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The honesty of birders

July 2, 2010
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When I was doing my North Carolina Big Year in 2008 I was occasionally asked by my co-workers, who were following along with varying levels of amused bewilderment, why I didn’t just say I saw a bird and put it on my list.  I was, after all, by myself during much of that year in the field and they were right, I could have tagged on a handful of extra common species I missed and no one would be the wiser.  I could have even crossed the 300 threshold, peaked at a respectable 310 or so and gone on with my birding career,  even telling other birders about those extra 11 species and they no doubt would have believed me and congratulated me on the accomplishment.  Of course, it wouldn’t surprise any of you to know that I didn’t do such a dastardly deed.  And I suspect any of you wouldn’t either.

Of course every group of people brought together by a common interest has those who may stretch the truth to increase their reputation or to make themselves seem more skilled than they actually are.  But for an avocation that depends greatly on the integrity of its participants, birding seems largely free of outright deception.  There’s simply no reason to be intentionally dishonest.  It’s fairly intuitive as to why this is.  Because, at its core, birding is an intensely personal experience.  While we may at times join up with others, the way we ascribe meaning to our relationship with birds is known only to the individual.  And when you say you tick a bird without actually finding that bird, and I realize I’m going to be putting on my best paternal face here, you’re only cheating yourself young man (or woman).

This, of course, is somewhat self-evident, which is why birders generally trust reports b other birders of common and even most uncommon species.  It’s this sort of watching out for each other that makes the data collected from years of Breeding Bird Surveys and Christmas Bird Counts dependable despite the very base level of official documentation.  I may not know you personally, but as a birder I believe your 150 Northern Cardinals are legit.

Why? Because the vast majority of birders are very conscious of their limitations and manage them accordingly.  Likewise, birders as a group are exceptionally open to passing on knowledge in a way that is both friendly and free of judgment.  There are exceptions of course, there always are, but I’d like to think we strive to be honest because it’s in every one of our best interests to be completely open about what we saw and how we make those decisions and to pass on that information.  It’s crucial on many fronts beyond that of just cheating yourself.  The community of birders is held together by the desire to see birds and there’s simply no reason (beyond certain short-term competitive or environmental interests) to retain knowledge desired by other birders with similar interests and even less reason to fabricate that information.  In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to find another avocation for which implied honesty is such an integral part of the community, it simply cannot function without it.  To the point that, over time, the old adage “trust, but verify” seems largely replaced by simply “Trust”.

I suppose the real question is does this unspoken understanding translate into real life outside of birding?  It’s obviously hard to say for sure, but from my merely circumstantial perspective I’ve found that birders are generally some of the most trustworthy and reliable people around.  In many cases, simply being a birder is enough to let one’s guard down.  I don’t know if the ethics needed to be considered a reliable field birder will always make a person similarly dependable in all aspects of their life, but it can’t hurt, right?  After all, is there any other group of people that would engender such a response?  If someone told you they were a birdwatcher, wouldn’t you immediately give them the benefit of the doubt on matters on non-avian import?  I probably would, though perhaps that’s a question best asked of someone outside of our community.

Mutual admiration society aside, maybe this subconscious culture is part of why birding is apparently the fasting growing hobby in the United States.  Because in world where it seems like you just can’t trust anyone anymore, the culture of birding’s heavy emphasis on trust and honesty is a breath of fresh air.  At least I’ve always thought so.

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6 Comments
  1. July 2, 2010 8:39 am

    I think most of what you say is true, but I don’t think self-respect is the only deterrent to false reports. I have noticed that birders who consistently see birds that no one else sees start to develop a reputation for that and may not have their real rarity sightings taken as seriously.

  2. Nate permalink*
    July 2, 2010 8:53 am

    @John- Excellent point. That was another paragraph I ended up editing out and almost wish I’d left in. As a birder, your reputation takes on extra importance since in many case it’s the only way people can determine the validity of rarities without additional documentation. It’s all you have. But it’s a strange thing, because birders still generally allow for a fair amount of give if it’s clear that the reporter is inexperienced and willing to learn. Frequent demonstrable mistakes tied with a reluctance to accept those mistakes is generally the only situation in which a reputation is irrevocably damaged. And once damaged, it’s really hard to fix.

    But that’s an ethical question beyond birding too. The whole boy who cried wolf scenario, and such people are considered untrustworthy in the general population as well. Unless, of course, they’re political pundits in which case they keep getting work. 🙂

    So self-respect and self-preservation together are enough to validate most bird reports.

  3. July 2, 2010 8:33 pm

    Terrific essay. I’ve asked myself the same question, and have come up with pretty much the same answers. I’ve noticed that there is definitely a culture of mutual trust in the birding community — for instance, when carpooling on birding trips, I’ve often gotten rides from, or given rides to, total strangers, something I normally wouldn’t consider doing. I’ve met lots of absolutely delightful people this way. I hope this part of birding culture never changes.

  4. July 2, 2010 10:09 pm

    Not only are the birders that I’ve met honest, they’re also exceptionally nice. And birders always seem to be willing to share, whether it’s knowledge, time, or anything else. The most amazing thing is that this seems to be universal (at least in this country, not sure about elsewhere), as evidenced by your post.

  5. July 12, 2010 1:52 pm

    Interesting commentary, Nate. Now here’s a question – does being a birder typically tend to make you more honest, or does birding inherently attract people who are more honest by nature?

  6. Nate permalink*
    July 12, 2010 9:50 pm

    @Felicia- Absolutely. I’ve been involved in a handful of subcultures for which there’s a sense of mutual trust, but nothing like birding. It’s a feather in our cap for sure.

    @Grant- Too true about the universality of the friendliness. It’s almost as if the shared experience of being passionate about birds and birding amounts to a functional common history regardless of your background anywhere in the world. It’s an amazing thing.

    @Seabrooke- Great question. I’d say that I personally tend to trust people with an interest in nature, but that the trial by fire of vetting sightings and building reputations makes one more honest in their dealings outside our community too. But maybe I’m trying to convince myself of that.

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