Birding – Hobby or Science?

By Chuck Otte


Birding. The mention of the word immediately separates the casual backyard birdwatcher from those of us who travel, often great distances, to see what avian species we can see. Birders are out enjoying their passion on a regular basis, often approaching an obsession. Perhaps we want to see birds, especially new species, for the pure pleasure of watching them, but more likely we want to add them to “our list”. Over the decades birding has brought joy, frustration, elation, anger, and hurt feelings. Perhaps that can be said about any pursuit in the natural world, but it seems especially so in birding.


Perhaps the reason for this broad wash of emotions is because birding has a broad brush stroke that runs from enjoying the birds at your backyard feeder, on the one end, to the study of birds (ornithology) on the other end. Let’s face it, there is so much that we do not know about birds in this world. Kansas has 475 species on its checklist. The ABA Checklist (American Birding Association – essentially the US and Canada) has 980 species, give or take a few. The AOU (American Ornithologists Union) checklist of North and Central America has 2,090 species and the world checklist is somewhere north of 10,000 species. There is a LOT that we don’t know.


Certainly other natural history disciplines have their challenges too. Kansas has somewhere around 15,000 species of insects, but there aren’t nearly as many amateur entomologists as there are birders. You also have the option of collecting insects allowing for confirmation of identification. There are many wild flower and native plant societies that study and enjoy and map the distribution of the thousands of species of wild plants in our state/country/world. But let’s face it, plants don’t run or fly away. You can photograph them easily, you can collect and press them, you can propagate them in your own yard.


But birds are different. Birds have wings. And they use them. They are leery of humans, rightfully so, and are prone to not allowing us easy close access to them. Most species are protected by law, limiting who, when and where they can be collected. Digital photography has given us a new tool to “capture” birds, but even still, the photos are all too often inadequate to confirm identification. Perhaps the digital photography boom has been as much a contributor to the problem as an aid to solving “the problem”.


Many birders keep lists. They used to keep them on paper checklists or in notebooks or written in the margins of their well-worn and trusty field guides. Then along came computers and many of us still kept our lists on paper, in the field, but once we returned home, the lists were transferred to the computer in a word processing file, a spreadsheet, a database and later into a special program specifically designed to keep bird sighting records. Next came eBird, where you could enter your records on line and they would go in to a huge database, compiled with other birders records. Once all these records are amalgamated you can start to track distribution and migration and perhaps even population trends. With the vast plain of what we don’t know about birds ahead of us, eBird data, and other citizen science data, becomes the critical keystone to begin filling in the knowledge gaps that professional ornithologists have neither the time nor the funds to research.


A few decades ago, birders would gather in clubs at the local, regional, state or national level. Audubon chapters, state ornithological societies or the American Birding Association, became safe havens where you could meet other birders. Newsletters and publications became the source of knowledge. Field trips provided the opportunity for these like-minded birders to gather, enjoy each other’s company and for less experienced birders to learn from “the masters”.  Mistakes in identification were dealt with on the spot with the experienced birders explaining to the less experienced the subtleties of Empidonax ID, or the trick in quickly separating Northern from Loggerhead Shrike or Tundra from Trumpeter Swan. Learning occurred in a safe environment, friendships were made, people laughed at their mistakes and felt good about what they had learned.


Somewhere in the mid 20th century, state ornithological societies decided that there needed to be committees to evaluate the sightings of rare or unusual species. Records committees were formed and processes established whereby birders could document and submit their sightings to be confirmed or placed in the stack labeled, “insufficient information to confirm”. And that’s where the trouble began! All too often the latter category was labeled “rejected”. No one wants to be rejected, nor do they want their bird sightings “rejected”. An entire dissertation on bird records “committees, the good, the bad and the ugly” though, is for another day. So let’s just say, birders became upset when their records were not accepted and feelings were all too often hurt.


This is where, to me, the real crux of the problem comes. For many birders, what they do is a hobby. It’s fun, it’s exhilarating at times, and it’s frustrating at times. Many of us build our lists on what we KNOW we saw. And that is perfectly acceptable. It’s YOUR hobby, it’s your passion, it’s your obsession, it’s your avocation. No one can tell me what I did or didn’t see, they can’t tell me what I can or can’t put on MY list.


But there’s a line that we cross where birding goes from hobby, to science. The minute we make our sightings public, we enter into the realm of “review”. If I post a sighting on an internet discussion list, a social media outlet or eBird, I must expect that there will be some scrutiny of that record. If I submit a report of a rare bird to a records committee, it will be evaluated from a scientific point of view. By sharing information on my sighting, I must be willing to accept that I have stepped into the scientific realm. At that point I have to develop thicker skin and separate myself and my emotions from my sighting. Others may or may not agree with my sighting, but my list is still my list. No one else, or very few others, were where I was and saw what I saw. I may have made a mistaken identity or I may not have. I may have done a good job of documenting what I saw, or I may not have. But my record is now laid out for all to see and scrutinize. Ever since there were two bird watchers, there have been disagreements. At some point, centuries ago, some birder said, “I saweth this species” and a second birder said, “I don’t think thou really did.” Thus started the first birder disagreement and it continues today!


First there were birders gathering in person to watch birds and discuss identification. Printed newsletters and magazines discussed what birds had been seen or reported. There was a time lag of weeks and months between a sighting and a report. Then came telephone based rare bird reports where the lag time went from weeks to days and sometimes mere hours. If a rare bird was sighted and reported by a birder, and the hotline (rare bird alert – RBA) was quickly updated, and you called soon enough, you could go and chase the bird. Then came internet discussion lists where birders could subscribe and receive emails of news and sightings. Then cell phones allowed birders to call each other from the field and tell them to get out here NOW to see this. Then cell phones became smart phones allowing for text or email reports from the field in real time, sometimes with photos or sound/video recordings attached. Smart phones allowed for real time entering of sightings data into databases and even eBird. Before we even have time to think about what we saw and sit down with our field guides to study and think about it, we can share the information of that possible first state record. Adrenaline is still coursing through our veins as we hit “SEND”!


Social media creates another challenge all together. We are a very visual species and the revolution in digital photography has put powerful instruments in our hands. Social media, Facebook being the most commonly available and widely used, as well as photo sharing sites, allows us to quickly post photos, sometimes a lot of photos, of birds we have seen. Some people really aren’t birders, but they enjoy the photos of birds in their backyard. They post photos because they are proud of what they have done. They have no idea what the species might be and they may not care, but they are proud of THEIR photo. So they post the photo to a birding Facebook page with absolutely no clue what kind of hornet’s nest they just dropped themselves in to! They posted the photo because they wanted to share the image, not because they wanted to know what species it was. Many of these folks have no idea that there are that MANY species of ducks or sparrows or birds at all. They do a quick search on the internet and they think it looks like species X when it is species Y. They have no idea that species X is extremely rare in state C and all of a sudden they have the wrath of half of the people who have liked that Facebook page, posting comments, often of an unkind nature, of why it isn’t X it’s Y and don’t they know anything?!?!?!


The original poster of the photo had no idea and they will never, EVER post another photo. They’ll quit photographing birds and go on to sunsets and wildflowers. An individual who may have really enjoyed photographing birds has been soured on birds forever. Never mind that tomorrow the second state record Brambling will show up at their feeder and no one will ever know it – they are DONE with bird photos!


So here’s my “take home message”.  Beginners, novices, less experienced birders of whatever label you want to use, be forewarned that you have stumbled into a potential hornet’s nest. By posting a photo or a sighting into the public realm, you have crossed the line from hobby to science whether you knew it or not. Proceed with caution. If you join a Facebook group or an internet discussion list, lurk for a couple of weeks. Learn the neighborhood, the customs, and the traditions before you say anything. Look for those people that seem to be the most knowledgeable and message them privately. After you get a feel for the page or the list, if you decide it isn’t for you, then don’t stay there. Sign off, unlike, whatever. Go on and look for another location. Don’t flood people with photos. Use a photo sharing site if you want to post a lot of photos and direct people to that. And realize that you may be sharing a photo that you think is great and others may agree or disagree. Each person is entitled to their opinion. Don’t let one person tell you what is or isn’t good (but pay attention to what a bunch of people say). And get thick skinned!


For all you “old pros” out there - as birders, we have to remember that we were once beginners and we made mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. But rather than telling a beginner that they are wrong, they didn’t see that species, there’s no way they could have seen that species, we need to turn it into a learning opportunity. Explain, in an email or, gosh, maybe even a phone call, the differences between what they thought it was, and what it really is. Help them to learn, don’t chastise them. Encourage them, don’t discourage them. Don’t send private emails to individuals after they’ve posted a message on an internet discussion list blasting them for something. You weren’t there. You don’t know what they saw. Discuss with them, perhaps help them better understand, what they saw or what to look for the next time. But don’t ridicule them and don’t tell them what they did or didn’t see. It’s far too easy, in written communication, for subtleties like sarcasm to be taken wrong. It’s far too easy, when you aren’t looking someone in the eye, to write things that you would NEVER say to their face. So just don’t do it. Everyone has feelings and some are hurt more easily than others!


Birding is an awesome hobby. It is a rare person that can’t get excited about a bird. Some people take that hobby to new levels and it is a hobby that has an endless realm of possibilities. But individuals, who might really enjoy and share our hobby, can be easily turned off by just a few poorly chosen words. Take the time to nurture those new birders, just like you were nurtured when you started!


February 2, 2014

Chuck can be reached at