Who You Gonna Trust?

The Generalissimo Franco of big woodpeckers, the ivory-bill, appears to be still dead, according to the latest press release from Cornell.

I was thinking about that this morning in Madera Canyon when we ran into a birder who reported a, well, never mind what the bird was: what was interesting was the brief conversation that ensued. Our interlocutor noted that s/he had a couple of times turned in written descriptions to a bird records committee and had her/his report “rejected, because the bird wasn’t documented.” I’m not good at hiding puzzlement, and my bemused look drew a clarification: “You know, documented, photographed.”

But you see, documentation is not necessarily the same as photography, or at least it didn’t use to be. It seems to me that birding has become so heavily technologized in the last few years that we have abandoned, or at least greatly devalued, the artifact it was founded upon 100 years ago: the well-described sight record.

Birders (and ornithologists, for that matter) spent the first couple decades of the last century fighting for the value of the sight record, arguing that verbal documentation by a careful observer could, for most species, be as credible as a specimen. And from about, oh, say, 1934 until about, oh, say, 2004, it was true: thorough, precise descriptions of rarities were treated with seriousness by birders and records committees alike, sometimes rejected, sometimes accepted, but in any event considered a reasonable way to document an unusual sighting.

That’s changed. Digital cameras and cheap, easily portable recording equipment have made it possible to secure “tangible,” “objective”–choose your adjective–documentation of rarities that just a decade ago would have been captured only in the careful observer’s notes. This is a fine thing, of course, and I am glad that so many birders provide photographic evidence of their unusual reports. But I am not glad at all that documentation of that sort is pushing verbal description aside, returning us surely and not so slowly to the same place we were a hundred years ago; just replace “shotgun” with “digital camera.”

The most shocking example is the last year’s fuss over the reports of Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The controversy has revolved almost exclusively around the now famous, and still utterly useless, video showing a black-and-white something flying away from a canoe, and there has been virtually no attention paid to the couple of sight records by normally credible observers: they have been neither rigorously criticized nor held up as evidence of the bird’s survival, and all eyes have been turned (and all loud mouths devoted) to a couple of frames of inscrutable digital video.

We’ve lost something, thanks to this affair: not just the Ivory-bill, which probably wasn’t there to begin with, but also our willingness to look to other birders, not the computer monitor, for answers to our questions. Let’s go back to talking to each other.