Thursday, October 30, 2014

Do's and Don'ts of Leading A Good Bird Walk

I'm not saying I'm an expert, alright?  Let's just get that out of the way now.  But I have led my fair share of bird walks, and I am developing some thoughts about how they should - and should not - be done.  Let's just get right to it.

DO remember who your audience is.  With rare exceptions, bird walks are made up of novice birders, maybe even first-timers.  They're up early, probably on a weekend.  They're skeptical of this weird activity.  As the expert in the group, your most important responsibility it not to just identify a bunch of birds, it's to introduce them to the world of birding.  Set the stage a little bit! 

Why are we here? "Believe it or not, because they all pretty much look the same, there are hundreds of different types of birds around here.  We're here to try to tell them apart."  Why is this fun?  "Birding is basically a scavenger hunt that you'll be playing non-stop from now until the end of your life.  You'll never look at the world the same way again."  Go big, you gotta impress these people.

DON'T just start identifying birds.  If you've got birders in your group who know what they're doing, they don't need you for much except as another set of eyes.  If you're with novice birders you can't just identify birds, people no one over there has any context.  It'd be like me going to a, uh, computer store and the guy going "Woah look at this one, it's got a 44 gHz processor with a 7.4 magnified superscreen!"  I can't get genuinely excited about that because I have no idea what that means.  It's the same as telling a newbie birder "Hey that's a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, I know because even though it doesn't have a ruby crown really it is smaller than a warbler and sorta blah blah blah."

DO focus on the big picture.  Talk a lot about evolution.  Talk a lot about migration.  Talk about what makes some species do some things and some species do others.  Why some are on the ground and some are on top of trees.  What they eat.  People need to get interested in birds as pieces of wildlife that are tangible and nearby, the identification will follow. 

DON'T lose people.  Look, you have a group.  Some people will wander off, and that's fine, but be mindful.  Make time for people.  Try to get some one-on-one time, it encourages people and challenges them.  Don't forget that birding in a group can be intimidating for people, they might not want to speak up if they see a bird, but it helps if you can steal a moment with them. 

DO have fun.  Enjoy yourself!  Get excited about birds you see.  High five people.  Let people know that this isn't just a boring activity.  Leave them wanting more, and next time you see them they'll be out birding on their own.  Success.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Birds at Large: Geico Commercial

You think I like this?  You think I want to do this?  Do you think I sit here just waiting for some dumb ad agency to dumbly cram a bunch of random birds into a commercial so I can gallop up on my highest of high horses?

No, I don't.  I have a life, you guys.  I have friends, and a girlfriend, and a dog to walk.  There's baseball on TV.  No, I have to do this.  It's sorta like a superhero.  No, it's exactly like a superhero.  With great power comes great responsibility, right?  I have the power of proper bird identification, and now it's my responsibility to make sure that birds appearing in popular culture do so accurately. It's just what I have to do.  So here it is.

GEICO made a dumb commercial about Taz from Looney Tunes drinking an energy drink and then  spinning around Taz-style and busting up an adjacent commercial shoot for commemorative plates depicting "state birds."  As far as GEICO commercials go, it's not the best.  Being honest, GEICO has a great track record for funny commercials.  Those caveman commercials are masterpieces, I'm not even gonna front.  Compared to the heaps and heaps of garbage that make up television commercials, GIECO stands above.

That said, this Taz ad sucks.  First, Taz doesn't need an energy drink to do the whirlwind thing, he always does that.  Taz should be even MORE bonkers after an energy drink, maybe like, uh, destroying a Midwestern city like a Twister-style tornado.  I don't know.

Secondly, and more importantly for this audience, are the goddamn bird plates.  The voiceover says these are plates that commemorate the 50 states birds in the U.S.  Let's see what we've got.

Let's go from left to right.
  • Black-capped Chickadees.  These are the state birds of both Maine and Massachusetts.  Hey, these could really be plates commemorating the state birds of all fifty states!
  • Wood Ducks.  Oh, nevermind. Wood Ducks are the state birds of 0 states.  These are not plates commemorating the state birds of all fifty states.
  • Northern Cardinal.  Yeah OK.
  • Bald Eagle.  Not a state bird, you idiots.
  • Tundra Swan.  See above.
  • Northern Cardinal.  You got lucky.
  • Tufted Titmice.  Ok I think we've done enough here.
Whelp that's all! Thanks everyone! Tip your waitresses.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Changes to the ABA's Recording Rules

A few days ago the ABA quietly announced updates from its revived Recording Standards & Ethics Committee to the ABA Recording Rules - the guidelines for when a birder can and can't "count" a bird on his or her lists.  The updates are the first since 2004, and several important changes were made along with many minor ones.

Below is a comparison of the 2004 and 2014 rules, showing what's been updated, added and removed.  Deletions are in strikethrough, additions are in bold.  I have put the rule titles in red, simply for orientation.

I have also included some initial thoughts on the changes at the bottom.


Members who submit lifelist a life list and/or other lists annual list totals to the American Birding Association's "Listing Central" for publication in the annual ABA List Report must observe the ABA Recording Rules. Many non-members who enjoy maintaining lists may also find these rules useful.  The member submitting a list is henceforth in these Rules termed the "recorder." A recorder may include a species bird included in totals submitted for ABA lists if the reorder has must have been encountered a bird that is a member of the species in accordance with the following ABA Recording Rules.

(1) The bird must have been within the prescribed area and time-period when encountered and the encounter must have occurred within the prescribed time period.

(2) The bird must have been a member of a species currently listed on accepted by the ABA Checklist Committee for lists within its area The ABA Area, or by on the AOU Check-list for lists outside the ABA Area and within the AOU area, or by on the Clements Checklist for all other areas.

(3) The bird must have been alive, wild, and unrestrained when encountered.

(4) Diagnostic field-marks characteristics for the bird, sufficient for the recorder to identify it to species, must have been seen and/or heard and/or documented by the recorder at the time of the encounter for the bird encountered.

(5) The bird must have been encountered under conditions that conform to the ABA Code of Birding Ethics.

Interpretations of the Recording Rules

The five ABA Recording Rules should define what is countable in the vast majority of circumstances. The ABA Recording Standards & Ethics Committee has developed the following definitions and interpretations to guide recorders in those few special situations where the Rules may not be sufficiently comprehensive.

RULE 1: The bird must have been within the prescribed area and time-period when encountered, and the encounter must have occurred within the prescribed time period.

A. Within means that the bird must be within the prescribed area when observed, although the observer need not be. For example, if an observer on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande identifies a bird across the river on the Mexican side, the bird may be counted on his Mexican list but not on his/her ABA Area list.

B. Prescribed area and time period are defined for the particular list:
(i) The ABA Checklist Area is defined in the current ABA's bylaws and in the current ABA Checklist as the 49 continental United States, Canada, the French islands of St. Pierre et and Miquelon, and adjacent waters to a distance of 200 miles from land or half the distance to a neighboring country, whichever is less. Excluded by these boundaries are Bermuda, the Bahamas, Hawaii, and Greenland.
(ii) A subarea of the ABA Checklist Area, or other prescribed area, is as defined by its legal boundaries. If not legally defined otherwise, it includes adjacent waters (rivers, lakes, bays, sounds, etc.) out to half the distance to a neighboring area, but not beyond 200 miles.
(iii) Birds observed on or over an ocean are counted for the area having jurisdiction over the nearest land, if within 200 miles.

C. "Encounter" means seen and/or heard live and not remotely.

(i) A bird seen on a webcam or other remote camera may not be counted, except for lists specifically defined to include birds seen remotely.

(ii) A bird heard via a sound augmentation device may be counted only if the recorder is present at the location of the device and hears the vocalization in real-time. 

RULE 2: The bird species must have been a species currently accepted by listed on the ABA Checklist Committee for lists within its the ABA area, or by the on the A.O.U. Checklist for lists outside the ABA area and within the A.O.U. area, or by Clements Checklist for all other areas.

A. Species means that each full species is counted only once on most ABA lists. Additional subspecies or color morphs are not counted as additional entries except on lists specifically defined to include such identifiable forms.

B. currently accepted by listed on the ABA Checklist Committee means:
(i) the species must be (a) included in the current published ABA Checklist, as modified by subsequent Supplements, or (b) formally accepted by the ABA Checklist Committee for inclusion in the next published ABA Checklist or Supplement. Species listed as “species of hypothetical origin” and species that have been deleted from the main ABA Checklist are NOT considered to be accepted;
(ii) species listed in Appendix: Part 2, Provenance Uncertain, are not considered countable;

(iii) a species listed in Appendix Part 1, Extirpated Exotics, may be counted if encountered prior to its removal from the main Checklist;

(iv) an indigenous species currently accepted by listed on the Checklist Committee but observed in the past when it was not considered a valid full species may be counted;
(v) an individual of an introduced species may be counted only where and when it [sic] part of, or straying from, a population that meets the ABA Checklist Committee’s definition of being established; for being an established population. An introduced species observed well away from the accepted geographic area is not counted if it is more likely to be a local escape or release rather than an individual straying from the distant population;
(vi) an individual of a reintroduced indigenous species may be counted if it is part of a population that has successfully hatched young in the wild which is reintroduced into an historic range of the species may be counted when the population meets the ABA Checklist’s definition of being established or when it is not possible to reasonably separate the reintroduced individual from a wild-born individual; individuals from naturally occurring individuals;
(vii) hybrids are not countable. Any bird with physical characteristics outside the natural range of variation for the species and clearly suggesting that it is a hybrid should be treated as a hybrid under the ABA Recording Rules. Songs in oscine passerines are is a learned behavior and should not be used as evidence of hybridization with that group;

C. A.O.U. Check-list means the latest edition of the American Ornithologist's Union Checklist of North American Birds and its Supplements.

D. AOU Area means the geographic area covered by the AOU Check-list of North American Birds.

E. Clements Checklist means the latest edition of The Clements Checklist of Birds of the World “Birds of the World: A Check List”, by James F. Clements, and its Supplements and its Updates and Corrections.

F. The taxonomic status of a bird as a full species, and thus its countability, is determined by the standard for the list on which the bird is to be counted. The ABA Checklist is the standard for all list areas contained completely within its the ABA Area. The A.O.U. Check-list of North American Birds is the standard for all list areas contained completely within its the Check-list's area covered, and with at least some portion outside the ABA Checklist Area. Clements is the standard for all list areas with at least some portion outside the A.O.U. Check-list area. (Updated supplements will be issued annually for the ABA Checklist, the A.O.U. Check-list and Clements.) Thus, it is possible that two birds seen in the continental USA would be counted as one species on state and ABA Area lists, and as two species on a World List, or vice versa if their taxonomic treatment differs between the ABA Checklist and the Clements Checklist. (from Winging It, October 1992, p. 20).

G. Updated supplements will be issued annually for the ABA Checklist, the A.O.U. Checklist, and the Clements Checklist. Should updating supplements be overdue by one year for any of these three standards, recorders may petition the ABA Recording Rules Standards and Ethics Committee for exceptions to the standards, based on recent publication of a significant taxonomic change.

RULE 3: The bird must have been alive, wild, and unrestrained when encountered.

A. “Alive” means after hatching. Eggs are not counted as live birds.

B. “Wild” means that the bird’s occurrence at the time and place of observation is not because it, or its recent ancestors, has ever been transported or otherwise assisted by man for reasons other than rehabilitation purposes.
(i) An otherwise wild bird that voluntarily uses or is attracted to a feeder, nest box, audio playback tape recorder, ship at sea, or other nonnatural device, without being captured is still considered to be wild. Physical contact between an observer and a bird does not automatically preclude a bird from being counted, as there are situations where wild birds have learned to eat from outstretched hands, or have used people as temporary perches.
(ii) A species observed far from its normal range may be counted if, in the observer’s best judgment and knowledge, it arrived there unassisted by man. A wild bird following or riding a ship at sea, without being captured, is considered to be traveling unassisted by man.
(iii) Birds Individuals of exotic species descendant from escapes escapees or released birds are considered “wild” when they are part of a population which that meets the ABA Checklist Committee's definition of an established. introduced population.

(iv) A bird that is not wild and which later moves unassisted to a new location or undergoes a natural migration is still not wild.

C. “Unrestrained” means not held captive in a cage, mist trap, mistnet, hand, or by any other means, and not under the influence of such captivity. A bird is considered under the influence of captivity after its release until it regains the activities and movements of a bird which that has not been captured.
(i) A bird is under the influence of captivity during its initial flight movement away from its release point and during subsequent activity reasonably influenced by the captivity. such as initial perching and preening or early sleeping or roosting near the release point.
(ii) A nocturnal species released during daylight which goes to roost near the point of release is considered under the influence of captivity until the next nightfall, when it has left its roost and begun normal nocturnal activities.

(ii) A wild bird that is injured, sick, oiled, or otherwise incapacitated, but which retains a reasonable freedom of movement, may be counted.
(iv) Banders working on licensed projects under proper permits may count, for their personal lists, the birds that they band, without the restrictions described in (i) and (ii).

D. “When observed encountered” means that a bird alive and unrestrained when observed, but which later dies or is collected or captured, may be counted.

RULE 4: Diagnostic field-marks characteristics for the bird, sufficient for the recorder to identify it to species, must have been seen and/or heard and/or documented for the bird encountered. by the recorder at the time of the encounter.

A. “Diagnostic field-marks characteristics” means the natural characteristics needed to uniquely determine the species of the bird while it is wild and unrestrained. It is not necessary to experience every possible field mark diagnostic characteristic, but simply sufficient field marks characteristics to eliminate the possibility of the bird being any other species.
(i) Identification is not valid if it is based on nonnatural characteristics, such as an injury, anomalous plumage modification, a leg band, or other artificial marking.

(i) Identification of the bird may be made subsequent to after the initial encounter. It is not always possible to secure a positive identification initially, but, using physical and/or written documentation made at the time of the encounter, identification is sometimes possible after the fact, upon consultation with of references and/or other authorities. In rare, With very tricky identifications, for example, photographs or recordings sometimes reveal minute, yet critical, details, that were not visible discernible during the initial encounter. Furthermore, our knowledge of how to separate similar species in the field is continually advancing. On rare occasions, a species may not be identifiable until after it has been captured and studied in the hand, or had feather and blood samples analyzed. In such instances of “after-the-fact” ID, the bird may be counted on one’s life-list lists.
(ii) Since all recorders, from time to time, have birds pointed out and identified to them by others, it is not necessary that the recorder be the one who identifies the bird species, merely that he/she sees and/or hears sufficient diagnostic field marks at the time of the encounter A recorder may identify the bird encountered based on information and/or documentation provided by other observers.

B. For a first encounter with a species, no matter which list is involved, identification may be by sight or sound. The sighting or sounding encounter may be brief, but in combination, field marks characteristics seen or heard must be sufficiently distinctive to distinguish the bird from all other species. Recorders must also assure themselves that tape recordings audio playbacks are not being mistaken for birds. In any situation for any list, a species may not be counted if the attempts to see or hear the bird are in violation of the ethical provisions of Rule 5.

C. “By the recorder” means that the recorder himself/herself must discern the distinguishing characteristics either visually or audibly. The recorder’s identification is not valid if it is based on characteristics seen, heard, or recognized by another person but not by the recorder, or if the recorder does not recognize the characteristics seen or heard as being uniquely distinctive to the particular species.

RULE 5: The bird must have been encountered under conditions that conform to the ABA Code of Birding Ethics.

A. The bird must have been encountered under conditions that conform to the ABA Code of Birding Ethics version current at the time of the encounter. In any situation for any list, a species may not be counted if the attempts to see or hear the bird are in violation of this ethical Code. “ABA Code of Birding Ethics” means the Code of Ethics adopted officially by the ABA at the time of the observation.

OK those are the changes!  Here are some thoughts.

  1. The most noteworthy change is related to the countability of reintroduced indigenous birds, including the Aplomado Falcon and the California Condor.  Previously, the reintroduced bird had to meet the ABA's standard of "established," an eight-step process that includes the dreaded "present for at least 15 years" criteria.  It has been notoriously difficult to meet this bar in the past, and a lot of species that could probably be added earlier (Nutmeg Mannikin for example) weren't.  The new rules make it significantly easier to count reintroduced native birds, now just having to create one generation of offspring.

    Lots of discussion is sure to come on this change, and I'm looking forward to the forthcoming Birder's Guide, which will include lots of discussion from the ABA about how they came to these decisions.  My initial reaction is that I don't particularly agree with lowering the bar for reintroduced native birds.  Mainly, and I suspect few agree with  me on this, but I don't particularly care much for the favoring of native birds vs introduced birds.  We humans have created a messy world, no doubt, but it's out fault, not the birds'.  A species that is able to survive in the ABA area is no less valid to me because it used another species (us) to get here as one that got here when the continents broke up or some other "natural"  means.  Further, this flimsy distinction does not seem proper when discussing countability, which should be based on whether the species can survive in the wild or not.  A native species that produces a few generations of wild offspring but is still ultimately (and sadly) doomed to failure in the garbage world humans have given it is not a true wild bird, in my eyes.  I favor the old, tougher standard for counting all new populations, whether native or wild.

    Finally, I made some dumb but still I think valid comments to the Facebook thread on this issue about the "not possible to reasonably separate" piece.  They were dumb comments because they had actually not been changed, that language had been there since at least the 2004 version.  Regardless, I think the "reasonably" qualifier should be in front of "possible" instead of "separate."  "Not possible to reasonably separate" is a very hard standard.  If the reintroduced birds are tagged with microchips, for example, as some animals are, it's possible to separate them from wild creatures - but not in the field.  If feathers could be analyzed in a lab and relocated birds separated from wild birds, then it would too fail the "not possible" test.  I do not know what "reasonably separate" means.  It's nitpicking, but I think if the ABA changed it to "reasonably possible to separate" it would in fact get the intended result of giving the field birder the ability to make a determination of wild-born v. reintroduced using the power of observation available to him or her.

  2. I like the removal of "flight" from the "under the influence of captivity" piece, but I am interested in seeing what is made of the "for reasons other than rehabilitation purposes" part.  Previously I assumed that when a bird is picked up and brought in for rehabilitation it is no longer countable until it's released, but now I'm not sure.  I'm interested in hearing how this provision interacts with the "unrestrained" piece.

  3. LOL "tape recorders."  I wonder if each successive revision of these rules has had to update for technology, starting with the 1857 rules for bird sounds recorded on a "phonautograph."  The best was the 1975 version: "Birds otherwise attracted by feeder, mist trap, hand, or 8-Track blasted out of your Pontiac Firebird..."
That's all for now.  Follow the ABA for more discussion!

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