I’m not a scientist, and I certainly wouldn’t play one on TV, but as an outsider and a layman, it seems to me that some Ontario birders are rolling over and playing dead for no reason at all.
In November of last year, a suspect oriole was discovered in the eastern part of the province. In the first, rather poor photos I saw — there are now much better ones out there — the bird was gray-bellied and dull-throated, with a clear black eye line. A perfectly reasonable consensus was reached that the bird was a Bullock’s oriole, a nice find indeed but hardly earth-shattering at the season anywhere in the east.
The story continued to unfold in the usual way: the exuberant posts from exuberant birders tallying a lifer, the inevitable accusations of harassment and bad manners on the part of photographers and those armed with audio recordings, the gradual settling down as the bird gradually settled in. And the “rescue.”
The absurdity of “rescuing” vagrant birds in the wintertime is something I’m happy to rant about any time you’re ready, but in this case, holding the bird in captivity provided an opportunity to conduct a little genetic analysis. As it turns out, material gathered from the bird’s droppings included mitochondrial DNA identifiable as that of a Baltimore oriole.
Meaning, of course, that among this bird’s female forebears was a Baltimore oriole.
Now come the retractions, the recantings, the regrets. You can almost hear the check marks being erased from birders’ lists. But why?
There is probably no Bullock’s oriole on the planet that does not have a bit of the Baltimore coursing through its veins. We know this, and we’re happy to ignore it when we identify birds in the field — just as we gladly ignore the fact that the family tree of nearly every mallard on the east coast is studded with black ducks, and that there isn’t a “black” towhee on the great plains that is not the product of repeated miscegenation. It’s biochemically messy out there.
For the past century and a half, we’ve known that there is no such thing as a species. For the past century and a quarter, birding in North America has been intentionally cast as an exercise in identification of species. If we want to keep understanding birding in that way — and many of us do — we have to both acknowledge and insist on the difference between what we do and what the scientists do. Our tools are our eyes and our minds, not blenders and litmus paper.
If I were in Ontario and cared, I’d count it. And I wouldn’t let a little thing like DNA get in my way.