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ICYMI: The big Big Year debate: What’s the number to beat, anyway?

The ABA Blog has been in existence for almost 6 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 and Greg Neise that is particularly prescient as two birders independently break the ABA Area Big Year record this week.

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Today’s debaters: Greg Neise (l), ABA Web Developer; and Ted Floyd (r), editor Birding magazine

Editor’s Note
: With Colorado birder John Vanderpoel coming down to the wire in his attempt to knock off Sandy Komito’s top ABA-area Big Year (or rather, as the movie The Big Year would have you believe, attain the title of ‘best birder in the world”), Birding editor Ted Floyd and ABA web developer Greg Neise take a look at some of the questions surrounding Komito’s very big year and ask whether Vanderpoel’s final tally will eclipse it, fall short of it, or maybe manage both at the very same time.

Confused?  Read on…

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Greg Neise: For those readers who may not know what we’re talking about—or why—the story is basically this:

In 1998 Sandy Komito completed an ABA big year, finishing with 745 species. That record has stood since, and no one has come even close to it.

Komito BookBut Komito contends that his record is actually 748, because that’s how many countable species he saw that year. In addition to the 745 species published, he saw four birds that were not on the ABA Checklist at the time: Elegant Quail, Belcher’s Gull, Bulwer’s Petrel, and Yellow-throated Bunting. The Big Year rules state that only birds that are on the ABA checklist are countable.

Those four species had to be accepted by the record committees in the states they were seen, and then the ABA can accept them to the checklist. In the case of 1998, this took months, and the ABA list totals, and indeed even Komito’s own book about his big year, had gone to press.

Of the four species, three were accepted (Elegant Quail was not). So therefore, Komito saw 748 that were eventually added to the ABA Checklist. But is his record 745 or 748?

This was pretty much an academic question, or something relegated to birding trivia, because the chances of anyone beating that record were considered by some to very low. But now, John Vanderpoel has seen 740 species through Dec. 19th, 2011, and it’s conceivable that he might set a new record.

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Ted Floyd: Records are made to be broken!

But never mess with the records themselves! The numbers stand forever. Babe Ruth’s career 714 home runs, his single-season record of 60 homers, etc. I’m delighted to have those records broken. But don’t mess with the actual numbers.

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GN: I agree … but how do we arrive at “the number”? Is what was published at the time set in stone, or is there room for some revisions?

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TF: Yeah, I’m inclined to go with what was published at the time. So, yes, it’s “set in stone.”

You can revisit practically any record, reanalyze it, tweak it, update it…

So many of the famous records in Major League Baseball (and other sports) are actually wrong! Even some of the most famous numbers. When you go back and look at the actual historical record, you realize they’re off by one or two or sometimes more. You can analyze that stuff forever. It’s better, I think, to go with the number that was published at the time.

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GN: Okay … so how does that work for the ABA Big Year contest? Komito played by the rules, because he did not count the three birds in question until they had been accepted. So, in one sense, he’s getting bit by a technicality.

But going forward, others would look at this and simply count those species. If they were not accepted, well … then what happens?

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TF: Two responses, Greg, one contrarian, the other more harmonious.

On the one hand, yeah, he got bit. Here’s a (presumably) neutral example: Rock Pigeons (Rock Doves, back then) didn’t “count” on Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) until, I believe, 1973. I’m fine with that. Now we all know there were Rock Pigeons on CBCs in New York, Philadelphia, and elsewhere in, say, the 1960s. But we don’t go back and add +1 to all those CBCs. I’m okay with that. Yeah, those old CBCs got bit by the technicality. Tough!

On the other hand, I get the “spirit of the law” you’re talking about here. In comparing records, you have to look at the context. That’s true for Barry Bonds vs. Babe Ruth, it’s true for the 2011 Pittsburgh CBC vs. the 1969 Pittsburgh CBC, it’s true for Vanderpoel vs. Komito.

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GN: I see your point, but that still leaves a lot of gray area where I think there shouldn’t be any.

Let’s say a big year birder rushes to California to see a first ABA record. The bird is positively identified, and documented, but it takes the California records committee 9 months to make a ruling on the record.

Does the birder count that bird in his/her total before it’s been accepted?

Or should birders simply not waste the money chasing first ABA records, because there’s a significant chance they won’t make it through committee in time to be published?

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TF: I agree with you 100% on something: There’s a lot of gray area!

But I’m fine with that. That’s what makes it fun.

For the strict purpose of playing the big year game, I think you have to go with the rules at the time. Thus, you get multiple Dark-eyed Junco “ticks” prior to the 1973 “lump”; or you get two species of “white-cheeked geese” (Canada, Cackling) in 2011, but not in, say, 1998 (prior to the split). And who knows?—in 2025, maybe we’ll say there are five species of Dark-eyed Juncos, 80 species of “white-cheeked geese,” and only one species of gull!! But you don’t go back and tweak the numbers; you just stay with the number from the particular year in question.

(By the way, I think it is definitely worth it to go and see a bird—whether or not it’s countable or “listable.”)

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GN: Okay … so, when are the official ABA big year totals published? Actually, the correct question is, by what date to contestants have to have their numbers submitted?

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TF: I should know the answer to that question…

But, to go back to the “spirit of the law,” I think we’re basically talking about “countable” birds during the big year in question.

And there’s the rub. The list of “countable” birds changes practically every single year.

In a sense—a felicitous sense, if you ask me—this debate will never be resolved. Let’s say Vanderpoel gets 746. Okay, simplistically speaking, he “broke the record” (or so I would say; you might disagree). But that doesn’t end the debate!! Thus:

“No fair! Vanderpoel didn’t have access to ‘the fallout of the century’ at Attu in 1998.”

But:

“No fair! Komito didn’t benefit, as Vanderpoel surely has, from the near ubiquity of cell phones—and instant info on all North American rarities, everywhere, all the time.”

The debate will go on and on. I like that. Closure is boring.

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GN: I understand all of that, and agree wholeheartedly.

My question concerns only what is countable and when it’s countable. We know (and agree) that splits and lumps don’t count either way. What it is at the time, is what it is.

Fairness?! Ha! If the world were fair, I’d have the Big Year record. But life isn’t fair.

My concern is for how this affects the contest going forward. I think the ABA is going to have to set some kind of rule concerning first ABA Area records. To simply leave it to the leisure of the state records committees seems wrong to me.

Or maybe that’s part of the game too? If you’re lucky, and your ABA-first birds make it through committee in time, bingo! If not … sorry, Charlie.

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TF: Two points:

1. I totally agree with you. This particular matter needs clarity. If I see the Hooded Crane (wow!) today, and the ABA Checklist Committee puts that species on the ABA Checklist, but not until 2015 (lots of rounds of voting, let’s say), do I get to count it for my hypothetical 2011 big year?

2. But are we sure there’s not already a “solution” to this problem? I confess, I’m not 100% up on all the rules. Needless to say, this is an item for the ABA’s Recording Standards & Ethics (RSE) Committee to weigh in on.

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GN: 1. Some would say that if the ABA Checklist Committee puts the species on the ABA Checklist because of the sighting of the bird you saw in 2011, then yes. If it is another, later sighting of the same species, then obviously no.

2: I’m not certain either … but I will say that when I interviewed him about this, Komito was very certain that that is the way the rules work.

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TF: You can probably anticipate my response. As always, I am of two minds!

Part of me says, sure, go ahead, update his total—especially if that’s the way the rules work.

But the other part of me says, sheesh, you’ve sure opened up a can of worms with this. Once you start tweaking records, there’s just no stopping it. I mentioned splits and lumps already. But what if we were to change the definition of the ABA Area? (See Kingbird Highway; that’s not an idle question.) Y’know what this reminds me of: The notorious “asterisk” by Roger Maris’s single-season home run record. (Because they had “changed the playing field,” so to speak, with a 162-game season, instead of a 154-game season.) Once we change Komito’s record, we’ve gone down a slippery slope…we’ll soon be revisiting practically ever other listing record.

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GN: Here’s the rule we’re concerned with, from the 2010 ABA Big Day & List Report:

“The species must be (a) included in the current published ABA Checklist, as modified by subsequent Supplements, or (b) formally accepted for inclusion in the next ABA Checklist or Supplement. Species listed as ‘species of hypothetical origin’ and species that have been deleted from the main ABA Checklist are NOT considered to be accepted;”

So, if I’m reading the rule correctly, Komito’s number would be 748, yes? The “subsequent supplements” bit is a little gray … but I take that to mean the individual bird in question.

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TF: Okay, but what’s the “statute of limitations,” if you will?

I assume Komito got Pacific Wren (and Winter Wren), Mexican Whip-poor-will (and Eastern Whip-poor-will), Cackling Goose (and Canada Goose), etc. Those armchair splits surely qualify under “modified under subsequent Supplements.” But as of *when*? That’s the question. If he can go back and count Belcher’s Gull, Bulwer’s Petrel, and Yellow-throated Bunting, why can’t he also add a wren, a whip-poor-will, and a goose?

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GN: Because they were not species *at the time*. Even if the wren or the whips were split on January 2 1999, they wouldn’t be countable. They didn’t exist.

The case of the petrel, the gull, and the bunting is different. These were species at the time … they did exist. They were in committee while the report was being published.

So, here’s what I think—how I interpret the rule pertaining to this situation.

Armchair ticks or losses don’t count. If you see a subspecies that’s split, even immediately after your big year, it doesn’t count. The same goes for lumps. If a species is lumped after your big year, you don’t lose that tick.

But in the case of first ABA-area vagrants, I think the rule is interpreted differently. If you see an bird that represents the first ABA record of that species, and that record—the individual bird you saw—is accepted, then that species should be added to your big year total.

So, by my reckoning, Komito’s number to beat is 748.

But I also think that if that is the way the rule is to be interpreted, it needs to be written a bit more clearly.

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TF: Summing up, I have two overall points:

1. If we rewrite the record books (i.e., change Komito’s published 745 to a revised 748), we’ve opened a Pandora’s box. Does Komito have to remove Crested Myna from his list? But if he saw Rosy-faced Lovebird (addition to the ABA Checklist likely), can he add it? What about California Condor? Why can’t he add Cackling Goose and Pacific Wren? Do we really have to wait until 2077 (let’s say) for the AOU to re-split the Dark-eyed Junco complex? What about big years from before the Gadsden Purchase? Heck, what about big years from before the founding of the ABA? (People did big years back then, of course.) What if Greenland gets added to the ABA Area, as has been proposed? This just goes on and on and on.

2. Let the published numbers stand as they are, and…let the real fun begin! Vanderpoel vs. Komito, (Jim) Vardaman vs. (Ted) Parker, (Kenn) Kaufman vs. (Floyd) Murdoch, (Ludlow) Griscom vs. (Roger Tory) Peterson, Lynds Jones vs. whoever else was doing big years 100 years ago… It’s just like Ruth vs. Maris vs. McGwire vs. Bonds… We hobbyists will talk about it forever, and that’s what makes it so fun.