A Second Look at Painted Buntings and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers

So, your dream has always been to be on MORC! No, not the Mean Old Rejections Committee, but the other MORC  —  the Minnesota Ornithological Records Committee. But note that recently MORC has morphed and become MOURC: the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union Records Committee. Or, as the members like to call it: Merciful, Omniscient, Understanding, and Really Cool.

Whatever you call it, it’s really no big deal. But the name change was made primarily to emphasize that this committee is not just some independent group driving you crazy and rejecting your records. Instead, it has long been a standing committee of the MOU, and accountable to the MOU’s Board of Directors – while it's driving you crazy and rejecting your records.

To paraphrase Shakespeare (run for your lives! – he’s about to expose his roots as an English major), a records committee by any other name would smell as sweet. So your dream can still come true as a member of MOURC. To qualify, though, you have to pass the entrance examination. It’s in two parts and pretty easy. After all, what could be easier than identifying a male Painted Bunting or a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher?

Painted Bunting Identification

Here are two records of male Painted Buntings which MOURC looked at recently. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to say how MOURC voted on each record. Did we find both acceptable, were both not accepted, or was there one of each? (Hint: the vote on one of these records was unanimous, with all seven members voting the same way; the other vote was much closer, with four voting one way and three the other.)

Record #1 was from a yard in western Minnesota in May 2001. The entire written description was: “Dark blue on back of head tapering down the back to a greenish color. Red under the neck tapering to orangish color under the stomach.” The observers had never seen the species before, no similar species were mentioned or considered, no field notes or photos were taken, and it was not mentioned if any optics were used.

Record #2 was from May 2001, also from a western Minnesota yard. The entire written description was: “a very colorful bird. . .bright blue, green and burnt orange. . .approx. 5-6 inches.” A distant photo was taken, but it is out of focus, and it is difficult to see the bird or any plumage details. As with Record #1, the observers had never seen the species before, no field notes were taken, and it was not mentioned if optics were used. American Goldfinch and Purple Finch were mentioned as similar species.

Again, a male Painted Bunting is hardly an identification challenge, and it would be difficult to misidentify some other species as one. Accordingly, there is little, if any, doubt in my mind that both birds were correctly identified. But – you guessed it! – MOURC was unable to accept either record. The vote on Record #1 was 0–7, and the vote on Record #2 was 3–4.

Now, before you run off and send an irate letter to your congressman, please be sure to take note of two things. First, considering records such as these is about the most difficult task MOURC has: i.e., not being able to accept a record of a bird you know or suspect was correctly identified. And second, you have to realize there is an important distinction between the identification of something and its documentation. MOURC does not evaluate anyone’s bird identification ability; it only evaluates the documentation he or she submits.

In these two cases, no one thinks anyone misidentified anything. But at the same time, no one provided enough evidence of what they saw. If you reread the first description, you don’t know if there was any blue on the top or sides of the head, or if any was on the back. What did the wings, rump, tail and bill look like? How big was it? We don’t know. What if the wings had wing bars, the rump and tail were yellow, the bill was six inches long, and if the bird stood three feet tall? (All of these things are entirely possible; the description provided doesn’t say.) Would it still be a Painted Bunting?

Look again at the second record, and the description is even less specific. (But it was at least accepted by some of us who thought we could barely see some details on the photo.) Where were the blue and green and orange colors? We don’t know. What if we asked the observers about this, and they reported that the head was red, the back was blue, and the underparts were green? Would it still be a Painted Bunting?

There may be nothing to be learned here about Painted Bunting identification. Again, I’m confident these obervers know how to identify this species and actually did so correctly. They are certainly also to be commended for taking the time and effort to respond to our request for documentation. But there is something to be learned about reporting the good birds we find, often it’s harder to document them than it is to identify them.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher Identification

Similarly, here are two sets of details recently submitted on another very distinctive and easy-to-identify species: Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. The interesting thing about these records is that one is a May 1987 record and the other is from May 1993. Birding by hindsight, indeed! They were found by chance in the MOU’s archives of bird records, and neither had ever been considered by the Committee. One had been in the Acceptable file, while the other had been filed as Not Accepted.

In this case your assignment for each record is two-fold. First, figure out which record came from which file; and second, did the Committee concur or disagree with how the records were filed.

Record #1 was entirely from a news item by a local reporter in a newspaper. The reporter, who did not see the bird, wrote that the observers said it was a “pearly gray bird” with an “extremely long tail.” They identified it based on the “pale orangish-red spots on the wings and the unusually long tail.” There was no other information about similar species, how long it was seen, the distance involved, whether binoculars were used, or the observers’ experience.

Record #2 was a description by an observer who wrote the following: “The bird was sitting on a telephone wire and its very long forked tail was clearly visible. Its back, head and chest were white/gray and its wings dark. The pinkish sides were not noted (I was too busy admiring its tail).” The observer also writes why it was not a Western Kingbird (“its tail was far too long”) or a Fork-tailed Flycatcher (“its head was light-colored”), that he or she had seen this species many times before in other states, and that the bird was on a wire about 15 feet away and observed with 10X binoculars.

The answers? The first record had been in the Acceptable file and the second in the Not-Accepted file. However, MOURC reversed that, not accepting the first record and accepting the second.

So, what happened? One possibility is that the records were simply misfiled, which can happen with any files. Another possibility is the records were filed that way because the first mentioned the pinkish color and the second didn’t. As with the Painted Bunting records, there is little or no doubt that both birds were actually seen and correctly identified. And the majority went on to say the second description, though incomplete, provides enough evidence to adequately document the sighting.

However, the problem with the first record is not the description, but from whom it came. It’s what we call a second-hand report: the only description, as accurate as it may be, is provided by someone who did not see the bird. By its nature, such evidence leaves too many doubts and is open to question. It’s the same way in the courtroom, by the way: hearsay testimony is disregarded. If those who actually saw the flycatcher wrote the description, rather than the reporter, the record may well have been accepted.

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Well, how did you do on the entrance exam? Actually, your answers are not all that important. What is important is to remember:

• MOURC evaluates the birder’s documentation, not the birder’s ID skills.

• Accordingly, correctly identified birds will sometimes end up not being accepted.

• Accordingly, correctly identified birds seen by MOURC members will sometimes end up not being accepted. (Example: Years ago, before MORC was around, I had good looks at male MacGillivray’s Warblers in spring on two occasions in western Minnesota. Neither was documented at the time, and MOURC did the right thing with them. Neither was accepted.)

• Documenting the exceptional birds you find is not a chore; it’s not punishment. If you found something special, it deserves special treatment. Write it up and tell us all about it!

• If you think you’d be better off without MOURC, there are two alternatives. One is to accept nothing without tangible evidence, like a specimen or photograph. (One way or another, you’d have to shoot everything.) The other is to accept everything without question. (So, if I said that I saw Elvis standing by an Ivory-billed Woodpecker nest in my back yard, then without a doubt you could rest assured that Elvis and Ivory-bills still exist.)