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ICYMI: Bird Records Committees: A Modest Proposal

The ABA Blog has been in existence for almost 7 years, and there’s a lot of good content back in the archives that deserves an audience now that it might not have received way back when. So, semi-regularly we will bring some of that stuff back. Here’s one by Ted Floyd in this season of BRC changes.

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“Great news, honey! I’ve found a doctor who can treat my infection. He practices medicine just as they did in the early 1920s—before that silly penicillin fad became all the rage.”

“Mom, Dad: I’ve finally decided on a major. Anthropology. I love this department because all the profs use textbooks from the 1880s!”

“Can you help me? I’m looking for a new computer. I’d like the Commodore 64, please. And I can get a 5¼ -inch diskette drive with that, right?”

Needless to say, you wouldn’t go to a doctor who doesn’t “believe in” antibiotics. Neither would you send your kid to a college where the faculty are unaware of what’s happened in the past 125 years. And of course you wouldn’t buy a Commodore 64 for all your internet and database-management needs.

But how about the following?—

“We need for bird records committees to function just as they did in the 1970s!”

 

Back in the 1970s, bird records committees (BRCs) served the following, interrelated and interconnected, functions:

  1. to maintain an official list of all the bird species recorded in a particular state or province;
  2. to provide a quantitative understanding of the status and distribution of a state or province’s rare birds, or “vagrants”; and
  3. to accept or reject, on a case-by-case basis, records of occurrence of vagrants.

Great. I think that was great, back in the 1970s. Back then, people cared about “official” state lists; back then, people were keenly interested in figuring out patterns of vagrancy; and back then, when birding was simpler and more competitive, up-or-down Accept/Reject decisions were the order of the day.

Fast forward to 2012.

A-Jimmy CarterFirst, let’s face chronological reality. It’s been more than 35 years since Jimmy Carter was inaugurated. That’s more than a third of a century; that’s more than a human generation. That’s a long time. It is normal—normal and salutary—for ideas and institutions to change over the course of 35 years.
Right: Do you remember when Jimmy Carter was running for President of the United States? If so, then you’re above the median age of an American.

It would be weird if today’s birders had the same needs, outlooks, and expectations as the birders from the era of disco, eight-track players, and Sanford and Son.

We’re well into the second decade of the 21st century, and the idea of an “official” state list is increasingly quixotic. Can we really say that any extralimital American Black Duck is “pure,” and therefore countable? And if we count American Black Ducks, why can’t we count Mexican Ducks? What about Muscovy Ducks? What about Smews and Falcated Ducks? What about well-established populations of Egyptian Geese and Mandarin Ducks?

These days, we just know too danged much. We know so much about hybrids, introgression, cryptic species, the proliferation of exotic species, and the prevalence of ship-assisted vagrancy. We know that practically every entry on an official state or provincial list is problematic in one way or another.

We also know a great deal, these days, about vagrancy. How did we come to obtain all that knowledge? Well, we owe that knowledge, in large part, to the brilliant work of the BRCs of the 1970s. I am, and forever well be, in awe of and grateful for—oh, and I’ll come right out and say it—the work of the California Bird Records Committee (CBRC) back in the Disco Age. That committee figured out when and where to find everything from Tropical Kingbirds to Rufous-backed Robins to Kentucky Warblers.

I’ll say it again: I’m in awe of the CBRC. I’ll also say this: I’m in awe of Galileo and Newton.

You see the problem, don’t you? Today’s physicists don’t spend a lot of time testing the laws of classical mechanics. We know that the acceleration due to gravity at sea level is 9.80665 meters per second per second. Physicists don’t get research grants to reestablish that fact. Physicists have moved on to other matters.

Shouldn’t it be the same with BRCs? In 2012, do we really need ever-more-fine-tuned knowledge about patterns of vagrancy? Do we even need official lists?

My answer: “No.” But it’s a qualified “No.” I’m not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’m going to argue that there’s still plenty more to learn about the birds in our states and provinces—although not so much about vagrants as about well-established populations of breeders, transients, and winter visitants. And I’m going to argue that state and provincial lists—although not of the sort envisaged by our birding forebears in the 1970s—remain relevant in the 21st century.

But first we need to turn to another matter. Thus far, I’ve commented on the first and second functions of BRCs from the 1970s. To recap: Function #1 was to keep a state or provincial list; Function #2 was to understand vagrancy. Now what about the biggie? What about #3?—for a committee to vote to accept or reject, on a case-by-case basis, records of occurrence of vagrants?

 

No beating around the bush: I hereby declare that it is no longer necessary or appropriate for BRCs to accept or reject records. Note carefully: no longer necessary or appropriate. That is to say, I, ahem, accept that this practice was reasonable in the 1970s and ’80s, and even in the ’90s and right through the aughts. But no longer. Something has changed. Something fundamental.

B-Sanford & SonBack in the day, the “user” community—everybody from listers to state nongame agencies—lacked access to the corpus of records in care of a BRC. In theory, those records were accessible: Alls you had to do was drive across the state to the BRC’s secretary’s mother’s basement, rummage through the mildew and baseball cards till you found the committee’s archives, then spend the weekend trying to track down the cryptically labeled Kodak (Google it) print (Google it) of the Sharp-tailed Sparrow (Google it).
Left: Back in the day, Sanford and Son was cool. Watching Sanford and Son reruns in 2012?—not so cool.

But you wouldn’t really do that. Of course not. Instead, you would rely on the committee to do all the work for you. Your basic question boiled down to this: Was it a “Sharp-tailed Sparrow,” or wasn’t it? And the committee had the answer to your question: Yes or No. Those Yes/No (Accept/Reject) votes were published every other year or so in state or provincial ornithological journals, and they were the foundation of the user community’s understanding of the status and distribution of regional rarities.

That was then.

Today it is trivially easy to put it all on the internet. The slide of the “Sharp-tailed Sparrow”?—make a scan and get it online. The written description and field sketches?—same thing. The audio recording?—create a soundfile and upload. Piece of cake.

Next step: The user visits the BRC’s website, tracks down the record, and reviews the data. The something catches her eye: a record in a nearby marsh of a Demoiselle Crane.

Her determinations: The sparrow may well have referred to what we today call Nelson’s Sparrow, but the user isn’t convinced. As to the crane, however, she believes the bird to have been a naturally occurring vagrant, not an escape from captivity.

Of some interest is that our hypothetical user’s determinations are precisely the opposite of the committee’s. In a not-quite-unanimous vote, the committee accepted the sparrow; but our user’s standard of evidence was evidently different. In a split vote, however, the committee rejected the crane; but the user sided with those committee members who accepted the crane.

Folks, that’s totally fine.

Different users have different needs. Our models and methods differ, user by user. Our knowledge and understanding are constantly evolving; we know more about Ammodramus sparrow ID and crane vagrancy than we did in the old days. And the culture’s changing: Slowly but surely, we’re embracing a more probabilistic view of the material universe. The old black-and-white (cf. Accept/Reject) worldview is being supplanted by one that is more interested in and tolerant of shades of gray.

If only FOX News would get into the business of archiving bird records. “We report, You decide”—that’s actually a great idea for advancing our understanding of avian status and distribution.

 

Here’s my vision for records committees in 2012 and beyond.

  • First, Put it all online. I mean, All of it: the record (“accession”) number, the photos and audio, the written description and field sketches. Make it searchable. And create a “comments” field
  • From time to time, update summary accounts of all species reported to have occurred within the state or province. Some species will be those that we traditionally have thought of as BRC fare: Demoiselle Cranes and Nelson’s Sparrows in California, and so forth. But there will be a great deal more. The California accounts would include entries for Nutmeg Mannikin and Orange Bishop, for Rose-ringed Parakeet and Lilac-crowned Parrot. Ditto for Black-footed Albatross, Anna’s Hummingbird, and Black Phoebe.
  • Finally, and this is the biggie: No voting.

C-DiscoI’ve already said it: Until recently, voting was important for the scientists and listers who value an archival record of the occurrence of birds in a state, province, or other region of interest. Today, however, we have the internet. We have—or we ought to have—all that information at our fingertips. In the old days, all we had was a simple Yes/No decision: Sharp-tailed Sparrow–Accept, Demoiselle Crane–Reject, etc. Today, we can look at photos, listen to audio, examine the observers’ field notes, and review other users’ comments.
Right: People danced in the 1970s. People still dance in 2012. But they don’t dance in 2012 the same way they danced in the ’70s.

Am I saying that BRCs are irrelevant in 2012? Absolutely not. They’re more important than ever, and, man, do they have their work cut out for them!

Basically, I’m picturing a committee in which all members serve as non-voting secretaries. In this scenario, all members would be involved in database management. All members would coauthor regularly updated accounts of the status and distribution of all species reported to have occurred within the state, province, or region of interest. (And I hasten to point out that compendia of such “accounts” would be book-length treatises that any university press would be proud to publish.) And all members would engage in some amount of “customer relations”—that is to say, broad engagement of the birding community.

Wow.

What an incredible service these rejiggered records committees would provide. And the birding community would know it. And recognize it. And appreciate it. And be grateful for it.

That would be a big change.

I’d like to close now on that note.

 

I can anticipate an instant objection to the scenario I laid out above. I can imagine you’re saying: “Put it all online—fine. Create annotated lists not just of rarities but of all species—great. Voting—what’s the harm?”

As my sister likes to say, Allow me to answer that question with a question: “What’s the point?”

Seriously, what’s the point?

It’s “science,” right? According to a certain perspective, voting yields a “scientific” record of the occurrence of rare birds. But could there be another reason for voting?

D-GorillaEnter the 800-lb. gorilla in the room.

Talk to anybody who’s been birding for a while—heck, talk to anybody who’s been birding for an hour—and you’ll be informed that the true function of a BRC is to police birders’ lists. Oh, I can hear the howls of protest already. What can I say?—Methinks the lady doth protest too much.
Left: BRCs meet regularly and evaluate records of avian occurrence.

Now let’s be fair here: Innocent until proven guilty. Let’s say BRCs truly are 100% science, 0% list police. Nevertheless, the all-important perception remains. Everywhere I go, I encounter the same sentiment: BRCs are self-proclaimed list police.

I’m not saying it’s fair. I’m not saying it’s true. But I am indeed most emphatically and categorically stating that it is a widely held belief that BRCs are list police.

It’s a real pain in the butt for BRCs.

But it doesn’t have to be.

If BRCs got out of this archaic Yes/No (“Accept/Reject”) mode, the whole problem would instantly vanish. The “list police” charge would go out the window. Committees would be unencumbered at last to do science, and science alone.

BRC stock would soar. BRCs would be “good guys,” right up there with The Nature Conservancy, the ABA’s young birder programs, motherhood, and apple pie. BRCs would inspire birders to learn more about avian status and distribution—knowledge of which is more important than ever in this era of accelerating habitat change and human population growth.

Sound good? Yes, but the following has to happen: BRCs have to get out of the list police business. I know, I know…it’s not fair. BRCs don’t really police people’s lists. But as long as BRCs maintain “official” lists and vote on records, that all-important perception will persist. And that perception—whether or not it’s fair—will prevent BRCs from playing an important role in informing management actions and conservation policy in the 21st century.

 

* * * * * 

 

Addendum:

Below I present four screen-captures from the interactive California Bird Records Committee website. Scroll down into the “Comments” section, please, for further thoughts. But, first, a tease: These four screen-captures point to a magnficient functionality for bird records committees in 2012 and beyond. More on that below; here now are the images:

 

Fig. 1a. Rufous-backed Robin query.

Rufous-backed Robin 01

 

Fig. 1b. Rufous-backed Robin results.


Rufous-backed Robin 02

 

 

Fig. 2a. Demoiselle Crane query.


Demoiselle Crane 01

 

 

Fig. 2b. Demoiselle Crane results.


Demoiselle Crane 02

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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)

  • Ted, at first I didn’t recognize you in those groovy sunglasses…but the dance move AND the awesome writing and point-making gave you away!

    Carl

  • Records committees DO NOT reject records. They categorize them. Your beef is that a particular records committee put a record in a box you disagree with because you play a game that requires you to count only the birds that get sorted into one particular box. The rules you are using WERE NOT created by the records committee. They were created by an independent organization, the American Birding Association. You beef should be with the ABA.

    The part of this issue that’s outdated is the notion that bird listing should drive the protocols biogeographical data gathering.

    If you don’t like the decision about which box is best for an out of place Demoiselle Crane with dubious provenance. Don’t shoot the messenger. It’s the American Birding Association that says you can’t count it NOT the California Records Committee. I’m guessing that most of the folks on the average records committee don’t care what you put on your list.

  • MIke, your response is a bit oblique. I won’t put words in Ted’s mouth, but what as I see as the problem with BRC’s on the forensic model is that rejected reports slip quickly from memory, leaving the record incomplete. A BRC that restricts its activities to the careful curation of an archive, in contrast, is going to make sure that every report remains available and accessible, giving birders a much richer background against which to judge their own sightings and to formulate their own thoughts about status and distribution. “Voting” on something like a CA Demoiselle Crane leads to the de facto suppression on a single criterion–provenance–of a record that deserves to be prominent on a birder’s horizon of expectation. This has nothing to do with listing.

  • Jim

    I think with the growing popularity of eBird, the accept/reject function of records committees will migrate there (or to any similar site that serves the same function). In fact, this is already happening. The local person in charge of accepting or rejecting someone’s sighting on eBird is already more important to many birders I know than the state records committee. eBird accepts whatever you submit for the purposes of your lists, but questionable sightings are vetted and don’t all make it into the open database. The data is still there but not easily available to the average user. eBird is taking over some part of the records committes function.

  • (First things first. Do be careful, Mike, with the attempts at mind-reading. As to what game I play, and what birds I count, that’s a matter of public record. See: http://blog.aba.org/2010/12/fuzzy-math.html .)

    As to the “Accept/Reject” function of records committees, do a google search for “RECORDS COMMITTEE REJECTED.” Facts…ya gotta hate ’em.

    Meanwhile, my broader concern is with perception. Folks perceive that bird records committees are “list police.” And that perception prevents bird records committees from being taken seriously in the scientific realm; that perception prevents bird records committees from influencing conservation policy and management actions.

    Tell me this. When the Such-and-such State Records Committee adds Fork-tailed Flycatcher to the state list and subtracts Pacific-slope Flycatcher, who really pays attention? Do the folks with State Fish & Game? Do the folks with the So-and-so Land Trust? Or do the state’s top listers?

    Hey, I’m totally cool with listing. I do it myself. I’m happy to have institutions that are relevant to listing.

    I’m cool with science, too. I used to do a fair bit of it, and I still dabble. And I’m happy to have institutions that are relevant to science.

    My question, again: Which interest group is served by bird records committees?

  • I would agree with about 95% of what you propose. The only thing I would keep, is to have Bird Record Committees still vote as to whether or not to add a new species to a state or provincial checklist. Most birds that fit that are usually quickly reported, photographed to death and widely distributed for assessment by many birders, usually there is little doubt of the ID by the time the species is reviewed by the BRC. This leaves them one job, to determine beyond a reasonable doubt (because you can’t be 100%) that a vagrant arrived on its own accord, without direct help from humans (even if they used human technology such as ship etc.).

    I’d also like BRC to go back and review things after things have changed. In NYS for example for a long time, Pink-Footed and Barnacle Geese were considered the dreaded “origin uncertain” for a long time. Thanks to some sharp eyed birders, bands were found on a few birds, proving they were captured and banded in the wild and now Barnacle and PF Goose are acceptable, but in my opinion also makes a lot of those old reports acceptable as well. Committees should review and update this past reports as well.

  • There’s another important aspect to Ted’s idea, removing parochialism (I dont use this word in a derogatory way). Most BRC members are local, with a huge and respected knowledge of local birds, and most with an at least good knowledge of birds from outside the state or province. But. Ignoring for the moment provenance, actual IDs, even in the photo age, can be problematic. So a particular bird is pondered over with the best experience the locals can muster, some googling etc. All very good. But with open access, in pops a birder from Sweden, who has seen thousands of the possiblity over the last 20 years, in every shape and form. It’s the bird, he says, just a bit towards the end of its appearance range, but still the bird. And, he knows that the pretty much unpublished behavior seen by the observers is commonly used by Swedish birders to separate the bird from a sibling species. Not only that, they say the bird often turns up in strange places, far from its usual haunts. Bingo. We have a confirmed ID, rather than a conservative reject. Which is much more useful than a lost record due to doubt. Basically, it’s crowsourcing, and ID-Frontiers is a perfect example of how it works, and works well.

  • Hi Ted, This comment of yours struck me: “When the Such-and-such State Records Committee adds Fork-tailed Flycatcher to the state list and subtracts Pacific-slope Flycatcher, who really pays attention?”.

    I think that’s the key. Listing for listing’s sake may be less the focus now, but anyone who identifies birds is fundamentally a “lister” on some level. The game of birding needs rules, and records committees provide a critical set of rules. The BRCs provide the service of rendering a simple yes/no judgment on the question of whether the Demoiselle Crane was likely a “real” vagrant, or whether the Providence Petrel was really that species. Someone HAS to do that, even if it’s only a sort of touchstone in a broader debate.

  • Hello, everybody, and thanks for the comments.

    I recently updated my post, by way of an “Addendum” at the very end, with four screen-captures from the California Bird Record Committee’s publicly accessible, interactive website. Here’s the URL:

    http://www.californiabirds.org/cbrcdb.html

    First, the bottom line: This website is brilliant.

    Now, the rest of the story:

    I started out with a query (Fig. 1a) of Rufous-backed Robin records. The result (Fig. 1b) is a detailed enumeration of all Rufous-backed Robin records, including so-called “rejected” records. Woohoo! That’s fantastic.

    It gets better.

    Next, I queried Demoiselle Crane (Fig. 2a). I’ll be honest with you: I expected a NULL result. My reasoning: The species isn’t on the “official” state list; ergo, it’s not in the database. I’m happy to report that my expectation was wrong. I did in fact get a result (Fig. 2b). This is marvelous.

    The two next steps, if you ask me:

    1. Conceptually straightforward, logistically challenging. Give us the complete “results,” not just the capsule summary. The Demoiselle Crane results state, “adult with Sandhill Cranes; photo,” and that’s a great first step in the right direction. But how about the option to view that photo (or, more likely, photos, plural)? And how about the option to view folks’ comments, e.g., “I think it was a naturally occurring vagrant because…” or “I think it escaped from a cage because…”?

    2. Logistically straightforward, ideologically problematic. Clearly distinguish the data (see #1, above) from the editorializing. I’m fine with editorializing (e.g., “Accept/Reject”), as long as it goes in a “Comments” field, not with the actual data.

    Regardless, this interactive, searchable, customizable, publicly accessible website is an amazing resource for the California birding community–and a cynosure for all the rest of us.

  • I guess I hold more conservative views on this topic. I think all three things are still important, but I think many records committees need to step out of the 20th century when it comes to transparency and communication. I should clarify here in that most of my criticisms over the years have been aimed at the Illinois committee, which has been stuck in 1970 over the last 42 years or so. It doesn’t communicate well, or at all, with those who submit records; only publishes results in journals…or doesn’t at all; loses records and even photos and specimens; and only holds votes in private, in-person meetings (it doesn’t communicate well with itself). How hard is it in 2012 to thank a submitter via email, let him/her know the outcome, circulate records via email, and conduct votes via email or telephone conference call? I think the accept/reject paradigm is still important. If it weren’t, eBird wouldn’t be doing it. The unaccepted/rejected records don’t vanish; they are still available to researches, complete with annotations describing why they were not accepted.

    I am puzzled by Mike Patterson’s harsh words directed at Ted Floyd and the ABA. (As well as the falsehood that records committees don’t reject records.) Anyone who knows Ted, or has bothered to ask, knows that he has a much more nuanced view that what Mike supposes. And, Mike, why are you saying, I’m paraphrasing here, “It’s only the ABA’s fault”? In many states, it is indeed the state birding organization (and by extension, their records committees) that “police” state lists, and in a much more “big brother” way than than the ABA, which is relatively egalitarian in this respect. All the ABA says is that for you to count a species and report it to ABA for publication, it must be on the checklist. That is all. Illinois, in sharp contrast, mandates that you must complete documentation within 30 days for any review list species–and have it accepted–before you may count it toward a big year that appears printed in the state’s publication..

  • Scott Pendleton

    I agree with putting it all online as soon as it is received. There is no reason not to and if a researcher wants to use the information, that can be his decision. The problem is many birders have no experience with scientific data and the importance of documentation and protocol. It is difficult for an untrained person to make valid decisions or for that matter, submit scientifically valid data. Ask any eBird reviewer.

    I submitted a Swainson’s Warbler to the Ohio Records Committee. No photo, just field notes, and no experience with the species. The letter I received said, “We were unable to confirm your sighting. This does not mean you did not see the species in question, only that there was not enough evidence for us to accept it as a confirmed sighting…” Coming out of a research background, it was the decision I expected given the evidence and my experience level. However, the sighting is part of the permanent record for Ohio for all to see and judge. You are correct, it is not easily available but the sighting and vote will eventually be published. Will it end up as a green dot in a future field guide? Not likely!

    The bottom line is, however RBC’s function in the future, either as a repository for information or a judge of sightings, rare and vagrant birds must be documented. In the most recent issue of the Ohio Cardinal, the review list birds that had any documentation submitted were far fewer than those with the qualifier “no report was received by the records committee.” I believe this reinforces my assertion that many birders do not understand the importance of scientifically valid documentation. Can or will these undocumented sightings be used by state agencies to make conservation decisions? Or Birds of North America when they update a species account? Or field guide writers for range maps?

    Incidentally, when I finally met the chair of the records committee, I thanked him for taking the time to make a determination on the Swainson’s. He was taken aback. He had never been thanked for a “negative” finding. Until everybody carries a camera and takes diagnostic photos, BRC’s have a tough but still necessary job, even in the internet era.

  • I have already started the process of making some of these changes with the Pennsylvania records committee (http://www.pabirds.org/records/). Plans are a searchable database with links to all the documentation provided for that record.

    As I am starting to go through this, I am thinking that it might not actually be appropriate to put ALL records online and available to the general public. On occasion, we end up with reports where there ‘exists a majority of evidence in favor of an identification other than what was submitted.’ I think posting these could be embarrassing to the submitters and would result in less folks submitting their records if they know a rejection will be forever viewable to the public.

    On the other hand, it may be a compelling reason to really document something well….

  • How hard is it in 2012 to thank a submitter via email, let him/her know the outcome, circulate records via email, and conduct votes via email or telephone conference call?

    Not hard at all, Pennsylvania switched over to doing everything online this year, a combination of Google Docs and WordPress that have both sped up voting and made it a lot easier. It just takes someone with initiative within the records committee.

  • Without voting on records, it seems like you are leaving it up to each individual birder to decide whether or not a species has been recorded in that area. Sounds good, but most birders (maybe all of them) do not have the time to sit down and review every record for themselves.

  • Ann Johnson

    Ted, to a certain extent I agree with most of what you are saying. I do believe, however, that there is still a valid reason for a committee vetting reports of rare birds before they are published in print. There’s just no delete key after the presses run and I know from experience that bad information can take on a life of its own. The standard is simply this: “Is there enough evidence to substantiate adding this report to the written record, be that North American Birds or the next field guide?” No more; no less. The RBC is really just one small cog in data availability.

    All records for Iowa have been managed via the web since 2000 and I hope to get going on a major project this winter to scan all of the older records as well. There’s a ton of information on our website that can be sliced and diced in different ways. I invite you to take a look at http://iowabirds.org/RecordsCommittee/ and see the first steps.

    Certainly all of the data is available since 2000 but the problem comes in the public presentation. In various reports you now have access to every review done by the Iowa RBC since its inception. The devil is in the details. Should we consider a submission to an RBC as something totally in the public domain without the submitter having that understanding upfront? The same holds true for the committee members making comments. I remember one from years ago when the only comment was “Another crappy documentation from Johnson.” While well deserved, it was really from an anonymous reviewer to me personally. Most of our “Not Accepted” reports (we don’t use “rejected” so you don’t find us in your Google search) of late are because people did a poor job of describing the bird and the comments reflect that, hopefully in a constructive manner. Isn’t public embarrassment more damaging than having a reputation as “the list police”? That’s the fine line we’re walking when discussing ways to be more transparent to the Iowa birding community.

  • “It just takes someone with initiative within the records committee.” Exactly.

  • Ann Johnson

    I know I live in an isolated little part of the world, but is this really a problem? For years we have utilized outside resources and expert opinions. The thing I’ve noted more of late is that much of that work is being done upfront before the documentation is even written.

  • This is great but it would be even better if California opened this up to other state BRC’s which do not have the resources to take it on (I’m thinking of my state of Idaho for one and other western states w/ small populations and tiny birding communities). There are many benefits to this approach (and of course some challenges). Actually the Idaho BRC does have a very transparent process (http://idahobirds.net/ibrc/archive/ibrcarchive.html) and our records go back to 2006 but we do not have a back-end database w/ query functions.

  • Is this true for all BRC’s? Our online record archive shows a complete history of accepted and not accepted records for each year going back to 2006 for anyone to view. So aither category of records can be revisited at any time. (see for example http://idahobirds.net/ibrc/archive/review06.html).

  • This is right-on and I agree with Jim that it is already happening. In fact in Idaho (where I serve as an eBird reviewer & BRC alternate) the eBird reviewers have determined that we will validate eBird records of well documented Idaho review species regardless of IBRC action on that record. We still encourage these observers to submit their record to the IBRC but not all will. Ultimately BRC’s will have to figure out what to do with these kinds of records.

  • richard Frechette

    The real problem with BRC’s is that they, just like checklist committees, answer to no one. When a vacancy develops, the committee choses a replacement. Like minded individuals tend to select like minded replacements. As a result, the committees thought processes evolve at a glacial pace. A committee that doesn’t believe in vagrancy, never will believe in vagrancy. One that refuses to admit that exotocs become established will continue to deny the ecological importance of exotics and continue to raise the bar to finally recognise thair reality, and their importance.

    Nominations for membership should come from the body that the committee represents, and, when practicle, the entire membership should vote on the nominations.

    Transparency in committee membership selection would lead to more trust. A more open selection process would lead to evolution in thought processes.

  • Agreed – some BRC submissions should not be preserved for posterity. The name “David Abbott” leaps to mind…

  • Ted Floyd said:
    “First, Put it all online. I mean, All of it: the record (“accession”) number, the photos and audio, the written description and field sketches. Make it searchable. And create a “comments” field”

    — Much easier said than done, particularly for BRCs with a lot of ‘analog’ material to work through, and without a lot of technical help / resources.

    And it’s not just web development / Internet technical resources that would be required to implement Ted’s “archive it all digitally” suggestion. Not every BRC has access to 8mm video tape conversion technology, VHS VCRs – heck even cassette tape players any more. Yet much of their archived material is in these obsolete technical formats.

    But making past material easily accessible is a worthy goal. Then people in the future can judge whether they think a bird’s vocalization is sufficient for a firm ID, or if the BRC was really correct in saying it’s inconclusive. That also allows for future BRC members to more easily revisit past decisions when future ID criteria are discovered.

    One point worth noting is that some of these media (like VHS cassettes) have a certain half-life and they do degrade over time. So if they are not copied/converted before long, corruption or loss would be a looming possibility.

  • What a great discussion! Ted’s ability to get conversations started never ceases to amaze me. I agree that we should avail ourselves of technology to the greatest extent possible, and I agree that ultimately all records should reside in a common repository. But the idea of mixing vetted and unvetted – or the idea that there is no vetting – is untenable. Anyone who has done eBird review comes to realize very quickly that there are many types of error in people’s checklists, and working through these errors is time-consuming, humbling, mind-numbing. To remove vetting is to part company with the last semblance of science. I don’t necessarily want a BRC to be popular or loved. But I also don’t want people to connect BRCs with listing. They have nothing to do at all with listing. I realize some people may wish that to be the case, but I don’t know of ANY committee whose by-laws contain language that suggest that the official list of the state’s or province’s birds is a list of “countable” birds. That’s simply not what such a list is.

  • This is not always true. In Pennsylvania the committee does choose its own replacements but a wide range of folks from across the state are represented. We only serve for 3 years so there is a fair amount of turnover and limited opportunity to become entrenched in old ideas. We also tend to have a fair number of younger birders (including college aged birders) so we tend to have a balance of ideas on different ID issues.

  • There are various reasons for not accepting records. Displaying submissions that were determined to be incorrect identifications doesn’t add anything positive to the database, but a bird not accepted due to provenance questions definitely deserves to be public. Submissions determined to be insufficient for confident ID should also be public, because these are ‘probable sightings’ on some level and can add something to our understanding of that species distribution or vagrancy.

  • Richard, I could not agree more!

  • Ann Johnson

    I agree Drew and I suppose everyone’s perception of an RBC is based on their own experiences. Here we turn over one position a year. Yes, the committee does discuss potential nominees from a pool of interested people but the discussion revolves more around critical thinking and evaluative skills as evidenced by their submissions to the process rather than philosophies. The Board of Directors, representing the membership, still have to approve the nomination so in theory at least there are some checks and balances to avoid stagnation and provide accountability. In my 12 years as secretary I’ve seen these philosophical pendulums swing back and forth. That’s a good thing I think.

  • Tony Leukering

    No.

    eBird is NOT the place for record review, as review is conducted (usually) by a single individual, giving that person nearly godly powers over — wait for it — someone’s LIST (at least in the public vein)! At least, with a BRC, ones records are reviewed by a committee, which, while more conservative than the average person, at least is probably not made up of 7 or 10 or however many birders “out to get me.”

    I write this as one of the Colorado statewide reviewers of eBird and as former Chair of the Colorado Bird Records Committee. In Colorado, we eBird reviewers try our damnedest to follow the CBRC.

    However, the single largest problem with eBird in this vein as suggested by Jim, is that once a record is “invalidated” by an eBird reviewer, it is not findable in eBird by anyone but the observer. This, then, goes against one of Ted’s primary points — availability of records for review.

  • Hi, Richard. (And hi, everybody; thanks for the great comments.)

    I totally agree with your sentiment: transparency, openness, and, above all, nominations/appointments come from outside the committee.

    But the facts aren’t as bad, I would say, as you present them.

    Ages ago, when I was on the Pennsylvania Ornithological Records Committee, nominations/appointments were made by an external “Ornithological Technical Committee” of the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology. That’s great.

    Today, I’m on the other end of things. I’m not on the Colorado Bird Records Committee (which does excellent work, he says gratuitously), but I’m part of a group (the board of directors of Colorado Field Ornithologists) that nominates and then votes on appointments to the committee. That, too, is great.

    So, Pennsylvania 15+ year ago and Colorado in 2012, for starters, do it right.

    I bet there are other such committees? Let’s hear from you!

    And I suppose I’d be especially interested in hearing a “defense” of a committee that just keeps breeding its own.

  • Tony Leukering

    Michael, I disagree with you and with Frechette. Existing committee members have a much better feel for those birders in the area of interest (province, state, whatever) than does the general birding public. There are two primary reasons that I think that this is true: 1) they know who supports the BRC by submitting documentations and 2) they have a reasonable understanding of a particular submitting birder’s knowledge base.

    I can just imagine having an “election” for membership of the BRC (can you imagine the “campaign promises?”). I have always been in favor of restricting BRC membership to birders that support the BRC, else you have birders reviewing other birders’ records, without submitting anything themselves. That’s like having police arresting people for some of the same illegal practices that are conducted by police.

    Finally, most states have very few people with the skills, knowledge base, and interest to serve on BRCs. Then, for their pains, they get villified by birders for being part of the “list police.” I am all in favor of that aspect of Ted’s proposal, because then, perhaps, everyone would see the number of absolutely crappy documentations that are submitted to BRCs (at least, in my experience).

  • Hi, Ned et al.

    I partially agree with you.

    With regard to eBird, I’d love to have range maps that show 4 categories of stickpins:

    1. Record not exceptional; i.e., automatically accepted via the eBird filtering process.

    2. Record exceptional (e.g., high count or rarity); “accepted” by an eBird reviewer.

    3. Record exceptional; not yet reviewed by an eBird reviewer. (In some regions, eBird review happens within seconds; in other, reports are backed up years.)

    4. Record exceptional; “rejected” by an eBird reviewer.

    That way, all the data are out there, for all the world to see.

    My mind is inundated with real-life examples. I can think of many instances in which I could have benefitted from range maps that indicated records in category (3), above. I can think of many instances in which it would have been immensely useful to have been able to distinguish between categories (1) and (2). Oh, yes, I can think of instances in which I wish I had had access to category (4) records. And, most of all, I have so often wished for range maps that simply showed all four categories.

    In the case of eBird, I am totally fine with accept/reject (eBird says “invalidate,” but I think the syllable multiplication [google syllable+multiplication+Fussell] makes the sting worse), but, please, please, please, give us all the data.

  • Re: “eBird is taking over…” Jim, given the way this discussion is trending, I would say you have a point!

    🙂

  • “However, the single largest problem with eBird in this vein as suggested by Jim, is that once a record is “invalidated” by an eBird reviewer, it is not findable in eBird by anyone but the observer.”

    If this were Facebook:

    “Like”

  • Michael reminds us of a very important matter:

    “In many states, it is indeed the state birding organization (and by extension, their records committees) that ‘police’ state lists, and in a much more ‘big brother’ way than than the ABA, which is relatively egalitarian in this respect. All the ABA says is that for you to count a species and report it to ABA for publication, it must be on the checklist. That is all.”

    That’s 100% my experience, too.

    I haven’t had the experience of interacting much with the Illinois listing culture, but I sure have experienced elsewhere what Michael is talking about. Don’t assume, by the way, that I’m talking about Colorado. I’ve gotten around… 🙂

    Now with regard to the ABA (and I accept that you might credibly accuse me of bias), I have to say that the ABA is equal parts fair and laissez-faire about members’ life lists. Somewhere out there, Bill Pranty is lurking; I worked closely with Bill during his long, efficient, and productive tenure as chairman of the ABA Checklist Committee, and he was practically pathological (I intend that as praise) in his disavowal of interest in members’ lists.

    Again, I agree with Michael, 100%. Make that 110%, as the athletes say.

    P.s. I saw a great t-shirt a little while ago: “5/4 of people don’t understand fractions.”

  • “Isn’t public embarrassment more damaging than having a reputation as ‘the list police’?”

    Good question, Ann.

    In many cases, the upshot would be the opposite, I suspect, of what I think you’re saying.

    That is to say, in many cases, the observer/reporter would be delighted to get his or her record out there for all the world to see. Y’know, to stick to the BRC! To show the world that the observer was right, and the committee was wrong… 🙂

    That wouldn’t always be the case. But it is nevertheless my suspicion that a great many of us would rather have our field notes, sketches, photos, etc. out there for our birding peers to evaluate–rather than a perfunctory “Reject” by the committee.

  • Ann Johnson

    Right or wrong has a certain connotation that makes things difficult. You can submit your Iowa list, your year list, your county list, whatever and the only caveat is that every species must be on the Iowa checklist. Hmmm, sound familiar? There is no right or wrong in RBC decisions because each one is based on the best judgement of some individuals determining if there is sufficient evidence to prove up something that can stand the test of time. It’s a subjective decision hopefully made with the best intentions to establish some reasonable baseline of knowledge. It’s not perfect and always subject to change, but it beats blasting every rare bird that shows up to get a positive ID.

    I would venture to say that most of the records we haven’t accepted in the past few years have fallen into one of these categories: 1) heard only birds with no sound recordings (probably correct IDs); 2) seen birds with no field notes or even descriptions, usually including the phrase “I know this species” (again probably correct IDs but how would you know?); and 3) those dastardly tweeners where there are a few corroborating details but not enough to rule out another species at the time and place, ergo “reasonable doubt”. I’ve had a few of those in my day and although these are the logical ones to make public, I’m not so sure I’d want my rudimentary logic and writing skills on display with those, even though I know I was right in the call :-).

    I see publishing unaccepted reports and comments as a positive for educational purposes if we could get around some of these other issues. A few years ago we did a workshop on documenting rare birds. We redacted anything that would identify the observers and had people tell us what the bird was based on the description. Some were very well written and others left people puzzled about even what family we had. The phrase “we can only evaluate what we have” began to make some sense to people.

    I guess I’m just not sure of the purpose of letting every Tom, Dick, and Harry second-guess every decision. To me that makes things even more divisive and puts the argument back to right or wrong on individual decisions rather than looking at a bigger picture. Data is one thing; dependable data is something else again.

  • The problem here is that I used the second person format which always sounds more accusatory whether the author intends it that way or not. I know better and should have waited until I could properly compose a more neutral sounding response.

    The records committees with which I am familiar (Oregon and Washington) have an on-line presence. All records are there, yeas and nays. I believe, at least for Oregon, everything has been digitized and is available to researchers upon request. Researcher routinely make requests.

    It has been my experience that the folks who complain the loudest about the disposition of a record are folks who believe that a records committee has taken something away from them and the majority of folks who bring up Demoiselle Cranes would seem to fall into that category. I have never met a member of a records committee who saw himself a “list policeman” (though I have no doubt they exist). I have met many who say “just because we did not accept it doesn’t mean you can’t count it.” I have two species on my Oregon list that were not accepted by the records committee, one my virtue of insufficient documentation and one by virtue of dubious origin. I have also lobbied the Oregon Records Committee to not accept species for which I wrote details that were being circulated in the committee, but I felt were insufficiently documented (see: http://www.oregonbirds.org/notacceptedthroughapril2012.pdf records 139.1-06-02 and 280-07-02).

    One way or another records that go into the commons are going to be (and I think need to be) evaluated whether it is my some faceless ebird guardian, the CBC regional editor or a state records committee. And one way or another there are going to be folks who ask the question “who elected them god?”

    If you’re asking, “should records committees serve at the pleasure of folks who see them as listing referees?” No, I think listing is way too personal a thing and most folks looking for a referee want the referee to police everyone, but “me”.

    If you’re asking, “is there value in setting up a mechanism for evaluating the relative merit of claims of occurrence for rare and extra-limital species using the expertise of local talent (especially if they’re willing to do it for free)?” Yes.

    If you’re asking, “is it science?” No, it’s data processing.

    If you’re asking, “does figuring out the provenance of a stray Demoiselle Crane have the same kind of value as monitoring the ecological dynamics of Red Crossbill flocks?” No, one Demoiselle Crane is a data point not a thesis, but Cattle Egrets, Red-shouldered Hawks, Barred Owls over time…

    And if you’re asking, “could records committees do a better job of coordinating and communicating with those folks who could turn data processing into something more closely resembling “real” science?” Well, duh.

    For me, the question isn’t what master should the record committee serve? but rather how can we help make the data collected and vetted by a records committee more available and relevant to researchers and agencies and maybe even listers.

  • Just to clarify one thing, we the eBird reviewers would defer to the IBRC if they ultimately came to a different conclusion.

  • Invalidated records are also findable in eBird by reviewers using the review tool but I get the point. (But where would you want to show invalidated records in eBird?) With regard to individual eBird reviewers having the ultimate power, in Idaho we often communicate among ourselves on difficult records. Whether folks like it or not this probably is the way things are moving. eBird has asked reviewers to defer to BRC’s where possible but also not to hold records in an endless limbo waiting for BRC’s to act. I do agree (& perhaps this is part of the point being made) that eBird is not a good repository for these types of records in its present form.

  • Anon

    Enjoying the discussion –

    A couple thoughts [as an e-bird reviewer & member of a BRC]:

    E-bird is all about reviewing and accepting or rejecting records in a much more opaque way than most BRCs — aren’t most records in e-bird that trigger flags being reviewed by a single person who can on his/her own make a decision about either accepting or rejecting? And that one decision will affect whether or not the sighting is available for anyone else to see? Whether accepted or rejected, the reasoning of the reviewer is not publicly revealed.

    Many [most?all?] BRCs actually do make at least some information about the rejected/not-accepted records visible to the public. And I know for certain that when researchers have asked our committee about records for a certain species they’ve received info on both accepted and rejected submissions– it is incorrect to talk about these records disappearing or being dropped. This claim is even less accurate when it comes to species ‘rejected’ because of origin issues — I’ve heard multiple conversations among BRC members across states talking about the importance of preserving and reporting these records specifically because they may represent a new vagrancy pattern of a species.

    Why accept or reject records at all, Ted asks?
    I don’t have any sense that the BRC approach is necessarily the best approach, but it is far superior to anything else I’ve seen proposed . As another commenter mentioned, the average birder doesn’t have the time to go in and learn the details necessary to make an informed judgement call on any particular claimed observation of a species. Why not ‘farm out’ that decision-making in 99% of the cases to a group you trust to be relatively rigorous, and then reserve the right to look in to the details on the 1% that you might be particularly interested in?

    In a perfect world, sure, all the records from every BRC would be publicly available for scrutiny whenever one is struck by a whim — but implementing something like California’s site [or Arizonas or others] requires a lot of time & commitment — it seems that when lightning strikes and the right committee member joins a committee with the time , skill set and drive then these amazing web-based resources can be built. For many of the committees, though, it is hard just to keep up with the collection of the materials and publicizing of the basic info in non-web-savvy forms. Note that all of that time commitment comes before and after the relatively short time needed to actually review species and act as alleged list police.

    There are only so many hours in a day, and all the ebird reviewers, NAm Field Note writers and BRC members are playing a limited role in one small corner of the birding/ornithology world. I say it makes more sense accept their contributions as one bit of a larger world of learning — accept most , question any, reject some elements of what they do. But the birding world would be a whole lot less meaningful to many of us if we took Ted’s advice and opted for bare-naked acceptance of everything.

  • Perhaps there’s something to be said for inbreeding in the short term, but I don’t think the end result is desirable.

  • This was something I inquired about earlier this year on the Illinois Birders’ Forum: I don’t see why eBird can’t publicly show unaccepted sightings. It shouldn’t be too much work to include them, maybe with an asterisk to denote a record that hasn’t gone into the scientific database.

    What’s the worst that can happen?

  • Hi Ted,

    Iconoclastic as ever, and I like it. But while I normally agree with much of what you put out there, I’m not with you on this one. You say that your hypothetical BRC of the Future, reduced to the task of merely archiving data, will “update summary accounts of all species reported to have occurred with the state or province”. But on what will they base these updates? A simple summary of all birds that have been reported?

    Sounds great. I’d like you to know I saw a Zone-tailed Hawk in my backyard here in Pittsburgh, PA earlier this afternoon. There, now it’s been reported. The next annual report of the Pennsylvania Ornithological Records Committee should include Zone-tailed Hawk as a bird reported in Pennsylvania, right?

    Wrong. As should be rote for all birders, if I want to claim a zone-tail in Pennsylvania, I have to offer some evidence. OK, fine, I do that. Except the “evidence” I offer is utter garbage. It’s a blurry, pixelated, underexposed photo that might actually be a picture of a frying pan. But now it’s been reported AND backed up with physical evidence that can be uploaded to the interwebs. The BRC of the Future, for their part, does not pass judgment on records anymore. They don’t “vote”, concerned instead with their image in the eyes of birders. They defer to the consensus of the Online Mind to do the actual thinking, so they just upload it, and later in some species status summary they write, “Zone-tailed Hawk, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 22 Aug 2012. Photo.”

    This is where it falls apart for me. Is there really no utility in having the BRC of the Future throw this ridiculous record out of the data set entirely? Or to at least mark it with some stern language like “the documentation does not sufficiently eliminate a frying pan”? I’d say there is. The record is worse than worthless. And if they do (correctly) throw it out, are they not “voting” on the record, even if not by formal up-or-down balloting? In fact, this is what archivists of all stripes (not just the bird brains) do. They do not merely store and catalogue all artifacts and make them available for public review. They also vet their collection of artifacts, and they rely on their expertise as they throw out or otherwise flag the fakes, the mistakes, and the totally irrelevant.

    You also argue that in addition to being hopelessly behind the times procedurally, the current work of BRCs isn’t even relevant anymore. You seem to suggest that vagrancy is basically solved, like the value of g. I disagree with this completely — vagrancy is not the ornithological equivalent of g = 9.8 m/sec^2. Describing vagrancy may not be as thrilling as it used to be, but that doesn’t mean it’s now pointless to continue to describe it. Anyway, more important than vagrants, you say, is describing the status of the local breeding species in my area. (This I do agree with, even as I disagree that describing vagrancy is unimportant.)

    So forget about my Zone-tailed Hawk. Did I mention that I also have a family of Cerulean Warblers coming to my bird feeder too? The babies are really cute. Unfortunately for the Online Mind, Cerulean Warbler is not a review species, nor does it even trigger the filters when I enter it into eBird where I live. But it’s a threatened species that policymakers might care about someday. How does the Online Mind evaluate these Ceruleans of mine? For my part, since it’s not a review species, I do not bother to upload a photo to flickr or send one to the BRC of the Future. I merely inform my regional bird compiler (for a state journal, or NAB, or whatever) about the baby Ceruleans enjoying my birdbath, or maybe I enter them into eBird.

    Of course, that compiler/reviewer gently asks whether I’m sure my Ceruleans aren’t actually bluebirds, and whether my Zone-tail isn’t actually a Cooper’s Hawk. And when I reply, “I’m sure damnit, don’t tell me what I saw!!” the compiler quickly backs off, but quietly excludes my Ceruleans from her report. She also goes out of her way to mark them as invalid in eBird, even though they didn’t trigger the filter. Heyyyyyy… wait a minute. It sounds like she just “voted” on my record, doesn’t it? And she happened to get it exactly right, thereby doing the policymakers and the rest of the Online Mind a service.

    The point is, records still need to be vetted, by regional compilers, by eBird reviewers, by the editors of NAB, by the authors of books, whoever. They all do their own tiny little part. Why single out BRCs among all of those opinion-makers as the lumbering dinosaurs? They ALL provide valuable services. They ALL “vote”. Most of them “vote” in considerably less rigorous ways than BRCs. I guess it simply comes down to this: I still see the utility of a dedicated group of experts in bird identification offering their opinion on questionable or extraordinary bird records — even vagrants — and in having that opinion reflected in the “official record”. Their expert opinion, derived from a focused and serious review of specific records, is at least as valuable as what might be described as the “consensus of everybody who happened to stumble onto this photo and bothered to comment” that one would find in your hypothetical BRC-less online birding community.

    BRCs can and will evolve just like everything else, or they’ll disappear. They’re all-volunteer efforts that struggle for resources and free time and thanks, and so they can perhaps be forgiven for not being completely up to speed with the bleeding edge of cloud computing and social networking. But I think they will evolve for the most part, and they will remain relevant. Perhaps someday something like the paradigm you’re suggesting will come to pass, and the hard Yes/No of the BRC could become merely one attribute of a record rather than the “final word”. But I think that Yes/No will continue to be an important attribute of the record even then, and one still worth documenting for the foreseeable future.

  • Tony Leukering

    Hear, hear, and excellently done!

  • [email protected]

    I have not read through all the discussion but I just want to thank Ted for putting this “out there” and strongly agree with almost everything a quick reading of the original post conveyed – except for the fact that Sanford & Son’s is still a gold-standard of cool as far as I am concerned!

  • Alan Wormington

    Ann,

    As the longest-serving member of the Ontario Bird Records Committee, I agree entirely with all of your comments! Well done.

  • Alan Wormington

    Finally a voice of reason!

    Hey Ted, didn’t someone once say “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?” Think about it.

  • Ann Johnson

    I was fumbling for my Facebook “Like” button on this one. Well done indeed.

    Last night I added a map of (nearly) all RBC reports since 2000, color coded by accepted and not accepted, to our website. It struck me that the data quality issue is probably working as well as we can expect it to work. There is one record of Swainson’s Thrush, not an uncommon migrant. Normally the seasonal editor would have vetted this early report on his own, but some nagging questions made him push it to a resource he had available – the RBC – for a more collective look at the photos. It was accepted and published in both the state journal and NAB as an early date. All the parts came together nicely, from the reporter vetting her own sighting and determining it should be reported to the editor to the RBC.

  • Ted Floyd

    Sounds good to me, Alan!

    If somebody has an extraordinary claim (a Zone-tailed Hawk perched in Geoff Malosh’s Ailanthus tree, baby Cerulean Warblers at Geoff’s birdbath), then that person can be expected to present extraordinary evidence in support of his or her claim.

    Great.

    Put it all out there. Put it all out there for us to see. In order to evaluate the extraordinary claim we need to be able to evaluate the evidence; and a simple “Accept/Reject” decision by a bird records committee is not sufficient evidence for us to render that evaluation.

  • Alan Wormington

    I have complete confidence in the Pennsylvania records committee. If they accept and publish a record of Zone-tailed Hawk, I do NOT need to see all the boring details of the actual observation.

    Besides, likely a photo would be published in North American Birds, so again why do I need to see more?

    And finally, it is my understanding that reports of ALL state and province committees are already available to any interested party, even if they are not online. Thus there are no secrets, as you are implying. In Ontario you or anyone can go to the Royal Ontario Museum today and view any report that interests you (which includes comments of voting members). Certainly having them all online would be CONVENIENT, but it certainly is not necessary. At least from the point of pretending that they are somehow secret.

  • Ted Floyd

    “I have complete confidence in the Pennsylvania records committee.”

    How do you interpret a 4-3 vote by that committee?

  • Ted Floyd

    Great comments from Geoff Malosh.

    First, and a bit off topic, I’d like to urge everybody to read Geoff’s book review in the current issue of Birding magazine: July 2012 issue, pp. 62-65. Geoff’s review is exemplary: he summarizes for us the contents of the two books he’s reviewing; he candidly discusses the books’ strengths and weaknesses; and he wraps up by putting the two books in their broader context for birders. Regarding that broader context, please, please, please: Check out Geoff’s mini-editorial (p. 65) that concludes the review. The point isn’t so much that I agree with Geoff; the point, rather, is that I’d love for all reviewers to give serious consideration to that sort of big-picture take on the book or books they’re reviewing.

    Now, back to our regularly scheduled program…

    I have three basic replies to Geoff. In the interest of readability, I’ll convey them by means of three separate comments.

    Stand by for reply #1…

  • Ted Floyd

    As promised…

    Reply #1 to Geoff Malosh:

    Zone-tailed Hawk. This one is easy, it seems to me. If the observer goes to the trouble to document the record according to criteria set forth by the bird records committee, then, yes, it goes into the record. But note what I’m saying! Let’s take a look:

    A. According to criteria set forth by the bird records committee. At the very least, this suggests to me that the observer needs to go through the process of uploading to the bird record committee’s website a detailed written description. I, personally, am pretty hardline about this. No fields left blank. No garbage comments like, “all field marks seen well,” or “chip note heard clearly,” or “I’ve known this bird since I was a child.” My submissions to BRCs are typically thousands of words long–including the ones supported by arguably slam-dunk audio documentation. (I don’t do photography; sorry, Geoff.) There’s just no such thing–or there shouldn’t be–as an easy, straightforward submission.

    This is an area in which bird records committees should really crack the whip, if you ask me. I kinda wish there were a button at the end that asks: How long did it take you to prepare this report? I’m joking (typing speeds vary, for starters), but do you see my point? If you’re serious about getting your “data” (your “find”) into the technical literature, then get serious about documentation. Spend some time with your report.

    By the time our fryingpan-Zonetail guy has gotten to the “Plumage, Age, Sex” parts of the form, he’ll long ago have hit “cancel” or clicked on over to Bristol Palin’s blog. So his record will never make it into the database in the first place.

    But if he does go to the trouble of taking two hours to prepare his written report, then…

    B. …then, yes, it goes into the record. For all the world to see. Next up, users chime in with comments. Geoff Malosh comes along and enters a comment: “Gee, Ted, your Zone-tailed Hawk looks like a frying pan.” In due course, Tony Leukering enters a comment: “Ted Floyd’s misuse of appositional nonrestrictive elements causes me to doubt his ability to identify raptors.” Then Alan Wormington: “Observer neglected to note the 1976 Zone-tailed Hawk record for Nova Scotia, raising serious questions of credibility.” And Ann Johnson piles on: “Another crappy documentation from Floyd.”

    As a result of which, two things might happen:

    B1. The observer sees the light and withdraws the record; or

    B2. He sticks to his guns, by golly. In that event, yes, in the Pennsylvania Ornithological Records Committee’s groundbreaking forthcoming book on Pennsylvania’s birds, the record is briefly noted, along with the comment: “[T]he documentation does not sufficiently eliminate a frying pan.”

    Now let’s be realistic. How often would we ever, ever get to that point? Scenario A alone would probably be enough to prevent the record from getting into the database in the first place. And Scenario B1 would kick out a lot of bad records, too. And if we get all the way to Scenario B2, then, yes, I want the data. And I want the comments. Properly separated.

    Let’s move on now to Cerulean Warblers…

  • Ted Floyd

    Reply #2 to Geoff Malosh:

    Cerulean Warbler.

    This one’s a bit subtler.

    First a bit of perspective. I review records for eBird, and I frequently enough come across reports that elicit from me a dismissive “Yeah, right” response. Nevertheless, I follow up. I’ve never received this one: “I’m sure dammit, don’t tell me what I saw!” Once or twice (and only once or twice, I hasten to point out), I’ve received a gentler version of that–from a self-proclaimed expert with dozens of years of experience who doesn’t want to be questioned by an arrogant young whippersnapper like me.

    Now here comes the crazy thing. On numerous occasions, the proverbial Ceruleans Warblers at the birdbath have turned out to be exactly what the observer reported. Oh, I had to do a bit of prying: But, in the end run, the photos, the video, even the specimen have provided incontrovertible proof of occurrence. I won’t name names or state states, but, if you’re curious, check out the first two articles in North American Birds, vol. 60, no. 3. Alls I can say is, really weird stuff happens. And, in my experience, it often pays to get to the bottom of even the most implausible-seeming of reports.

    Thus, I generally oppose this course of conduct:

    “the compiler quickly backs off, but quietly excludes my Ceruleans from her report. She also goes out of her way to mark them as invalid in eBird, even though they didn’t trigger the filter. Heyyyyyy… wait a minute. It sounds like she just ‘voted’ on my record, doesn’t it? And she happened to get it exactly right, thereby doing the policymakers and the rest of the Online Mind a service.”

    The preceding rubs me the wrong way. It’s discourteous. (Geoff Malosh is a total gentleman, by the way.) It’s opaque. It’s sneaky.

    Mind you, I’m totally fine with the record being marked as “not accepted.” But what I strongly resist is the option to delete the record from the public database. (I’ve been through this already, in a response to Ned Brinkley.) Instead, leave it up there, but with an indication that an eBird reviewer has flagged the record as questionable.

    The following comment is a bit semantic, but bear with me. On the one hand, yes, in the scenario I prefer, the record has been “rejected”–or, more properly, “not accepted” or otherwise flagged or queried. And that’s fine with me. That’s because, on the other hand, the record has not been rejected in the sense of deletion from the public database. It’s still there–with a comment about its problematic nature.

    All that said, let’s go back to “I’m sure dammit.” I find that the conservation rarely ends there. Instead, it almost always goes in one of the following two directions:

    1. “Thanks for explaining to me what bluebirds look like. You’re right. I think it was probably a bluebird.”; or

    2. “Thanks for explaining to me what bluebirds look like. Given your concerns, I went back with video equipment and obtained three hours of footage [of slam-dunk Cerulean Warblers]. What do you think?”

    I almost never, ever, get a stick-to-my-guns, I-know-what-I-know sorta response.

    Which is a perfect segue to my third and final reply for Geoff.

    Stand by…

  • Alan Wormington

    It means someone submitted a crappy report that no one will ever be able to figure out with any confidence.

  • Ted Floyd

    Reply #3 to Geoff Malosh:

    “BRCs can and will evolve just like everything else, or they’ll disappear.”

    Maybe I should just stop there and say, “Amen, brother,” and leave it at that.

    But you know me…

    I continue to believe that bird records committees need to evolve with regard to public perception.

    Geoff caricatures a poor, benighted birder who defiantly proclaims, “I’m sure dammit, don’t tell me what I saw!” Speaking from my own experience, I just don’t encounter a lot of that from individual birders. Conversely, I sure do hear a lot of that sentiment attributed to bird records committees.

    There’s a tribute in the current issue (vol. 46, no. 43) of Colorado Birds to Colorado Bird Records Committee (CBRC) member (and former Winging It Editor) Bill Maynard, surely one of the nicest guys around. Here’s a snippet from that tribute: “Bill’s greatest wish is that at the conclusion of his second term on the CBRC he will have maintained at least one or two friendships with the birders whose records he scrutinized but did not always accept.”

    Another anecdote. A while ago, I witnessed a famous member of a famous bird records committee (no names, but its initials, like Colorado’s, are CBRC) attemping to persuade a great birder to serve on that famous bird records committee. To which the serving member received the following reponse: “No, thanks. I’d still like to have a few friends.”

    Everybody has stories like those.

    Folks, bird records committes are perceived to be in the business of policing birders’ lists. And it’s all because of those Accept/Reject decisions.

    Let’s be honest. State Fish & Game doesn’t pay attention to records committees. Neither does the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Neither does The Nature Conservancy. Remember all the hoohah about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker? Me too. I followed it pretty closely: on the radio, in newspapers, and in the scientific literature. At no point, ever, did I see mention of the Arkansas Bird Records Committee or the ABA Checklist Committee. Bird records committees simply did not factor into the broader scientific discussion of the reports of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.

    On the contrary, bird records committees are perceived to be arbiters in a game birders play.

    I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.

    But it’s not science. It doesn’t influence conservation policy. It doesn’t inform management decisions.

    To the extent that those are desirable things, bird records committees need to change. Bird records committees need to fish or cut bait. Science or listing? Both are great. (I’m repeating myself.) But they’re different. Science is about theory and hypotheses, p-values and power analysis, discourse and dialog; science is wrought up in an “essential tension” (which google); science progresses not with answers, but with questions. Listing, in contrast, demands answers–of the Accept/Reject sort.

    Great.

    And now to really repeat myself: Which course for records committees?

  • Alan Wormington

    This is 100% babble.

  • Ted Floyd

    I know of excellent reports, by some of the most famous field ornithologists of all time, that received split votes from committees.

    Are you, as a representative of a bird records committee, seriously stating, in public, that those persons submitted “crappy report[s]”?

    Remember the Blyth’s Reed Warbler from Gambell in September 2010? The verdict is split on that one. Would you therefore say that that bird’s occurrence is supported only by a “crappy report”?

    No wonder some committees have image problems… 🙂

  • Ted Floyd

    That’s a good point, Michael.

    Inbred F1s can be viable.

    Inbred F2s often start to show deleterious traits.

    By the time you’re at Fn, you’re typically extinct. At the very least, Fns are off in their own little enclave, doing the same old thing, generally avoided by the rest of society.

    Heterosis is a good thing, in genetics as well as in bird records committees.

  • Alan Wormington

    If all reports were easy and clear-cut, there would be no need for a records committee!

    Thus you would always have votes of either 7/0 or 0/7.

    But the problem reports are almost always those that provide very minimal information. Some members might be willing to vote “yes” to give the person the benefit of the doubt, while others will vote “no” since it really is difficult to know what the observer really saw.

    However, such split votes have nothing to do with the ability or experience of the committee members involved.

    So … your question to me as to my interpretation re a 4-3 vote by the PA committee. Above is my answer. Another answer could also be this: I don’t know and I don’t care.

  • Ted Floyd

    “But the problem reports are almost always those that provide very minimal information.”

    Interesting perspective.

    To me, the problem reports are often those that provide the most information!

    Like the Blyth’s Reed Warbler.

    Like the Demoiselle Crane.

    Lots of information on those birds, for sure, but difficult to say what the bird was (Blyth’s Reed Warbler) or where it came from (Demoiselle Crane).

    In Colorado, some of our “problem species” are Mexican and American Black ducks, Blue-headed Vireos, and Mute Swans. Typically, occurrences of such species are well documented. But the “brown ducks” (Mexican, American Black) present fiendish challenges regarding genetics (and philosophy!); with Blue-headed Vireo, the Cassin’s/Blue-headed divide is murky, even with excellent photographs; and with Mute Swan, the problem, of course, is one of provenance.

    Oh, and did I say Glaucous-winged Gull? And now that we know Black-chinned and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds hybridize frequently… And silent wood-pewees that sure look like Easterns… And, just for fun, Red-backed Hawk and Rufous-collared Sparrow…

    In all these cases, and many, many others like them, the reports are excellent. The problem, then, is with the bird itself, not with the report.

  • You’re lucky, Drew. My state’s RBC is stultified. I’ve been here almost 10 years now and there’s been one incidence of turnover. Even better, the chair stepped down recently. He was replaced by another long-time member, at which point the former chair took his place as a “regular” member of the RBC.

    I think someone will have to die to get some newish blood in there, and god forbid younger people.

  • Thanks, Matt!

    I was wondering when someone was going to pick up on that completely off-target Sanford and Son dis. As Fred Sanford himself would no doubt have said, “Ted! You big dummy!”

    Ted is one of the genuinely nicest, most thoughtful, and most intelligent people I’ve ever met. As a coworker and a collaborator, he’s invaluable and pushes everyone on the team to do better.

    He is an unbelievably vast storehouse of knowledge about birds or birding. Anything he says there you should take very seriously and probably accept.

    When he goes into sports, he’s very good. He might well have had a family of Toronto Blue Jays at his backyard feeder.

    But when it comes to popular culture, he can’t tell a Zone-tailed Hawk from a frying pan.

    All reasons that we love him so.

    Thanks, Ted, for another thought-provoking polemic. I actually have a thought or two to add on the subject of records committees and list police, but that will have to wait. For now, way to keep the conversation going!

  • I think pretty much everyone agrees that records committees should make public the records they have reviewed, both the Accepted and the Not Accepted. (I also think that just about every BRC already does this, just not necessarily online, yet. See above regarding resources, time, talent, and energy.)

    Very few will argue with your lead idea in point B, either, that no matter how ridiculous the claim, if the observer actually goes through all the motions in submitting a frying pan as a Zone-tailed Hawk, then the record should be recognized as submitted and made public.

    Where you lose me is when you start drawing the line for BRCs there, that they should make the record public, and that’s it. I do not understand the distinction you are drawing between the BRC’s Yes/No opinion of the Frying-Pan Hawk, and the consensus of people who bother to respond to the Frying-Pan Hawk post in an online forum. You appear to be saying that the online discussion between me, you, Tony, Alan, Ann, and whoever else wanders into the room is somehow inherently more valuable than an up-or-down vote of 7 experts who are specifically tasked with evaluating the Frying-Pan Hawk in the context of their own local expertise and a timely and reliable fashion. I just don’t agree.

    In the end, the “Worldwide BRC” is still people “voting”, offering subjective opinion, and not engaging in science (which see in my reply to your third reply). It’s fine to make the records public where people can discuss and decide for themselves, but what is gained by excluding from that discussion the opinions of 7 people who are known experts and are required to respond to the Frying-Pan Hawk?

  • Hey, Alan & everybody.

    It occurs to me that Geoff’s Zone-tailed Hawk is a bit of a straw man. Sure, there are such instances. But what about the comparatively much larger population of potentially credible borderline stuff?–the Blyth’s Reed Warbler and Demoiselle Crane, “brown ducks” and “solitary vireos” in Colorado, genetically problematic Glaucous-winged Gulls and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and on and on and on.

    Alan says he trusts the Penna. committee 100%. (“I have complete confidence in the Pennsylvania records committee.”) I assume he’d extend the same level of trust to the Colorado committee? Well, not me. As much as I admire that committee (and Pennsylvania’s, and California’s, and Ontario’s), I lack “complete confidence” in their ability to always be right about every Glaucous-winged Gull and Ruby-throated Hummingbird, every Mexican Duck and American Black Duck, every silent wood-pewee and ‘tweener “solitary vireo,” every Rufous-collared Sparrow and Red-backed Hawk. Your mileage may vary in Penna., Calif. and Ont., but you get the basic idea.

    Those are “hard” taxa, any way you slice it. Rather than deliver simple up-or-down votes on those records, why not just give us the data?

    I’ll wrap up with a personal note. I just checked the Colorado Bird Records Committee’s database, and I see that, over the years, five (5) of my reports have been rejected. They are:

    Glossy Ibis, Boulder County
    Vaux’s Swift, Boulder County
    Pacific Wren, Boulder County
    Mexican Duck, Saguache County
    Mexican Duck, Lincoln County

    Did I “really” see those birds? As I see it, that’s up for debate. Evidently, some folks on the committee were, at the very least, unsure. But I’m pretty sure Alan, if he could see the documentation, would not call it “crappy.” Instead, I submitted detailed reports of inarguably “hard” taxa. The ibis and Mexican Ducks could have been hybrids, according to some committee members; fine, and I agree with them that that’s possible. Vaux’s Swift is not on the state list, so the committee was especially cautious, and rejected the record; fine, and I understand the committee’s caution. The Pacific Wren, although seen well, was not heard, and the committee rejected it; fine, and I too am wary of seen-only Pacific Wrens.

    It’s hard to be the proverbial fly on the wall about one’s own records, but, were I, in some theoretically unbiased position, voting on those records, I bet I’d have joined the committee in raising doubts about some or all of them. Not a one of them is airtight. I get that. I applaud the Colorado committee for its work.

    But…(and you knew this was coming)…why not just put the data out there? Going back to that fly-on-the-wall scenario, what I’d really wanted to have done is this: Raise doubts. That’s all. Raise doubts, but not reject. Neither reject nor accept. Simply state the problems (it’s hard to prove pure ibises and brown ducks, seen-only stub-tailed wrens are tricky, single-observer sight record of a potential state record Vaux’s Swift should be treated with special care), put them out there, and be done with it.

    Y’know, I may well have been right about all five of my rejected records; or I may have been wrong; or maybe I got a few right and a few wrong. What’s the matter, then, with putting my reports out there, and letting the user decide. The user may have some insight that the committee members did not. And, more to the point, much more to the point, the user may simply have different needs. Perhaps the user is interested not in the occurrence of genetically “pure” Mexican Ducks, but, instead, in the very important question of introgression of Mexican Duck genes northward. Then, suddenly, my “rejected” reports become of great interest.

    Just put it all out there. Put the archives online, and the let the user do with the data as he or she pleases: test hypotheses, build theory, write books, teach classes, set policy, conserve habitat, and on and on and on. Oh, and one other possible use: play the listing game. I’m totally fine with that last use. As I said, I’ve been known to indulge. But let the listers make the rules (e.g., “Accept/Reject”) and leave the scientific and archival functions to the committees.

  • I, for one, disagree heartily. Ted, a couple of tidbits about your opinions that I think are important are scattered in your comments now. Let me pull them together:

    “Meanwhile, my broader concern is with perception. Folks perceive that bird records committees are “list police.” And that perception prevents bird records committees from being taken seriously in the scientific realm; that perception prevents bird records committees from influencing conservation policy and management actions.”

    “But it is nevertheless my suspicion that a great many of us would rather have our field notes, sketches, photos, etc. out there for our birding peers to evaluate–rather than a perfunctory “Reject” by the committee.”

    “Put it all out there. Put it all out there for us to see. In order to evaluate the extraordinary claim we need to be able to evaluate the evidence; and a simple “Accept/Reject” decision by a bird records committee is not sufficient evidence for us to render that evaluation.”

    “But it’s not science. It doesn’t influence conservation policy. It doesn’t inform management decisions.”

    First off, I don’t think you do a good job of making the case the BRCs actually do science, or could do science if they were to do things differently. How did the BRCs figure out where and when to find Kentucky Warblers? How could that have been due to vagrancy rulings and not due to birders birding? I feel like you’re expecting more out of BRCs than they were ever designed to provide. I’ve never felt that the MN BRC or WI BRC (not the MOU or the WSO, mind you) were doing much science beyond maintaining a list. From a scientific perspective, the number of birds on any one state’s list is pretty uninteresting. Whether it varies by one or two, no matter, especially when the variance is caused by vagrants that have little ecological relevance. BRCs will never influence management and conservation. They don’t and won’t ever provide such data directly. Their umbrella organizations do these things, as they should. The patterns that BRCs detect happen with or without rulings on the status of each individual sighting. (See a relatively recent review in The Loon of Summer Tanager irruptions into MN, that used unaccepted records, and even unsubmitted reports (mine among them, embarassingly).) Dare I say that perhaps you want BRCs to perform the function of eBird? This would be a pretty expensive redundancy. (I also agree that it could be useful to provide rejected records in eBird, but I suspect that you underestimate the number of them that would show up.)

    I suppose this means I agree with you that ideally records (accepted or not) would be accessible to all. But that is often the case already. (Minnesota: http://moumn.org/cgi-bin/rqd.pl?op=all) And regardless, this is not a good argument for demolishing BRCs. That is, BRCs do not in and of themselves mean the records are or not accessible to all.

    David Sibley has an apparently overlooked comment above that I agree with. BRCs really are, in some sense, the list police. But they’re not the list police that you’re claiming. They neither care about everyone’s personal list (usually… I supposed politics can creep in). They care about keeping an ornithological record of all the species of birds seen in that state, as given by some set of criteria. Not your list or my list, just the state list. But, as Sibley points out, that allows us to set a standard for all lists within that state if we want to compare them. And certainly, not all of us do. You seem to be worrying about the criteria (Meximottled Blallards, etc), but I don’t think changing the criteria will help management or conservation.

    I for one would rather have my submissions evaluated by a committee of 7 knowledgeable birders than be tried by a mob of hundreds (I’m imagining a social networking chaos as uninformed birders give commentary on species they’ve never seen before [see flickr], and cabals form to talk down rivals records…). And I’d rather trust a short list of those birders to assess what I didn’t see. Imagine finding 43 records of Red-backed Robin the CA database, and then having to pick through all of them to decide just how many YOU think are actually valid? Who wants to do that? That’s why we have committees! If you’re a Turdus researcher using the submitted records for data, you’re going to grind through them all anyway, regardless of the committee’s decisions. If you’re Joan Birder wondering if you’ve found the 7th record or the 44th, you do better by trusting the committee.

  • I’ll admit that perhaps I didn’t get this point across well enough. I did call up the example of the belligerent birder who doesn’t want to hear from anyone as to what they saw. You are certainly correct, in that this sort of “I know what I saw!!” response is rare. You’re also right that my hypothetical compiler is a little too hasty. And of course we all know stories in which the poor feeder watcher sees something absolutely amazing but has to swim against the current for weeks or months before anyone takes him seriously. But do not dwell too long on these examples, and let me try to put it more general terms.

    My point is that there is considerable noise in these data we all care about. (The guy screaming about what he knows he saw in his birdbath is one small example of noise in the data.) This is true in any endeavor of this magnitude. Physicists who run experiments smashing hadrons together must devise ways to find the signal in the output, and filter out the noise. They vet their data and their results. Then they analyze. And then they publish their conclusions and their data for review. What they do not do is pump 100 terabytes of raw data onto a web server and tell the public, “Well, have at it folks. Post your comments regarding the existence of the Higgs boson on our blog and make sure you like us on Facebook!”

    In the vast sweeping endeavor of studying bird distribution, the “noise” comes in the form of observers who don’t know what they’re doing, or who don’t care what they’re doing, or who are sloppy, or who don’t know how to post-process a digital image, or from egomaniacs “who know what they saw!!”, or even (perhaps rarely) from folks who actively sabotage the integrity of the data. The filter on all of this noise — the device that reveals the true signal in the data set — is the reviewers, the archivists. It’s the eBird reviewers, the regional compilers, the book authors, and yes, the BRCs, none of whom are perfect, but all of whom do more than merely pass data along to the public. You said in your reply that you’re OK with the Cerulean Warblers in the birdbath getting marked as invalid in eBird, as long as you can still see it if you want. I just don’t understand, though, why you are simultaneously not OK with a 7-man BRC marking the Frying-Pan Hawk as invalid with an up-or-down vote. What’s the difference? If the only difference is PR, see my reply to your third reply.

    Again if all you are arguing is that “rejected” data have the same availability as the “accepted” data, that’s fine. Again, 99% of us out here probably agree with you, including me. However in your original post you are arguing for much more than just this. For me, I still want the people who are doing the validating and invalidating to keep at it, and this includes the BRCs. I personally don’t have time to vet every single record I am interested in researching. I want and need to rely on the considerable expertise of others, and in the case of BRCs, I like knowing that someone is required to look into records like the Frying-Pan Hawk and give those records serious and consistent consideration, which is no guarantee if the review left to the Worldwide BRC.

  • Ann Johnson

    Ted,
    Some of this sounds incredibly like urban myth and I’m thinking you are ascribing more importance to RBCs than is warranted. First of all, is gallows humor truly evidence of reality? If Bill has really lost friends over BRC decisions, that speaks more to the so-called friends than anything else. We’ve all made those jokes, primarily to portray “don’t take all this so seriously” but I don’t think I’ve lost any friends over it.

    Second, who is making a BRC out to be some scientific entity? To me it is half science and half legal in evaluating evidence on one data point in the entire scheme of data to be used in science. You’re right; no state conservation organization or any policy makers give a hoot about any particular data item that is voted up or down nor should they. On the other hand, a bird that starts out as a first state record and over time becomes documented enough times to become regular should tell us something. Global warming anyone? But, those data points are merely points in a bigger picture. Why elevate them to some higher status?

    I’m a little confused here. Would you propose that everyone just post their photos to something like the Facebook ID group and go with the majority there to create a data point? The last guy who makes a compelling argument usually wins. I guess that’s one way.

  • Hi, Jesse.

    Two things:

    1. “And regardless, this is not a good argument for demolishing BRCs.”

    Just to be clear, *I* am not advocating for the demolition of bird records committees. Quite the contrary! I’m advocating for an expanded role and greater importance for bird records committees.

    2. “Imagine finding 43 records of Red-backed Robin the CA database, and then having to pick through all of them to decide just how many YOU think are actually valid? Who wants to do that?”

    Well, me, for starters… 🙂

    That’s right–if I’m really keen on Rufous-backed Robins, I’ll want to see the evidence myself. I’ll want to examine the museum specimens, one by one; I’ll want to see live birds in the field; I’ll want to read the literature; and, yes, I’ll want to evaluate the occurrence record as archived by bird records committees.

    2, cont’d. “If you’re a Turdus researcher using the submitted records for data, you’re going to grind through them all anyway, regardless of the committee’s decisions. If you’re Joan Birder wondering if you’ve found the 7th record or the 44th, you do better by trusting the committee.”

    As Charlie Brown said, “THAT’S IT!”

    Jesse, you’ve summed it all up for me. You’ve powerfully made the case that bird records committees serve Joan Birder, but not researchers–who need to grind through all the data, and who render judgments regardless of the committee’s decisions.

  • “Global warming anyone?”

    A climate-change researcher has told me how he wishes bird records committees (BRCs) would lower “critical-beta” (i.e., be less conservative). This person, who (like me!) sees great potential in BRC-generated databases, worries that we’re missing good data because of “false negatives,” i.e., records that shouldn’t have been rejected; and those alleged mistakes (“Type 2” errors) compromise his ability to apply BRC data to his climate-change research.

  • “But when it comes to popular culture, he can’t tell a Zone-tailed Hawk from a frying pan.”

    Once, Ted Floyd watched Dukes of Hazzard reruns with Larry Neel. In the Boomtown Hotel & Casino Reno, no less.

    Does that qualify as an encounter with popular culture?

  • Good questions, Geoff.

    In a nutshell, the problem, as I see it (and, evidently, as others see it), is that BRCs are viewed as “list police.” For various reasons, ebird is not perceived to fulfill that function. Neither are you and I and Alan and Tony and Ann and others in the online agora. But BRCs are–or, again, they are perceived to.

    BRCs are peculiarly cursed!

    And getting out of the Accept/Reject business would “reverse the curse.”

    (Jeff Gordon: professional sports allusion.)

  • Geoff, man, I haveta hand it to you. You elicited from me a full-on belly laugh with this one:

    “…pump 100 terabytes of raw data onto a web server and tell the public, ‘Well, have at it folks. Post your comments regarding the existence of the Higgs boson on our blog and make sure you like us on Facebook!'”

    Not to go all Kum Ba Yah on y’all, but ain’t The ABA Blog grand? I mean, in a single post from Geoff, we hear about hadrons, signal processing, and Frying-pan Hawks. Love it!

  • Several different points to make here.

    Fish and Wildlife, and the Game Commission, and the EPA, and the US Senate… yeah, none of them give a rat’s you-know-what about records committees. So? Does that invalidate or make irrelevant the work the BRC does to validate bird distribution data? I don’t think so. Those same agencies also don’t give a flip about a blog post in which bird distribution heavyweights like Ted Floyd, Tony Leukering, Alan Wormington, Ann Johnson, and some weird dude from Pittsburgh argue about Cerulean Warblers in a birdbath, or some bedraggled gull sitting on a dumpster in Nashville. By converting the traditional BRC to your proposed Worldwide BRC, do we improve this situation?

    You also are now openly demanding that BRCs choose between science and listing. What BRCs do with those ballots and those 70s-era ideas of theirs is not science, you say. Well, I agree. Why are you then not also demanding eBird reviewers get with the program and either fish or cut bait too? Is an eBird reviewer, when confronted with an unknown observer who insists that Cerulean Warblers used his birdbath every day last week but can offer no hard evidence of that fact, engaging in science when she clicks “invalid”? Or is she doing exactly the same thing the BRC does — making an informed guess and “voting”?

    I suppose if we’re going to go there, I might have to raise the pot and say that that all birding in general, and bird record keeping in particular, in all its old-fashioned and new-fashioned forms, is not science. The result of “birding” is observational data that are entirely tainted by opinion and conjecture, and the experiment is being conducted by a population of hobbyists that in the majority is utterly lacking any formal training in hard sciences. Therefore, the analysis of birding data is necessarily subjective, i.e., unscientific. In short, I do not think it is fair to hold the BRCs to account simply because they’re not practicing true science. You’re right, they’re not, and can’t ever be. BRC, eBird, compilers… they’re all record keepers, cataloguing “data” that in the vast majority of cases is nothing more than the claims and opinions of people they’ve never met, who can offer nothing more than their word. Yeah, not science.

    But I’ll say it one more time, and then I will stop. None of this invalidates the work of the record keepers. Our data sets are not exact, but they are very good approximations of reality, and thus are worthy of our continued attention. We must however be diligent about keeping the noise to a minimum. BRCs are one small part of this effort, but in the end are like everyone else: passing necessarily subjective judgments in good faith, in an effort to improving the overall understanding of bird distribution. Just like eBird reviewers. Just like the authors of books like The Birds of Pennsylvania. There is no need to single out the BRCs in this crowd as somehow lacking, or worse, archaic. No, none of this is pure science, but it’s some pretty good and valuable stuff anyway, which has importance and application far beyond the life lists of a group of hobbyists.

    One last point on the idea that BRCs need to improve their PR. I cannot help but to note that you suggest they can only accomplish this by abandoning the very thing that makes them a BRC. No more voting. No more focused, expert, and consistently timely opinions on bird records. Much better, you say, for BRCs is to revert to acting as mere messengers, and to leave the actual work of evaluating the status of, say, White Ibis in Pennsylvania to a guy in Utah, another in Baja, and some guy from Maine who chimes in online with the instructive comment, “cool photos, thanks for sharing!”

    If a BRC must be so concerned with its public image that it ceases to be a BRC, then the endeavor of vetting records of vagrant birds truly is pointless. Maybe that’s been your point all along. I disagree. But if you are like me and you believe that vetting all bird records and keeping track of them is still a valuable endeavor, even as it fals short of pure science… well, it may be a dirty job, but someone has to do it. If BRCs get called names like “list police” along the way, so be it, I suppose. It’s OK, they can take it. They’ve heard worse.

  • Ottavio Janni

    I’ve just read through the entire comments to this post and find the discussion fascinating, but I think Ted and Jesse’s last posts bring up an argument that hasn’t yet been addressed.

    One of the reasons why I think an “accept/reject” approach (or at least some kind of mechanism to let potential users know what a subset of experienced reviewers think about a particular record) is still necessary is that the final user of the data may or may not be qualified to render judgements of its accuracy.

    I get the impression from Ted’s last post that he’s assuming that the researchers who would use rare bird data are able grind through it themselves without guidance from a records committee (or eBird reviewers). In the case of the Turdus researcher looking at Rufuous-backed Robin records, that’s probably a correct assumption. But what if a climate researcher with a limited understanding of bird identification is interested in records of southern birds well north of their range? Would he or she be able to assess the PA record of Zone-tailed Hawk (let’s assume the photo does not show a frying pan, but a Turkey Vulture)? Any reasonably competent birder might be able to dismiss the record immediately, but a non-birding researcher might not. This I think is where some kind of opinion from an expert committee is vital. It doesn’t necessarily have to be “accept/reject”, it could be “documentation conclusive/documentation inconclusive/documentation suppports a different ID”.

    Also – and I’m surprised no one has picked up on this from Ted’s original post – I think we’re far from having figured out vagrancy patterns/mecchanisms, and they’re constantly changing anyway, so I think that aspect of BRCs’ work is still very current.

  • Well, good. But that’s as it should be. That’s MY point! BRCs do serve birders. I don’t have a problem with this, because I have never gotten the sense that a BRC’s function was to do some kind of abstract “science”, but to vet bird sightings, in order to maintain a standard list for the state and for the state’s bird group. They’re there to prevent people from letting canaries go and saying that canaries are now “official”. They’re there to prevent Josh New McExitabirder from “finding” Le Conte’s Sparrows in every county of Washington in his first year birding. Having such a bar makes people much better birders, and that’s what the ABA and, in part, the local bird groups, should be promoting.

    Did you see my link to the MOU records page? Is it possible you want something that already exists or that most records committees want already? If all you are advocating for is the ability to assess records on their merits on your own, that’s a lot different than asking a BRC to change its entire function. That’s just asking them to store data better. And it should be noted, if you’re a doctoral student, it doesn’t matter what the committee has done, even if their function changes. You would go through all the records.

    Seriously, the MOU (Minnesota Ornithologists Union) has all(?) of the records on line since 2005 (http://moumn.org/cgi-bin/rqd.pl?op=all). They also have a “query database” function, which looks so good it’s intimidating. Maybe you already have what you want, you just don’t know it? The point is, of course records committees need to move into the internet age, and of course, they are trying, and having varying levels of success.

    PS – I understand you don’t want to get rid of BRCs, but you do want to “demolish” them as they currently exist, and basically rebuild them. You want secretaries (please, administrative assitants) for the job, not necessarily birders.

  • Just want to say I highly agree here, and with Anne above, that BRCs are record-keepers, and not “doing science”. And that’s okay. What they do is valuable anyway.

  • Ann Johnson

    “wishes bird records committees (BRCs) would lower “critical-beta” (i.e., be less conservative}”
    OK, but who is testing this hypothesis that BRC data has more false negatives than false positives? I don’t for a minute think that perhaps some questionable records have made it through the process and this probably varies as the characteristics of the committee ebb and flow. Furthermore, how do you test it? It’s still humans evaluating data generated by other humans.

    I’m actually fascinated by the steady march northward of Neotropic Cormorant in the past several years. The first state record was in 1996. It took a full eight years to get the second. In the next eight it has become a bird to be expected a few times each year and in 2012 we have our first confirmed nesting. That, to me, is the story and not whether Ted Floyd’s one individual report of Neotropic Cormorant met some nebulous standard of evidence.

    Again, BRC data is only a small subset of a bigger picture and in many cases may be the same data as reported in other source; i.e., NAB and eBird.

  • Anonymous

    Here’s a ‘modest’ proposal… Can we make the ABA Blog more egalitarian? In a vein similar to Ted’s ‘modest’ BRC proposal, its prominent bloggers form a committee of sorts, with the ABA stamp behind their name.

    Let me elaborate. The “American Birding Association” is a powerful moniker, and an institution that should represent all birders and nature lovers. The group of designated ABA bloggers effectively constitutes an “ABA team”, and has become an important mouthpiece of the ABA. And as a team they are generally suppportive of one another as teams are, which is good, but that can come across to those outside the team as “teaming up” or “us against them” when tough issues are discussed.

    I’m not accusing the ABA team of cronyism, but I think its less inviting to the birding community at large for the ABA to even have an “exclusive team of bloggers”. For example, Ted Floyd and Rick Wright consistently laud and quote each other on every topic, and go out of their way to publicly extol and support one another at every opportunity. Ok, that’s great, and I’m sure they’re both really nice guys, but such support could be made as independent parties apart from the ABA, and not under the banner of the ABA team. Having an exclusive team makes things political. Members of a team don’t generally like to criticize or disagree with someone on the same team. So the blog risks becoming a soapbox for the exclusive team of designated bloggers. I think this has already happened to some extent.

    I’d like to see more open mic, and more diverse input from birders and biologists on the ABA blog, and there’s no reason for them to be denoted as “guests” as done with the open mic. Why can’t all postings be open mic? Why should some be from the ABA team and others be from “guests”. There are lots of birders and biologists that would have interesting articles to post, so I see no reason why a select set of prominent bloggers should monopolize the ABA blog.

    I’d also like to see more conservation oriented postings on the blog rather than the same relentless agendas regarding record acceptance. I agree with Ted on a lot of issues (and I agree with him that a record should be open to all if the submitter wants it to be open to all), but I feel that certain repeated agendas distract us from real conservation efforts.

    Here’s an example of what I mean. Recently Ted was trying to debunk the species concept, a cornerstone of biology, and citing Darwin and Sibley and Schoenberg to do so. Sibley jumped in to correct him, and Darwin would have done the same if he were alive. Yes, its cool to be an iconoclast (I like them and I like Ted), and it gets a conversation going, but I saw it as detrimental to conservation efforts. Another example, I feel that Ted’s set of articles that discuss the artificiality of native vs. non-native confused the topic of recordability with the topic of ‘worthiness’ and whether a species is a worthy part of an ecosystem. Just because some introduced species is worthy of being recorded doesn’t mean the species is a natural or worthy part for the ecosystem. I see these kinds of obsessions with listing to be detrimental to a conservation movement that is attempting to protect endemic species, and to control or limit the impacts of invasive species.

    In summary, I propose that all postings to the ABA blog be “open mic”, and that more is done to elicit postings from the ABA community at large.

  • Are BRCs doing science or could they? I agree with Mike Patterson and Jesse Ellis here. I’ve been a member of the Oregon BRC for a number of years and at no point have I thought of what we do as science. Science requires some degree of protocol, consistent methodology, and standardization in the way the data points are collected. Rare bird records filter down/up to BRCs in an utterly random fashion (many records of Review List birds never reach the committee) and mostly come from folks who have no formal, or even informal, training when it comes to making and recording their observations. There could not be less consistency in the quality and detail that is supplied to us by submitting observers. Some have good photos or audio recordings that are perfectly identifiable, but in most cases there is nothing about those pieces of evidence that guarantees that they were obtained in Oregon. Written descriptions of birds and the conditions that they were seen under are all over the map.

    I agree with David Sibley’s “someone HAS to do that” sentiments, with one caveat. Once a species has been added to the official state list for a certain state/province/country etc., is there a good reason to keep reviewing records as though that somehow better establishes distributional patterns? Further, once a ‘pattern of vagrancy’ is recognized what purpose is served by continuing to review records or worse yet, using “does it fit the pattern?” as a criteria in the review of future records? Many of you know Steve Mlodinow. His elder brother Leonard Mlodinow wrote a book entitled “The Drunkards Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives.” In a casual conversation with Steve about records committees, Len raised serious questions about these “patterns” we that think we recognize, as most are based on a far too limited number of samples.

    It seems that Ted’s notion of the BRC of the future does overlap significantly with the current functionality of eBird. If Ted’s vision comes to pass, my fellow members of the OBRC will be asking, “where did Dave go?” as I’m not interested in yet another assignment that involves collecting and archiving bird reports (I’m an North American Birds regional editor already). I’m not sure who in their right mind would sign on for such duty. As it is, those who use eBird are putting their own reports online and when those records include a rarity, they often attach a photo to support their claim.

    I would also like to point out the perhaps less than obvious. Ted is an employee of ABA and as such is charged with helping generate interest in ABA. I suspect that part of Ted’s motivation for offering up a sure to be controversial idea in this forum was to get you and me to visit the ABA website and engage his opinion. Guess what, it worked. This is a discussion that needs to happen and it definitely time for a paradigm shift when it comes to BRCs. Whether you agree or disagree with Ted’s stance, he should be commended for offering an opinion that has elicited the thoughtful responses of so many influential birders.

  • Hello, Anonymous. Please come out of the shadows and share your name! I can’t speak for the ABA, but I don’t think what you propose is practical. And while I think I understand your concern, I don’t perceive that the problem you speak of actually exists. Here are my opinions as to why. Most importantly, please don’t interpret this as the “ABA team” ganging up on you!

    The ABA Blog is effectively an extension of the ABA’s official publications, and the ABA therefore needs to be able to control what is featured on its blog, as well as to be able to control the timing of important messages (which necessitates the exclusion of other posts from time to time). If the blog were opened up so that anyone could post on it at any time, not only would the ABA’s messaging effectiveness decrease, but a (small) number of bloggers out there would undoubtedly be posting inflammatory and even offensive material that would have what appears to be the ABA’s tacit stamp of approval. That is unacceptable in my opinion. I believe the ABA needs a way to control this before it happens.

    I’m curious why you think the “open mic” function doesn’t adequately address the need you see. I sincerely doubt that many (if any) would-be contributors have been turned away. Nate Swick? Unless I’m wrong, your characterization of the “monopolization of the blog” seems unfounded. You want to see conservation addressed more? Great! Have you requested an “open mic” slot to discuss this topic? If not, I encourage you to do so.

    Maybe I misunderstood this part of your post, but your “teaming up” remark refers to discussions via the comments to posts, right? In which case anyone can contribute, in which case I don’t understand the criticism.

    And another reminder that my views are not necessarily those of the ABA. Best wishes!

  • Ann Johnson

    And getting out of the Accept/Reject business would “reverse the curse.”

    Great phrase but at what cost? Absolutely no vetting of records? We already have acceptance designations based on level of evidence; A-S, A-P, A-D, etc. We could play some semantic games and rather than just NA could have something like NA-insufficient evidence, NA-wrong ID, NA- not established, NA-not wild and I guess you could go on and on. But if Joe Blow sees the BRC as the list police with a simple NA, I don’t know that further delineation is going to change that. Besides, he already gets the more detailed comments. In fact, you or anyone can see those details by just asking. (I’ve already stated my reservations of just putting everything in the public domain.) But a free-for-all of data points? I’m not ready to go there yet.

    This has been a fun discussion but I have an IOU meeting to get to. And believe it or not, after all these years I still have a lot of friends there :-).

  • Anonymous

    Hello Michael,
    Until I retire, I prefer Anonymous in this public forum.

    Let me try to explain a little better. I’m not proposing a free-for-all blog. I’m proposing there should be more “open mics”, but not without quality control. I’m fine with having an ABA team that can act as quality control.

    Regarding what I mean about “teaming up”. I don’t see that as a big issue, teamsmanship is rather normal and healthy in most contexts, eg. sports. But I can clearly see that as debates unfold in the comments section of a blog post many instances where fellow ABA team members try to help “back each other up” during a debate. Like you would in a sports team. I also believe there are instances where fellow ABA team members don’t critique and don’t “jump in” because they don’t want to offend a fellow ABA teammate. I know there are plenty of exceptions to this, I’m just saying there are instances of it, and as an aside, that has not been the case with you Michael 😉 This is all just natural human behavior, but I think it can be ameliorated with a neutral playing field in which all are welcome, and there are no special team members of the debate. Especially if the special team members are the designated blog posters themselves.

    But lets put that issue aside. My primary concern is here is I’d like to see more diverse blog postings. The ABA has a broad membership, so I’m proposing that the blog isn’t monopolized by just a few vocal bloggers.

  • I strongly suspect that the paucity of “open mic” posts has little to do with people being turned away and much to do with very few people offering to contribute. If no one “off the team” wants to contribute to the blog, then there’s not much the ABA can do about it other than ask for “open mic” contributors from time to time. And that has been done, I believe. But maybe it could be done more often?

    I still don’t understand your “teaming up” issue. All people can contribute to threads, regardless of their status of employ with the ABA. Are you suggesting ABA-affiliated persons should refrain from comments on each other’s blog posts? That’s the only solution I see to your supposed problem.

    And again, if there are topics not being discussed that you want to see highlighted, I implore you to contact Nate Swick, our blog manager, and take the mic yourself. Unless you have done so already or been turned away, I don’t understand the criticism of the blog not featuring more of the topics you want to see. Media are only as good as their contributions (and contributors).

  • Specifically, what is the “neutral playing field” which you seek? What about the status quo works against it? What would fix it? I’m trying to understand your specific concern so that I can suggest a possible solution, but so far it’s eluding me.

  • Michael has it exactly right. We never turn away an Open Mic, it’s just that we don’t get those very often. True, we could probably do a better job promoting that, but I am always thankful for whatever any member or reader is willing to offer on whatever subject they feel compelled to write about.

    As for the “exclusive team of bloggers”, that’s the just the reality of the medium. In order to have regular content I need to have individuals willing to provide it, and as a reward for taking on that responsibility and that deadline I think it’s only right to be willing to feature them.

    As for willingness to disagree with each other, without going into details, I can say that there’s quite a bit of disagreement here. Take, for instance, Rick Wright’s review of fellow ABA blogger Lynn Barber’s recent book.

    You make a good point about diversity, though. One I’m well aware of. Could this group of contributors be more diverse? Of course, but so could birding. But, outside of ABA staff, I’m essentially working with a team of volunteers here. I take what I can get when I can get it.

    That said, you are more than welcome to submit something for an Open Mic. I’d be happy to accept it!

  • Ted Floyd

    And take, for instance, Ted Eubanks’ read on everything and everybody. (I intend a compliment, needless to say.)

    Whatever one thinks of Eubanks (one of our most prolific and provocative bloggers), nobody would ever, ever, accuse him of being a yes-man–not for the ABA, not for anybody.

    And then there’s Floyd vs. Retter on the correct position of periods relative to “punctuation.” And Floyd vs. Strycker on the proper orthography for numerals. And Floyd vs. Gordon on the legacy of Sanford and Son.

    For sure, we at the ABA frequently engage in titanic conflict about some of the most pressing issues for humanity in the 21st century and beyond.

  • About BRC as list police. As pointed out several times, the committee has no interest in anybody’s list. What has not been said is that it’s the other way around; it’s the listers who are interested in what the committee decides. Take that away (the committee doesn’t vote) and there is no easy solution for competitive listers to have a level playing field. If you keep a list just for your own purposes, that’s not a problem. But as soon as you compare your California list with others, it would be best if everybody agrees to count or not count that Demoiselle Crane.

    About putting it all out there. This is desirable and I think many committees are moving in that direction. There are time constraints and costs involved that are not trivial. In the meantime, there is nothing to prevent birders from putting their own documentation online. I’ve been doing this for years. All my committee submissions going back to 1997 are available online on my own website. This includes all six records not accepted. These are boldly flagged in red to indicate that they were not accepted. In most of these cases I agree with the committee decisions. In fact I’ve voted against several of may own records. In one case I think the committee made an error, but at least the documentation is there.

    http://fog.ccsf.edu/jmorlan/descriptions.htm

    At least two recent records that have not yet received a decision will likely be not accepted also.

    Yes, it would be good if this kind of information were available for all records, but in the meantime we can all help by putting our own documentation online and available to the public.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the follow up inquiries Michael & Nate.

    I see your point and understand that its hard to have more open mic posts if there aren’t people offering to contribute. I won’t belabor the point, but is it possible that more could be done to elicit postings from other birders, scientists, and the ABA community at large?

    I’m not bucking for an open mic on the ABA blog. I am only concerned about how the ABA operates because it could ultimately affect bird life.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love the Birding News Updates, Rare Bird Alerts, pointers to Winging It, etc.. Those sorts of news, status, and announcement topics definitely requires an ABA blogger, and the status quo is great! In fact, I enjoy most of the postings, and that includes following Lynn’s big year. I’m just concerned about the opinion articles because I’d like to see more diverse opinion in the postings.

    Thanks for listening.

  • Well, I’m always happy to hear how people interpret what we’re doing here. I appreciate your comments.

    My goal, above all, with the ABA Blog has always been to make the organization more personal and responsive to members, something that, as a long time member, always frustrated me about a group that should really be about building a community and then leveraging that community to do good things for birds and birders.

    But yeah, you’re right, we should really be more proactive about eliciting posts from the broad range of bird people. I do have some leads to that end, so stay tuned! We may have more of what you’re looking for relatively soon.

  • Terry Bronson

    I’d like to point out that the question of openness of records for a species is not set in stone for many species. I know of at least 2 states (NH and WV) where a species is removed from the Rare Birds Committee Review List from time to time due to increasing commonness of the species, increasing number of submitted records causing increased workload for the committee, recognition that the species is not so difficult to identify after all, meeting a threshold of records, or other reasons.

    IN NH, the committee can remove a species at any time by voting to do so. In WV, once there are 5 records, the species is automatically removed. I suspect many other states have similar policies.

    The net result of this is that many relatively and actually rare species are treated the same as Blue Jays, Mallards, and other common species by the RBC (or more accurately, are not considered at all), though the species may still be subject to review by eBird and other reviewers.

  • I’m glad to hear Joe say this:

    “In fact I’ve voted against several of my own records.”

    A few months ago, I was involved in a group discussion online in which it was stated, flat out, that there is no way anybody would ever vote against his or her own record.

    Yet Joe Morlan–certain one of the most respected figures in the annals of BRCdom–tells us he has done so.

    Me too.

    Ages ago, when I was a member of the Pennsylvania Ornithological Records Committee, I requested that the committee reevaluate a record of mine they’d previously accepted. (A “Western” Red-tailed Hawk.) Given that I had the mighty Ken Parkes on my side, the motion to reject sailed through.

    Procedurally, this was an odd one. Typically, 1 or 2 “reject” votes result in committee rejection. In the Pennsylvania case, though the submission was to reject a record as such-and-such a taxon, so somebody suggested that 1 or 2 “don’t reject” votes would result in committee non-rejection.

    Now there’s an interesting ploy for getting your stuff accepted! Instead of claiming that it’s such-and-such a species, claim that it’s not such-and-such a species. If only 1 or 2 committee members vote to accept, then the proposal to reject fails!

    I’m joking, I suppose, but, hey, why don’t you try it on your friendly neighborhood BRC, and see what happens.

  • Ted,

    I’m a bit surprised that your online discussion of a few months ago didn’t turn up more examples of BRC members voting “against” their own submissions. I wouldn’t guess it’s common, of course, but I remember Chuck Sexton and Greg Lasley (in Texas, naturally) regularly discussing the value of submitting records that they voted against, in that it was the best way to insure that documentation got archived for future review.

    Maybe the practice is rarer than I’d thought.

  • I have not been on a records committee. But I’m gobsmacked that “voting against one’s own record” could occur at all. I’m glad that happens, but should the opportunity ever even come up? Shouldn’t there be a recusal of some sort, due to the potential for bias? If there’s a tie, can’t a guest records member be solicited?

    I suppose this fits in with what goes on in Nate Swick’s state, with members simply playing musical chairs for twenty years.

    I don’t mean to be rude or personally judgemental and this is not targeted at anyone specifically who’s been on a committee, but I think this practice reflects poorly on BRCs.

  • Katrina

    I agree that records committees should move into the modern world. I don’t agree that doing so means they should throw out their old functions. I think passing judgment on records is an important part of what they do.

    I think any discussion about records committees needs to keep in mind that they don’t all act the same way. Also, in my experience the decisions can be more complicated than a simple accept or reject answer.

    The Pennsylvania records committee has never tried to tell me what I can or can’t put on my list. If I actually went to the trouble of making a list, I’d count at least one of the Barnacle Geese I’ve seen which got rejected due to unknown origin. (I’ve seen one that I was confident was wild, one that seems highly questionable, and a few that I have no strong opinion on either way.) I’d count the Neotropic Cormorant that four of us saw but that only I was willing to write documentation for. The records committee didn’t accept that one and I have no particular quibble with them over that decision. It was so unexpected that I had a hard time believing what I was seeing it until I came home and called other people and found that I wasn’t the only one who saw it. Sadly, none of us had cameras capable of getting photographic documentation back then.

  • Ted Floyd

    “I’m gobsmacked that ‘voting against one’s own record’ could occur at all. I’m glad that happens, but should the opportunity ever even come up? Shouldn’t there be a recusal of some sort, due to the potential for bias?”

    Policies about voting on one’s own submission vary from committee to committee.

    Jesse’s gobsmackery brings up a broader point. What about committee members voting not on their own submissions, but, rather on birds they simply saw but didn’t submit documentation for? Let’s say 2 people (Persons A and B) see a vagrant: Person A submits the documentation, and Person B is merely along for the ride. But here’s the hitch: Although Person A is just a rank-and-file birder, Person B is a BRC member. Should Person B vote on the record?

    If not, how do you deal with situations in which most or even all committee members have seen the same vagrant? Such situations are quite plausible. I bet a lot of MARC members saw the Red-footed Falcon (hard to believe that was almost a decade ago!). Maybe all of them saw it. So who votes on the bird in such a situation?

    Note that all of this would be moot if committees didn’t vote… 🙂

  • Ted Floyd

    Re: Katrina’s Penna. Barnacle Geese. Good for you, Katrina!

    But not everybody does it your way. When I was on the Penna. committee, this guy constantly harassed me about getting the Penna. committee to hurry up and vote on a Pink-footed Goose–so he could count it. (Or not.) He was in a condition of ornitho-purgatory, wretched and wailing, and he made sure all the rest of us were just as miserable.

    Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources went merrily about its business.

    I’ve beaten that horse to death, I realize, but I’m still surprised by something: Basically nobody, so far as I can tell, has emerged to say, in effect, “Hey. Wait a minute! There’s more to BRCs than providing a service to listers. BRCs are, or ought to be, important for conservation, management, science, and education.”

    Channeling my inner Jesse Ellis, I’m gobsmacked.

  • Ted Floyd

    Good point, Jeff, about a possible “motive” for such submissions. Even though I can’t get the Colorado Bird Records Committee to accept any of my Mexican Ducks (cue violins), my efforts have not entirely been in vain. Through my Mexican Duck submissions, I’ve probably helped create greater awareness of the Mexican Duck situation in Colorado.

    Besides, I count Mexican Duck on my Colorado list! Along with White-winged Junco, Indian Peafowl, Rufous-collared Sparrow, and two species of the taxon currently known to some as the White-breasted Nuthatch.

  • Ted, thanks so much for elevating me to the level of birding blog iconoclast. I strive for such recognition 🙂

    Anonymous argues for more diversity in the “opinion” pieces. Aren’t all posts “opinion” pieces? He (and I assume that this particular Anonymous is a he) then says that “I am only concerned about how the ABA operates because it could ultimately affect bird life.”

    Perfect. This is where a respondent like Anonymous would share with the rest of us (those of us with actual names) exactly how ABA’s operations affect bird life. I certainly believe that the ABA as a advocate could be strengthened, particularly in regards to bird conservation. Somehow I doubt that this is what Anonymous has in mind.

    Anonymous argues that “the ABA has a broad membership, so I’m proposing that the blog isn’t monopolized by just a few vocal bloggers.” Monopolized? Nonsense. The blog is “monopolized” by those who have been willing to volunteer their time to make sure that the blog is current and content rich.

    Which brings us to the question of why more birders and ABA members don’t write for the blog. I suspect that time and interest are the most important determinants. Also, it helps to have something to say and the skill to say it. Of those left, I suspect that fear is part of the equation. Why else would people hide behind the skirts of a pseudonym? If you are afraid to reveal yourself, there is a reason. And that reason, more likely than not, is because you are inclined to say things anonymously that you would not say in person.

    Bloggers share one simple characteristic – the willingness to fade the heat. No matter what you write about, the writer knows that in this medium you will ultimately be the recipient of some reader’s vitriol. I find this particularly true if the subject of your writing is conservation.

    Nothing pisses off a subset of birders more than to be confronted with the reality of our world and the threats faced by the birds we enjoy. In an election year, one as polarized as the current cycle, this is particularly true. No word, no thought can escape being weighed on a partisan scale. If I express my concerns about global warming, then I can expect to be confronted by those who see this as a partisan issue.

    Most people do not need such rancor in their already rancorous lives.
    Therefore they avoid the public eye. Others counter punch, preferring to reply to someone else’s original thoughts while hiding being a name like “anon,” or “Anonymous,” or “Birdnut,” or “Reader.”

    Here is a concrete example. I have invited (begged, actually) for someone, anyone, to offer us the conservative argument for gutting many of the conservation and environmental laws in our country. I would love to hear why global warming is not a concern for those of us who find such joy on the outdoors. I would welcome a spirited defense of wind power.

    To date, no one has been willing to step forward. Why? No cajones? Let me try again, and remove this from Anonymous’s list of complaints. I, for one, a volunteer not on ABA staff and simply an life member who periodically writes for this blog, would welcome anyone who is willing to post an article that argues a position opposed to mine. Would I respond to such a post? You becha. But that does not mean that I wouldn’t defend their right to do so.

    I have only one minor request. Don’t argue your position behind the skirts. We are all friends here.

  • Ted Floyd

    Don’t beat yourself up over this, Nate. My take on it is pretty much the opposite of what you’re presenting. (And I realize you’re maybe just being modest, this being a public forum and all.)

    Folks, let’s take a look at a selection of the birders who have come up to the mic, so to speak, for The ABA Blog:

    Jeff Bouton
    Steve Howell
    Richard Crossley
    Paul Baicich
    Michele Keane-Moore
    Barbara Volkle
    Diana Doyle
    Jean Knowles
    Bryan Guarente
    Rob Fergus
    Dave Magpiong
    Andrew Haffenden
    Jacob Steinberg
    Kirby Adams
    Chuck Almdale
    Lillian Johnson
    Zeke Jakub
    Mark Maftei
    Eric VanderWerf
    Tormod Amundsen
    Mike Harvey
    Steve Tucker
    Nathaniel Hernandez

    And that’s not the whole list, not at all. But it gives a feel for the diversity of guests who have done blog posts for us.

    I dunno, “Anonymous,” but I don’t see how you can much more “egalitarian” than that.

  • Ted Floyd

    As if to prove a point, I hereby disagree with Michael. See, “Anonymous”?–we insiders don’t always “team up.”

    Anyhow, to my point. Compared to pretty much any other birding blog I can think of, The ABA Blog offers a tremendous variety and diversity of voices. For starters, we have twenty-two (22) different bloggers–compared to the one (1) primary voice on most other birding blogs. On top of that, we’ve proudly hosted several dozen guest bloggers–in our “At the Mic” category. (And I know of a fair number yet to come.) Finally–and, I would say, most important–we’ve received comments from many hundreds upon hundreds (maybe we’re already in the thousands?) of birders.

    I realize I’m not objective. That said, I view The ABA Blog as a vibrant and flourishing forum for diverse contributions from practically any birder with an internet connection.

  • Ted Floyd

    A further thought.

    The number of comments to this blog post is now in the triple digits. By and large, I would not say that folks are piling on in support of everything I said. On the contrary, opposing voices have been diverse and plenitudinous.

    Which is wonderful.

    And which affirms my conviction that there’s more, much more, to The ABA Blog than a bunch of ABA insiders “teaming up” against the outside world.

    Bring it on, y’all!

  • Jesse, I agree regarding voting on one’s own record. In Indiana, at least, one is not one allowed to vote on a bird one saw, unless enough people on the committee saw it that the number of eligible voters would be rendered so small as to not make a quorum possible. In that case, folks are allowed to vote on their own record.

  • I shouldn’t. Really, I shouldn’t. No minds will be changed here. The opinions are fixed, at least among respondents. But there is always a chance of influencing a reader…

    First, my CV. I served on the Texas RBC, and have voted against one of my own records. There. My conscious is clear.

    RBCs are not about science, although, at time, they depend on the science. RBCs are about the game, about the score. RBCs are more akin to the Eastern Eurpeans sitting on the edge of the skating rink holding up their scores at the Olympics. Is the vote political? Do countries vote for their own skaters?

    None of this is inherently bad or evil. This is a simple solution, an extension of Ted’s recommendation. Where there is even a potential for mistrust or misdeed, shine the light. Make the entire record public, including the notes that comprise the deliberation between members.

    Every RBC vote should be accompanied by an explanation of why or why not a particular member voted for or against. I clearly remember many TRBC records that inspired volumes of intra-committee correspondence. Simply make all of this public. Let people see how members vote and why.

    Of course there are jerks on the RBCs. But my experience is that the RBC jerk ratio is about the same as you would see at your neighborhood Walmart. Most members serve admirably and selflessly (I have never seen a better way to make an enemy than to serve on one of these committees). All I ask is that member explain why they voted the way they voted.

    So why did I vote against my own record? Simply – as Alan would say, it was crappy. When we wrote the Birdlife of Houston, Galveston, and the Upper Texas Coast we ran all review species records through the TBRC. One of those record, mine of a red-necked grebe some 20 years earlier, did meet my current standards. The Ted Eubanks of the early 1970s is not the same birder as the Ted of the 1990s. In this case, the vote was simple. The 1970s Ted didn’t make the grade.

    My recommendation is to keep the existing process (votes) while making the process completely transparent, including deliberations (whether written or in person).

  • Victor Fazio

    “However, the single largest problem with eBird in this vein as suggested by Jim, is that once a record is “invalidated” by an eBird reviewer, it is not findable in eBird by anyone but the observer. This, then, goes against one of Ted’s primary points — availability of records for review.”

    This is INCORRECT. The eBird record may be made available several ways. For several years, a quarterly file representing each season by state is posted to a website for download by those identified with a need to access such records. In Ohio, that includes any one of a half dozen or more guest editors of the state’s birding journal, The Ohio Cardinal. There is no reason why that should not include the Secretary/Chair of a BRC and dispersed to members. This file contains every entry with associated information including whether it was reviewed and whether it was validated or not, plus the observer’s comments. What it does not include is the field wherein the reviewer provides comments or identifies the reasons behind validation or invalidation. But presumably that could be addressed. Nonetheless, invalid records are readily available online.

    I have served on one bird records committee or another almost continuously since 1985 … the OK brc since 2005 .. and the Regional NAB editor for OH & WV since 2004. I am well aware in my position as sole eBird reviewer for the state of Ohio (and until last year also Oklahoma), that I have a responsibility to the ornithological record. I maintain all emails relating to eBird, printing out hard copy and collating these to have archived at an appropriate institution. I have furthermore made public listerv statements that I would make available county listings by species to any researcher time permitting … not that hard to do just copy n paste into a WORD file.

  • Ted Floyd

    Hi, Victor.

    The scenario you’ve outlined above doesn’t sound too helpful.

    Let’s say I’m studying range expansions in the Mississippi Kite. I have a particular hypothesis about when and where and under what circumstances vagrants might show up.

    So I go to eBird.

    Unbeknownst to me, three “invalidated” Ohio Mississippi Kites perfectly fit my hypothesis. But those data are suppressed from the public database, so I bypass Ohio and move on to Pennsylvania or Ontario or wherever.

    Chances are, “I” (role-playing here as a hypothetical Mississippi Kite researcher) have no idea who “Victor Fazio” is. Honestly, I may never even have heard of The Ohio Cardinal or the Ohio Bird Records Committee. (Sorry to burst your bubble, but folks in the universities and agencies are often ignorant of the local field birding communities out there.)

    To expect me to ask you for the Ohio data would be a bit like expecting Darwin to ask for Mendel’s data; Darwin didn’t even know about it.

    Quick, Victor! Do you want suppressed eBird data from northeastern Nevada? From Wyoming? From Qatar? Do you know whom to ask? And in the off chance that you do, consider, please, that you’re quite an insider–being highly active in the bird data archiving business. (The real “I” knows who you are, Victor! Major thanks for all your great work.) If you were some random dude at Ohio State or the Cleveland Museum, you’d have no idea whom to turn to for suppressed eBird data from ne. NV or WY or Qatar.

  • Ted Floyd

    One other thought.

    Re: “Nonetheless, invalid records are readily available online.”

    Show me. Show me how, as a generic worldwide web surfer, I can get that info straight from eBird. Specifically, can you show me publicly available output for all invalidated occurrences of Ohio Mississippi Kites?

  • Ted Floyd

    Hi, everybody. Steve Howell asked that I post the following remarks. I haven’t edited a thing! Here, without further ado, are Steve’s remarks:

    ==================================

    From Steve Howell, 8 Sep 2012:

    Ted forwarded me the link to this discourse and its follow-on-and-on commentaries, perhaps not suspecting that I would vote in favor of BRCs. I accept them for what they are and what they do! Below are some scattered thoughts on the subject, which the reader may accept or not accept.

    Having just (about) finished helping Will Russell tie up a book project on Rare Birds of North America, to be submitted to Princeton University Press within the month, I certainly appreciate that a bunch of people care enough to evaluate records of rare birds in their state/province/region. In the book we deal “only” with really rare species, generally those with, on average, 5 or fewer records per year in the US (not including Hawaii for obvious reasons) and Canada (including St Pierre et Miquelon for equally obvious reasons). Even with that cut-off it’s a lot of work simply to gather and sift and synthesize the deliberations of BRCs. If we had to evaluate every single record, the book would never be done – you can’t save time, you can only spend it, but BRCs can save time for you. That’s worth a lot. That’s days or even weeks of birding time, right there.

    And as several respondents to Ted’s post have noted, many committees do have the info on line, and courtesy of the internet one can now email the BRC secretary and ask for details of such-and-such record or species, rather than drive across town or fly to another state, or wait for letters to travel. So some things have changed since the 1970s.

    Ted may be a different user with different needs, but if a BRC says:

    Our mandate is to evaluate records of what we consider to be rare birds and pass our best judgment and archive the data, then that’s what they (should) do. They don’t claim to do the other things we might like them to do (like evaluate age, sex, and subspecies…), any more than they provide great recipes for bananabread or tell you how to fix a flat tire.

    Ted says: “I hereby declare that it is no longer necessary or appropriate for BRCs to accept or reject records. Note carefully: no longer necessary or appropriate. That is to say, I, ahem, accept that this practice was reasonable in the 1970s and ’80s, and even in the ’90s and right through the aughts. But no longer. Something has changed. Something fundamental.”

    Something has changed, something fundamental. But it depends on whom you ask how they would define the accelerating change from thoughtful to mindless, a change self-promoted by media and society, and whether such a change is “good” or “bad.” How many people today live in the 51st State, Denial, with their address as Number 1, Me Street, in the capital city, Entitlement? And with that same address, we all get the same messages.

    However, while it may seem great and democratic and all that to “put all the data out there,” do I (or anyone else) want to evaluate every single rare bird record? Democracy has never really worked in any field of human endeavor, so why expect it to work in BRCs or public forums? But we could be stuck with worse alternatives.

    A colleague of mine suggested that Ted’s approach to BRCs be extended to include every article and letter submitted to Birding magazine such that every submission (be it accepted or rejected for publication) and every round of editorial comments, and every new version, should be put out there, online, from first draft to final. We, the reader, should decide what is good or bad, and what should be published, no need for an editor. Really, you’d put a comma there? Hmm, a good idea? Maybe not so much…

    As for the negative image of bird police, that’s just life. We could all grow up a bit and deal better with criticism, real or perceived – nobody likes it, but it’s not going away. Basically, there are two kinds of birders – those who make mistakes and those who lie about it. I haven’t misidentified a bird since the last time I went birding, yesterday, and thankfully I was corrected by a birding friend, and I learned a bit more. Hence, with the benefit of others, be they friends, peers, or BRCs, we may be led to see our mistakes and learn from them, not sulk and criticize a BRC, whether we are ingenuous beginners, delusional enthusiasts, pathological fabulists, OCD listers, easily offended PC types, or any other kind of birder. BRCs were established largely as peer-review systems, much as used for many journals.

    Moreover, there’s nothing to say that we have to submit records to committees or follow their decisions. I can see many problems with BRCs (don’t get me started…), but overall they do a great job and should be thanked for it, whether they accept or don’t accept our records.

    For better or worse we live in a society and are part of a culture in which lines are drawn, be they 75 mph speed limits or an 8:2 accept vote on a stint, or a 2.2% genetic difference, or a putative majority vote in an election.

  • Ted et al.

    I think it’s important to point out that eBird’s review process and BRCs compliment each other, and both perform important functions. BRCs perform a higher-level data validation process, whereas eBird’s review process is more granular. I want to be clear right up front that the policy at eBird is to adhere to all official BRC decisions, and we strive to have a database that is in accordance with all state records committees. We do this for a reason: because BRCs are designed to render decisions on difficult records by committee, and we value that process when it comes to determining whether records should be included in the eBird public data output.

    Each state has its own review list, and the way these review lists are set up varies across committees. For example, in California the CBRC is focused on reviewing records of species-level taxa that have been recorded fewer than 100 times in the state. It does not review records of rare subspecies (for example an Eastern Red-shouldered Hawk), nor does it review records of common birds outside their normal windows of occurrence (for example a 15 December Western Wood-Pewee), both of which would be much more unusual in the state than another fall migrant Yellow-throated Warbler. Decisions on these kinds of ‘vagrants’ have always been left to the discretion of local editors of state and regional journals of record such as North American Birds, and now many of these same people are editors for eBird. Some BRCs are more comprehensive than others, but even with the CBRC’s fairly strict guidelines for review, it handles hundreds of records per year. MANY of these records are equivocal and require extensive committee deliberation. eBird relies on the wisdom of these committees to render decisions on these difficult records.

    The eBird review process looks at bird records in much finer detail, allowing regional editors (sometimes at the sub-county level) to set up filters to catch records of birds that are reported out of season or in the wrong location and/or habitat. It also looks at high counts of birds, and reviews any count that surpasses expected levels in a given location/season combination. I would argue that the eBird data validation process is the most advanced vetting process for a citizen-science project ever attempted, and it gets better every day as the filters become more refined, new tools are built, and more editors join our team.

    Could it be improved? Absolutely. And we’re always working in that direction. One important thing to note is that like BRCs, no record is ever deleted from the eBird database. eBird editors only choose whether or not to expose a record to the public. All records remain intact with their review history, and can be revisited if new patterns emerge or new evidence comes to light.

    As to the question of making ‘invalid’ data visible to the public, it’s something to consider. Right now we are focused on making the public-facing eBird dataset as clean as possible, and with some development down the road, perhaps we can allow people to toggle ‘unreviewed’ data on and off. For birders, time is of the essence, so we understand the need to get information about reported rare birds out there quickly. Right now the ‘eBird Rare Bird Alerts’ expose everything–that is, if someone reports a Bar-tailed Godwit here in Monterey, the news goes out immediately, and you can see the record and its details on the rare bird alert page, BUT it does not show up on the Bar Charts or on our species Range Maps until it is reviewed. When thinking about science use though, only rarely would an analyst be interested in looking at records that were reviewed and deemed unacceptable. In most cases analysts want to use the data that are considered valid. Either way, all data are preserved.

    I should also point out that ANYONE can access the entire eBird dataset: valid, reviewed, unreviewed, not valid, all of the data are available in their complete richness. The goal of eBird is to gather and organize data and then make it available to the science, conservation, and birding communities. The original set of data output tools on the eBird web site were meant to serve as simple visualizations of the data for the birding community (e.g., Bar Charts for a region). But we’ve realized lately that we need to make access to raw data easier for birders because many of you want to download more than the summary information currently available. Historically, all eBird raw data were available through the Avian Knowledge Network’s data download tools, but we are now developing online database tools at eBird that will enable anyone to request raw data by user-defined query, which will address Ted’s need to find out about all those vagrant Mississippi Kites that didn’t make the cut!

    Thanks

    Brian

  • Brad Murphy

    Ted,

    I don’t know, nor have I ever known a single records committee who chased down members of the birding community and required them to remove a species from their list. Has it happened? Maybe, but personally I have never met a records committee member that did so.

    This idea of “list police” is also a notion from the 1980’s. Frankly, I find it appauling that such a prominent member of the ABA continues to perpetuate the idea that we function as list police. This type of blog post is exactly how the notion stays alive. The stigma associated with records committee is something we have been trying to overcome for years and you continue to undue the work of countless individuals. I would think that as someone who has spent so much time thinking about this, you would have been able to recognize the distinction between perception and reality. You talk about “list police” as if it is a perception but then seem to portray us as such. As most of us are volunteers, thank you for taking away from all the work we put in.

    Brad Murphy

  • Ted Floyd

    Thanks, Brian. Good stuff, for sure. Four comments:

    1. Thank you for all the work you put into eBird. Just the volume of email you field–and deal with, thoroughly and promptly so–is staggering. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of your work, I well realize.

    2. You write, “[Anyone] can access the entire eBird dataset: valid, reviewed, unreviewed, not valid.” That’s outstanding! Now, sorry to ask the mother of all stupid questions, but: How? I suppose I oughtta know. But I don’t. And I bet others of us don’t know, either.

    3a. You write, “When thinking about science use though, only rarely would an analyst be interested in looking at records that were reviewed and deemed unacceptable.” Recently in Colorado, the eBird review team was talking about nesting Trumpeter Swans that were invalidated and therefore removed from the default public database (but see #2 above; you’re saying they weren’t removed?…again, please correct my faulty understanding). I note that I have absolutely no problem with the assessment by that eBird reviewer (who happens to be one of North America’s finest field ornithologists) that these nesting Trumpeter Swans are “unacceptable,” i.e., of presumed or known (known, I believe) captive origin.

    But let’s say a hypothetical user is a scientist interested in understanding the occurrence of introduced Trumpeter Swan populations. Like in New York. And Nebraska. And anywhere else. Then, that Trumpeter Swan nesting record from Colorado becomes of great interest. How many young were fledged? Did the swans engage “native” wildfowl species in the immediate vicinity? Did they otherwise interact with the environment? Will they nest again next year? And the year after that? Will they become established? If so, what is the role of deliberate introductions (assuming these birds were deliberately introduced, which I believe is the case) in establishing founder populations? Etc., etc.

    My point, which I hope is obvious, is that these nesting Trumpeter Swans may be of tremendous interest to a certain type of scientific researcher. And, true, they may be simply “unacceptable” to another sort of researcher. So, once again, I say: Put it all out there. For sure, prominently flag the record: Give it a big red stickpin with an “X” through it (as opposed to a lovely green stickpin with a soothing check-mark next to it, y’know, for accepted/validated records). But, still, make it easily and publicly accessible.

    3b. More on “reviewed and deemed unacceptable.” I’m aware that, in a great many regions of the world, eBird reviewers are evaluating dozens of flagged records per day! That’s an incredible workload–on top of, for most of us, real lives and real jobs, not to mention catching up with Sanford and Son reruns. I believe that a great many validate/invalidate decisions are tricky, gray-area decisions, that, in an ideal world, would receive hours of follow-up discussion, and perhaps even site visits. But that’s not going to happen; and that means mistakes are going to happen. “Conservative” reviewers are going to assume an “If in doubt, invalidate” stance; and less “conservative” eBird reviewers will allow some erronenous data (false positives) to get into the database. Yet again, this suggests to me the value of public presentation of all the data, but, again, with clear annotation:

      Green check-mark: record unremarkable, record auto-accepted, no comment by eBird reviewer.
      Green check-mark with exclamation point: record accepted, but with comment by eBird reviewer.
      Red “X”: record rejected, with comment by eBird reviewer, e.g., “Adults deliberately released here; juveniles are the offspring of the released adults.”

    And, as I think about it, there would need to be a fourth category:

      Red “X” with a question mark: record auto-rejected but not yet reviewed by a human being.

    Yes, in some regions, eBird review happens with commendable, breakneck speed. But, in other regions, I well realize, the backlog extends for years. It’s a pity for all those records–many of them eminently valid–not to appear in the public database due simply to (entirely understandable) delays in the human review process.

    4. I think eBird is magnificent! Brian is famous for saying that eBird has changed the way he birds. Well, eBird has changed my life–for the better. See for yourself:

    http://blog.aba.org/2011/12/ebird-changed-my-life.html

  • Ted Floyd

    Hey, Brad.

    Two responses:

    1. I think it’s legitimate–essential, even–for the ABA to engage the hot-button issues for birders in 2012. Thus:

      Should Hawaii be admitted to the ABA Area?
      Is it okay to shoot Harlequin Ducks roosting along the Antelope Island Causeway?
      If you’re doing a Big Year, can you count species not yet added to the ABA Checklist?
      What’s the latest from Ted Eubanks?

    And, yes:

      What is the function, real or perceived, of bird records committees in 2012?

    Which brings me to my second point:

    2. True, it’s hard to read emotions and feelings from email; and, true, one ought never attempt to be a mind-reader. Those things said, I sense that Brad is at least slightly irritated with me. Fair enough.

    Now here’s my take: I’ve served on two records committees, and been involved in oversight of two other committees; I’ve submitted reports to at least nine bird records committees, and I suspect I’ve forgotten a few; I’ve been involved in many ways in public education (articles, presentations, panels, etc.) about the great work of records committees; and I’ve made financial contributions to bird records committees. The one and only thing that distresses me is when the birding public and the broader scientific public just don’t care.

    For me, there is nothing, nothing, worse than an anodyne pat of the fanny: “There, there, you’re doing a nice job.” And the obvious meta-message: “You harmless eccentric. Woozums. 14th state record of Neotropic Cormorant…awwwww, aren’t you cute? Now bugger off, please, while we go back to the real work of science, conservation, and policy.”

    Please, please, please: Give me civil discourse, intelligent colloquy, and an honest examination of the issues–any day. That is to say, we need more, not less, of what Brad calls “[t]this type of blog post”–and, in particular, we need the diverse and often opposing comments from all the thoughtful folks who have chimed in on this topic. Indeed, Brad, we need to keep the conversation alive.

    Here, in my mind, is the best post ever to The ABA Blog:

    http://blog.aba.org/2011/03/what-would-you-like-to-talk-about.html

    You see why, right? Because the whole point, if you ask me, is for the ABA to be the modern birding community’s agora. The point is for us to come together–as friends, for sure, but also as representatives of highly diverse viewpoints and aspirations–and to learn from one another, share with one another, and grow together as a stronger birding community.

  • Chris Hill

    (jumping in a month late, not sure if anyone will read this). I’m not sure suppressing the identity of reporters of “non-accepted” records is a good idea. The argument is not to embarass people, but I think that’s wrong on several levels. I may not get too much support for this, but…

    If I make mistakes, I’m OK with them being on public display. And I do make mistakes. It’s a curative tonic for ego, to have them out there.

    For example, in related-but-different arena, dragonfly and damselfly record-keeping, there are local (state) data repositories, but also a national one, called Odonata Central. I have submitted and had rejected several records there, some of which I misidentified, some of which I submitted crappy evidence for. They’re all available if anyone wants to click. I’m fine with that. One or two I submitted almost certain they’d be rejected. I’m grateful to the “vetter” who evaluates my records (Thanks, Steve Krotzer) and I learned a lot from the rejected records, probably more than from the ones I got right. Maybe someone else learns from that, too.

    People might get their feelings hurt. But they do anyway, even with names suppressed. Do we know it would be worse with names revealed? Heck, even if someone is reporting birds made up of whole cloth, it makes it easier on the rest of the birding community if *that* is reported accurately. Whose interests are we interested in protecting, here?

    And I also think the comments and votes of the committee should be available publicly, as the AOU checklist committee does it.

    I’m for as much openness as possible.

  • we are pleased to announce the launch of the UTAH RARE BIRDS DATABASE. Cutting straight to the point, the database is designed to replace a records committee. After some discussion we thought this is the perfect place to try this out.

    http://www.utahbirders.com/database

    With the rare birds database you can submit sightings, search through all historical sightings (coming soon), and view information, photos, videos, etc about recent sightings. This is version 1.0, and will likely go through some major updates in the coming year. But none-the-less we are excited that we’ve got this off the ground. We have put up a couple example species in the recently submitted section to see what it will look like.

  • Great to hear from you, Tim. Am delighted, but not surprised, that you’re continuing to do great work in Utah.

    I really hope this splendid initiative from the Utah birding community catches on more widely. I can tell the Utah Rare Birds Database is going to be friendly, welcoming, and useful.

    Thanks to you and your great colleagues in Utah for doing your part to lead the birding community toward greater relevance and enlightenment. You’re an inspiration to all of us.

  • Continuing along the same line as Tony Leukering, Tim Avery provides this commentary:

    http://utahbirders.blogspot.com/2013/04/ebird-show-me-those-unverified-reports.html

    Tim’s commentary, posted to the Utah Birders blog, is really worth the read, in my opinion. Tim works us through some great examples, and has created compelling graphics that could easily be incorporated by eBird.

  • Wow. I can’t believe Ted wrote something so fundamentally wrong…
    Sanford and Son will ALWAYS be cool! 😀

    • Ted Floyd

      Yeah, I blew it. Others called me on this way back when:

      “I have not read through all the discussion but I just want to thank Ted for putting this ‘out there’ and strongly agree with almost everything a quick reading of the original post conveyed – except for the fact that Sanford & Son’s is still a gold-standard of cool as far as I am concerned!”

    • Anonymous

      The point that hasn’t been made is that with a international database accessible to everyone(ie eBird) there is no longer the need to track bird records by jurisdictional boundaries. The locations are stored spatially and can be rolled up to any jurisdictional boundaries whenever needed(ex. to inform policy, update field guides)

      Should rare bird sightings be vetted? I would assume so. It could be said that the single reviewer in eBird doesn’t work alone. There must be pressure from peers and the birding community to be fair and correct. The popularity and transparency of eBird means that the eBird reviewer is under constant scrutiny. They now have a reputation on display for everyone…as does the birding community submitting reports. Our mistakes are on display for everyone…and I hope this leads to more accurate data and better documentation. I feel this has certainly forced me to bird and document my more common sightings with a higher attention to detail.

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