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Chiffchaffs and Wood-rails and Demoiselle Cranes, Oh My!

If you’re an ABA member, life is good. Even though many organizations are cutting way back on traditional print publications, the ABA is offering more full-color print periodical content than ever before. We’re expanding online, enthusiastically and unapologetically so. Here at the ABA, it’s have your cake and eat it too.

A substantial chunk of the ABA’s print content now comes to you in the form of Birder’s Guide, launched earlier in 2013 and edited by Michael Retter. If you’re an ABA member, you’ve already received in the mail Birder’s Guide, vol. 1, no. 2, the “Listing and Taxonomy” issue. If you’re not a member, or, come to think of it, if you are a member, please check out the Birder’s Guide to Listing and Taxonomy online.

That’s right. The whole magazine is online, in an eminently readable and enjoyable format. Life is very good.

13-6-10-03 [Common Moorhen]

Although photographed and collected, North America’s first Common Moorhen was definitively identified only by its DNA. Field observations, photographs, and even the specimen were insufficient for identifying the bird. If you saw the bird in the field, would you count it? Electropherogram by (c) Jack J. Withrow.

Now that you’re there, please click on “Challenges for Checklist Committees.” Or, if you have the print version handy, please turn to “The ABA Checklist Committee in the 21st Century: Challenges and Opportunities in the Digital Era,” starting on p. 36. Let’s now talk about that article, which came to be known during the editing and production process as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

We state at the outset of the article, “Please note that, although we are affiliated with the ABA (Pranty is Chairman of the ABA Checklist Committee, Floyd is Editor of Birding magazine), this commentary does not necessarily represent the views or opinions of the ABA. Indeed, we don’t always agree with each other!” And we end our commentary on a note of explicit disagreement: Bill and I harbor different opinions about the “countability” of a remarkable Thick-billed Parrot in New Mexico in 2003.

What’s so great, in my mind, about both listing and taxonomy is the uncertainty, the shades of gray. It gives us stuff to talk about, that’s for sure. But there’s something else: Listing and taxonomy, and in particular the nexus of the two, are fascinating and complicated matters. It’s amazing and gratifying to me how birders so naturally and automatically engage one another about such topics as avian vagrancy, satellite telemetry, and molecular genetics. Don’t sell yourself short on this: If you have opinions on listing and taxonomy, you’ve been exposed to, and you may well be quite knowledgeable about, a wide array of cutting-edge technologies and new paradigms in the biological sciences.

What are your thoughts, then, on some of the highlights that Bill and I hit on in our article? For example:

1. Vagrant (or not?) cranes. What do you think about the Demoiselle Crane in California in February 2002? What about the Hooded Crane or Hooded Cranes in Idaho, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Indiana in 2010–2012? Were they naturally occurring vagrants? What’s your reasoning, and what’s your evidence?


Digital photography has revolutionized birding, allowing IDs that would have been impossible as recently as the 1990s. This Chiffchaff, providing the basis for the addition of the species to the ABA Checklist, probably would have gone unidentified two decades ago. Photo by (c) Peter Schoenberger.

2. Genetic Gallinules. A bird in the genus Gallinula on Shemya Island, Alaska, in October 2010 was shown by genetic analysis to be a Common Moorhen, the first documented for the ABA Area. The live bird and even the study skin were not identifiable to species. If you had seen it in the wild, would you have counted it?

3. Digital Chiffchaffs. Twenty years ago, some of the great birds they’re finding on Bering Sea islands would not have been identifiable to species. Like the Chiffchaff at Gambell in June 2012. The bird’s identification was definitively established not in the field, but rather by analysis of digital photographs. Does that affect the bird’s countability? According to the ABA Recording Rules, “Diagnostic field-marks for the bird, sufficient to identify to species, must have been seen and/or heard and/or documented by the recorder at the time of the encounter.” That would certainly seem to disqualify the Common Moorhen. Does it also disqualify the Chiffchaff?

4. Rufous-necked Wood-Rail. Not all megas are created equal. A select few acquire mythic status: the ABA Area’s first Eared Quetzal, in 1977; the Newburyport Ross’s Gull of course; the Martha’s Vineyard Red-footed Falcon; and, no question about it, the July 2013 Rufous-necked Wood-Rail. Um, was the wood-rail a naturally occurring vagrant? In matters such as this one, I tend to be a “believer” and a “liberal.” I “believe” in birds’ capacity for vagrancy, and I favor an “innocent until proven guilty” approach in matters of provenance. At the same time, I’m open to opposing viewpoints. If you’re some combination of “atheist” and “conservative” about the Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, I’d like to hear from you.

5. Thick-billed Parrot. Let’s end on a simple note. A note of simple disagreement. Bill says you can’t count the bird. I say you can. (Bill and I are friends by the way, and I tremendously respect the rigor and thoroughness that he brings to the ABA Checklist Committee and to his prolific research on the birds of Florida.) What do you think?

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

  • Mary DeLia

    “According to the ABA Recording Rules, “Diagnostic field-marks for the bird, sufficient to identify to species, must have been seen and/or heard and/or documented by the recorder at the time of the encounter.” That would certainly seem to disqualify the Common Moorhen. Does it also disqualify the Chiffchaff?”
    I had this conversation with a friend a few months back. If you see a bird, think it’s different, photograph it and ID it later, is it countable? Isn’t this done all the time? I think the word “documented” needs to be better defined. If you’ve photographed the bird, then you have documented it at the time of the encounter. Doesn’t that fit? Maybe not. Maybe it follows the letter of the rule, but not the spirit. I’m curious.

    Now if you are just taking random photos of birds, go home a discover a rarity in the mix in one of the photos, is that different? You never actually picked out the different bird.

    Now, what about this: you’re on a guided tour. A bird flies out, you see it, the guide says what it is, you take his/her word for it and check it off your list. To me, that should not be a countable bird if you did not ID it yourself. Many people do this, though. (not me)
    I think the Chiffchaff would be countable if it was photographed at the time of the encounter. If there was a remote camera set up and the photos were uploaded later, then, defintely no.
    As for the Wood Rail, we all love that bird. If nothing else, Honorary ABA bird.

    • Morgan Churchill

      Documentation (for adding to an official checklist) and documentation for a lifelist/state list/county list/etc are two different things. We KNOW that the Common Moorhen was a Common Moorhen, and we have a specimen that presumably we can go back and sample if we are unsure. I don’t see an issue with adding it to the checklist. Whether you want to count it is another story entirely, and myself would probably not do so in this case

  • Andrew Haffenden

    “seen and/or heard and/or documented by the recorder at
    the time of the encounter” It seems to me from this rule that
    documentation is an alternative to seeing or hearing. If so, then a photograph
    would count; it is documentation made by the observer at the time of the
    encounter. I fail to see any difference in making a note, drawing etc – or even
    just keeping an image in your mind – then getting back to the car or wherever
    and looking it up in a book. Or seeing a warbler briefly in a tree, it flies,
    you then check the book and name it. Just different forms of documentation made
    at the time of the encounter.

    • Michael Retter

      That’s a very good point Andrew, and I tend to agree with you that photographed equals documented. But what about the end of this quote: “…documented by the recorder…”. Doesn’t that mean (in the case of a bird like the chiffchaff mentioned in Ted’s blog post) that everyone who sees the bird must take a photo of it in order to record it, and thus, count it?

      • Andrew Haffenden

        Michael, I think your points gels with Mary’s above re the guide call. But I can also see this scenario. You’re birding with some friends, and a bird appears. “What the heck is that?” the cry goes out by all. Quick, Bob, get some photos. Bob does. Said photos are subsequently looked at by the group and the bird ID’d. Seems to me it should be countable by all of the group, even though just one person photographed it.

        • Craig

          I agree with your example, Andrew, but I wonder then are we also saying that ‘the recorder’, a.k.a. “Bob”, can also be the only one who sees or hears a bird that gets to be counted by others in the group?

          I’m guessing the intended meaning of the rule is: ‘seen (by you) and/or heard (by you) and/or documented the recorder (you or someone else so designated)’, but can it not also be read as: ‘seen, heard, or documented by the recorder’? That starts to seem a bit off to me.

  • Matt Brady

    What about the recent records of the satellite-tagged Short-tailed Albatross that spent significant time off the west coast. The bird was absolutely there, and could be tracked down to a very specific lat/long, accurate to a few feet….but no one ever saw it. Does it count? If the species had (hypothetically) never been recorded in Oregon before, but spent several weeks cruising around Oregon waters, would it still count on the list? Do people need to observe the bird for it to be part of the avifauna of a region?

    • Mary

      Ah, that’s a different thing, I say, and an interesting point. Reported birds vs. birds on your personal list. The bird was there and it needs to be recorded. People keep all kinds of list, so personal lists are just that, personal, but this bird would probably not be on anyone’s ABA list.

    • Andrew Haffenden

      Matt, I think that bird would not be personally countable, but the bird could be accepted by the records committee as a state/US bird depending on the bylaws (which I can’t find on the ABA website, just a summary). But in Alabama the new record has to be seen, heard, collected, banded or photographed. Does that allow for a computer seeing the bird, not a human? There’s nothing saying the sighting and documentation has to be by a human, and submission by a person other than the observer is allowed.

      I have a friend back in Australia who found a beach-washed bird. First Australian record, but as it was dead he couldn’t count it. The pinnacle of frustration.

    • Matt Brady

      I guess I was thinking of this example along the same lines as the Chiffchaff and Gallinule examples above. We wouldn’t have been able to document these birds were it not for some serious technology. The Albatross example is just a little further down that continuum. It counts, but is weird.

      • Mary

        I hear what you’re saying, but it’s different. We also have video and photo technology that will allow us to record birds at location where we are not. This helps identify the birds that ocurred there. For a scientific purpose it’s good to know where the birds are when we are not there to see them. But there’s a difference between science and birding. The ABA rules are clear, if you were not present at the time the bird ocurred, than you can’t count it. If someone is sitting on the shore with some radar technology thingy and waiting to analyze wing beats of a bird he/she can’t see, than that might be different. I guess. Maybe. But for the records that bird counts as having ocurred there. Or so it seems to me. The ABA will have to update their definitions to keep up with changing technology at some point.

        • Mary

          Sorry, my thought process got bungled a little towards the end there. The albatross counts for science and records, and if the person running the satelite has a list of birds found through his satelite technology, than he can put it on that list. But it doesn’t fit the ABA definition for a countable bird by a birder.

          • Andrew Haffenden

            Ok, this is fun as we delve deeper, and devil’s advocating here.. Forty years ago I’m standing on a pier reaching out into the Gulf Of Mexico, looking for seabirds. I’m using my scope, and the wonderful 20x eyepiece that brings things in so close. I see a dot on the horizon, maybe 1-1.5 miles away and wonder what it is. And will ever wonder. Ten years alter my friend and I are in the same place, and while my 40x scope can see that it’s a shearwater, I can’t see the extent of dark on the undertail coverts. So it’s left at audubon’s/manx. My friend swings his new 150x Questar around, and sees that the undertails coverts are not just dark distally, but for at least 50% of the toal undertail coverts. Calling it an Audubon’s, he puts it on his list. So at what distance, and using what technology, does “present’ mean? If twenty years after that he put a digital camera on his scope, went home, blew up the image to determine the extent of darkness in the undertail coverts, would that be countable?

          • Mary

            Yep, a very good scenario and question. I’m glad I’m not on the checklist committee.

          • Michael Retter

            Mary, these questions of “countability” aren’t really in the purview of the Checklist Committee, but rather, the Recording Standards and Ethics Committee. At least that’s my interpretation.

          • Mary

            Whoops, that’s what I meant to say. Thank you for pointing that out, Michael.

      • Mary

        After a good night’s sleep, I think I’m going to change my pov and say that if you can correctly ID an albatross using radar, than you certainly deserve to be able to count that. Seriously, it’s awesome what our technology can do now.

  • Andrew Haffenden

    OK, so you are out videoing a prothonatory warbler singing,
    with sound, and there’s a general dawn chorus going on. Back home you’re
    playing the video, and hear a song in the general chorus that you recognize as
    a common yellowthroat. Can you count it? What if you don’t recognize it, do a
    search on xeno-canto, maybe even do a sonogram to confirm the ID. Countable?

    • Mary

      That’s the same as shooting (camera) a flock of birds and later discovering a rare bird in the flock. You didn’t perceive it at the time. Good for science, not good for birding lists.

  • Michael

    Those less familiar with molecular systematics should be puzzled by the figure depicting the Gallinula electropherograms and sequences.

    There are two problems.

    (1) The (correctly aligned) electropherograms are not homologous with text sequences below – note lack of concordance across the sequence, not just at the inferred GA transition.

    (2) Similarly, the lower “Typical New World Sequence” is not correctly aligned (or isn’t homologous) with two identical sequences above.

    Can you please explain how this figure relates to Jack Withrow’s analysis of the Semya Island sample? Thanks.

    • Ichneumon

      This is odd. I tried to find out more, but information is scant:

      1) “Western Birds” is not archived by google scholar, nor my university (which is in CA and has really good journal access, usually).

      2) There are two COI sequences on genbank for the specimen, which are identical (why two? I’m not a genetics guy, but perhaps there is a reason to put the same sequence from the same individual in twice?). I don’t know how to line them up against references (which there are), so I’d be just doing it by eye. Its too late in the day for that!

      I’d be curious to see what is found out.

      • ichneumon

        Alright, I wasn’t going to sleep until I did this. Using the simple nucleotide BLAST tool in genbank (which I believe is the right thing to use), you get an identical sequence to the G. chloropus COI, but only 96% conserved with the G. galatea COI sequence (401/416).

        I didn’t bother to look at the region(s) that are mixed up in that graph, but I’d trust the results, based on this.

        • ichneumon

          And I should note one more thing. Since COI is a mitochondrial gene, this cannot rule out a hybrid (since this comes only maternally – thus it will ALWAYS look like a pure species!). Obviously these two species don’t overlap in breeding range, so it would be incredibly unlikely, but is one of the downfalls of “barcoding” using this particular gene (which is the standard one).

          I’d never trust it to ID a gull, that’s for sure! Though on a wonky one, you could ascertain the mother’s identity, which could be useful.

    • Ted Floyd

      I’m really glad you’ve brought this up.

      Bill Pranty and I have discussed how the expertise of members of checklist committees is understandably challenged by these new technologies. One response might be, “Well, we’ll just have to trust the experts. If they say the satellite signal corresponds to such-and-such a Short-tailed Albatross, we’ll take their word for it.” Or, “We’re not trained in the latest analytical methods in DNA forensics, but we have no reason to doubt the lab that did this work.”

      And, yet, when you think about it, records committees don’t actually assent to that viewpoint. The evidence for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker report from Arkansas was presented by some of the world’s most-famous ornithologists and published in what is arguably the most prestigious journal in the history of science. Yet many of us did *not* respond by saying, “Well, we’ll just have to trust the experts,” or “We have no reason to doubt the lab that did this work.”

      Many folks on records committees are great at analyzing photos, videos, and written reports. Far fewer are great at understanding the software and hardware that tell us where albatrosses are flying, and what genes are in a moorhen.

      Here’s something in between the extremes of a diagnostic photo and an inscrutable DNA readout: a recording of a flight call. Just listening is, to me, no different from looking at a photo and saying, “Looks good to me!” No, with photos, we quantitatively describe what we see: emarginated primaries, rectrix molt, etc. Similarly, with audio recordings, we need to say things like, “125 milliseconds, weakly modulated, descending from 8.5 kHz to 7.5 kHz, double-banded, lower band fainter.” That beats the pants off “sounded like the fine buzz of a such-and-such to my ear.”

      I’ll throw down the gauntlet. I would encourage the ABA Checklist Committee to go back to the Texas Barred Antshrike report, and report their analysis (or somebody’s analysis) of the sound spectrogram. (See our discussion, pp. 46-47, in Pranty and Floyd:

      You know, after they’ve definitively ascertained the origin or origins of the Hooded Crane or Hooded Cranes… 🙂

      • Michael


        Was the wonky DNA figure in this blog posting taken from the published paper (Withrow & Schwitters 2012)? If so then the quality (or absence) of peer review might be the issue. I’d be surprised to see this in The Auk, The Condor or The Wilson Bulletin.

      • ichneumon

        “Many folks on records committees are great at analyzing photos, videos, and written reports. Far fewer are great at understanding the software and hardware that tell us where albatrosses are flying, and what genes are in a moorhen.”

        If true (and I really doubt it), that is through lack of trying. Committee members can understand that photos can be over or underexposed without needing to be professional photographers themselves. They understand – or at least can look up – the complex molt cycles of gulls and shorebirds. Understanding the data from a molecular study (these are REALLY simple ones) is necessary to interpret the results and is no harder to think about that molt cycle or a sonogram.

        Here is an interesting case:

        The Michigan committee accepted this as a Trop King based on mitochondrial DNA (12S, not COI). If Trop and Couch’s hybridized, then this would be insufficient evidence – a possibility which is not mentioned in that paper (and I don’t think they do?). All that they would need to know is that mitochondrial genes are passed entirely maternally. They wouldn’t need to know about the amplification or sequencing, just a little biology.

        I personally bet that most committee members would be willing to do a bit of reading, or contact the right people to ask questions, in a case where this is actually applicable.

        • Andrew Haffenden

          I’m just not sure that is right. There’s expertise, and there’s expertise. “A bit of reading” does not give you a good understanding of errors in peer-reviewed papers, just as the more arcane statistical products are outside the range of most expert birders, who are usually the ones on CLCs. And, there are reports of hybridization between Couch’s and Trop kingbirds in the Veracruz area. Easily discovered by a bit or reading.

          • ichneumon

            I don’t advocate getting to the point of being able to do the work, nor the analyses nor really interpret them, but it is not hard to look up the pros and cons of each type of technique/analysis. I have never done any molecular work (I did take genetics in 2007, so I may have retained a miniscule amount) and that is what I did when I saw this comment and before writing my post.

            I didn’t even check for hybridization between Couch’s and Trop, that wasn’t really my point, but now that makes the Mich. decision a little sketchy – and REALLY should have been mentioned in that paper!

      • Michael

        I’ve just read the paper (Withrow & Schwitters 2012) and I now understand the apparent disparity between the electropherograms and sequences in the above figure. The analysis and conclusions are robust.

        The figure in the blog is misleading. The nucleotide “sequences” below the electropherograms aren’t actually DNA sequences. The series of nucleotides, each separated by “…” represents only the variable bases/positions (17 in all) of the 416 base pairs sequenced from a decent geographic sample including eight Old World G. Chlorupus and ten New World G. galeata individuals.

        Again, the analysis and conclusions seem solid.

  • gutenburg

    I certainly think the Hooded Crane should count and probably the Demoiselle Crane.

    In my opinion the Chiffchaff should count, even though definitive ID was made later based on the photo. The people who saw it saw it and knew that it was probably a Chiffchaff but it is a hard ID.

    If we go by the rule “Diagnostic field-marks for the bird, sufficient to identify to species,
    must have been seen and/or heard and/or documented by the recorder at
    the time of the encounter.” we can’t count Black-capped Chickadees because I certainly don’t see diagnostic fieldmarks separating BCCH from CACH most of the time.

    You should be able to use photos/videos to help in Identification, even if the minute fieldmarks were not clearly seen at the time of observation. No Allen’s Hummingbirds would count in the east if you can’t.

    I do think you should have seen the bird at the time. I don’t think birds that were not seen but were photographed should count.

    I think the Wood-Rail was almost certainly wild and not assisted.

  • Andrew Haffenden

    I really admire Ted Floyd’s fly-fishing talent.

    • Ted Floyd

      I prefer to think of it as chumming, but, yeah. Thanks!

  • Bob Russell

    I don’t see why the parrot shouldn’t count. The failed reintroduction is long gone and the bird is rarely seen in captivity in the USA. The last I saw was in the window of an apartment in the 1970’s in Tombstone just down the road from the OK corral! There was at least one other multiple observer Thick-billed from the 1970’s on the west side of the Huachucas. Can’t remember the fellows name but he was a decent birder from AZ who later moved to NJ. He saw one over Pena Blanca Lake and another observer had one a few hours later in another part of the Huachucas calling loudly so there still is a chance for the species to stray northward

    • Ted Floyd

      Something I’ve picked up on, in bits and pieces, here and there, through the grapevine, is that the New Mexico Thick-billed Parrot engaged in various behaviors suggestive of wild, not captive, origin. Would love to hear more about that from folks who actually observed and studied the bird in question.

      I suspect that the ABA Checklist Committee, too, would be interested.

      As Bill Pranty and I note in our commentary, records committee decisions are not etched in stone. They can be revised.

      Meanwhile, y’all haven’t really answered my question. Given that the bird is classified by the ABA Checklist Committee as a Code 6 species, can it be counted for an ABA-compliant list?

      Where’s Neise when ya need ‘im?… 🙂

      • Macklin Smith

        I went to see the Thick-billed Parrot and watched it off and on for a couple of hours. One thing it did *not* do was to partake of the peanut-butter concoction available on the premises, which I took as a good sign. Except for the fact that it was alone, it seemed to look and act like a normal wild bird. What most impressed me, however, was its departure. It began to call regularly from the pines, then took off calling. I watched it ascend for several hundred feet, then beeline to the southwest out of sight. At the time I assumed that I was going to have been the last birder to see this bird, but I heard later that it was seen again the following day. As anyone who has spent any time in the tropics knows, parrots are highly gregarious birds, periodically calling to each other when at roost or feeding, often when ready to fly off, also calling in flight. What I saw struck me as the behavior of a wild bird in search of its kind. I very much regret that I failed to contact the state committee to report this detail and my interpretation of it. I had been hearing the people were assuming it was a wild bird, and I lazily concluded that my observation wouldn’t matter much. Not good. Although this note can do little to correct the situation, I hope it will at least contribute to the discussion now under way. I’m happy that birders are revisiting this sighting, and I would add that several of the birders and guides I most respect who work in Mexico believe that the state committee erred badly in rejecting this record.

        • Michael Retter

          Something else worth noting is that the bird not only shunned the “bird food” put out for it, it obliterated the ranch’s pinecone crop–which just so happens to be this species’s most important food source.

  • James Swanson

    We need to realize there are two very different things going on here. One is the attempt to identify a bird for the sake of science. The other is the attempt to identify a bird for the sake of some list being kept by a birder or birders. The first is science. The second is sports. The two are not completely separated from each other, but we have to be aware of the two goals of identification in order to avoid confusion in the discussion.
    1. Science. The Common Moorhen identified in Alaska is definitely a datum for science. It is very probably that the bird is a true vagrant that came across from Asia one way or another. It was documented by DNA in spite of observations and study skin being inconclusive.
    2. Sports. People who saw the bird might want to list it. Whether they can or not depends on the rules of their ‘league’. The ABA has one set of rules. Good luck trying to list it for your official ABA list if the ABA rules it as uncountable because it was unidentifiable without DNA analysis. The eBird rules are laxer. The local eBird gatekeeper might or might not confirm the sighting, but even if he doesn’t, it will go on your ‘private’ lists and be added to your Alaska, US, ABA area, AOU area and whatever other pertinent lists eBird keeps. A particular birder can have his or her own rules about what is countable. That person in a sense forms his own ‘league’ because he keeps his lists for himself.
    Obviously there has to be a certain rigor for scientific records. On the other hand, vagrant records probably don’t have a high importance scientifically, because it is only documenting an occurrence of a tiny fraction of a population – a fraction that is aberrant in its location. Certainly, this datum will have some scientific value, perhaps as a record of how migratory species can misfire when migrating. If there is a high importance in knowing if a bird is a vagrant or an escapee, then it is important to make that decision with a high degree of accuracy. if it is not highly important, then we do the best we can with the data we have and move on.
    There doesn’t need to be the same rigor for the sport of birding. In sports, the rules need to be fair and this primarily means that they are the same for everyone. For the sake of the sport of listing, the important thing is that a Demoiselle Crane in California either counts for everyone who sees it, or doesn’t count for everyone who sees it.
    So, what does the ABA want to do? Does it want to be an arbitrator of scientific knowledge or the referee of a sport? It is possible to be both, but that means that it is primarily an arbitrator of scientific knowledge, and then refers the scientific rules to its function as the referee of a sport. Note that while eBird gathers data for scientific purposes, the way the data is used is primarily as a sport. Local eBird arbiters don’t look at vagrancy issues or exotic bird issues. My three Whooping Cranes seen in Wisconsin in 2009 are not countable at all with the ABA, but were accepted without comment by eBird. Nutmeg Mannikin was accepted without question in some areas for a long time before ABA accepted it for some areas in California. eBird’s goal is different than the ABA’s – get as much raw data as possible. To do this, it makes it easier to count a bird and so make the sport of listing more gratifying for the listers. Is ABA right and eBird wrong? Or vice versa? Of course, neither is true. They have different goals and so are probably pursuing them using different strategies that work for what they are trying to accomplish.
    If ABA wants to be a scientific organization, it needs to have a certain rigor in what it accepts as countable. If it wants to allow people to keep lists that are recognized by the ABA, it should realize that it is getting involved in sports, but not let the sports aspects affect the science. Those who want to list with the ABA should realize the same. ABA could allow a second set of rules for the sport of listing, but that would be confusing. Maybe better to let people know that if they want to be in the ‘league’ run by the ABA, they have to be better birders, because the scrutiny will be tougher.

    • Morgan Churchill

      Maybe I am confused on what you are trying to say, but the ABA can add a bird to the checklist for scientific reasons (DNA identification, satellite tracking, AOU taxonomic change) and still have a separate set of rules for listing. So i don’t see an issue with accepting that a Common Moorhen is on the checklist, but that no one yet actually can count it for the list (yet…it might be that a few years from now an adult shows up, without the ID issues). I would say that in most cases, those discrepancy in rules between the official checklist and the personal life lists of people will be pretty minor. I also don’t think birders have that big a problem parsing the differences. As an example, I submit my ABA list following Clements, but my own lifelist follows IOC. I just keep them as separate lists, and that way I can have Myrtle and Audubon’s Warbler on my lifelist but just have Yellow-rumped on my ABA list.

    • Jesse Ellis

      I really like this point generally, and agree with you James. However, I think it should be made clear that (as I understand it) eBird is a data-gathering tool with “science” as the long-term goal. It seems you understand this, so I’m not sure that eBirding falls under the “sports” category.

      This is one thing that bugs me about the interaction between committees and eBird. eBird wants all bird sightings, whether they are ferals or escapees or known wild birds or known releases. This is because to track populations changes, you have to know the birds exist. If we want to know how the escaped European Goldfinch population is doing, we need to know when people are seeing them even if they are not countable. However, I worry that various state listing rules can impact eBird. For example as I understand it records of escaped Egyptian Geese are being invalidated by eBird reviewers at the recommendation of records committee in California, because the populations are not self sustaining. However, if we want to know how the population of Egyptian Geese is changing in California, invalidating otherwise correctly IDed geese is a terrible plan. Here, the sport is affecting the science.

      • Macklin Smith

        I want to comment on the idea—“rule,” actually—that for a bird to count it must be observed and identified in the field. As several have commented, a strict adherence to this rule would certainly suggest
        that no one fortunate enough to see the Chiffchaff in AK would be free to count it. That seems a bit too strict. As has been remarked, it ignores today’s technologies and how they help ID birds heretofore impossible to ID. Most importantly, as we now understand better than we did in the “good old days,” it carries with it the naïve assumption that all birds can and should be identifiable in the field. If I had been among the lucky few to observe the chiffchaff I might have assumed it was a Willow Warbler, but I also would have assumed that that ID could be wrong—that it could be some other phylloscopus warbler. Or think of cryptic potential pecies like the red crossbill Types. Some especially keen birds *do* recognize all 10 current flight calls, but most of us will need to rely on recording equipment whose input we will have to interpret later. Maybe we’re in a group, and only one member of our party is recording crossbills, in which case we recognize that we are going to be part of a collaborative ID processs. In the case of the crossbills, we might assume in the field that we are recording Type 3s, and the results might confirm that. Good. But all or some of us might more parsimoniously assume that the crossbills could be that type or one of several others. The reality is that these are tough birds to be sure of, at least for most of us. The reality is that the ID is not fully completed in the field.

        Not counting a Whistling Heron recently seen in Panama, the only first NA record I’ve ever been part of was the Siberian Blue Robin which showed up on Attu on May 21, 1985. Terry Savaloja and I were birding up a canyon (now known as Blue Robin Canyon) and saw a rather dull grayish bird, apparently come kind of chat or robin, which neither of us could identify. We were familiar with Siberian Rubythroats and Bluethroats, and we know this bird was neither. We radioed the news in, offering this and that field mark as well as confessing that we weren’t getting great looks. Nor did we want to get great looks for fear of flushing the bird all the way to Never To Be Seen Again. Of course the folks at Base were pretty excited and everyone rushed out to have a look. Terry and I weren’t the only ones who couldn’t ID it. There were some opinions. There was a process. Everyone was happy to be part of the process, which included working the bird carefully so as not to flush it. No one was running around saying, “I can’t identify it in the field, I can’t identify it in the field.” Eventually there emerged a consensus that this bird was probably a female or young male Siberian Blue Robin. But this consensus was formed largely by relative experts, not by every participant individually. For almost everyone, it was a learning experience. The ID was collaborative. And it was tentative. Eventually (and well after everyone had seen it and after some had attempted to photograph it), the bird was collected, confirming the ID. So far as I know, everyone counted it.

        Sure, we can identify most birds in the field. Some birders are better at this than I am, quicker and more certain; but most of the best birders I know know that they can’t ID all birds they see or even see and hear—vagrants, accidentals, hybrids, individual birds with weird plumages and/or vocalizations. Sometimes knowing you can’t ID it is much more exciting than thinking you can! Sometimes ego can actually get in the way of the process, whereas humility can move it along.

        • Blake Mathys

          I made a similar point in one of my posts on the ABA Blog a couple of years ago. If we’re truly honest with ourselves, we have to admit that the best answer is sometimes going to be “I don’t know.”

  • Michael Retter

    Former ABA Board Member and Honolulu, HI resident Mike Ord writes, via email:

    Just a few comments on the Nutmeg Mannikin (p.43) and the Common Moorhen (p.40). When I published the 1967 issue of Hawaii Birds I had taken a photo of the bird on Oahu and it looked like nominate not the bird that Jack Jeffrey photographed on Hawaii. Over the past 50 years there have been different mannikins introduced via our pet shops and during later years the bird like Jack photographed seem to be coming in more frequently i.e. a different point of country sale. I used to have Restall’s book but lent it out and never got it back.

    Personally, I think it would be wrong to rename our Common Moorhen the Common Gallinule. Our bird can be found across the western Pacific in Guam, N. Marianas and Palau which makes me think that our bird could have come from that direction as it not as common in the west USA or wasn’t in the past.

    That all said I won’t be losing any sleep over the final decisions as I suspect I will just keep using names that I am familiar with.

    Cheers and all the best,
    Mike Ord

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