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It’s All So Arbitrary

Ted Floyd’s ABA blog post last week has gotten me thinking, first specifically about the arbitrariness of big year starting dates, and then about all sorts of other arbitrary things, bird-related and otherwise. Below are a few arbitrarily chosen thoughts on the arbitrariness of big year timing, bird species definitions, what birds are “countable”, and birding area definitions.

In Ted’s post (go read it now), he discussed the beginning of his big year that began in June (not January!), and not even on June 1st but on June 8th. He also discussed the overall arbitrariness of our calendars beginning on January 1st, which is clearly an odd thing, but I won’t discuss further.

Why are big years begun at the beginning of the calendar year; why not begin whenever you want? It’s odd that everyone’s birding big years, all of them as far as I know, until Ted, begin on January 1st. Which date the big year begins shouldn’t make any difference in the final result, except no matter when you begin, you are likely to be more worn out at the end than at the beginning. Being worn out on a snowy dark, cold December day is much different than being worn out on a beautiful, uplifting spring day.  If there are aren’t many likely new year-birds around in December it doesn’t much matter if there is little energy left. But could a weary big year birder at the end of a big year in May do the needed nonstop birding to have a chance of finding a large number of new year-birds? It would be like beginning a career at the end of life, a bigger challenge I think than beginning it in the “prime” of life. But many people do find the energy to make career changes later in life, and I expect one could find sufficient energy to go birding at the end of a big year no matter when it ended. It’s all in the motivation.

A big year birder not only makes an arbitrary choice on when and where to do the big year, but also faces other arbitrariness imposed by others. Normally (with the exception at least of Ted), big year birders try to follow the ABA rules on which birds are “countable” (i.e., wild birds) and how the species are defined. If you really want to consider arbitrariness in a birder’s world, think about speciation. Birds just don’t fit neatly in any type of species definition. Just consider all the back-and-forths of lumping and splitting species – e.g., Northern Oriole, Traill’s Flycatcher, Northern Flicker, etc. that have occurred, and continue to occur. Bullocks oriole

This lumping and splitting of bird species is not just a plot to get us to buy new bird books – there are real reasons for the uncertainty on where the lines should be drawn. If one were going to start from scratch to delineate bird species, one could easily double or triple the number of species that were defined by using color variations or geographic separation or song differences or…. Alternatively, you could halve or reduce even further the number of species by lumping together anything that has ever interbred. We’d probably have just a couple of gull species in the U.S., which would certainly make life easier for us non-larophiles. When a big year birder arbitrarily chooses a year in which to do the big year, if the birder follows the rules on how the species are defined, the number of possible species for the big year will depend on which year the big year is done, and in particular, on whether any bird species have lately been lumped or split.

The bottom line for all of this is that you’ve got to start somewhere if you are going to do more than just admire the beauty of birds, if you are going to write down birds seen at all. You’ve got to call them something. It’s helpful to be able to discuss these birds with someone, so some type of generally accepted classification system comes in very handy for this. But it’s still very arbitrary.

And if you are going to try to see as many birds as possible in a given time period (i.e., do a big year or big day or big hour…), the time period has to start at some specific time on some specific date, and the area (a county, a state, the ABA area, etc.) needs to be defined in which the big whatever will be done. (I’ve arbitrarily decided not to discuss further the clear arbitrariness of county, state and country borders and the definition of the “ABA area”.) January 1st is as good as anything as a beginning point for a big year, but, as Ted said, it’s definitely not the only possibility. I really do like his idea of starting on a different date than January 1st. I also can’t stop thinking about the idea of doing overlapping big years that his post brought to my mind. It’s hard to wrap my brain around what it would be like. For example, what would it be like to be in May of a particular year and have a House Sparrow, an American Robin and a Cliff Swallow be a new year birds for a big year that had begun May 1st, with only the Cliff Swallow being new for the overlapping big year than had begun four months earlier on January 1st? And then imagine doing more than two overlapping years at the same time. I have been imagining it, but I’m not sure that even I am a gung-ho enough big-year birder to attempt it. We shall see.


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Lynn Barber

Lynn Barber

Lynn Barber started birding at the age of 7. In 2005, she broke the Texas big year record with 522 species, and in 2008, she tallied 723 bird species in the ABA Area. An account of her ABA Big Year, entitled Extreme Birder: One Woman’s Big Year, was published in the spring of 2011. Her second book, Birds in Trouble was published in 2016. While living in North Carolina, Lynn was active in Wake County Audubon and on the board of the Carolina Bird Club. Moving to Texas in 2000, she was active in the Fort Worth Audubon Society, serving as its president for 3 years. She is a life member of the Texas Ornithological Society, and became its president in April 2009. She now lives in Anchorage, Alaska.
Lynn Barber

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