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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.
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