John James Audubon, with shotgun

People have been watching birds as long as there have been people but the goals have changed over the millennia from eating them to admiring their beauty or behavior to the relatively recent phenomenon of birdwatching. The artwork of early man on cave walls and paintings by Catesby, Wilson, and Audubon, and writings from Lewis and Clark, Coues, Chapman, and Teddy Roosevelt attest to the magnetic interest of humans in birds.

Attribution for the rise of birdwatching in America lies with the paint and brushes of Roger Tory Peterson. This self-taught artist, born in New York in 1908, had two paintings hung in the American Ornithologists Union’s national exhibition in 1925, when he was seventeen years old! In 1934, his Field Guide to the Birds sold out in five days and this was during the Great Depression! Subsequent editions sold millions followed by bird field guides by multiple authors, all with the goal to represent bird species in a way that allowed the public easy access and guidance in identifying the birds around them. These guides replaced the shotgun for identifying birds.

~~ These guides replaced the shotgun for identifying birds. ~~

Roger Tory Peterson, with sketchpad

Up to this time the distribution of a species was determined largely by where the species was collected. Museums and universities collected inventories of plants and animals, including birds and their eggs, for various scientific studies and a pattern for each collected species slowly emerged. A scientist could not claim that he saw a species outside its known range; he had to produce a specimen as evidence before his sighting would be accepted as a valid scientific record. Science and skepticism go hand-in-hand for good reason. Some bird species look very similar and field identification was sometimes proven incorrect after the sound of the shotgun faded and the bird was in the hand!

Thanks to field guides by Peterson, Pough, Robbins, Sibley, et al. and National Geographic Society, birdwatching has come a long way. An army of “birders” has developed and they spend much time and money chasing birds. This army is made up of informal, amorphorus divisions that are defined by their goals. Most are listers, that is, they keep tallies of the species they have seen in their yard, county, state, region, country, life, special patch, etc. The rules are also informal and while there are general rules “that should be followed”, the final decision to list a bird is up to the observer. Much has been learned about bird distribution based on the data collected by a cadre of serious field observers who spent extensive time studying birds, their plumages, vocalizations, molt, behavior, movements, etc. all the while adding to their own personal lists. Listing often leads to in-depth data collecting and advanced avian studies.

Flickers, by Roger Tory Peterson(Image from ArtUSA)

One sub-division has carried listing to a different level with the goal of collecting reliable bird data. The observer gathers all the evidence possible for the claim of a rare, casual, or accidental species and submits it to an evaluative group — a county or state committee. An informal protocol is followed which is determined by the county or state committee that will evaluate the claim. As with all committees, protocols lacks unanimity but they all strive to gather enough information from the observer to increase the chances that the final decision to accept or not accept a claim will be valid. Because the committees and observers are Homo sapiens, 100% accuracy is an impossible dream but it is a worthwhile struggle.

A generalized protocol is 1) write or discuss a description of the bird as you observe it and transcribe it promptly; 2) photograph the bird; 3) call others so they may corroborate your identification; and 4) depending on the level of rarity of the species, submit documentation to the county and/or state committees. Do not spend time writing that could be spent observing the details of the bird (plumage, behavior, vocalizations, etc.). Some birds are extremely difficult to photograph but you should be as aggressive as possible, without destroying habitat or significantly disturbing the bird, in trying to get an image. These images are in-lieu-of a specimen and required for some species by some committees in order to gain acceptance of a claim. In the last decade plus, the advent of digital cameras, small and large, has radically improved the quality of evidence being submitted…and they aren’t as heavy, cumbersome, or noisy as shotguns!

Great-horned Owl, by Roger Tory Peterson (Image courtesy of ArtUSA)

We are extremely fortunate here in the Eastern Sierra because we have local birders who embrace and practice this protocol. Many observers provide descriptions and images with their posts to the Eastern Sierra Birds Google Group. Birders from outside the area, who regularly access the website, have commented to us that they are impressed with the level of thoroughness and accuracy of these posts.

The “Long Way to Go” is in encouraging birders, everywhere, to more thoroughly document their claims. Data gathering has a different set of rules and providing evidence is a basic requirement. The time is past when an observer can submit a claim of a totally unexpected bird species without at least a written description and hopefully, an image, and expect that their stature is adequate for acceptance.

Many birders have embraced another group of fliers, the lepidops and odonates, where no claim of a rare or out-of-range species is accepted without unequivocal photographic evidence or a specimen. Bird data gatherers might want to consider applying the same self-imposed standard on themselves minus the specimen gathering!

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