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The sad story of a first ABA record

August 7, 2009

Hey, remember when the North American birding world was stunned by the report of a White-crowned Eleania in south Texas about a year and a half ago? It was a first record for the Northern Hemisphere, and one of those head scratching, mind boggling reports that makes you glad to be a birder, because these are the sort of amazing things you learn about that the rest of the world misses. The bird stuck around for only a couple days, but long enough that more than a few people got to enjoy it and bask in a community of like-minded individuals that is part of what makes birding so great.

But that’s not how it always happens.

Not long after the Eleania, in fact only a few months later, another South American austral migrant was found in the US. This time it was only the first record north of Panama. This time the bird turned up in Louisiana. Why didn’t it make waves the way the Eleania did? Why wasn’t the North American birding community at large even aware of it until nearly a year later? Simple, friends. Because it was shot. By birders.

I’ll give you a second.

The story of the ABA area’s first Crowned Slaty-Flycatcher is still somewhat unclear, as the bird was only seen by two individuals who then, in the parlance of museum workers, “collected the specimen”. The short encounter, which occurred during a bird survey in Cameron Parish, was relatively recently published in North American Birds and can be easily found online(.pdf). The jist of it is that the two observers, Paul Conover and Buford Myers, found the bird, didn’t know exactly what it was, took a few pictures, and shot it.

Let me be clear when I say I am in no way against the policy of collecting specimens for museum study. I volunteer at a museum where a big part of my work is preparing those very specimens. I subscribe to the idea that a bird collected from a stable population in good habitat will be quickly replaced by another. What we learn from those species is worth it in terms of protecting populations as a whole, and I’ve seen the work bird scientists, artists, and others do from museum collections. It’s good, and I’ll generally defend collection to anyone who’ll listen. That’s not my concern. But, and I’m just as adamant about this, I fail to see the value of collecting this particular bird at this particular time in this particular situation.

In looking into this issue, the only publically available explanation I’ve seen from Conover, the individual who actually pulled the trigger, was in a Surfbirds forum from this past spring. In it he states that he considered his intentions to be “honest and clear”, but doesn’t go into any more details. I think he’s missing the point. I’d be willing to bet that most birders can accept the collection of the occasional bird from within a healthy population, but there is a distinct difference between collecting a bird where it regularly occurs and collecting a vagrant, especially one as wildly far off as our Flycatcher.

The AOU agrees, and in its statement on collecting defines the reasons why the collection of a bird would be useful…

The AOU regards responsible collecting of birds as an essential research method for studying the biology, ecology, systematics, and genetics of wild birds. As in laboratory research, methods of collecting used by field workers follow humane guidelines. Specimen collection plays an essential role in documenting the biodiversity of poorly known regions.

The collection of the Louisiana vagrant added nothing to the study of biology, ecology, systematics or genetics of the wild population of Crowned Slaty-Flycatchers, this bird was no longer part of such a population. The LSU collection, by all accounts, already has several specimens of Crowned Slaty-Flycatcher in it’s collection. This dead Louisiana bird is in no way unique from the Crowned Slaty-Flycatchers it now shares a drawer with except for the location scribed on its leg tag.

Nor did the bird’s collection do anything to promote the greater understanding of the biodiversity of coastal Louisiana, hardly a little known area of which the Crowned Slaty-Flycatcher is obviously not a regular part. Again, collecting birds from within stable populations is one thing, ideally the collected individual is replaced by another of the same species. But for vagrants, there’s only one.

So it’s a good thing Conover and Myers give us their reasoning. From the NAB article…

Although we were uncertain of the identification, we realized the importance of the record. Possessing the necessary permits, we decided to collect the bird.

You read that right. The bird was collected because they didn’t know what it was.

It gets worse.

Conover telephoned the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science (LSUMNS) and spoke with Bird Collection Manager Steven W. Cardiff. Conover described the specimen meticulously and conveyed our suspicions about its identity. Cardiff, with specimens to compare to our descriptions, confirmed that it sounded like a Crowned Slaty-Flycatcher.

While en route to the LSUMNS, Conover telephoned David P. Muth and John Conover. According to their Internet searches, a photographically documented Crowned Slaty-Flycatcher in central Panama in December 2007 represented the sole record outside South America (Jones and Komar 2008).

This is where things start smelling and the real reason for outrage is justified, because they waited until after the bird was dead to contact friends at the Louisiana State University Museum. People with access to no shortage of relevant reference materials and even other skins. People whose vast knowledge of South American birds would have quickly clinched the ID with a description while the bird was living. But at the time of the sighting there was apparently only confusion, the proper permits in hand, and a gun.

“But what of the twitchers?”, you might ask. Wouldn’t they make a beeline for Louisiana, belching greenhouse gasses and smashing birds on the grills of their cars all the way? Trampling habitat? Isn’t that worse?

I say no. By this argument no one should ever go birding anywhere ever again. Sure, there would be some who would travel great distances to close a gap on a list that wasn’t even there the day before, there always will be. But their numbers are generally few. The vast majority of birders traveling to see these birds are far more local. They’re folks who aren’t big listers, who will probably never have the opportunity to travel to South America to see this bird in its normal range. That’s where the excitement that surrounds these birds comes from, not 800+ club members.

Imagine, too, how much more the bird would have done for local birders and conservationists living rather than dead. Rare birds tend to make news wherever they show up, and generally that’s good news for birders. Any publicity is good for conservation in the long run. How many people might be drawn to birding by the excitement surrounding a first ABA record? How many kids?

As for the habitat, the land that the bird was seen on is adjacent to the Baton Rouge Audubon Society Peveto Woods Sanctuary who, it should be noted, lists on it’s mission that the site exists to “provide visitors with the opportunity for nature study such as birding, butterfly watching and photography; and [as] a means to promote wildlife education, research, and conservation in cooperation with others including the residents and organizations of Cameron Parish.”

Now tell me that a rare bird doesn’t help that mission. Look at how much publicity Estero Llano Grande State Park in Texas got when a Northern Jacana showed up. Instant credibility. It’s the sort of thing places like that dream of. It’s the sort of thing that keeps them solvent. None of this is a sure thing, of course, but it’s a far sight less likely now. After all, no one is coming to see a skin that’s not appreciably different from those it shares a drawer with.

These are things that Conover took from the birding community when he decided to take the bird.

As brought up in a subsequent comment on the aforementioned Surfbirds thread, there’s actually a strong case to be made that a well-documented, well-photographed report by multiple observers is actually stronger than a skin. After all, the actual observation is the only evidence that the the bird was in Louisiana in the first place and not, hypothetically, a planted skin from Ecuador. And Conover, who is by all accounts a well-respected member of the Lousiana birding community, got conclusive photos of the bird, which makes the subsequent collection all the more baffling. What more did they need?

That’s ultimately known to no one but Conover and Myers, as I’m at a loss as to any justifiable reason for the collection of the bird. If they’re honest with themselves, I suspect they’d realize they simply shot the bird because they could, as arguments as to why they should amount to nothing but hot air.

And that’s too bad, for all of us.


A follow-up can be found here.

  1. corey permalink
    August 7, 2009 8:23 am

    "The bird was collected because they didn't know what it was."


    Great post!

  2. Nate permalink
    August 7, 2009 9:19 am

    @corey- Thanks, I'm really interested in the thought process that goes from "Whoa, rare bird!" to "Let's shoot it". Because in the NAB article it gave the impression that it was not a long journey from A to B.

  3. Gavan permalink
    August 7, 2009 10:47 am

    Excellent post.

    Let's not forget the history of American birdwatching is steeped in the collection of birds for identification. A skin was (and still seems to be in this case) the "gold standard". As you suggest, with the emergence of photography for IDing and an interest in the ethical treatment of birds, that gold standard may be changing. But I think what we're seeing here is a tug between what ultimately counts as being "true" when it comes to reporting rare birds.

    I would suspect that the collectors believe that they needed the skin in order to have the ultimate confirmation of identity. For those (birders, record collectors, ornithologists) whose own ethics, beliefs or otherwise sees this as abhorrent, no justification will likely do (and in my mind, I agree with your take on the unnecessary harvest of this bird).

    In short, consider it a difference of birding culture.

  4. John permalink
    August 7, 2009 11:30 am

    In the 19th century, and even the early 20th century, there was more need for collecting as a way of documenting rarities. Field optics were not very good, and photography meant dragging a view camera around. So a shotgun could be the most reliable and portable tool. But that's not really true anymore, and certainly wasn't true of the sighting in Louisiana. It's definitely a sign of a different birding culture.

    A(n alive) rare bird documented there would have given the sanctuary some publicity as a birding destination. Even if it didn't attract twitchers right away, it probably would have attracted some more birders to visit, with benefits to the local economy.

  5. Nate permalink
    August 7, 2009 11:53 am

    @Gavan- An interesting and thought-provoking point. It's undoubtedly a difference in culture, but I think we're at the point now where technology allows us the ability to answer questions about "truth" with a certainty that previously required a shotgun. I mean, we're at the point now that it's shocking to me that they even had a shotgun with them on a bird survey. That's surely something I wouldn't, and don't, understand.

    At this point in history, however, I think we have the perspective to make ethical judgments as to the "rightness" of Conover and Myer's actions with the CSFL. And I think we can objectively say what they did was unnecessary, and therefore, with respect to the welfare of the bird, wrong.

    @John- I absolutely agree. It's obviously impossible to say for sure, but I think it's at least worth considering the economic impact a rare bird can have on the immediate region. Look at the Brown-backed Solitaire in AZ as an example.

  6. dAwN permalink
    August 7, 2009 2:39 pm

    Excellent post!
    I cant believe that this happened! I had no idea that this was even allowed to happen!
    Ridiculous is my opinion..stupid..selfish act! Think fellas before u act!

  7. pinguinus permalink
    August 7, 2009 8:48 pm

    Besides the birding and conservation community, I bet the great state of Louisiana could have used the tourist dollars.

  8. Mike permalink
    August 7, 2009 9:23 pm

    Very well written and argued, Nate. I couldn't agree more.

  9. Grant McCreary permalink
    August 7, 2009 9:27 pm

    I had the exact same reaction when I read the article in NAB (well, not nearly as well-articulated and thought-out as yours, but in general the same 🙂 ).
    It has already been said, and I agree, that collecting does still have a place in modern-day ornithology. But that place does not include collecting an obviously vagrant bird HERE for purposes of identification. Not when photos and other methods of identification are (and in this case, were) available.
    I hope that this doesn't happen again.

  10. Greg permalink
    August 7, 2009 10:30 pm

    This is one of your best! I didn't have a clue about this unfortunate, good old boy approach to birding, but you are "spot on" in your analysis. I hope the boys are paying attention to the blogosphere.

  11. nishiki_85 permalink
    August 8, 2009 8:37 am

    An excellent post. As a biologist and a birder, I'm stunned that this could happen.

  12. wellregardedbirds permalink
    August 8, 2009 10:38 am

    Excellent post. I think your last paragraph explains why- because they could. No justification required in their minds. This is only one example. I wonder how many other times they routinely use their gun in the name of science?

  13. Nate permalink
    August 8, 2009 1:24 pm

    @Dawn- I think very few birders were aware of it, as it got very little attention at the time.

    @pinguinus- Undoubtedly. I can think of few places that could use it more than coastal Louisiana.

    @Mike- Thanks!

    @Grant- Agreed. The AOU claims to be working on more explicit guidelines for collecting. It's unlikely to be in relation to this but perhaps it may change a few minds. Of course, the AOU ultimately doesn't have a whole lot of real authority beyond mere suggestion.

    @Greg- Thanks, I think it's unlikely that my opinion would have an impact on the old boy school of ornithology as apparently practiced in LA. After all, if they're old enough to consider a shotgun an essential birding tool I suspect the birding blogosphere might not be on their radar. It skews younger.

    @nishiki- You and me both. My first impulse for a rarity, especially one of that magnitude is photos, then phone call. It would not occur to me to collect the bird.

    @wellregardedbirds- You're absolutely right. It probably wasn't even much of a consideration, which frankly I find baffling. It would be an interesting question to pose to find how often this sort of thing goes on.

  14. Laurent permalink
    August 10, 2009 9:17 am

    1) it is a good thing I don't shoot all the birds I can not identify..

    2) OK, so they shoot the bird in the name of science. It has been a year now. Now it is the time for them to prove they actually learned something valuable from this specimen (more than the simple confirmation of the bird ID). If not (which I am expecting), they should have their permit suspended. Am I logical or not?

  15. Jochen permalink
    August 10, 2009 11:22 am

    I think you have a point there, Laurent. Another argument for the collection of the bird is that now it can be studied at length, e.g. to find out why this bird overshot its natural range end ended up in North America: parasites, genetic malfunctions etc.
    So far so good, but I'd really like to see this kind of research actually happening. And I am also sure there are plenty of shot and conserved vagrants already in the collections of the museums. Has this kind of research been done with those as well?
    On the other hand, birders could have (ideally) followed the bird to see how it was fairing in an alien environment and draw conclusions about e.g. life expectancy in vagrants. I agree with pretty much everyone here on this forum that the shooting of the bird was ethically questionable at best and also scientifically unnecessary.
    And to me, one of the key issues of Nate's excellent article is this: why did they take a gun along in the first place??

  16. Nate permalink
    August 10, 2009 2:19 pm

    @Laurent- An excellent question. By now the justification should be clear. If it was only to line the shelves of the LSUMNS, though, that's a shame.

    @Jochen- The gun question is central to understanding the mentality of Conover and Myers. Is this how bird surveys are done in LA? That, just about more than anything, was shocking.

  17. forestal permalink
    August 11, 2009 7:26 am

    Thanks for this informative post. Truly sad but not unbelievable this can/does happen.


  18. Warren and Lisa Strobel permalink
    August 11, 2009 8:58 am

    Shocked and sad. I'm in the company with those who believe that much, much more could have been learned by observing the bird. Thanks for an excellent post- glad we found you!

  19. Andt permalink
    August 11, 2009 1:13 pm

    This ranks right along side the case in the Philippians where a rare bird thought to be extinct was seen, photographed, killed and sold at the meat market.

  20. MaineBirder permalink
    August 11, 2009 5:18 pm

    As reflected in another comment, it's a good thing I don't kill every bird I can't ID!

    It's a sad state of affairs to do this to a bird that is so far from it's range.

  21. Ali Iyoob permalink
    August 12, 2009 5:33 pm

    This really was horrible, because nothing was gained and one might not show up in the ABA Area for another 50 yrs!

  22. Paul Conover permalink
    August 21, 2009 7:01 pm

    I didn't go into greater detail on Surfbirds because I felt it was fairly useless to argue with people who've already made up their minds about this issue. However, I would like to clear up a few mistaken assumptions that the present case for outrage seems to rest upon.

    First off, the bird wasn't collected because of ID uncertainty. Mac had seen this species in S.A., and his uncertainty consisted of not remembering the exact name of the species–although he recalled it had the longest binomial of any bird–and whether or not it had any close look-alike congeners. This bird was collected because we felt its scientific value as a specimen was so great. Had we known the ID chapter and verse, we would have still collected it. Keep in mind that there are very few specimens of vagrant austral migrants from the U.S., and while many believe that there's a genetic basis for vagrancy in his group, there's almost no genetic material to test this theory.

    Many have stated that specimens are no more than dusty stuffed birds, and that collecting is a pointless holdover from the past. In reality, while a lot of collecting in the past was useless, modern DNA and isotope studies can provide information that was untouchable only a few years ago. Surely more methods will emerge in the near future that will make this specimen even more valuable to science.

    As for the implications to birders, listing the mission statement of adjacent land is curious. How does that connect? It simply happened to be on the same chenier as a small Audubon Sanctuary. A parallel to the Elaenia in Texas doesn't fit. As I recall, the Elaenia situation was hardly a mellow affair, anyway. By the time it left there was a rather acrimonious discussion about the ethics of viewers stirred up. Some were claiming birders had spotlighted it in the dark, and others accused a Texas school of collecting it. There was a lot of anger from birders who missed out on it.

    I do appreciate the kind appraisal of my photos. However, you'll notice that they're still grainy even after the photo editor of NAB did everything he could to make them publishable. They are barely, if at all, conclusive, but that's not really relevant. We didn't collect the bird to ID it, or prove the sighting.

    I personally have no problem with anyone collecting similar birds. The facts are that it is abundant in its range, that it was so off-course that return was no longer possible, and that the specimen has great scientific potential. I would agree with anyone in a similar position that decided to collect such a bird.

    Again, I'm happy to state my position, but anything more than that would be sinking into argument. It's easy enough for anyone who disagrees to brand me as a redneck Neanderthal with a rifle rack in back, or some clueless academic that looks down on birders. I can't change those views, and I won't try. Those inclined to outrage will feel outrage no matter what I say.

    Paul Conover

  23. Nate permalink
    August 23, 2009 5:44 pm

    @Paul- Fair enough. While I disagree with your justification, I certainly appreciate and respect your coming here to defend yourself in what would probably be considered hostile territory. I apologize for letting your comment hang out in limbo for a couple days, it, wasn't intentional, I just missed it.

    I do remember the issues with the Eleania, as I followed the threads on Tex-birds when the bird was discovered. I agree that much of the acrimony among birders who missed it was silly. You can't predict how long birds like that stick around, and people should have known that going in. In fact I suspect most people knew and accepted that, with complainers being relatively few, though admittedly I'm not familiar with the TX birding community. I still think it's a legit comparison however, if only from the species similarity (both austal migrants, both flycatchers, etc).

    I personally believe that collecting is a legitimate and positive tool for bird science. I have no intention of arguing otherwise and would support you generally in that endeavor. This bird is a tricky subject though, and I won't deny that my instincts and interests as a birder rather than a academic are largely behind the distaste I feel at this particular collection. You're probably right, those inclined to disagree will do so regardless.

    In any case, thanks much for commenting.


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