BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at the Internet

Free speech! It's a wonderful thing, to be sure. As long as you don't yell "Fire!" in that proverbial crowded theater. Or joke about bombs and hijackings at the airport. You know, common sense stuff like that. Or when you're on the internet, posting something on a listserve like mou-net, you shouldn't, uh – hold on, let me think for a second.... There must be something inappropriate for Minnesota birders to post.

Or maybe not. Thinking back over what I've seen in recent weeks and months, nothing seems out-of-bounds. It's all there on mou-net: Lots of non-bird news. Personal information and anecdotes sent to hundreds of strangers with no conceivable interest in them. Personal criticisms and feuds made public which obviously should have stayed private. Pronouncements from those with hidden agendas, axes to grind, chips on their shoulders, or with no particular expertise in the subject. And the inevitable "You the man!" or "You go girl!" follow-up comments from others who don't really know about the person whose views they're endorsing.

But, hey, that's what the internet is all about. Being able to say anything you want, whether or not it's accurate, whether or not anyone cares, with no pesky editors or webmasters to get in the way. Free speech! But note the operative word here is free, and, as they say, you get what you pay for.

Also consider those timely posts of rarities on mou-net which we all look forward to. I would think that most if not all subscribers assume these reports represent correct IDs and legitimate sightings. But are they? What if there is a posting, or series of postings, of a rarity that was the result of human error, an honest mistake, a misidentification? Whatever you wish to call it, we all make them, they're nothing to be ashamed of, and they do appear on mou-net.

One unfortunate consequence is subscribers might then get an inaccurate impression of what a species' status really is or of what a season's birding highlights truly were. Another consequence is when a birder goes out to subsequently relocate a rarity that never really was, and makes the same ID error when assumptions and hopeful expectations cloud his or her perceptions.

There are lots of examples of such reports. Just a few more recent ones: the Brant which turned into an immature blue-morph Snow Goose; a goldeneye posted as a male Barrow's by one birder (but identified as a Common by everyone else); a Yellow-billed Loon seen over a three-day period (in reality, it was probably gone after the first day); that flurry of Mississippi Kites in the Twin Cities a few springs back (only one was ever confirmed); the frequent sightings of Ferruginous Hawk (and other raptors that many birders find difficult to ID) which are seldom documented; an adult Black-legged Kittiwake which was apparently just a sub-adult Ring-billed Gull.     

Consider as well the thread of discussion on mou-net last March about the new Checklist of the Birds of Minnesota booklet, which is published every five years by the MOU Records Committee. There were comments from those wondering what the status definitions are. (Helpful Household Hint: just read page one of the booklet.) Comments suggesting the Committee must have just thrown the list together without any research, thought, or discussion. Comments from those implying they single-handedly know more about Minnesota birds than all ten Committee members combined. A comment or two from agenda-hiders, ax-grinders, chip-shoulderers. There were even specific comments about the list from a non-MOU member who hadn't even seen it.

And, so, after this thread on mou-net had worn thin and unraveled, what did subscribers learn about the Checklist? Not much. For example, King Rail, the bird which inexplicably received the most attention, is still being placed on the Accidental list, and with good reason, but no one just reading mou-net is going to know why. Everyone, it seems, was having too much fun listening to themselves talk, and no one apparently had the common sense to simply and specifically ask anyone on the Committee to comment. (As Committee chair at the time the list was produced, I never received a single e-mail, letter, or phone call about it; neither did Peder Svingen, the current chair.)


In case anyone wonders what all the fuss was about and is still interested in what the list really means, read on. There are now 427 Accepted species on the Minnesota Checklist (plus one still pending -- a recent Brown Pelican sighting). This is a net increase of four species since the previous Checklist in 1999: five additions (Smew, Black Vulture, White-tailed Kite, White-throated Swift, Costa's Hummingbird) and one deletion (Black Phoebe).  

Including these six, the status of several species has changed in the past five years. Some of the reasons, consequences, and other information related to these changes appear below (or I suppose you could try the novel approach of simply reading the Checklist booklet):

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck – now Casual; formerly Accidental. Perhaps a somewhat surprising promotion to Casual status (records in three of the past 10 years), but the species does seem to be increasing its numbers and extending its range. I would have personally favored continued Accidental status, given that five of Minnesota's six records are qualified with the "o" subscript -- i.e., origin uncertain. (The one unqualified record was during a year when several extralimital records of the species occurred.)    

Cinnamon Teal – now Casual; formerly Regular. With records in only eight of the past 10 years, this species lost its Regular status, although it may well regain that status on the next Checklist. No matter what its status, all records of this species should require careful scrutiny, since it is a common captive in waterfowl collections, and it does hybridize with Blue-winged Teal.  

Smew – now Accidental; added to state list since 1999. The one Accepted record from Jackson Co. in 1999 involves a bird of uncertain origin, qualified with the "o" subscript. Smews also recently turned up in St. Louis and Olmsted counties, but both had a clipped hallux (hind toe), strong evidence of captive origin. (And for all we know, the Jackson Co. bird may have had a clipped hallux as well.)  

Northern Bobwhite – now Extirpated; formerly Regular. Extensive research by Anthony Hertzel suggests that any bobwhite seen in Minnesota in recent years has been in all likelihood a local release or escape from captivity. Unless there is documentation with a specific record to support wild origin of that individual, or until there is evidence a wild population in and around Minnesota is reestablished, as of 2004 all sightings of this species are considered "non-countable." (For those keeping lists, it is up to them to personally decide which, if any, of the bobwhites they have seen in recent years prior to 2004 have been wild and "countable.")  

Black Vulture – now Accidental; added to state list since 1999. An overdue addition to the state list, now with two Duluth records, in 2001 and 2003 (the latter record was accepted after the Checklist was published).

White-tailed Kite – now Accidental; added to state list since 1999. The 2000 record from Washington Co. was another overdue addition to the list.

Gyrfalcon – now Casual; formerly Regular. Like the Cinnamon Teal, with records in eight of the past 10 years, this species may well regain its former status. I personally feel it is still Regular and that the number of records would increase with more observer coverage in late fall and winter in northwestern Minnesota.

King Rail – now Accidental; formerly Casual. With no records in the state since 1992, this species perfectly fits within the definition of Accidental. (Those suggesting otherwise on mou-net primarily offered the following evidence to support their position: "You the man!")

Pomarine Jaeger – now Casual; formerly Accidental. Records accepted in five of the past 10 years.

Black-headed Gull – now Casual; formerly Accidental. Records accepted in six of the past 10 years; in all, there are now 10 records, all of these from Jackson Co.

Arctic Tern – now Casual; formerly Accidental. Records accepted in five of the past 10 years.

Band-tailed Pigeon – now Casual; formerly Accidental. Records accepted in four of the past 10 years.

Eurasian Collared-Dove – now Regular; formerly Accidental. Although there have been records in only six of the past 10 years, it is obvious this species is now solidly annual in its occurrence and thus Regular (see the Exceptions section on page one of the Checklist booklet).

White-throated Swift – now Accidental; added to state list since 1999. A somewhat surprising record from Minneapolis in 2000, but there had been at least one previous record from Michigan.

Costa's Hummingbird – now Accidental; added to state list since 1999. An account of this unexpected record from Wright Co. in 2003, including the unusual circumstances surrounding it, will appear in a future issue of The Loon.

Black Phoebe – deleted from state list; formerly Accidental. This sight record from 1952 had long held a somewhat tenuous place on the state list, and the decision to remove it was difficult. See the "Proceedings" article elsewhere in this issue of The Loon.

Sage Thrasher – now Casual; formerly Accidental. Records accepted in four of the past 10 years.

Worm-eating Warbler – now Casual; formerly Regular. With records in only seven of the past 10 years, this species loses its marginally Regular status. Every five years, with the appearance of a new Checklist, this species seems to bounce back and forth between Regular and Casual.

Black-throated Sparrow – now Casual; formerly Accidental. Records accepted in three of the past 10 years.

Baird's Sparrow – now Accidental; formerly Casual. With records in only two of the past 10 years, this grassland species' decline in status here is unfortunately consistent with its steady decline within the eastern edge of its breeding range in central North Dakota and southwestern Manitoba.  

Painted Bunting – now Casual; formerly Accidental. Records accepted in six of the past 10 years.

Great-tailed Grackle – now Regular; formerly Accidental. Like the Eurasian Collared-Dove, there have been records in only six of the past 10 years, but it is obvious this species is now solidly annual in its occurrence.

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Yelling "Fire!" in the theater. Jokes of bombs and hijackings at the airport. These may not be appropriate exercises in Free Speech. Unless, of course, when you're on the internet, where you'll still find plenty of flames being spread, verbal bombs dropped, and a listserve's mission and its threads of discussion hijacked off course.