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Only Change Is Changeless, or: NAB v. 2017

 

The other day, on my way between errands, I stopped along a busy road where a midsize creek crosses beneath. There I saw an Eastern Phoebe alongside a Black Phoebe. Apparent hybrids have been documented in the area. A few days earlier, along another creek in my county, birders had reported a similar occurrence: a couple of Eastern Phoebes and a mostly or entirely Black Phoebe.

The ranges of Black and Eastern phoebes are rapidly expanding in my home state of Colorado, and known or suspected hybrids have been detected with some regularity. That’s cool. But let’s back up a step, or, to be more precise about it, let’s back up 10 years. A decade ago, Eastern Phoebe was casual at best in Boulder County, where I live—maybe three or four per decade, mainly in autumn. And Black Phoebe was rarer than rare—not even on the county list.

My errands concluded, I headed home. On pulling into the driveway, I heard a Say’s Phoebe. Black, Eastern, and Say’s, the phoebe trifecta: fun, but not really notable these days in Boulder County. I went down to the mailbox where the Bushtits are nesting. Then I went inside but not out of earshot of the ubiquitous Eurasian Collared-Doves. Bushtits and collared-doves: The latter were still semi-notable in the county 10 years ago, the former rare and unpredictable in the foothills to the west and unheard of around my neighborhood out on the plains a ways. So much has changed in the span of a mere decade.

 

The phenomena I’ve just described—the Bushtit range expansion, the collared-dove blitzkrieg, and introgressing phoebes—are generally well known in the local birding community. Call it “received wisdom,” or simply “bird lore.” And that raises a question: Where does this knowledge about bird populations come from? From other birders, of course, but that begs the question.

North American Birds, published by the American Birding Association, is the quarterly journal of ornithological record for North America.

It comes in no small measure, I believe, from the journal North American Birds. Now I hasten to point out that not all Boulder County birders subscribe to “En Ay Bee,” as it is affectionately known. I’m afraid there are county birders who’ve never even heard of NAB. Nevertheless, the serious students of avian “S&D” (Status and Distribution) are invariably NAB junkies. They soak it up, they spread the memes. Directly or indirectly, we all learn S&D from NAB.

“Deus creavit, Linnaeus disposuit,” the great Swedish naturalist and philosopher liked to say. (“God created, Linnaeus organized.”) When you think about it, something analogous could be said of NAB. The journal is all about synthesis. It’s full of data, yes, but it’s also brimming with insight and analysis. NAB makes sense of the literally millions of observations contributed by birders year in and year out. Without NAB, our bird records are just, well, bird records—oddities, one-offs, random bytes of data. But NAB gives context to the whole experience of birding. NAB establishes population-level patterns and connections where we might not otherwise see them.

 

Incoming North American Birds Editor Tom Reed

You may have heard that North American Birds, the journal that chronicles changing bird populations, is itself undergoing some amount of change at the present time. Longtime NAB Editor Ned Brinkley stepped down at the end of 2016, and new Editors Mike Hudson and Tom Reed took the helm earlier this month. It’s a bittersweet time for all of us in the NAB family. Ned was—he still is—an incomparable polymath, one of the most ridiculously gifted writers and thinkers in contemporary birding. Mike and Tom, twentysomething field ornithologists based in Maryland and New Jersey, respectively, are dyed-in-the-wool birders deeply committed to the rigorous scientific traditions of North American Birds. I could go on about the wonders and glories of Mike and Tom, but you’ll be getting to hear from them shortly in this forum, as well as in the June 2017 issue of Birding. And of course you’ll be hearing from them on the pages of NAB, starting with vol. 70 no. 1, to be published this summer.

Incoming North American Birds Editor Mike Hudson

As this point, you might be wondering: Why the heck am I telling you all this? Well, I’m honored and humbled to inform you that I’m coming on board, in an interim capacity, as Managing Editor of NAB. I’ll be working with Mike and Tom to get all of vol. 70 out the door. Those two are wonderful, and they’ll catch on in no time at all, but it’s also the case that I’ve been an NAB subscriber and contributor since long before either one of them was born. I’ve got a leg up on them when it comes to institutional history. Mike and Tom will be doing the big picture stuff—basically, editing the essays, regional reports, and original scientific papers that fill the pages of NAB. That leaves me to sweat the small stuff: receiving manuscripts, managing the journal’s database, etc.

What to expect? Tom and Mike and I—along with ABA President Jeffrey A. Gordon—are deep in conversation about ways of integrating the journal with the digital revolution. We’ve been talking about everything from podcasts to “fast track” publication to synchronizing NAB with the eBird database. Expect the journal to look and feel different, perhaps very different, in the not-too-distant future. At the same time, I think you can expect more of the same—and I mean that in the very best way. What I mean is this: For as long as I’ve been a birder, indeed for as long as anybody alive has been birding, North American Birds and its predecessors have been all about documenting the fascinating and dynamic bird life of the continent. That’s not going anywhere.

 

When I was a kid, I volunteered in the Section of Birds at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. I had my reasons: to hold study skins, to schmooze with famous ornithologists, to learn a bit of bird biology. But what attracted me most of all to that museum, I have to confess, was its library. I loved the old books, I really loved the old journals, and most of all I loved one journal in particular: American Birds, its name at the time.

What struck me about American Birds was its immense relevance to everything about my birding experiences as a teenager. Bird populations were changing all around me: American Tree Sparrows were on the decline, American Crows were expanding into new habitats, and a diverse “Carolinian” avifauna was pushing northward into the Pittsburgh region. All that stuff—and much more—was chronicled and valuably interpreted on the pages of American Birds.

Thirty-five years later, North American Birds is as relevant as ever. More than merely interesting, NAB is downright important. Bird populations are besieged as never before. There are three billion more humans on the planet now than when I started birding in 1980, an increase of 70% in my birding life. More than at any point in the past, the continent’s bird populations require vigorous protection by the governments of Canada, Mexico, the U.S., and the other nations of North America. But that protection doesn’t come out of nowhere. It arises from science-based reporting on bird populations, and North American Birds plays a critical role in the genesis and delivery of such content.

 

A final thought. NAB is, deep down, all about community. At NAB, as with everything else at the ABA, we well appreciate that we’re all in this thing together. Thousands of birders’ records go into each and every issue of NAB. Not every one of them is cited by name, although many hundreds of them are. NAB isn’t all about Mike Hudson and Tom Reed. If I may say so, they need your help, and, no question about it, so do I. Please consider contributing to NAB. No, I’m not talking about taking your money—although if you wish to support “Friends of North American Birds,” we can help you with that! Rather, I’m talking about joining the family of birders who contribute their sightings and insights to the journal. Call the ABA headquarters in Delaware and ask for a review copy, or subscribe online today and join the family of birders who are making a difference for bird populations and their habitats all across the continent.

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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)

  • Matt Brady

    Are there any plans to put the NAB database online and make it searchable? There’s a lot of valuable S&D information locked up in old issues, with no good way to extract it.

    • Ted Floyd

      Talk to me, Matt. In particular, what do you mean by “database”? Presumably, you have in mind something other than this?–

      https://sora.unm.edu/node/209

      Oh! And thanks for chiming in on this. ‘preciate it.

      • Matt Brady

        Ted, I wouldn’t call that searchable. If I was interested in every record of, say, Eastern Phoebe from Colorado, I’d have to go through every issue of every volume, which would be a really time-consuming task. Plus, the issues on SORA only go up to 2008! It’s missing the last 8 and a half or nine years worth of data. What I’d like to see is at least a text match option, where I could enter a species and a region, and it’d return all text strings that match. It wouldn’t be perfect, obviously, but it’d be better than what the current options are.

        I haven’t looked into it at all, but perhaps someone with some R skills could develop a Shiny app that would make searching those PDFs a littl easier.

        • jmorlan

          This would be a great resource if implemented properly. I thought about extracting all the seasonal reports from Northern California and concatenating them into a single searchable file. But even if I did that, it would only be useful for one region. There is a huge amount of important data in NAB. It would be spectacular if it could be accessed little more easily. In particular searching by region should be a priority.

          One of ABA’s biggest accomplishments was putting NAB online. Kudos to all those who made it a reality.

  • Michael Bowen

    Kudos to Tom Reed and Mike Hudson for taking on this Herculean challenge and Best Wishes for their success.

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