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On the Record (Committees)

December 17, 2010

I and the Bird #140, up now at Peregrine’s Bird Blog.


There are certain things that everybody has in common. We all hurt. We all want to rule the world.  We all have something to hide (except for George Harrison and his monkey).   And we all have an opinion on everyone else’s bird reports.

See, there’s another side to the genial, friendly demeanor most birders put on in person, one steeped in skepticism and wracked by distrust.  One that will always, always, question that Connecticut Warbler or that March Broad-winged Hawk or the 75 American Golden-Plovers when there have never been more than 25 reported in the area before.  It’s because birding is hard, and it takes time to perfect (such that it ever can really be perfected), and misidentifications are common even among experienced birders.  With that in mind most doubt has more to do with understanding the limitations of what we do, and in time most birders who stick with get past the point of making questionable sightings to the point where they question sightings as much as anybody.  It’s the circle of suspicion.  Kum-bay-ya.

Anyway, the idea that birders make mistakes, even birders that convince themselves otherwise, and that honestly it’s totally cool making mistakes as long as you don’t take yourself too seriously is covered with aplomb recently at Bourbon, Bastards, and Birds here.  What I want to discuss is the idea that in order to make sure that those important records and sightings are legit, you need a committee of expert birders to verify them.  Enter the Rare Bird Committee, one of the most important and controversial, aspects of the birding world.

Bird Records Committees get a bad rap a lot of the time.  In fact, if there’s one institution in the birding world likely to turn an otherwise even-minded and experienced birder into a fit of sputtering rage, it’s almost always going to be the state BRC.  There’s something about the idea that there’s a secret cabal of expert birders there to tell you what you did or didn’t see when you damn well know what you saw that is an uncomfortable thing with a lot of birders, and if there are any lingering feuds or sore feelings among groups of birders you can bet a decision by the BRC is behind it.

As an eBird reviewer I see some of this, but my job is necessarily different from that of the BRC.  An eBird reviewer is certainly concerned with state level rarities to some extent, but the balance of our work has to do with local birds, out of season reports, and extraordinary counts.  An invalidated late October Swainson’s Thrush is not likely to engender the same sorts of feelings as that seemingly well documented first state Bar-tailed Godwit that the RBC rejected on a split vote.  BRCs are concerned with the good birds, the reputation making or breaking birds, and since a reputation is really all you have as a birder it can perhaps be forgiven that emotions might run a little high.

The problem as I see it is that BRCs, in fact, seem to do little to dissuade this notion that they’re a secret cabal a lot of the time.  The members are, of course, always reputable birders and active members of the community, but with few exceptions, their decision making process is obscured and so drawn out that, at best, the verdicts are not made public for months or even years after the original submissions, forget about the bird itself.  Take, for instance, North Carolina’s recent White-cheeked Pintail, a bird present on the Outer Banks for a couple weeks late this summer.  I would not expect the NC BRC to levy a decision on the provenance of that bird until 2012 at the earliest, and that’s actually pretty good by BRC standards, but in a world where information can travel effectively instantly, this is still unacceptable.  And by and large, this is the norm with regard to Records Committees, some of which have backlogs of multiple years to work through.

Additionally, how the committee members are chosen does little to dissuade the notion that this self-selected group is beyond the reach of most active birders. I don’t know how it’s done in other states, but in North Carolina, members are chosen by the Committee Chair and voted on by the Executive Board of the Carolina Bird Club.  This is not to say that the NC Committee hasn’t been staffed by uniformly fine birders who fairly adjudicate the records submitted to them*, only that the impression that one can get from this selection process is one of insularity, of a core group of birders choosing amongst themselves for these few positions of influence.

*Especially those I’ll be sending in the future, right? Right?

If I had my druthers, I’d prefer to see the reverse system in place, a slate of names presented by the elected members of the exec board or even an independent nominating committee, and then voted on by the Rarity Committee for inclusion or chosen outright by the chair.  In this way you may more effectively reach beyond the conventional inner circle to local experts that may be overlooked and more importantly, who are well-known by a broader spectrum of birders.  The hope is that birders are more likely, then, to have a sense of ownership in the rarity committee itself, and may perhaps be more likely to submit their sightings in the knowledge that it won’t be going into some sort of black hole.

The idea that expert birders are reviewing your record may feel like they’re reviewing you as a birder, but it doesn’t have to be that way, it can be a learning experience for the entire community if it’s done properly.  I think the important aspect here is to open up the process, make it more transparent and increase turn-around so that it feels more like an ongoing conversation rather than an after the fact lecture.  We as birders can help too, by submitting our records in a more timely way, for starters (no sitting on that funky Grebe for months, folks!), but mostly by accepting that uncertainty and misidentification are part of the game when we signed on, and that we could all stand to lighten up a little bit about it.  That goes for everyone involved.

(Now that said, what the BRC says doesn’t really matter anyway beyond the “official” state list.  If you want to count a bird that the committee doesn’t like, you can.   It’s your list.  But that’s a discussion for another time…)

  1. December 17, 2010 10:30 am

    Good post Nate.

    • September 30, 2011 12:39 am

      If you wrote an article about life we’d all reach enlighetmnent.

  2. December 17, 2010 4:29 pm

    Thanks for the BB&B love. Yeah, I think youre on to something with the electoral process…it would make the rest of the birding community feel more involved. I have a difficult time taking any bird committee too seriously, although I do respect their opinions….but Pennyslvania’s is in my good graces at the moment, as they accepted my sight record of a Sabine’s Gull within 3 months of my submitting it! Great folks, them Pennsylvanians.

    So what is up with that pintail anyway? Did it come in after a storm?

  3. December 17, 2010 9:19 pm

    Well said, Nate!

  4. Nate permalink*
    December 17, 2010 11:16 pm

    @Laurent- Thanks!

    @Steve- My pleasure. I hope some of it sticks. Pennsylvania seems to be ahead of the curve, I’d like to see other states model that sort of quick turn-around. It doesn’t win any fans, not that RBCs a really rolling in groupies anyway. The thought…

    I don’t know what they’re going to do about the Pintail. There were so many odd circumstances surrounding it. First, the weather systems were such that it would not have been so difficult for a strong-flying bird to get here from the Bahamas or something, and it did seem to arrive following a storm. But there was another bird in Chincoteague in Virginia that showed up a few weeks before this NC bird and disappeared right before this one showed up. But some people said it had been present all summer, so I don’t know what the deal is with that one. Some said it was acting wild, some said it wasn’t. Who knows. It’s a cluster. As far as I’m concerned, if it’s acting wild, it’s wild enough. But I’d count ’em all barring obvious signs of captivity if it were up to me. I’m a philistine like that.

    @Jason- Thanks!

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