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Crazy Train: How Do We Measure Ourselves Against Other Birders?

Juvenile Little Blue Heron, South Cape May Meadows, NJ August 15, 2015. Saying WTF?

Juvenile Little Blue Heron, South Cape May Meadows, NJ August 15, 2015. Saying WTF?

New Jersey’s birders’ Facebook page recently featured a remarkable, seemingly endless thread on counting, listing, the eBird “Top 100,” eBird ethics, birding ethics, and what birding is or should and shouldn’t be. The thread contained some very good and thought-provoking content, but also contained phrases like:

“Cheap tick.”

“eBird liars.”

“The ‘Cape May attitude.’”

“Using loopholes in the system.”

“Bogus Thayer’s Gull.”

“Please let’s show the same respect here, the same we show our beautiful birds.”

“I guess I’ll just chalk up your attitude to the ’Bayonne Syndrome.’”

“This thread should be shut down.”

Eventually, the Facebook page administrator did delete the post and all comments. Which I found disappointing, because a) Undoubtedly there were still people out there who had something to say and didn’t get the chance; b) There were still some unanswered questions that had been posed by one participant to another; c) no one had yet used profanity; d) I’m a big fan of the First Amendment; and e) the entertainment value was extreme.

As I read through the long Facebook thread, Ozzy Osbourne’s song Crazy Train kept running through my head. I doubt Ozzy is a birder, but the 1980 song is implanted in my head from my misspent youth, and also features one of the angriest, craziest guitar riffs ever:

Crazy, but that’s how it goes
Millions of people
Living as foes
Maybe. it’s not too late
To learn how to love, and forget how to hate…
I’m goin’ off the rails on a crazy train
I’m goin’ off the rails on a crazy train

The original Facebok post and many of the responses dealt with birders measuring themselves against each other.

Wait, . . . What? Should birders measure themselves against other birders?

Why not? Humans compete with each other constantly, so why should birding be immune? From politics to sports, from the Republican Primary to the Super Bowl, humans go to extremes to prove they are better than the other guys and girls. Why not birders, too?

Of course, from Watergate to “Deflategate,” humans cheat, lie, exaggerate, waste billions of dollars and sometimes ruin lives when they compete. But not always. Sometimes competition is a lot of fun, no harm is done, someone gets their moment in the sun, and in the end we all have won.

Remember the classic 1980 movie, Caddyshack? Remember the scene where Judge Smails and Ty Webb are in the clubhouse, and Smails asks what Ty shot?

Judge Smails (played by Ted Knight): “Ty, what did you shoot today?”
Ty Webb (played by Chevy Chase): “Oh, Judge, I don’t keep score.”
Judge Smails: “Then how do you measure yourself with other golfers?”
Ty Webb: “By height.”

Then there’s this scene:

Dr. Beeper: I thought you’d be the man to beat this year.
Ty Webb: I guess you’ll just have to keep beating yourself.

Ty Webb (Chevy Chase) sums up how I personally have come to feel about measuring myself against other birders. I want to be a good birder, I try hard to be a good birder, but compete? You mean, like with a list?

Full disclosure: When I compete in the annual spring World Series of Birding, I do play to win. Also, every October, when I join many friends on the Cape May Hawkwatch Platform for the annual Big Sit, we all want to make sure the folks at High Island or some other hot bird outpost don’t best Cape May. But year list, life list, “Top 100?” Not so much for me, not anymore.

Let me be clear. That’s just me. Any birder can bird and compete, or not compete, any which way they like (as long as they’re not hurting birds, others or themselves), and that’s cool with me. I think this is how most birders feel. Live and let live and all that. There was a time when my year list was really important to me, so I understand that drive, and maybe someday I’ll do some form of a big year again. There was a time when getting to X-hundred species in North America was really important to me. For me, once I stopped caring about numbers, birding became more whole.

“A good birder is someone who likes watching birds. A great birder is someone who likes watching birds a lot.” That, as you already know if you’ve been around birding for any length of time, is not from me. Kenn Kaufman wisely says this, e.g. in the revised edition of Advanced Birding, and I’m pretty sure he’s the one who coined the phrase, one I like very much.

But let’s dig deeper. How should we measure ourselves against other golfers, I mean birders, if we’re going to?

The obvious place to start is with the time-honored life lists and year lists, which I lump together simply because these don’t deal as much in birding skill as in birding time, effort, and resources. To put together a big year list or life list, you do have to know something about birds, be a good planner, and a good researcher – but you usually also have to chase a boatload of birds that other people found, and often enlist the help of the finders. You have to have the time to do this, but you don’t have to bring the greatest field skills in the world (they would help, though). You have to have the money to travel to far flung places, and the support of your family (or not have one at all). Big years and long life lists can bring great fun, great memories, and awesome experiences seeing many birds and meeting new people. I heartily endorse them, if they are your thing.

Then you’ve got big days or big weeks or big sits. To win, these definitely require a high level of field skill, and also time, effort and resources, though less so than the longer forms of competition. You, usually with a team, have to be good enough birders to identify all the birds you contact by sight or sound, quickly and accurately. Please emphasize that last thing. Accurately. Just saying. Keep an eye on it. Accurately. Make sure you are sure. Don’t cheat by not being sure and still taking the bird. Don’t say yes to your teammate when you mean you aren’t sure. I guess I’ve said enough about that. . .

An additional thing that applies to long life lists, big years, and big days: we can no longer ignore the large carbon footprint these things stomp into precious planet earth. The World Series of Birding now features a Carbon Footprint division, which I and my bicycling partners participated in last year, and then you also have efforts such as Dorian Anderson’s amazing Biking for Birds run last year.

But try this. What if we remove numbers, meaning the number of species, from the equation that results in the great or “winning” birder? What if we simply say you win if you are a great birder? What would that look like? Kenn Kaufman’s thought aside, many birders would agree that a great birder is one who can quickly find and correctly identify birds, more often and more correctly than, I don’t know, “less great” or “less experienced” birders. Great birders will also know plenty about bird ecology, distribution and conservation.

There already exists an established, tested framework for judging birders from this viewpoint: the ABA Young Birder of the Year Contest. There are five modules in the contest. Two are major – Field Notebook and the Conservation/Community Leadership modules, and the other three are supporting – Illustration, Writing, and Photography. There is one thing I particularly like about the ABA Young Birder criteria, and a couple things that maybe need some attention, but I think overall it is one of ABA’s best initiatives, because it effectively brings young people into the fold. More on what I do like later. But first:

Field notebooks are obsolete. Oh, I know that statement is going to get me some hate mail. I completely agree that taking field notes and especially sketching or drawing birds require close and careful observation, but they are not the only way to crack that nut, especially in the 21st century. Also, the people who say anyone can learn to draw birds have never been inside the head of someone who has tried, even taken classes and read books on drawing, and tried some more, with dismal results. Yes, that’s me. What if there is an otherwise fantastic young birder out there with drawing impairment syndrome? How will they fair in the Young Birder of the Year contest?

Although, there was this time when a nighthawk was found out of season, November at Cape May, and I went into my observation knowing I had to understand the exact nature of the wingtip structure and pattern to confirm the identification. This was at a time when film photography had become too expensive for me but I hadn’t yet switched to digital. So I got out my field notebook (I kept them for years, but no more), and did my best to draw the nighthawk’s wingtip. Before long I had the likes of Michael O’Brien, Kevin Karlson, and Vince Elia gathered around my crummy drawing as we discussed the length of each of the outer primaries and exactly where the white mark on the wing fell in relation to the primary tips and the tertials. The bird proved to be Cape May’s, and NJ’s, first and only Lesser Nighthawk.

Sounds great, but today? Today we would be gathered around the back of a camera with a zoomed-up image having the same discussion. With a smartphone in their pocket (with the eBird app on it) and a camera on their hip, can it seriously be said to a young birder, or adult birder, that a field notebook is essential? When they can type notes that will actually be legible later in the eBird comment fields or on their phone’s notepad, and when they can even use the smartphone to record the bird’s vocalizations, rather having to make cryptic notes about what it sounds like? And they can take a zillion photographs from every angle for later study, enjoyment, and documentation, and drop them into eBird or a blog or Facebook post? I seriously doubt you could find more than a handful of adult birders who have current field notebooks that would be even slightly competitive in the Young Birder competition. Perhaps a new category is in order for the Young Birder competition: Appropriate Use of Technology in Birding. The world has changed, and birding with it.

The other thing about the Young Birder Award criteria is something that seems to be missing. There is nothing explicitly stated about vocalizations or listening to birds, as far as I can tell. Visual observations are emphasized, but not sounds. Since I know one of the people who judges the Young Birder of the Year competition quite well, I am absolutely sure this is simply an oversight, but it is one that should be corrected.

Well, I’ve digressed a bit. I suppose we could establish an Adult Birder of the Year competition, and maybe a Senior Birder of the Year Competition, and a Woman Birder of the Year competition, and a Black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, Native American, and Gay Birder of the Year while we are at it, adapting the Young Birder of the Year Criteria. And if the ABA or someone else wants to do that, great. It could be fun. But by and large, I think we already know who these people are, these great birders. They are the field guide authors, the tour leaders, the journal editors, the eBird reviewers, and more than a few recluse types that simply really like birds and birding. One thing I can say is that, almost universally, these people are so good they don’t feel they have to prove it, and are extremely nice, warm, sharing, and willing to help less experienced birders. Because the main thing is they love and are excited by birds. And now, finally, we are getting somewhere important.

ALL OF THE ABOVE IS A BIG FAT LONG PREAMBLE TO THE HEART OF THE MATTER

My absolute favorite thing about the Young Birder of the Year judging criteria is Conservation/Community Leadership module. To adult birders, I would ask: How many acres of land have you helped conserve? How have you performed on other environmental issues? Do you have any idea what is happening in western North Dakota? Have you thanked a green plant today? Have you shot a Mute Swan today? Am I trying to provoke you? Maybe. How many people have you shared birds and birding with? Why are we even talking about who has the longest list when we still need to hold BP accountable for the devastating gulf oil spill? When we have to develop a sensible energy policy? When we have to come to grips with GMO’s and their impact on Monarchs and thousands of other organisms? When we have to get kids outdoors?

The American Birding Association doesn’t give an award for the Birder of the Year. But it does have five cool awards to recognize the many kinds of contributions dedicated individuals can make to the cause of birds, birders and birding. Quoting from the ABA website,

“The awards and the categories of achievement they recognize are as follows:

“The ABA Roger Tory Peterson Award Promoting the Cause of Birding – Given for a lifetime of achievements in promoting the cause of birding.

“The ABA Chandler Robbins Award Education/Conservation – Given for making significant contributions to birder education and/or bird conservation.

“The ABA Claudia Wilds Award Distinguished Service – Given for a distinguished service to ABA.

“The ABA Robert Ridgway Award Publications in Field Ornithology – Given for excellence in publications pertaining to field ornithology.

“The ABA Ludlow Griscom Award Outstanding Contributions in Regional Ornithology – Given to individuals who have dramatically advanced the state of ornithological knowledge for a particular region.

“The ABA Betty Petersen Award for Conservation and Community – This newest ABA Award was established by the ABA Board in 2013. It honors those who, like the late Betty Petersen, have made great strides in expanding diversifying and strengthening the birding community and those who have worked to build a support network for conservation.”

Now, those are some achievements worth celebrating! It’s worth reading the full text about each of the awards.

I’d like to restate Kenn Kaufman’s saying. A good birder is someone who likes birds. A great birder is someone who likes birds enough to do something about it.

And finally, since I’ve managed two 1980 cultural references already, I’ll add a third. Although John Lennon’s song Imagine was recorded in 1971, it did not reach number one until his death in December, 1980:

“Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one”

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Don Freiday
I'm a freelance birder/naturalist/photographer living in Cape May, NJ. My professional experience includes 30+ years in the wildlife field, mostly involving education and interpretation, with several government agencies and NGO's. My hobbies include everything natural, especially birding; photography; training and hunting my Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Daniel Boone; fishing; canoeing and kayaking; camping; backpacking; and a little cooking. I blog about birds and nature at http://freidaybird.blogspot.com/ .
  • Mike Patterson
    • Don Freiday

      Well said!

  • CommonSense

    Wow, color me naive, but as a new birder, I had no idea some people considered it a COMPETITION. I guess everyone has their own reasons for birding though.

    I’ve always enjoyed wildlife and plants and have taken photos of birds when I could, just for the thrill of capturing something that difficult to capture, plus the beauty of it. I started observing birds more closely last year while walking the dogs every day. But this year, I had been hearing a beautiful, simple 2-note song that inspired me to figure out what the bird was. It took 3 months, but I finally saw a Black-Capped Chickadee singing. I was so excited! That got me more interested in learning to identify the birds I saw, even if my photos weren’t so good (distance, lack of light, etc).

    I love just watching them and enjoy learning more about them. I don’t really care about rare birds, although I’m always thrilled to see something new to me, even just a House Sparrow. For my personal life list, I have to get photographic proof, not just a sighting.

    I’ve also observed some neat things in our neighborhood. We have a Great Blue Heron that I’ve seen at our little shallow lake at least once a week for 2 summers now. We’ve found that a larger deeper lake to the west of us has a fabulous nesting area for Great Blue Herons, Night Herons, and Double-Crested Cormorants, all of those nests are quite a sight! We’ve seen them flying so figure our bird roots and nests there, but flies to our lake for feeding during the day. We’ve seen him in the creek that runs along that trail.

    We have a pair of Cooper’s Hawks that nest in our little neighborhood park. We’ve seen them feed twice, fascinated by how they pluck the feathers of their unfortunate catch. They had two chicks this year, and I could hear them calling constantly all day long for weeks, even from a half mile away at our home. It was interesting hearing and seeing them more farther and father away from the park as they got older.

    For the past few weeks, I’ve observed a single Canada Goose hanging out with a Mallard family at that same shallow lake. Even when there are flocks of geese there, he stays by the ducks. To me, it’s the true story of the Ugly Ducking, but one man thinks it may be injured. Even so, it’s interesting to see such unexpected behavior.

    We’re leaving in a week for a 2 week road trip of the Pacific Northwest. I can’t describe how excited I am to get to see the wildlife and birds, from bison in Montana to whales and dolphins and seals and all the birds in Washington and Oregon.

    • Don Freiday

      I hope you have a great trip to the northwest! It sounds like you observe birds closely. One thing I often say to folks on field trips I’m leading is that the fun starts after you identify the bird!

  • sbj

    Thanks for the thoughts, Don. I like that Kaufman quote. For what its worth, I’ll add some musing from my own perspective.

    I frequently turn away/am driven away from the birding world by the uber-competitive nature of the activity which feels so testosterone driven. Only if pressed will I identify myself as a “birder” because of all the connotations I feel go along with that title: chasing down birds, reveling in vagrants, trying to out do the next guy. To the point of ad naseum, I tell my friends that I like to see the right birds where they are supposed to be each season. I appreciate bird-watching to see the diversity, the seasonality, the demonstrated perseverance of the birds. And most of all for awe and wonder at a world running parallel to mine. I never felt so free as when I opted out of E-bird’s “Top 100”.
    I wonder where the place is for a sense of wonder in the birding world. It is not the most celebrated characteristic of the activity. And I’ll dare say, as a female, that fear women may be driven away by the over-emphasis on winning and besting each other in sightings.
    Thanks again…

    • Don Freiday

      Yes. Sense of wonder. Just two days ago I was speaking to a group of volunteer naturalists and urged them to track down Rachel Carson’s book of that title. Thanks for commenting!

  • Marilyn Kircus

    I haven’t actually done birding as a competition but if I wasn’t so limited in seeing and hearing birds and identifying them, I’m sure I’d do competitive birding. So far I’ve done birding as a backyard entertainment, as a learning experience, as an excuse for traveling and being outdoors, as a tour guide to share my finds with others. as a Citizen Scientist – both by reporting in e-bird, and helping on bird projects at the various refuges I’ve volunteered at. But I can understand how people can enjoy birds in infinite ways and do, depending on the birder’s personalities, free time, money. There is a place in the birding spectrum for everyone.

    • Don Freiday

      Agreed on all counts. Thanks for commenting!

  • Don Jones

    Great post! I definitely agree that a respect and appreciation for birds should come first and foremost. At the same time, I proudly keep a life list, year list, state list, and even county lists… as far as I’m concerned, anything that gets someone out in the field more often is a good thing.

    I also really appreciate your comment about the carbon footprint of birding. As much as I’d love to do it, I just can’t see myself undertaking an ABA Area big year and burning all that carbon. I think that the rise of local, “patch” birding is a great response to this issue, and may well be the future of birding.

    It’s commentaries like this that keep me reading the ABA blog!

    • Don Freiday

      Thanks, Don!! I do keep a state list and county list, sort of. I don’t know the latest numbers (mainly because I haven’t eBirded any sightings that came pre-eBird – I guess we can call that BE as opposed to BP or BC -, but I am well aware when there’s a bird out there I haven’t seen in state/county, and that will occasionally prioritize my birding.

  • cestma

    “Well, I’ve digressed a bit. I suppose we could establish an Adult Birder of the Year competition, and maybe a Senior Birder of the Year Competition, and a Woman Birder of the Year competition, and a Black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, Native American, and Gay Birder of the Year while we are at it, adapting the Young Birder of the Year Criteria.”
    Leaving no doubt as to what the default, expected, “normal” birder is.

  • cestma

    “Well, I’ve digressed a bit. I suppose we could establish an Adult Birder of the Year competition, and maybe a Senior Birder of the Year Competition, and a Woman Birder of the Year competition, and a Black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, Native American, and Gay Birder of the Year while we are at it…”
    Because we all know what the default, “normal” birder is…

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