Archive | June 2015

Citizen Science Catch-22, or, Birding Gone Bad

CC 2.0 -- Dominic Sherony - April 22, 2005 Flickr: Red-faced Warbler (Cardellina rubrifrons)

CC 2.0 — Dominic Sherony – April 22, 2005 Flickr: Red-faced Warbler (Cardellina rubrifrons)

If you were out walking and chanced upon this bird, I’m certain you’d remember it and be able to describe it accurately. It is rather distinctly patterned after all.

Before I left California, I encouraged a friend, and long-time closet bird watcher, to get more involved in birding with other birders. I told her about a course she could take in the area and about the local Audubon Society. Reluctantly, this spring, she ventured out.

Now, the weird thing about “Meg” is that she’s not just a person that likes birds; birds like her. If you went for a walk with Meg, you’d find yourself shadowed by Western bluebirds, you’d see pairs of Cooper’s Hawks calling to you and flying across a field to be in the tree you were walking toward, you’d discover Common Yellow-throats bouncing to the edge of their narrow-leaf willows to sing at you. Meg likes birds; but I’m telling you, birds LOVE her.

At first you think, “Oh, it’s my mind playing tricks on me. It’s just coincidence. Birds aren’t really following us, watching us, stalking us.” But for some reason, birds truly are attracted to Meg.

Once, when we had come back to her house from shopping and were getting stuff out of her car trunk, I looked up at the telephone wire behind us and there were 5 birds looking at us (at Meg really) chirping enthusiastically, and jumping up and down on the wire, as if to say “Look, look! There she is! We’ve got to go tell everyone she’s home!” Then they flew off.

I asked Meg. “What’s the deal with the birds around here? They really seem to like you.”

Meg said, “I’ve always thought God made a mistake with me. I have bird soul, but I was accidentally born in a person body.”



And that was all she said. The end.

Anyway, Good Me thought, “She’d love being with real birders, I bet.” I told her about The Great Backyard Bird Count, Cornell University, Project Feederwatch, and, about how citizen science is contributing to what we know about birds and helping us better protect them for the future. She replied, “That’s nice.”

However, I think that germ of an idea sprouted because she later ended up taking a bird identification class and meeting a bunch of enthusiastic birders. She liked the class. She thought the people were terribly nice. But still, she didn’t think “birding” was very fun. It was ok seeing birds as she walked around or in her yard, but the idea of going somewhere solely to look at birds seemed “not very interesting.”

Apparently at one point, during the class, someone discovered there were 20,000 Sooty Shearwaters amassed on the local coast. Everyone wanted to go see this highly unusual sight, everyone but Meg. She said, “I’ve already seen a Sooty Shearwater. Why do I want to see 20,000? Isn’t that just big mass of really noisy, black birds? What’s the point?”

Luckily I was on the phone when she said that, and Der was walking by. He was able to close my dropped jaw before I blurted out something like “Yeah, who would bother to see a field of rare flowers having seen one?”

Anyway, she called me on Monday and told me she’d been out walking her dog when she saw the above pictured bird. She looked it up in her book when she returned home and noticed it was uncommon in her area, so she put it on ebird’s site. She doesn’t post her sightings to there, like some people do, every day. She doesn’t have a life list. She isn’t shooting for street cred in the birding world. She wouldn’t have bothered at all except, having taken the class and realized how much other people liked to look at birds and that scientists were interested in rare ones turning up in weird places, she just wanted to help out. is a Cornell University site where they encourage citizen scientist’s to make reports of birds, especially rare ones. Once a bird is up there, if it’s rare, an alert might go out letting birders know there particulars so they can go see it. Knowing when odd birds turn up in an area can be a clue to climate change or environmental changes. It may be the bird is establishing itself in a new area and maybe it’s endangered and the some habitat needs to be reserved or protected. Anyway, it’s important. I was glad she had put her sighting up.

Then on Wednesday she calls me and tells me she got an email from someone in her county who acts as a reviewer for eBird. She was told her sighting was extremely rare and significant. The bird had never been seen in the county before and because it was so unusual (even though the guides said it periodically turned up in California) she needed to send in a photograph or a recording to prove she saw it.

Since she didn’t know the bird was rare when she saw it and didn’t have  camera or a recording device on her, she didn’t think to gather evidence. She said the folks at ebird told her because of the rareness and the lack of evidence, they had to take her sighting off the public site. She could keep it on her private lists, but it couldn’t be used as data and had to be removed. The upshot of that, no one else would know to go out to where Meg had been to look for this rare bird and photograph/record it.

Meg said that she “totally understood and respected that this was their process.” But I have to confess, I didn’t get it at all. This is a citizen science. It’s supposed to be open to people to submit observations. I could understand if someone flagged her sighting as unconfirmed, but deleting it entirely? Wow. That seems extreme. And again, look at the bird.

It’s not like you could mistake it for ANYTHING else in California, especially a distance of 5 feet, when it’s right in front of you, singing at you (which is what she said happened, and because it’s Meg, I know it’s what happened). Apparently Meg was asked if she was sure it wasn’t a different bird, a House Finch. I almost fell off my chair laughing. They look nothing alike, and Meg’s seen House Finches in her yard since she was a small girl. Not a mistake she could make.

I asked Meg if she was going to continue to submit observations to eBird. Because let’s face it, she sees more birds on a 1 hour walk in her neighborhood than most birders will spending 16 hours searching for them in a wildlife refuge.

She said, “No. Because I’d only post birds I’d never seen around before and if they won’t believe rare bird sightings without video or pictures or sound recordings, they won’t post it, so I wouldn’t be helping anyone. No one would be able to go out and find them and enjoy seeing them. What would be the point?”

I tried to protest that this was just a really unusual case, but she didn’t believe me.

“It’s okay. It’s how I thought it would be. They don’t want help from average people who like birds. They want members of birding groups and people who spend significant time contributing lists. That’s not me. That’s why I didn’t want to get involved.”

I sighed deeply. I knew in my heart she was wrong, but what could I say. The very first time she put a rare sighting out there, she got shot down. Once burned, why bother?

“It’s the difference between a saint and a theologian,” she explained. “I want to love the birds for themselves. At eBird they have to know them only as research subjects.”

Small wonder some wildly rare bird chose to appear before her and sing to her. Meg wants the wonderful, memorable life experience. She wants to love a living thing that’s right in front of her, in person, with nothing (like a smartphone) between her and it.

Shouldn’t that be what everyone aspires to? A wonderful life loving all the amazing living things that are right in front of us?

Lesson learned, my friend. Lesson learned.