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THE TOP 10: Birding Taboos

We’ve all got’em. Flashpoints. No-no’s. A little illicit indulgence here and there. Such subjects are usually best left undiscussed… but not today. Here we shall have it out and get’em all on the table, in plain sight, for all to see. What follows is a list of the Top 10 Birding Taboos. On some subjects I offer some opinion, and hopefully some insight, but for others enough has been said already!

And see the info about ABA Events below.

10.       Hawai’i and amending the ABA Area

This has been much discussed as folks have strong opinions for and against adding the 50th state to the ABA Area.

BTCU Hawaii_20090315_0333x

If Hawaii becomes part of the ABA Area, the Bristle-thighed Curlew could become a much easier bird to see; provided you are able to make it to Hawai’i. (Photo by G. Armistead)

9.         Laser Pointers

Many birding guides have found laser pointers a godsend. They are great for showing people birds in areas where spotting or relocate birds is difficult (especially in forest). Other folks find them disruptive. In many instances laser pointers greatly aid in showing birds to fellow birders,  but they do have some drawbacks. Surely by now everyone is aware, or can intuit, that shining a laser beam into the eye of any animal is a very, very bad idea that could result in permanent damage to the eye.

Given that, laser pointers should be used with caution, and it only requires a little conscious effort to use one safely. Some birds (like hummingbirds) are frightened by lasers and so using one will only hasten a bird’s disappearance. Occasionally birding guides are careless with them and over-use them so that the birders in their charge become unpracticed at receiving directions the old fashioned way and then are slower to find birds in situations where a laser pointer won’t work. Personally, I rate them on the plus side; in some situations, used properly, they really improve the quality of a group birding experience.


8.         Records Committees

Avidly followed by some, records committees are loathed by others.


7.         Listing and listers

Somewhere along the way listing picked up a negative connotation in certain circles. Being a slave to the list is unhealthy, as you don’t want to reach a point where you fail to enjoy the birds in front of you, but listing actually generates a lot of good and healthy activity among birders.
Keeping a day list, a month list, a county list, or even doing a big year will lead to a bunch of interesting experiences while forcing you to think about bird distribution and behavior. It’s this peeling back of the layers that is surely part of why eBird is the success that it is. In fact, some of the most expert among us are serious listers who enjoy it for the knowledge it has brought them.


6.         Dirty Birds

We’ve all got a couple. These are the “BVD” (better view desired) birds, “heard-only”, or “questionable origin”-type of birds. Entries we have counted on a list but that aren’t supported by the best views, or any views, or that conceivably have just escaped from a cage inside somebody’s home or waddled off a freighter.


5.         Stringers

Every state/province has got at least one and we all know who they are. They’re the birders who always find rarities while they are by themselves and always fail to photograph them. For these birders most of their birds are dirty. In some cases these folks come up with one incredible find  after another, but they almost always fail to document their sightings with recordings, video, photos, etc., and so we are left to wonder what they really saw. Often there is little wonder, and we can be certain that the reports are nothing other than figments of hope that mutated into a “sighting”. In other cases we are simply left to wonder….what did they actually see? Was it really a ….?


4.         IBWOs


Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in 1937 (Photo by James Tanner)

Y’all knew this was coming. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker has become perhaps the biggest taboo in birding. The “irrefutable evidence” that came out of Arkansas, then Florida, then a host of other spots, looks a lot more like hearsay in hindsight. Hope gone awry. In the process reputations  were soiled and relationships between many folks who work in ornithology and conservation were strained or even ruined. The whole thing was a mess and a shame.


3.         Hunting

My good friend Marshall Iliff once told me that he figured birding is sort of a hybrid between hunting and stamp-collecting and I think that’s not far off. There is actually a fair amount of overlap between birders and hunters, but I know some hunters who are birders and keep their hunting hobbies quiet around other birders. Undeniably, hunting is a (the?) driving force in conservation.


2.         Playback

GLA taping Sand Partridge_n2

While guiding in the UAE, George tries to draw out a Sand Partridge using a recording of its call. (Photo by Rich Kuehn)

Playing recorded bird songs to attract birds is another hot-button issue. Initially, it seems like disturbance, and so it typically incites a reactionary response. A more nuanced accounting reveals that in many instances using playback is a pretty responsible course, considering the alternatives (e.g. having large groups of birders loitering in a bird’s territory for prolonged periods). The real answer lies in  exercising common sense and caution and being self-aware.

1.         Outdoor cats

The jury is in on this one. Keep your cats indoors. Simple as that.

Why not explore birding taboos together, in person.

Come be a part of these upcoming 2013 ABA Events:

The Cradle of American Ornithology
Philadelphia, PA                     Mar. 27th-31st
Instructors: Ted Floyd & George

Rarity-hunting in Alaska’s Pribilofs
St. Paul Island, AK                Sept. 25th-Oct. 2nd
Guides: Doug Gochfeld & Scott Schuette

Ross’s Gull Expedition to Barrow, Alaska
Barrow, AK                            Oct. 4th-8th
Guides: John Puschock & George Armistead


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George Armistead

George Armistead

George Armistead is a lifelong birder and since April 2012 is the events coordinator for the ABA. George spent the prior decade organizing and leading birding tours for Field Guides Inc. He has guided trips on all seven continents, and enjoys vast open country habitats and seabirds most of all. Based in Philadelphia, he is an associate at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and spends much of his free time birding the coast between Cape May, NJ and Cape Hatteras, NC.
  • Nice post – I was aware of most of the “taboos” listed above, but I had yet to heard about people using laser pointers to give the location of birds. It sounds like a pretty horrible idea to me. The notion of expanding the acceptable territory to Hawaii is exciting, since it would add more birds to the list, but it would also mean that anyone chasing the record would not be able to cover the entire ABA area without taking a plane or a rather long boat ride to Hawaii. I would be curious to know if the inclusion of Hawaii would also add some new pelagic species to the accepted list ? In any case, great post, I will mention it on my own blog at

    Thanks and happy birding,
    Dan Levenson

  • When I suggested a few years back that feral cats needed to be killed off for the good of birds and that doing so would be a good use of my pistol skills, the response from my friends was, shall we say, varied.

    But let’s build bridges: The ABA-sponsored Feral Cat Hunt. Maybe offer a reward per pelt. Bring those plinkers and “varmint” shooters into our big tent.

    Alan Contreras
    Eugene, Oregon

    • webster

      You are a monster.

  • Alan! You are a man with a sense of humor. I nominate you to head the committee.

  • Steve

    RE #6 – I think it’s a shame that it has come to believing folks only with some form of provided evidence. Before all these fancy cameras, and digital & tape recorders, wasn’t it the observers’ description that was important? Birding books encourage the readers to bird without their books, and teach the reader how to observe with a keen eye, and enjoy witnessing the bird. Too many birders are only interested in capturing the photo for evidence these days. Given how our planet is changing in regards to weather, the natural progression is that birds, and animals of all kinds, will change their regions of living. I’ve read of some of the most bizarre sightings this year alone around the world. I’ve had a rare bird sighting this year for my area as well, observing & studying the bird’s features at a close distance for some time. No photo was taken . I had never seen this bird before, yet I could describe it thoroughly after seeing it. If no photo means no sighting, we are truly taking a step backward.

    On the other side of this coin, I agree there are trolls out there who are regularly spotting rare birds, and I question these reports myself at times. However, last year, my wife and I desperately wanted to see the Horned Grebes that were being reported in our area. We always seemed to “just miss them”. We began thinking the reports were false until after the 15th time going out we spotted them. Luckily this year we spotted them on the first attempt! Einstein once said, “99 times I am wrong, and the 100th time I am right”. This phrase has taught me that just because one birder managed to see something at the right time & right place, and 99 other visits prove fruitless, it doesn’t mean the one lucky birder was a fibber because he/she didn’t have a photo.

  • Morgan Churchill

    I think the thing was more oriented towards the type of person who seems to find 10 or 15 1st state records a year that no one can ever confirm, not the person who happens upon a rare bird and takes a picture. The first is a stringer, the second not so much.

  • You think he’s joking? Have you met Alan?

  • Steve

    EDIT (RE#6 & #5)

  • Steve

    Yes, I agree. I’ve just talked with too many people that need photos to believe these days. It’s disappointing, and feels like the activity is becoming too elitist.

  • Nice post, George. I’m glad amending the ABA Area has become a high profile birding taboo. I agree with Steve regarding evidence for all rarities. We can’t expect everyone to have photos of rare birds. We should continue to practice basic birding skills to be able to provide good rare bird documentation write-ups as best we can.

  • Josh Adams

    Really surprised photographers didn’t make it on this list. They’ve caused by far the most headaches in the NW during these two years of Snowy Owl irruptions. I do admit I get occasionally annoyed when I run into someone with $8,000 worth of lens who can’t even name any bird species beyond Snowy Owls and Bald Eagles, but to each their own.

    I don’t know if it fits perfectly in this list, but what about those folks who feel the need to pat themselves on the back publicly for what they deem as virtuous. “I would never try to get closer to a bird in order to take a photo.” “I would never use playback to help locate a bird.” “I would never drive more than five miles from my house to see a bird, I mean think of the carbon footprint!” You get the idea.

  • In these days, you can find someone with $8000 worth of spotting scope and they don’t even know the name of any species beyond eagle and duck too.

  • Dave Hewitt

    RE: dirty birds, I once read that getting a better view of a bird you put on your list but felt guilty about was called “sanitizing your list”. Don’t recall where I read that but I still like it. In fact, I have a few life list entries that still need sanitizing.

  • Josh Adams

    Then can I add to my list of annoyances (not necessarily taboos) anyone who feels that spending anything short of $2000 binoculars and $2500 spotting scope is wasting your money.

  • Cliff Hawley

    I would definitely say photographers who use their big lens as an excuse to trespass, get in front of birders who are looking at a bird, and flushing the bird to get the shot. The Common Crane in Nevada and the Northern Lapwings in New Jersey are examples of photographers who lose their mind to take a picture and almost ruin it for everyone else by flushing the bird. I’m going to start using a camera to take pictures of birders who act like jerks and start posting those pictures on message boards. We need to name and shame the jerks who think their photos are more important than others enjoyment of the bird.

  • Morgan Churchill

    You don’t need a camera to be inconsiderate and flush birds. I would have Red-throated Pipit on my life list if some birder hadn’t decided that walking up to the flock it was in was the best way of finding the bird, even though the birds were easily visible from the edge of the field.

  • Ted Eubanks

    George, nice post. Yet ignore conservation as a taboo, particularly the politics of conservation? You haven’t been following the blog and FB page, I assume 🙂

  • Hi George,

    Nice note. How about scientific collecting. Birding and some of the most exciting aspects of birding feed from knowledge obtained by collecting birds, yet so many people see collecting as the worse thing in this world for birds.

  • Alfredo,
    Absolutely I agree. Collecting is one taboo I didn’t think of, and certainly qualifies. I also agree that many folks who oppose it would come around on collecting if they understood that by and large it is done responsibly and for good reason.

    Good point.

  • Ted Floyd

    This is fun! Here’s another take on it. A “taboo,” in one sense of the word, is something we can’t talk about. Of course, birders love to talk about many of the topics enumerated by George. So how about things we’re not supposed to talk about?

    Well, politics, religion, and, to some extent, conservation come to mind. You know, the things Eubanks likes to talk about… 🙂

    It’s curious, and I think dark, that politics, religion, and conservation are birding taboos, because, for so many of us, they inform so much of what we think and experience as birders. But, man, there’s no better way to kill a field trip than by raising the topics of politics or religion, and, in many instances, even conservation.

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