Archive for Rants



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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.

Categories : Canada, Information, Rants
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Malheur and the Plumers

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Snowy Egret

The print and online media, running out of things to say about this absurd “occupation,” have turned over the past few days to casting the confrontation as one between kooks and birders, an approach that may add a little bit of human interest but at the same time trivializes the matter: the struggle is one between armed insurrectionists and the principles of this country, not between one vaguely picturesque group of citizens and another. I for one will be happy to start reading essays and articles that frame the matter in those terms, rather than puff pieces worrying about Oregon birders’ year lists.

Meanwhile, the constant repetition of the same story of the refuge’s founding has started me wondering: was Malheur really created to protect the white herons of the desert marshes?

Kind of. Even in the late 1890s, plumers were shooting snowy egrets on Lake Malheur in horrific numbers; some claimed to have earned $500 a day from the feathers they stripped from the bird’s backs — and that in the long-ago time when a dollar was a dollar.

By 1908, though, when Roosevelt established the first wildlife reservations at Malheur, no one was shooting egrets, for their plumage or for any other reason: the birds were gone, nearly or entirely extinct in southeast Oregon. George Sizemore and Charles Fitzgerald, the first wardens appointed, were concerned instead with the water birds that persisted in the area: ducks and swans, shot “merely for the feathers, which are sold at so much per pound.”

And grebes.

Clark's grebe

It’s been virtually obliterated from birderly memory, but the plumers of the west probably wrought more havoc on western and Clark’s grebes than on any heron species. The first indictments filed against feather poachers in Burns, Oregon, cited the killing of hundreds of grebes, with one hunter responsible for a full thousand birds; one shipment, seized at the post office, contained eight hundred skins, destined for New York City to be turned into fancy capes, collars, and muffs.

Those days are over. But I can’t help thinking it’s even worse now: a hundred-odd years ago, they were stealing the resources of the land. Today, it’s the land itself.


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An Old Man’s Parrot

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This saddens me.

Screenshot 2015-03-30 11.45.51

Apparently some people think this little psittacid was named for some elderly anonymous.

Screenshot 2015-03-30 11.52.53

Let’s try to remember in the future to give Louis-Pierre Vieillot his bird and his capital V.


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The Scarlet Tanager, Orange Variant

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It seems like every spring is marked by a new fad in the world of digital birding.

Screenshot 2014-05-15 13.11.37

This year, it’s the “orange variant” of the Scarlet Tanager that has the internet abuzz. I can’t turn the machine on any more without reading about this “form,” and there is an abundance of photographic material out there purporting to show such individuals. Just google it.

There is no doubt that some males of this species in definitive alternate plumage are less scarlet than others; have a look at Larry Sansone’s photograph of a decidedly ochre-toned individual in Beadle and Rising’s Photographic Guide, for example. Rising comments that this bird falls notably towards the orange end of “the scale”; the implication is, correctly and appropriately, that there is a more or less continuous range of color to be observed, from the dull orange of some males to the classic blazing red of others.

Yes, they vary: They vary “considerably,” in the authoritative words of Robert Ridgway, “being sometimes of a flame-scarlet or almost orange hue.” But that doesn’t mean there is any definable “variant” among them, any more than there is an identifiable “yellow variant” of the American Robin or the Summer Tanager — two other species in which the reddish parts of males’ plumage can differ in brightness and saturation.

When most of us see a dull adult male Scarlet Tanager, we’re delighted and intrigued, and tend to say something like “Why, look, there’s a dull adult male Scarlet Tanager!” without elevating that individual bird to the status of “variant.”

Most of the photos being posted to the internet now, though, are not of adult tanagers at all. Image after image of these “orange variants” shows a first-alternate male Scarlet Tanager, readily aged by the molt limits in the wing. And many of those birds are indeed duller orange-red than the name “scarlet” might suggest.

Entirely as expected.

BNA tells us that first-alternate males are “orange-red to scarlet.” Dwight describes them as “sometimes pale or mixed with orange.” It’s simply normal — for lack of a better word — for some ten-month-old male Scarlet Tanagers to be orangish.

Where did the need to assign these birds to a class of “variants” come from? The obvious answer is provided by a painting in the first edition of the Sibley guide, a dull tanager captioned “variant adult male breeding.”

In a process of productive misreading, Sibley’s perfectly unexceptionable adjective “variant” — meaning “different” — has apparently come to be re-analyzed as the tendentious noun “variant,” a definable kind departing from the normal, a “morph.” But what the guide is describing, and what birders are observing, is simply individual variation, with some birds more orange, some birds more scarlet, some birds more yellow.

I’m not suggesting that we stop looking close at male Scarlet Tanagers, and I’m not suggesting that anyone stop “posting” photos of particularly bright or particularly dull or otherwise remarkable birds. But when we encounter a bird that strikes us as oddly colored, maybe we should remember that variation doesn’t always make a variant.

SCarlet Tanager

Categories : Birdwords, Rants
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The Pictures in the Birdie Books

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It’s here, at long last, the second edition of David Sibley’s Birds. Over at Birding, we plan to publish an evaluation next month by one of the best bird illustrators on the continent — but I have a suspicion already that The New Sibley is going to do just fine, thank you, even independent of all the laudatory reviews to come.

I’m too busy enjoying the book to review it myself, but I will note that several of the shortcomings of the first edition are remedied here: most of the images are larger, there is much more information about habits and habitat, and a hundred new species — rarities and local specialties — have been added. The design of the page has been loosened up, with fewer boxes and horizontal lines, and while the ingenious and instructive four-column layout has been retained, it is visually more open, inviting the eye to move more smoothly across the “spread.”

It’s been pointed out already that just as the first edition’s browns sometimes tended to orange, this edition’s blacks and reds are often very deep. I can see that, most strikingly in the jarringly purple Scarlet Tanager in my copy.

But that doesn’t bother me.

It doesn’t bother me because I don’t look for realism and “accuracy” in field guide illustrations, whether paintings or (much less) photographs. I don’t expect “beauty,” either, though Lars Jonsson spoiled us for a while twenty years ago.

The paintings in the Sibley Guide, in either edition, are to my eye neither realistic nor beautiful. I would not, in other words, offer them to a visiting alien seeking to discover exactly what a Blue Jay looks like, and I would not hang them on my wall just for the sheer visual pleasure. But those same paintings, in both editions, are the most informative, the most instructive, the most useful images of North American birds ever put between two covers.

When I open a field guide, I’m looking not for the mimetic but for the diegetic; I want the images to contribute to an educational moment guided by the artist’s or author’s or narrator’s participation.

This is David Sibley’s genius (a word I rarely use). His paintings, “cartoon-like” in the best sense, not bound by any standards of mere representation, are perfectly suited to illustrate, even to exemplify, the identification techniques the guide propounds.

Even a successful nod in the direction of realism would add nothing, and could even compromise the book’s larger purpose — as it certainly does in Arthur Singer’s paintings for the Golden guide, in many of the paintings in earlier editions of the National Geographic guide, and in almost everything Roger Tory Peterson published after 1947.

Birders’ minds and birders’ eyes are nothing if not flexible, and over time, as we grow more familiar with our references, the pictures somehow come to look more and more like the birds. A good field guide makes that process faster — and this is a great one.

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