Monday, September 15, 2008

Birdist Symposium: Do Birders Have an Obligation to Report Exceptional Sightings?

I've been thinking recently about the social network created by birding listservs and other reporting mechanisms.  The benefits of birding listservs (of the kind best catalogued here) are many: they help birders find birds, meet and coordinate with other birders, improve their identification skills, etc. I, for one, am almost entirely dependent on my local listserv to plan, understand and coordinate my activities.

However, birding is, at its base, an individual pursuit.  Birders become dependent on listservs because they are convenient, not because they're necessary.  Sightings are posted voluntarily, and users are therfore reliant on the volunteerism of others to make the activity worthwhile.  I find that the nature (and volume) of this mass volunteerism raises a tricky question: since birders receive the substantial benefits of listserv messages for free, at some point do they become obligated to "pay back" into the system sightings of their own?

I posed the following scenarios to several people, both birders and non-birders, to get their take.  I have personally witnessed variations on both scenarios, and I can only imagine that they are common to every birding listserv around.  I purposefully did not mention the ABA's Birding Code of Ethics, in part because I wanted to see if people brought it (or a similar system) up on their own and in part because I don't necessarily see its provisions followed in the field.  

Below is the question I presented, and answers from: Norm Saunders, founder of MDOsprey; Professor David Owen, professor of Environmental Law at the UMaine School of Law; John Beetham, author of A DC Birding Blog; Professor Joseph Grange, professor of Environmental Ethics at the University of Southern Maine; Jeff Harding, a birder from Oregon and finally my own thoughts.

Scenario #1: Carried astray by some natural force, a Wood Stork lands in a marsh in Maine. Although the area is rural, a birder happens to be at the marsh and, luckily, finds the bird. Knowing that there are only a handful of records for the state, the birder excitedly photographs the bird and returns home. He reports the find to his birding friends and emails some of his photos off to the local Audubon chapter for ID confirmation, but does not report the sighting to his local birding listserv (though he frequently relies on the listserv for sightings in other parts of the state). The local Audubon naturalist speeds out to the marsh and rediscovers the Stork that afternoon, but none of the other birders with knowledge of the sighting are able to make it to the marsh until the next morning, after the bird has disappeared. Word of the sighting makes its way onto the listserv the next day.

Scenario #2: Placed by those same mysterious forces, a Northern Hawk Owl is found at the edge of a high school soccer field in Virginia. The birders who discovered the owl quickly alert their local birding listserv and report the sighting on eBird. In a matter of hours, birders are arriving in the dozens. The majority of these birders have never seen a Northern Hawk Owl before, especially in Virginia. Soon, birders cars have clogged the high school's parking lot and have begun to spill out onto the street. The school's soccer team complains about the lack of parking and about the large group of birders milling about the field. Photographers work to get as close as possible to the owl. Several birders talk loudly or bring their dogs, irritating those visitors who see themselves as more respectful and cautious. After several days the bird flies off having been seen by hundreds of birders.

Keeping in mind the factors on both sides: i.e. the intent of listservs to alert all interested birders v. the possible drawbacks of a large influx of birders to a particular site, do you think birders have an obligation to report exceptional sightings?

NORM SAUNDERS, founder of MDOsprey

My response to both of the scenarios is pretty much the same.  Yes, you should report the sighting to your local listserv but only after you’ve done two things:

1) Ensure the well-being of the bird and 2) ensure the well-being of the site.

If reporting the bird will endanger it (this is particularly true of many owl sightings) then you should work with local birders to make sure ground rules are laid down for visiting the bird, for proper behavior while visiting, and for reporting troublesome birders (and photographers) to the local listserv.  Make sure these ethical considerations are spelled out in detail when the observation is reported to the listserv.

If the location of the bird will be problematic to those living or working around the location, then every effort must be made to let the people there know what to expect.  Tell them why the bird is interesting and enlist them in the process of policing birders who show up.  Give them the name of someone in the local birding community who will work with them to deal with problem issues as they arise.

My feelings about NOT reporting a good bird to the local listserv are that this should be done only if the bird is an endangered species, if the bird is on private property with no easy access and the property owners are adamant about no trespassing, or any other reason that would put birders in a bad light with the local community or landowner.   Otherwise I think in this day of competitive birding that we all have an obligation to report good sightings.

Refer your readers to the ABA Code of Birding Ethics at:

Look here for an interview I did with Norm about the beginnings of online birding, and here for the archives of MDOpsrey.

PROFESSOR DAVID OWEN, Professor of Environmental Law, University of Maine School of Law

I am not a bird-watcher in any formal sense, but it seems to me that at the core of birdwatching must be a love of wild birds; why else would one engage in the activity?  And that love, I would think, should be accompanied by a respect for birds' needs, both individually and as species, for it would be a false love that harms its object.

That means that in selecting his course of conduct, the birder ought to be guided not just by his own desires and the needs of the birding community, but also by the interests of the bird itself. The bird's interests ought to be particularly important if the bird is rare, or appears in a location where it is not typically found, for such a bird is likely to be particularly vulnerable, ecologically valuable, or both.  And if, as this excerpt suggests, a stampede is the common result of a posting about an exotic bird sighting on the list-serve, it seems to me that our birder could not justify posting his siting to the list-serve.  The posting might serve his own short-term interests by repaying the benefits he has derived from the list-serve, and it might benefit other birders by allowing them to see the bird. But it would be destructive to the bird itself, and that, I think, forecloses posting as an ethical option.

That conclusion also suggests that our birder, though he has relied on the listserv to find birds in the past, ought to be careful about using it in the future.  I am not sure he should be absolutely foreclosed from using it to locate birds, but I think that, having determined that he cannot post because it might lead to harmful birdwatcher stampedes, he at a minimum has an obligation to ensure that he never relies on someone else's post to become a participant in a stampede.  To do otherwise would be to wrong not just the bird but also the community.

These conclusions suggest that perhaps the existence of the listserv itself is problematic. Unless birders, like some other recreational hobbyists (rock climbers, for example), can develop a group ethic that prevents stampedes, a listserv seems like an invitation to trouble.

JOHN BEETHAM, author of A DC Birding Blog

I would not advance a general obligation for birders to report rare bird sightings to state or local listserves. In some cases it might be better not to report them right away; for example, someone whose identification skills are weak would be better off finding a local birder or two to confirm the identification before reporting the sighting and prompting many birders to drive miles to look for it.

In your first scenario, I would suggest reporting the wood stork to the state listserv as soon as possible. For someone who regularly gets tips from other birders, there is an obligation to reciprocate when the opportunity arises. (In this I am following a Golden Rule-type principle.) In the second scenario, I would hesitate to report the sighting since I have read often not to reveal owl roosts since attention could force an owl to change locations or disrupt its hunting. I am not sure how susceptible Northern Hawk Owls are to disturbance, but that is something I would want to research before reporting the sighting.

Read A DC Birding Blog.

PROFESSOR JOSEPH GRANGE, Professor of Environmental Ethics at the University of Southern Maine

My response may be too abrupt but it is what I consider to be the correct one. Since these are all voluntary organizations, they should create their own rules for such incidents. If they [the rules] are offensive, dangerous or otherwise illegal, they will quickly come to the attention of the public.

Birdist: If rules were created and adopted, how would a voluntary organization - without overseers or administration - enforce them?

Most voluntary organizations have an array of options for dealing with those who 'break' their rules, from expulsion to fines to public expression etc.

JEFF HARDING, birder, Oregon

To answer the question, do birders have an obligation to report exceptional sightings, no. There is no obligation, but in balance, they ought to. It is totally situational. A birder who has used a listserv, presumably chasing rare birds reported there, has a duty of reciprocity and would be remiss if he failed to pass on a good sighting as soon as he can. In situation #1, assuming there were no issues of private property or disturbance to the bird, he should have phoned the rare bird alert from the site, or a pay phone down the road (if such things still exist), or certainly posted on the listserv as soon as he was home. On the other hand, if the marsh was private, without public viewing space, and the birder was there with the permission of the landowner, it would depend on the landowner. Her permission would be required, and if there would be damage to the habitat or landowner’s facilities, perhaps the location should not be disclosed, although the bird should be reported for the record.

From the ABA code of ethics: 1(c) Before advertising the presence of a rare bird, evaluate the potential for disturbance to the bird, its surroundings, and other people in the area, and proceed only if access can be controlled, disturbance minimized, and permission has been obtained from private land-owners. The sites of rare nesting birds should be divulged only to the proper conservation authorities.

The problem in your second scenario is not with the reporting, but with the birders who were not respectful. Bringing dogs is rarely appropriate and in this case really bad form. Interfering with the soccer game would be bad too, but in a public setting, the birders had a right to park, and use the facilities as much as the soccer team, except for the pitch itself. There is no question that the bird should have been reported.

From the ABA code of ethics:

2(c) Practice common courtesy in contacts with other people. Your exemplary behavior will generate goodwill with birders and non-birders alike.

There is no mention in the code of an obligation to report birds.

BIRDIST, birder, Maine

I think birders do have an obligation to post exceptional sightings on listservs.  Of course the bird's welfare is the top priority, but something bothers me about an individual being able to decide what is and what isn't good for a bird that would provide a lot of joy for other birders.  One of the best things about a listserv is that everyone is equal.  In your inbox, each email appears the same, regardless of the sender's expertise or lack thereof.  I think this group mentality is hurt when birders make the decision on their own to deprive others of a bird.  If a bird requires certain etiquette, make it very clear in the post.  If it is on private property and access is limited, make it clear in the post.  When everyone knows the rules of a particular site there can be better enforcement or self-regulation.  I believe that working towards effective self-regulation or more acceptable methods of enforcement against birders who break the rules is the ideal, not limiting sightings based on personal discretion.  


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