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¡Viva la Revolución!

Lemmon 08August12 519T
he hybrid hummingbird lives on! After we had begun production of the September 2012 Birding, Jerry Mahlberg sent us several photos of the Magnificent x Anna’s  Hummingbird that has been visiting his garden since 2009. Be sure to check out  Mahlberg’s article (“A Strange and Beautiful Hybrid Hummingbird: Magnificent x  Anna’s”), beginning on p. 40 of the September issue.

Right: He’s baa-ack. This Magnificent x Anna’s Hummingbird was photographed in Jerry Mahlberg’s garden, August 2012.

In the meantime, here’s something to chew on: Mahlberg’s article wouldn’t have been possible a dozen years ago. Of course, there’s a literal aspect to what I’m saying: As far  as I know, the Magnificent x Anna’s combo wasn’t known 12 years ago. But that’s what  I’m getting at. What I mean is the following: This sort of article wouldn’t have happened.

Mahlberg’s article is essentially a digital photography essay. Twelve years ago, digital bird photography was just getting started. A dozen years ago, you just didn’t meet many serious bird photographers. Today practically every birder carries a camera. In a pinch, your mobile device will suffice. Earlier this year, I employed my mobile phone—a decidedly dumb phone—in the service of photo-documenting an unusual White- crowned Sparrow. How low can you go?

I’m not saying Jerry Mahlberg’s work is in any sense low. Quite the contrary: The guy has just published a very nice piece of original scientific research, clearly demonstrating the occurrence of a remarkable bird. We at Birding are proud to have published his article.

Instead, I’m saying something about Jerry Mahlberg! [Insert huge smiley-face.] He’ll be the first person to tell you that he’s a perfectly ordinary nature lover who just happens to own a digital camera. Like all the rest of us in 2012. Mahlberg astutely noticed a strange hummingbird,  snapped (clicked, I guess, in 21st-century parlance) a few photos, and made his mark on field ornithology.

12-3-10-F01 [09-28-2011]S
ame thing with Keith Evan’s feature article in the May 2012 Birding. Over the course of several months in 2011, Evans and his photographer friend Paul Higgins documented  a rare Harlequin Duck in Utah. In the process, they learned some really  cool stuff about molt in the Harlequin Duck. Then they submitted to Birding, and voilà: a lovely piece of original scientific research.

Left: Harlequin Duck. Photo by © Paul Higgins.

A bit of backstory, if I may. During the review process, I had Evans’s manuscript looked  at by Peter Pyle and Steve Howell. Those guys are, of course, two of the world’s foremost  experts on molts and plumages. They’re good. And they’re critical. I intend  “critical” in the good sense of the word: They apply sound logic and abundant  intelligence to the craft of field ornithology.

I think it’s fair to say that both Pyle and Howell independently gave Evans’ manuscript a two-thumbs-up assessment. Oh, sure, they had a bunch of quibbles—and a few  important corrections with regard to (mis)use of terminology. But they liked it. And the piece was promptly published in Birding.

As with Jerry Mahlberg’s piece, Keith Evans’ Harlequin Duck article probably wouldn’t have happened a dozen years ago. The necessary e-infrastructure just didn’t exist at the time: Digital cameras were relatively rare, and very pricey; photo-sharing discussion groups were just getting going; and the editors of bird magazines would have required a lifetime to download all those huge files.

WebExtra - Fig 05 [Yellow Bandwing]O
ne more example. I mentioned Steve Howell a couple of paragraphs ago. Did you see his brilliant flyingfish photo essay in the July 2012 Birding? If anybody ever publishes a flyingfish field guide, that person will surely include in his or her guide Howell’s incredible photos.
Right: Yellow Bandwing. Photo by © Steve N. G. Howell.

Check this out. There actually are flyingfish, well, manuals. That is to say, there are some technical papers—and maybe even a book—on flyingfish. Those works ID  flyingfish from pickled specimens in jars. Somebody’s gotta do it, I guess, but: Boooooring. And, honestly: of no possible relevance to hobbyists in the field on boats at sea.

I’m becoming a broken record, I know, but: Howell’s work would have been impossible as recently as the late 20th century.

Yes, this is a story about technology. But it’s also a story about human culture and the democratization of knowledge.

We don’t—we can’t—fully grasp what is happening now in the dawn of the Internet Age. But it is surely as momentous as anything in human history. Our species’ history is so many ways a long saga of emancipation: from mobs and tyrants, from taboos and phobias, from ignorance and irrationality. And now, at last, our minds and spirits are being emancipated: Knowledge and understanding are being pried away from those who have enjoyed the privileges of education and experience.

Old barriers are breaking down. Old power structures are crumbling. (Tenure and peer review are increasingly viewed as impediments to intellectual progress.) The production of knowledge is being carried out on a vast scale. Even more exciting, the very construction of knowledge is suddenly and wonderfully the purview of billions.

For as long as I’ve been a birder, it has been alleged that the ABA is elitist. That perception is interesting, but it’s behind us. It’s history. The ABA, like so much else in contemporary human culture, has been swept up in the knowledge revolution. There’s no going back.

¡Viva la Revolución!


Laissez les bons temps rouler!

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the longtime Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives with the ABA. Ted has written 200+ magazine articles and 5 books, including How to Know the Birds (National Geographic, 2019). He is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and has served on several nonprofit boards. Join Ted at The ABA Blog for his semimonthly spot, “How to Know the Birds,” celebrating common birds and the uncommonly interesting things they do.