Freedom of Bird Information Act
I haven’t really been making a point to avoid being provocative these days. Most of my righteous indignation of late has been focused primarily at the political sphere, as I’m sure most of your can sympathize. It’s been a while since I’ve had a good ranting on a bird related topic but a recent rare bird report on the Carolina Birds listserve put a bee in my bonnet, or a burr in my saddle, or any other number of colloquial adages regarding mild displeasure and annoyance, and even though I’ve been sitting on it a few days it still chafes my bird senses.
It’s odd because it wasn’t even a Carolina based bird, but one just across the state line in Virginia. Had it been a true blue Tarheel tenant with Big Year implications that annoyance might have been a far bit more towards the steam-escaping-from-ears-wrath end of the spectrum, but such that it is I think I’m able to come at the situation from a more circumspect position. To use the whole ordeal as a means to think about something that may become more of issue for birders down the line.
The quandary is as follows: at the beginning of the month a Brown Booby, that denizen of tropical seas, showed up on a reservoir in western Virginia just across the border of North Carolina and a relatively short drive for birders in the Winston-Salem area, slightly farther for me. Now normally such a bird would be on the listserves as soon as it was found and would spread like wildfire so that area birders, and those farther afield, could take advantage of this odd occurrence to see a super cool, mostly pelagic bird that has absolutely no business hanging out on a western Virginia reservoir. After all, vagrants are one of the truly bizarre, and arguably one of the coolest, things about birding. But that didn’t happen.
I could go on and on about how frustrating it is when an individual finds a rare bird and, through ignorance or design, doesn’t report it. That seriously sucks. But, what did happen was even more insidious. The bird was reported, but on a subscription only listserve, not on the Virginia listserve at large. This, I think, was nothing short of a travesty.
One of the appealing things about birding, to me, is it’s inherent democracy. We’re all, to some extent, looking out for each other. Even in a competitive atmosphere it’s considered bad form to find a good bird and consciously choose to limit access to said bird (unless of course, that access would harm the bird in any way). The finders of the Booby, in making the decision to report the bird only to the subscription listserve with no hint to the free one, did just that. Fortunately, the Booby was no here and gone wonder in Virginia, because the bird was still around when word went out among the hoi polloi earlier this week and several birders were able to see it. But obviously the number of birders who get to enjoy this bird is diminished when two weeks are run off the clock before we even start.
While I can see some value in a pay listserve for those who might want to avoid the onrush of e-mails of a dubious nature (whatever that is to the individual) or to a certain community of big listers willing to pony up for immediate notification of national mega-rarities. On a state or local level however, I maintain that it is fundamentally unfair to report rare birds only to some and not to all. This is, after all, one of the primary functions of the state listserve. More than anything we all benefit, either through greater interest in our shared passion or increased community among the state or region’s birders, when birds are reported. None of us benefit when a great bird is kept a secret.
So this is the problem I have with the Brown Booby incident, as well as services, like Birdpost, that seek to commodify the casual birding experience, and I make that distinction apart from professional birding guides who provide a separate and, in many parts of the world, necessary service. People are going to want to make money off of us but I think we should be wary of those who wish to do so at the expense of our shared experience and the community we’ve built over the last 50 years.