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Liberal and Conservative

The U.S. Supreme Court has been busy of late, handing down decisions both liberal and conservative. Don’t worry, I won’t go there. Instead, I’m going to wade into even deeper doo-doo. Here goes: We in the birding community render and receive judgments that might be characterized as “liberal” and “conservative.” Not in the political sense, but in a deeper, birderly sense. And this truth is very much on display in the June 2015 Birding.

Steve N. G. Howell, writing in the June 2015 Birding, wonders why many birders decline to count "heard-only" birds—even though such birds are allowed by the ABA. See main text for link to article.

Steve N. G. Howell, writing in the June 2015 Birding, wonders why many birders decline to count “heard-only” birds—even though such birds are allowed by the ABA. See main text for link to article.

In a commentary appearing on p. 20, Steve N. G. Howell wonders why so many ABA members continue to resist a “liberal” decision handed down by the “court” several decades ago—specifically, one allowing birders to count so-called “heard-only” birds on their lists. As Howell puts it: “Eight Veeries and six Wood Thrushes—but heard only…Well, that sucks, wish I’d seen a brown bird with a spotted breast, rather than having been enveloped in a chorus of ethereal song.” And what about the converse? If there are heard-only birds, shouldn’t there also be seen-only birds? If you saw, but didn’t hear, a California Condor or Magnificent Frigatebird, is it “just” a seen-only on your list?

Howell isn’t the first birder to have wondered why many ABA members decline to count heard-only birds. Um, I’ve chimed in on the matter. So have others. And I doubt Howell will be the last. Regardless, many birders remain suspicious of heard-only birds. To see what I’m talking about, turn to any installment of “Milestones” in Birding magazine. Case in point: “Milestones” in the latest issue, the same June 2015 issue in which Howell’s commentary appears. On p. 12, ABA member Jim Fritzhand specifies that his world list of 4,000 admits no heard-only birds. And you’ll find such qualifiers in each and every installment of “Milestones.”

If Fritzhand is guided here by a “conservative” impulse, then fellow ABA member Mike Wihler is in some sense “liberal.” Mihler’s “Milestone,” reported on p. 15, was a Common Scoter, #700 in the ABA Area. Now wait a minute! Common Scoter isn’t even on the ABA Checklist. It may well be soon, very soon. But not yet. Technically, you’re not allowed to count a bird for your ABA list unless, well, unless it’s on the ABA list. And Common Scoter isn’t. Wihler isn’t just a liberal, he’s an anarchist!

Time out. Birding magazine emphatically does not police any member’s list. As Editor of Birding magazine, I, personally, am 100% fine with submissions like Fritzhand’s and Wihler’s. Perhaps my favorite milestone ever appears on p. 14 of the August 2013 Birding, wherein ABA Checklist Committee chairman Bill Pranty reports photographing his 75th species of free-roaming exotic bird in Florida, a Ruddy Sheduck at a shopping mall in Broward County. The Ruddy Shelduck isn’t on the ABA Checklist, and neither, you can be sure, are the vast majority of the 74 other species on Pranty’s list.

As I said, Birding magazine doesn’t police anybody’s bird list. Neither does the ABA Checklist Committee. Bill Pranty and his colleagues on the checklist committee add species to, and rarely subtract them from, the checklist. Then the fun begins. Then the birding community weighs in. It’s the same way with U.S. Supreme Court decisions and presidential elections, with MVP voting and All-Star Game selections (and snubs). The fun part, for many of us, is what comes afterwards.

John Kendall and coauthors disagree with the ABA Checklists Committee's decision not to add the Hooded Crane to the ABA Checklist. See main text for link to article

John Kendall and coauthors disagree with the ABA Checklists Committee’s decision not to add the Hooded Crane to the ABA Checklist. See main text for link to article.

The ABA Checklist Committee recently declined to add the Hooded Crane (Grus monacha) to the ABA Checklist. And on pp. 26–31 of the June 2015 Birding, John Kendall, Mark A. Brogie, and Kevin Calhoon (chairmen, respectively, of the Indiana, Nebraska, and Tennessee bird records committees) offer their dissent.

I have no problem with any of the preceding. I have no problem with the ABA Checklist Committee’s “right” to render a decision, in this case, a “conservative” decision. And I have no problem with Kendall and colleagues’ “right” to their “liberal” dissent. Our birding community benefits from engaging the issues. I’ve touched on just two of them here: heard-only birds and the Hooded Crane. There are many, many others. Practically every edition of Birding touches on one or more “issues.” You can be absolutely certain that the next edition of Birder’s Guide, the “Listing & Taxonomy” issue, will delve into the “issues.” There probably isn’t an ABA member who doesn’t have an opinion on one or more of the “issues.”

Including Yours Truly. I wrote above in my official capacity as Editor of Birding magazine. Now I’m writing as a private citizen. I, personally, am “liberal” on both the heard-only and Hooded Crane debates. That is to say, I favor allowing heard-only birds and I think the Hooded Crane was a natural vagrant to the ABA Area. But check this out: The strength of my convictions differs dramatically on those two issues.

On the Likert scale, I’d be “agree strongly” with the ABA’s decision on heard-only birds, but “disagree slightly” with the Hooded Crane decision.

To me, the Hooded Crane decision just doesn’t speak much to the “worthiness,” if you will, of the crane or cranes that wandered the U.S. in 2010–2012. In a very real sense, if this bird or these birds were escapes from captivity, that that makes their peregrinations all the more impressive, all the more “worthy.” Plus, I respect the perspective of a majority of the committee, namely, that this one is unknowable. Nobody saw this bird (or these birds) fly in across the Bering Sea. I think the evidence points to natural vagrancy, but I accept that, given our present understanding of the situation, escape from captivity hasn’t been ruled out.

It's probably safe to say that the essence of experiencing a California Condor is visual. By the same token, aren't nightjars and Catharus thrushes essentially aural?

It’s probably safe to say that the essence of experiencing a California Condor is visual. By the same token, aren’t nightjars and Catharus thrushes essentially aural?

My thoughts on heard-only birds also get at the matter of avian “worthiness.” One of the most exalted moments of my whole birding life—which is to say my whole life, period—was right after sundown on Monday, May 15, 1989. Exhausted, having been birding hard for more than 17 hours, I stood on the dike at Brigantine and listened as the marsh–woodland ecotone came alive with singing Black Rails and Chuck-will’s-widows, lifers both. Of course they “counted.” How could they possibly not have? And how could that glorious experience in any way have been enhanced by seeing the Chuck’s eye shine or the rail glimpsed briefly in a spotlight? No, those are birds whose very essence is aural. To merely see a Black Rail or Chuck-will’s-widow would be akin to only hearing a California Condor or Magnificent Frigatebird.

Or so I opine.

What are your thoughts? Are you “liberal” or “conservative”? Remember, there’s no right or wrong. We’re all friends. And we’re at our best when we engage the issues with intelligence and mutual respect.

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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)

  • Mike Patterson

    As I have before, I feel obliged to point out that the discussion here is about what we are “allowed” to put on that one list out of all the lists most of us keep. And the only reason why we care about what goes on that one list is so we can look at it and marvel at how big it is compared to others who don’t have the time or money or inclination (or perhaps skill set) to grow such a fine list.

    I once found a GARGANEY in a puddle full of Green-winged Teal. It was almost certainly an escape from a local aviary. I still saw it. I learned a lot about how to ID female Garganey in the field. The mere fact that I can tell the story means I have it on a list in my head. That’s the way memory works. No, I don’t report it on that one list. I understand the rules and leave it and the Eurasian Tree Sparrow and the shelduck off THAT list. I wouldn’t want to imply that mines bigger than yours if it isn’t.

    I have seen a Garganey-gone-wild. Every bird I see counts. I don’t stop looking at Black-capped Chickadees just because I already got one this year and I don’t stop counting Eurasian Tree Sparrows and peacocks, just because they don’t count on the one list. They’re still birds and I am a bird-watcher.

    • Brandon Holden


  • Lynn

    I tend to be on the very liberal side on these bird issues, especially on whether “heard-only” birds are to be counted (but only if there is absolutely no possibility that what was heard was a mockingbird, etc.). I do have concerns on really rare bird-never-before-seen-here sightings, like the crane, and personally might not add such a bird to my own list no matter what any committee decrees if I am worried that the bird could be an escapee. I still might chase such a bird, however, because it is the experiencing of the bird (sight and/or sound) that is what I really want. I love the birding itself above and beyond the listing of the bird.

  • Rick Hollis

    I have always counted Heard Only Birds. Of course Chuck-Wills-Widow and Whip-Poor-Will [the two bird like this on my list] have a BLD [Better Look Desired] beside them on my list. I neither share my life list with anyone and truthfully cannot tell you the number without going to my computer. I’ve always thought Heard Onlys should count if you are really sure. And sometimes, if you are not sure, maybe you should think about the welfare of the bird and leave it as unknown.

  • Hotspot Birding

    Semantics, it’s all semantics. Any birder who would place limits on their experiences, places and birds they see as well as the countless memories they’ll make based on relatively arbitrary rules put forth by any organization is no birder at all.

    • Coldspot Birding

      So, unless we go by the arbitrary rules that you, “Hotspot Birding” prefer, we are no birder at all? You are either a ironist joker or as (insert negative characterization here) as they come.

      • Hotspot Birding

        Quite the opposite. Maybe I missed some punctuation or something. The point of my comment was to say that there should be no rules. Why deine yourself seeing a bird or birding new areas based on arbitrarily created rules. I also proposed no rules so I’m not so sure why you feel it’s necessary to get so upset and mock me personally, but to each their own.

        • Kirby Adams

          I think Coldspot’s point was that you are declaring – quite unfairly, I think – someone who enjoys birds differently from your method (no rules) to be “no birder at all.” Someone who keeps score and re-serves if they foot-fault by a centimeter is just as much of a tennis player as the folks who just like to volley the ball back and forth without regard to the white lines.

          • Hotspot Birding

            1st – thanks for not personally attacking me for having a different opinion, its nice to have a real conversation.

            2nd – I like the analogy of birding like tennis, but I think you’re using it wrong. If birding is like tennis then the court is the world of birds. My point is that many people are just playing on a small % of that court because of political or otherwise created boundaries/rules. While they might be counting in/out they are doing so on a small portion of the total court.

            In my opinion, a birder, someone who like to find birds, wouldn’t limit themselves to playing on such a small percentage of the court especially seeing how the %’s of court and how it is divided seems arbitrary.

            In short. I think everyone needs to take a more global approach to birding.

  • Morgan Churchill

    Personally…I don’t count heard only birds because I suck completely at identifying birds by call, while I am okay at IDing birds on sight. So for me there is always more uncertainty on a heard only bird than there is with something seen. I don’t begrudge people for counting heard only birds If they have the skill that I sadly lack.

    • Steven Tucker

      I once was convinced I heard some sort of screech-owl (I forget what kind) in eastern Mexico that would have been a lifer, only to find out a LONG time afterward that what I heard was a cane toad. The only good thing about that was being spared the embarrassment of removing it from my life list, as it was heard only, I was lucky that I never considered it a life bird in the first place. I don’t think I lack birding by ear skills, but I surprise myself sometimes…

  • Erik Bruder

    I guess I’m the true anarchist. I quit keeping track and I’ve been much happier for it.

  • Adam Roesch

    I’ve seen many Barred Owls, but I have the impression that one I recorded may have been a photographer trying to call some in. (I met him later that day.) So that’s a concern about “heard only” birds.

    With modern technology (iPods and the Cornell Essential and Master Sets), I’ve gotten much better and more confident at sound ID. I chase many fewer calling Yellowthroats. And every spring brings me new doubts about my skills.

    My heard-only list is: Eastern Whip-poor-will, Eastern Screech-owl, Yellow-billed Cuckoo*, Black-billed Cuckoo, Alder Flycatcher**, and Red-shouldered Hawk. I’d like to be able to have nice views of these some day. But the Cuckoos had me walking through thick brush like they were wild Geese, and the Screech-Owls always call when I’m ready for bed.
    *I saw one when I was a kid, but I doubt the reliability of my memory.
    **I may have seen one, but I’ve never seen one that vocalized at the same time.

    I’d seen all of the thrushes I can see in Minnesota before this year, but I’d only heard the calls of the Catharus and Wood Thrushes (and my one Varied was silent). This year, I got my “life songs” of the Veery (which I didn’t see either of the times I heard), Swainson’s, and Wood Thrush. Each as exciting as “seen” lifer, maybe more so.

  • Dave Hart

    I’m an evolving birder (aren’t we all?), and as my skills improve my approach to birding by ear evolves as well; where once I counted only those birds that I saw, I now include heard-only ones, on two conditions: that I am positive that I know what it is, and that I can ascertain to a high degree of confidence that it’s not another birder playing a recording.

  • Kurt Radamaker

    I have always prided myself on my birding by ear skills, so I have enjoyed fine tuning the skill and counting heard birds. I even have a ball cap I proudly where out birding that says “Heard Only” on the front and in small lettering on the back says “it counts” I get a lot of comments on it from birders! It is a fun conversation piece. Why I have the hat in the first place is a long story.

    I recently went on an organized bird tour and every night at dinner we did the checklist. I very surprised at how easily a bird went from heard only to seen. In one case we had a very secretive partridge that was constantly calling loudly with a distinctive and impressive voice. We used playback to lure the bird in (so we know the id was correct), but the partridge never left the forest floor and stayed mostly hidden. Most of the group got very brief glimpses of a part of the tail, or head and all of us saw some movement and rustling leaves. While no one saw the bird well enough, not by a long shot, to ID it by sight, the bird was with zero protest entered into the checklist as “seen”.

    My question to this group is, when does a bird go from heard only to seen? One birder I asked told me it only takes one photon!

  • Spandex Buthelezi Von Kittenhe

    I’m extremely critical of the entire notion of life (etc.) lists and therefor this entire discussion as well as “Milestones.” I was surprised when I read the article to see that personal lists were the only modality under consideration.

    “Birding” has seen fit to appeal to the lowest birding sensibilities to the detriment of what birding culture could be.

    Kurt: it’s either “heard & seen” or “heard.” If the IDENTIFICATION was not made visually and what was seen only supported or at least didn’t contradict what was heard, it cannot be “seen” (only).

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