Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Interview with Dr. Keith Arnold, founder of the Texas Bird Records Committee

Records Committees are those bodies of expert birders who examine unusual bird sightings from within their state to determine their validity and accuracy.  As a regular birder, I have a tendency to romanticize such proceedings.  What power!  Are the Committee members sitting around a big round table like the Knights of Camelot?  Do they spend late nights in the backrooms of nightclubs, smoking cigars and politicking about Canada Geese subspecies?  

It's an extremely interesting subject, and I am very thankful that Dr. Keith Arnold has agreed to help me clear up my imagination.  Aside from being one of America's most respected ornithologists, Dr. Arnold is an author, a Professor Emeritus at Texas A&M and a founder of the Texas Bird Records Committee.

I'm grateful (and honored) that Dr. Arnold was able to take the time to help me clear up some of my misconceptions about Record Committees, and give me a glimpse of what actually goes on behind those closed doors:

Birdist: What was the impetus for the creation of the Texas Bird Records Committee?

Keith Arnold: Birders have a problem with rare birds and acceptance by the scientific community. Our committee started [in 1972] when George Newman, then president of the Texas Ornithological Society [and also my graduate student] asked me to form a committee to examine such records and to develop a state checklist for all birds. I did so initially by recruiting a well-known birder from each of the 8 T.O.S. regions.

What exactly were the problems? A lack of uniformity in terms of what birds were countable? A lack of knowledge of what existed, or what was common or uncommon, in Texas?

KA: Where to start?
1. The reputation of the birder for "finding" rarities...usually not "re-found" by others...
2. Species easily confused...
3. Need for documentation, even written details, but photos, recordings, etc., preferred...
4. Where are records available...
5. How does one evaluate a record that appears simply as a name in a printed account such as in American Birds or its predecessor or successor...

Given a bit of time, I'm sure that I can add to this list, but it should give you an idea as to what the birding and scientific communities face.

So you sat down with your 8 T.O.S. birders and began examining records. Because these pre-TBRC birders didn't realize that they needed a certain amount of proof for a sighting (because the TBRC didn't exist yet) did you find yourself disallowing a large number of sightings?

I imagine there must have been some controversy, or at least heated discussions, among the members of the committee and with local birders, do you remember any specific incidents?

KA: After the formation of the committee, we only considered records that were submitted to us by birders. After Greg Lasley joined the committee in the 1980s, he began to dig into the birding literature for rarities. He and Chuck Sexton complied a list of "review species", based on less than 4 records a year over a ten-year period. The committee adopted that list as its staring point, although it has been modified -- birds added or deleted and, in some cases added again; at least one committee member didn't think that we should remove ANY species because of a loss of information.

And yes, we had some "differences of opinion" with some birders, some to the extent that they refused to submit details on any rarity they encountered. Along those lines, we have a number of birders who will not submit details on a species that occurs almost every year, but does not meet the criteria for removal, simply because they know that they can find the bird in Texas almost any year. The parrots and parakeets have been a problem in that we now have sustaining populations, but the origin is in doubt; one of our former members [I think he is now back on the committee] took it upon himself to survey for breeding birds of the Red-crowned Parrot and Green Parakeet and we added these species to the Texas list, based on his findings.

While I'm sure I could dredge up some controversial records, I don't think it would do the birding public any good to do so. As stated above, we have enough difficulty in gathering details on rarities, even though dozens of birders saw [and many photographed] that particular bird. I will give you one example in which I was directly involved. I refused to accept [vote for] records of Lesser Black-backed Gull for a number of years because the only species considered in those reporting was the Greater Black-backed Gull: I wanted the committee [and birders] to consider other "black-backed" gulls. Since that time, mostly in the 1970s, the birding community has become more adept at IDing gulls and we have since added Western, Slaty-backed and Kelp and possibly Yellow-legged -- all dark-backed gulls. I continue to struggle with Iceland and Thayer's Gulls.

How are Committee members chosen and how long do they stay on?

KA: Current committee members suggest names for open positions; if more are nominated that the number of positions - usually two, then those receiving the most votes at the annual meeting will be elected. We have two members rotating "off" each year, with each serving a 3-year term, and eligible for a second term if so desired. The committee chair and the academician [the position I hold] are elected each year, usually without opposition, and have no limit to the number of terms that person can serve.

How is a sighting presented to the committee? Is it like a courtroom, where a birder or a committee member presents the information and pleads his case, or does someone in charge present each case and opens it to discussion?

KA: The TBRC has a form on the T.O.S. web site that anyone reporting a Review Species can use; we occasionally get information in a less structured way, however. We ask that all relevant photographic materials be submitted: today, that usually means digital images sent as e-mail attachments. The record [usually one of at least six] is then sent out to the committee members via an e-mail, with access to them on a web-site. 

A record that receives no more than a single nay is accepted on the 1st round; those that receive 2 or more nay votes, but at least 5 yea votes are sent as a 2nd round, with copies of votes and comments of all committee members; this may be repeated in a 3rd round with the same criteria. If the record still has at least 2 nays and 5 yeas, it goes to a fourth round for discussion and a final vote at the annual meeting; we try to hold an actual "in person" meeting and, because of the size of the state, not all members may be present. A few years ago, we modified the bylaws to permit electronic or tele-conference meetings. That came into play this year as the annual meeting was scheduled for the day Hurricane Ike hit Texas!

We don't say that we "reject" a record, but that it is a "non-accepted" record; any record can be recall for the committee if additional evidence comes forth and such a recall is usually initiated by a TBRC member.

What effect did the advent of records committees have on birding?

KA: Has this affected birding in Texas? Without doubt. We have some birders who, having submitted a "non-accepted" record, simply will not submit another record. That is unfortunate, not just for that person, but also for Texas birding. On the other hand, many Texas birders have begun to write better field notes [or begin to keep field notes], carry a camera with them and some, even a recorder, since in some cases, vocalizations are better evidence than photos. I also think that having the TBRC and a Review Species list has sharpened the skills of a number of Texas birders, as they come to understand the difficulties in identifying certain species complexes. ΓΈ


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