being supplanted by one that is more interested in and tolerant of shades of gray.
If only FOX News would get into the business of archiving bird records. “We report, You decide”—that’s actually a great idea for advancing our understanding of avian status and distribution.
Here’s my vision for records committees in 2012 and beyond.
- First, Put it all online. I mean, All of it: the record (“accession”) number, the photos and audio, the written description and field sketches. Make it searchable. And create a “comments” field
- From time to time, update summary accounts of all species reported to have occurred within the state or province. Some species will be those that we traditionally have thought of as BRC fare: Demoiselle Cranes and Nelson’s Sparrows in California, and so forth. But there will be a great deal more. The California accounts would include entries for Nutmeg Mannikin and Orange Bishop, for Rose-ringed Parakeet and Lilac-crowned Parrot. Ditto for Black-footed Albatross, Anna’s Hummingbird, and Black Phoebe.
- Finally, and this is the biggie: No voting.
I’ve already said it: Until recently, voting was important for the scientists and listers who value an archival record of the occurrence of birds in a state, province, or other region of interest. Today, however, we have the internet. We have—or we ought to have—all that information at our fingertips. In the old days, all we had was a simple Yes/No decision: Sharp-tailed Sparrow–Accept, Demoiselle Crane–Reject, etc. Today, we can look at photos, listen to audio, examine the observers’ field notes, and review other users’ comments.
Right: People danced in the 1970s. People still dance in 2012. But they don't dance in 2012 the same way they danced in the ’70s.
Am I saying that BRCs are irrelevant in 2012? Absolutely not. They’re more important than ever, and, man, do they have their work cut out for them!
Basically, I’m picturing a committee in which all members serve as non-voting secretaries. In this scenario, all members would be involved in database management. All members would coauthor regularly updated accounts of the status and distribution of all species reported to have occurred within the state, province, or region of interest. (And I hasten to point out that compendia of such “accounts” would be book-length treatises that any university press would be proud to publish.) And all members would engage in some amount of “customer relations”—that is to say, broad engagement of the birding community.
What an incredible service these rejiggered records committees would provide. And the birding community would know it. And recognize it. And appreciate it. And be grateful for it.
That would be a big change.
I’d like to close now on that note.
I can anticipate an instant objection to the scenario I laid out above. I can imagine you’re saying: “Put it all online—fine. Create annotated lists not just of rarities but of all species—great. Voting—what’s the harm?”
As my sister likes to say, Allow me to answer that question with a question: “What’s the point?”
Seriously, what’s the point?
It’s “science,” right? According to a certain perspective, voting yields a “scientific” record of the occurrence of rare birds. But could there be another reason for voting?
Talk to anybody who’s been birding for a while—heck, talk to anybody who’s been birding for an hour—and you’ll be informed that the true function of a BRC is to police birders’ lists. Oh, I can hear the howls of protest already. What can I say?—Methinks the lady doth protest too much.
Left: BRCs meet regularly and evaluate records of avian occurrence.
Now let’s be fair here: Innocent until proven guilty. Let’s say BRCs truly are 100% science, 0% list police. Nevertheless, the all-important perception remains. Everywhere I go, I encounter the same sentiment: BRCs are self-proclaimed list police.
I’m not saying it’s fair. I’m not saying it’s true. But I am indeed most emphatically and categorically stating that it is a widely held belief that BRCs are list police.
It’s a real pain in the butt for BRCs.
But it doesn’t have to be.
If BRCs got out of this archaic Yes/No (“Accept/Reject”) mode, the whole problem would instantly vanish. The “list police” charge would go out the window. Committees would be unencumbered at last to do science, and science alone.
BRC stock would soar. BRCs would be “good guys,” right up there with The Nature Conservancy, the ABA’s young birder programs, motherhood, and apple pie. BRCs would inspire birders to learn more about avian status and distribution—knowledge of which is more important than ever in this era of accelerating habitat change and human population growth.
Sound good? Yes, but the following has to happen: BRCs have to get out of the list police business. I know, I know...it’s not fair. BRCs don’t really police people’s lists. But as long as BRCs maintain “official” lists and vote on records, that all-important perception will persist. And that perception—whether or not it’s fair—will prevent BRCs from playing an important role in informing management actions and conservation policy in the 21st century.
* * * * *
Below I present four screen-captures from the interactive California Bird Records Committee website. Scroll down into the "Comments" section, please, for further thoughts. But, first, a tease: These four screen-captures point to a magnficient functionality for bird records committees in 2012 and beyond. More on that below; here now are the images:
Fig. 1a. Rufous-backed Robin query.
Fig. 1b. Rufous-backed Robin results.
Fig. 2a. Demoiselle Crane query.
Fig. 2b. Demoiselle Crane results.