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Birder Jargon Project: Pieces of String

March 14, 2012
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Whenever I find myself in a situation where I end up taking about birds and birding with a group of non-birding friends or associates (yes, I have those), the part of our culture that seems to most consistently blow minds is that idea that so much of what we do is based on trust.  Birds fly, they aren’t always refound, and very often we’re in the situation of judging the validity of a sighting based solely on the reputation of a person we may have never met in person.  This is a very strange thing for the general public – hell, it’s a very strange thing among birders if you stop to think about it for more than a few seconds – and I’m invariably asked the question that every birder seems to have to answer an inordinate number of times, “how do you know they’re telling the truth?”.

And the short answer is, you don’t really.  Perhaps part of it is that, when it’s all said and done, the proper identification of individual birds is an incredibly small matter in the whole scheme of things even if it’s the entire raison d’etre of our avocation, and it’s not worth getting worked up over the regular species you might see in any given year.  Those Common Mergansers may not have been Red-breasteds, but neither are that uncommon so we just call it a wash.  And misidentifications happen.  They are as constant as the song of Yellow-throated Warblers in late March, and the wonderful thing about birders is that well-intentioned identifications are par for the course.  Even experts are not immune.  Birding, after all, is not easy and birds don’t always tee up like they do in the field guides.  It’s the very literal nature of the beast*.

*This is perhaps another opportunity for my well-worn path to the soapbox to go on about how the difference between expert birders and novices on matters of misidentification is less a matter of skill (though that plays a role) and more a matter of knowing when to keep your mouth shut and not to blurt out the first thing to come to your head.  But let’s keep on track…

What I rarely bring up when discussing trust in birding with non-birders, is the face that the malicious and intentional misleading reports of rare birds do occur.  It’s actually because of the inherent trustworthiness of birding culture worldwide that these sorts of incidents are so damaging.  But they happen often enough that we birders have a word for them.  String.

A photo means there's no string, but if I hadn't?

A person who wrongly reports a rare bird, or has a reputation for reporting unsubstantiated rarities, is a stringer.  That person is stringing.  I suppose that means we’re all strung? This is another one of those British birdwatching terms that has gained some traction in North America, though its use in the UK has some historical context.  In the no-holds-barred, bare knuckles world of British twitching there have been some egregious examples of stringing, perhaps the most famous of which was recounted in Mark Cocker’s book Birders: Tails of a Tribe (well worth a read) and involved a first UK record for Black Lark that ended up being a small wooden model photographed in soft focus at some distance so as to seem real.  So far as I know, nothing like that has ever occurred in North American birding circles.

It’s important to point out that misidentified birds wrongly reported as rare species are not, in and of themselves, examples of string.  As I mentioned above, birding is hard and people make mistakes.  But a birder can build up a reputation as a stringer if rare birds with poor details, particularly those that cannot be corroborated by photographs or subsequent observers, continue over a period. Occasionally a birder can wrongly get a bad reputation, and the sad fact is that once gotten, such notoriety can be hard to get rid of.  That’s the ugly side of birding, I suppose.  That trust that we hold in such high esteem comes with a cost.  It’s a warning to prospective birders that rare bird sightings should be taken on in full understanding of the consequences, and with full confidence of the identification, and hopefully good notes too.  Your reputation is all you have as a birder, for better or for worse.

But I suppose you don’t have to take my word for it.  I’ve always been the sketchy sort anyway…

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