Nikon Monarch 7

aba events

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.

 

Facebooktwitter
The following two tabs change content below.
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

Latest posts by Lynn Barber (see all)

  • Rob Parsons

    Lynn, should you ever do overlapping big years, I for one would be most interested in hearing about them. To be honest, without a computer, I doubt I could keep them straight!

American Birding Podcast
Birders know well that the healthiest, most dynamic choruses contain many different voices. The birding community encompasses a wide variety of interests, talents, and convictions. All are welcome.
If you like birding, we want to hear from you.
Read More »

Recent Comments

  • Steve Hampton, in #ABArare - River Warbler - Alaska... { Photo by Clarence Irrigoo! Great guy that makes birding on Gambell possible. }
  • Nate, in Rare Bird Alert: October 13, 2017... { That's fair about the weather timing. I recall the observers saying something about Hurricane Nate being involved, but how much is not clear. As to... }
  • Gary Bloomfield, in Birding with a Tricorder... { Great essay, Ted! Feel sorry for the guy in the photo who's wearing a red shirt, though. }
  • Steve Shultz, in Rare Bird Alert: October 13, 2017... { I believe the NC swift was seen on Saturday, October 7 (unless the date indicated by the observer on the photo was incorrect). Nate did... }
  • Rick Wright, in #ABArare - Yellow-breasted Bunting - Newfoundland & Labrador... { What a great bird! Sadly topical: http://www.birdlife.org/worldwide/news/yellow-breasted-bunting-next-passenger-pigeon?utm_source=BirdLife+International+News+Notifications&utm_campaign=3435eeef02-Top_news_notification&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_4122f13b8a-3435eeef02-133889729&goal=0_4122f13b8a-3435eeef02-133889729&mc_cid=3435eeef02&mc_eid=8db37ed8c1 }
  • Older »

Categories

Authors

Archives

ABA's FREE Birder's Guide

If you live nearby, or are travelling in the area, come visit the ABA Headquarters in Delaware City.

Beginning this spring we will be having bird walks, heron watches and evening cruises, right from our front porch! Click here to view the full calender, and register for events >>

via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

  • Open Mic: Young Birder Camp at Hog Island: Coastal Maine Bird Studies for Teens September 11, 2017 3:07
    At the mic: Dessi Sieburth, an avid birder, photographer, and conservationist, is a 10th grader at Saint Francis High School in La Canada, California. He is a member of the Pasadena Audubon Young Birder’s Club and Western Field Ornithologists. Dessi enjoys birding in his home county of Los Angeles. Last summer, Dessi attended Camp Colorado, […]
  • Introducing the Whimbrel Birders Club! September 7, 2017 2:33
    Whimbrel Birders Club was established at the first annual Illinois Young Birders Symposium in August 2016. We are a birding club truly meant for everyone, no matter your age, disability, or ethnicity. […]
  • Open Mice: Kestrels–An Iowa Legacy May 16, 2017 6:29
    A few years ago, a short drive down my gravel road would yield at least one, if not two, American Kestrels perched on a power line or hovering mid-air above the grassy ditch. Today, I have begun to count myself lucky to drive past a mere one kestrel per week rather than the daily sightings. […]

Follow ABA on Twitter