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The Digital Divide—Not

I goofed.

I wish I’d come up with a different headline for the lead entry in “Your Letters” in the September/October 2013 Birding. In presenting Nick Whelan’s letter (pp. 10–11) and Paul Hurtado’s response (pp. 11–12) as “The Digital Divide,” I may have promoted just a wee bit of schism. That wasn’t my intent.

Let’s start over:


Common Ground

By Ted Floyd, on October 26, 2013

The internet, like cars and indoor plumbing, is a staple of modern living. But there are times when we want to get away from it all. Guilty as charged: Whenever and wherever possible, I prefer to walk or run; and my disdain for indoor plumbing sometimes involves behaviors I probably oughtn’t write about in a public forum.

When it comes to the internet, though, I have another confession: I’ve gone over to the dark side. I’ve been assimilated. I upload sightings to eBird while walking, sometimes when running, and sometimes—often, actually—well, you figure it out. Hang on to that unsavory image for just a moment.

Until recently, the ABA was behind the curve with the whole internet thing. But we’re catching up, and fast. During Jeff Gordon’s three years as ABA president, we’ve  embraced the internet on many different fronts: Birding News and Listing Central, Buteo Books and The ABA Store, Flight Calls (sign up here) and a revamped website, a robust presence on Twitter and Facebook, this blog of course, and a whole bunch of critical behind-the-scenes initiatives (everything from managing the ABA membership database to editing publications online). Heady times—and I’ve been swept up in the e-spirit as much as anybody at the ABA.

Which Nick Whelan seems to have noticed…

Whelan laments that certain content in the May/June 2013 Birding is available only online, and he cites three specifics: the feature article on Purple Swamphens, the photo quiz answers, the book reviews. I’ll deal with these out of order.

This quiz bird is a Gray Flycatcher. Image from video made by (c) Rick Thompson.

This quiz bird is a Gray Flycatcher. Image from video made by (c) Rick Thompson.

#2. You had to go online to find out. First things first, and no more beating around the bush: It was a Gray Flycatcher. Second, and I hope this cheers Whelan: We hear you. The photo quiz answers in the print versions of the July/August and September/October issues are among the most thorough in the history of Birding magazine. Look for more of the same in upcoming issues. I’m not quite done with photo quizzes, but let’s move on.

#3. It’s ironic, Whelan notes, that book reviews have been appearing online. After all, books are something that were engaged chiefly in the medium of the codex from the sixth century until around a decade ago. As with the photo quiz: We hear you. Book Review Editor Rick Wright, Associate Editor Noah Strycker, and I are working to deliver abstracts of the book reviews right in the print version of Birding. This initiative is brand-new, so don’t hold your breath for the micro-abstracts in the forthcoming November/December issue. But we hope you’ll be pleased with the meatier content starting in 2014. I’ll have more to say about book reviews, too, but let’s keep going.

#1. Here’s the deal with the swamphen article: The full text of Bill Pranty’s feature article appears in the print version of the May/June 2013 Birding. The online content—PDFs of 11 original scientific papers about Florida’s swamphen—is supplemental. You could go to the library for those 11 papers, but good luck with that: They’re an eclectic bunch, appearing in diverse and somewhat obscure journals. I doubt that any library has all of them. So we put the 11 articles online, as added value for ABA members. Together, they total more than 120 pages—far more than could be accommodated in the print version of Birding.


 Purple Swamphen nest in Florida. Photo by (c) Bill Pranty.

Purple Swamphen nest in Florida. Photo by (c) Bill Pranty.

had a wonderful thought. If you’ve been an ABA member for the past year, you’re possessed of in-depth knowledge about Purple Swamphens in Florida. Let’s put that in perspective. Invasive exotic organisms are widely acknowledged to be one of the key challenges for conservation biology in the 21st century. The issues are complex, involving everything from natural history to climate change, from ethics to aesthetics. This past year, ABA members have explored a compelling case study in conservation biology: As experts on Purple Swamphens, we have a better appreciation of invasive organism biology; we’ve become more-informed and better citizens.

And it’s not just the article in the May/June issue and the mini-library of online PDFs. The upcoming November/December 2013 Birding has additional swamphen content, and so does the imminent November 2013 issue of Birder’s Guide. And there’s more. Florida’s Purple Swamphens have received major coverage in the ABA’s online forums, notably this one. By the end of this calendar year, engaged ABA members will be remarkably well informed on swamphen taxonomy, ecology, demography, management, and of course identification.


In his letter, Nick Whelan makes an interesting distinction between feeling left behind (“not a big deal,” he says) and left out (“a bigger deal”). Let’s revisit now the matter of photo quizzes and book reviews.

Vaux's Swift. Photo by (c) Tom Johnson.

Vaux’s Swift. Photo by (c) Tom Johnson.

As noted above, Tom Johnson’s photo quiz answers in the July/August and September/October issues are very thorough. In the July/August issue, Johnson and coauthor Luke Seitz give us arrows pointing to molt limits, supplemental photos of problematic birds, a summary of the literature, and a whole lot of text. In the September/October issue, we again get references, annotated photos, and ample text, along with in-depth exploration of how to assess apparent wing-length on flying birds and even an entire mini–photo salon.

But that’s not all. Both photo quizzes were complemented by online speculation and discussion, which I found to be highly informative, stimulating, and at times entertaining. (Redpoll ID discussion here; swift ID discussion here; and ongoing discussion of the current photo quiz here.) If I hadn’t participated in those discussions, I would have been left behind. I’d also have been left out. On top of Tom Johnson’s super analyses in the print versions of Birding, I benefitted from the knowledge, insights, and good will of the dozens of folks who have contributed online.

As to book reviews, I assume that most members are motivated at least to some degree by utilitarian considerations. That is to say, Should I buy the book? Our book reviews link directly to Buteo Books–ABA Sales. If you like what you’re seeing in a book review, you can buy the book on the spot—and benefit the ABA with your purchase.

Buying books is all well and good, but let’s be honest: It’s more fun to talk about them! “Book groups” are so fun! We all love getting together to talk about books, whether we’re philosophy majors pondering Nietzsche, schoolgirls obsessed with Harry Potter (I’m subjected to this daily), seniors rediscovering the classics, or any other group of people who enjoy good company and good books. And we can do it online—not only among ourselves, but also with the reviewers and even the authors of the books. Check out these examples: Frederick Davis’s review of a Robert Ridgway biography; Hannah Floyd’s review of bird books for children; and Rick Wright’s review of an acclaimed compilation of essays on “uncommon bonds with common birds.”

But I haven’t addressed Nick Whelan’s key objection: “I do not especially like or feel comfortable with computers, and they are not where I generally spend leisure time…I am among those who truly enjoy reading a book or a magazine, being able to look at and turn a page, rather than having to scroll down a little screen.” At the risk of sounding like a broken record (pure metaphor, it occurs to me, for the Harry Potter crowd): We hear you. Check out recent photo quizzes; check in soon for the book reviews; and we’ll have even more Purple Swamphen content in the print versions of the next Birder’s Guide and the next Birding.

At the same time, I hasten to note that there are many—increasingly many—who prefer to spend their leisure time with computers. It’s not just the kids. Laura Erickson, writing in one of the ABA’s online forums, says, “I’m 61 and a writer, so you’d think I’d love paper.” Not so fast: “I much prefer more online presence and less paper…I much prefer reading from my iPad, especially in bed, so I don’t keep my husband awake with my light on.”


Last week, I embarked on probably the most complex journey of my life. I’d travelled farther from home, but this particular journey takes the cake: It started with a jaunt on a golf cart, then a boat ride, then a cab, then an airplane, then another airplane, then two trips in a private car, then another airplane, then yet another airplane (we’re up to four airplanes now), then a long bus ride, then a long walk through the snow, then another car ride, then finally home. I knew I would encounter some dead zones when I couldn’t get online or even offline (that danged FAA regulation about no computers below 10,000 feet). So I took drastic measures: I shelled out cold cash for a print copy of The New York Times.

6ec70__nytimes-logoWe were parked on the tarmac. I reached into my bag, pulled out the newspaper, opened it up, and had a Proustian moment. Newsprint! I could smell it. I could feel it. I could see it, of course, and, just to complete the sensory experience, I crinkled it to hear it and, yes, touched my tongue to the part that read “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” During the rush of memories and impressions of that Proustian moment, I thought about Nick Whelan and I was sympathetic, highly so.

I was brought out of my reverie by the loud double-beep indicating that it was okay now to use “portable electronic devices.” In a moment, I had access to information that you can’t get in the print version of The New York Times: connecting gate information for my flight out of San Juan, recent eBird sightings around the Miami and Dallas airports, the bus schedule in Denver, the current weather in Boulder, and, oh yes, The New York Times online (“All the News That’s Fit to Click”).

The genie is out of the bottle. The horse has left the barn. The toothpaste is out of the toothpaste tube. In this modern age, we drive cars, flush toilets, and get information online. Don’t get me wrong: I love hiking and camping, and it was bewitching to read the print version of The New York Times. I hope I’ll always be able to go hiking and camping, and I look forward to my next encounter with “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

But this isn’t an either/or proposition. Cars get you places that hiking can’t. Indoor plumbing has saved millions of lives. And the internet will soon pass the zettabyte threshold of 1 billion terrabytes of data per year, vastly more than is in all the libraries on Earth.

We need both. And we at the ABA will continue to deliver both. Please participate in the ABA’s online community, where we learn together, share together, and have a great time together. But please also note that we don’t intend for the e-experience to supplant or transcend birding the way it’s always been.

13-6-11-01 [Common Nighthawks]

What on Earth is going here? (Click image to enlarge.) The answer is revealed in the forthcoming November/December 2013 Birding. Painting by (c) Ray Nelson.

I’ll close with an observation that’s been made before, but it bears repeating. Contrary to certain assertions I’ve been hearing, the ABA is now offering its members more full-color traditional print content than ever before. I had the opportunity the other day to the see the proofs of the November 2013 Birder’s Guide, and it’s going to be stunning—not just for the visual appeal, but also for the fantastic information packed in its pages. And right after you get Birder’s Guide, you’ll receive the November/December 2013 Birding, with print content on everything from Tricolored Blackbirds to Tree Swallows, from Yellow-billed Magpies to Red-necked Phalaropes, from Barolo Shearwaters to Bell’s Sparrows, from a mysterious warbler to one of the strangest and most wonderful paintings ever to appear in the magazine.

Life is good.

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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.
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