Birders, according my research, have embraced the Internet for information about birds. This includes general information about birds (websites such as Cornell’s All About Birds were mentioned by birders) but it would seem that the Internet is seen most importantly as a conduit of bird sightings. I conducted my research in Ontario, speaking with Ontario birders. When I would ask how birders decided where to go on a particular day, birders would often cite the Ontario Field Ornithologist’s (or OFO, for short) ONTBIRDS listserv as a source of information (often the primary source) for sightings.
Sharing bird sightings isn’t a new practise in birding. When I was a child visiting my grandparents, I remember the phone ringing, my grandparents answering and getting the latest news that species X had been seen at location Y. As members of the local field naturalist club, they were part of a telephone tree that spread news about rare bird sightings. After they collected the information, they would then call the two people “below” them in the tree. I imagine that in short order, the information about the birds was disseminated.
So the practise hasn’t changed. But the technology has. Before I talk about the implications of this, I want to bring in another thread into this conversation.
If you visit the Bird Report Page of the Ottawa Field Naturalist Club, you’ll read this notice:
NOTE: Due to increasing and widespread concerns regarding disturbance of wildlife and property, the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club Birds Committee has adopted a policy of no longer publicizing OWLS on the Bird Status Line or on the Internet. We will continue to encourage the reporting of owls to the Bird Status Line for the purpose of maintaining local records. Please refer to the OFNC Code of Conduct.
Over the past winters, I’ve experienced first-hand and through anecdotal stories from birders interviewed, the questionable behaviour that other birders—and I’m using the term liberally, describing all those out, looking at these owls—have undertaken to see these birds of prey1. These birds have been harassed to the point that the OFNC have stopped reporting owl sightings and I applaud that action by the OFNC. I’m interested, though, why the OFNC even have to take this action and I suspect it has something to do with the technology used to share the sightings.
The combined effects of a low barrier to entry & amplification
My hypothesis is that listservs, in comparison to the previous technology of the telephone tree offer such a low barrier to entry (getting the information) that the social cues and rules that controlled behaviour when watching birds have disappeared, or are greatly reduced. I also believe that the sightings are so easily shared, that they can get amplified (shared) beyond the original (and perhaps intended) audience.
The telephone tree network
In order to get access to the network of bird sighting information prior to the Internet, my grandparents had to at least join their local field naturalist club. More likely (and I know this is the case in their case) they became involved with the organization and the people who were also club members. They knew the person who called them and the they knew the people they called. They became a community of practise, where social knowledge of individuals was a part of the practise. Yes, it was a smaller network and required more effort to get the word out (what happened, in days prior to answering machines, when you weren’t home?), but I think this worked to the network’s advantage. This doesn’t mean that there weren’t examples of birders harassing birds, but I suspect that given the fact that birders provided with rare bird sightings knew that they were operating within a distinctly social sphere—their actions were being watched and they were known to other birders. Their poor behaviour, if observed, would impact their future ability to get reported sightings.
I’ve got some data that supports this, where I was speaking to a birder about telephone trees and he shared a story where he and others would make a decision about sharing a bird sighting based on the quality of person that they would be sharing the information with. Simply, if the bird was too rare, he said, the decision would be made not to pass on the information.
The Listserv network
Today, to get bird sightings from Ontbirds, you simply need to supply an email address. Sightings are broadcast to all subscribers. No pre-existing social relationships necessary, no missed phone calls, no (rightly or wrongly) judgements of character—the information flows easily and freely. Great for getting the word out and sharing sightings. But what about for the lives of owls (and all other birds reported, for that matter)? Its a rhetorical question in my mind because I’m going to suggest that its too easy to get the information out.
This leads precisely to the situation where the OFNC stop reporting owl sightings. With the loss of the social context and agreement that existed with a telephone tree network, birders, perhaps more likely to act responsibly if they know they are being watched by fellow known birders2, are free to behave as they wish. Thankfully, most birders continue to act in a responsible manner. Enough birders show poor judgement, though, that owls are stressed by the behaviours of some birders who turn up to see them.
I’m not, however, arguing that the listserv genie will go back in the bottle; that bird sightings should only be communicated via the telephone. Information wants to be free, and no effort to stop it will work (witness the efforts of the music industry to stop file sharing). I would argue that birders need to be aware of just what they’re sharing via the sightings listserv. Perhaps sightings listservs need to “up” the barrier to entry a bit—like having to pay a small amount (say $5.00, like Metafilter) to subscribe. Even better, would be attempting to re-introduce the social. Something like requiring an existing member to vouch for you.
Ultimately, should the responsibility be on the original posters? Obviously the OFNC believes it does—by removing owl sightings, they’re not leaving it up to the discretion of individuals to make a good decision. But I’m not sure I like that solution. This is where education comes in again—knowing just what the ethical treatment of birds while birding is; what kind of behaviours are deemed acceptable by the community and what are not.
Yes, the ABA has a code of ethics. But posting this code isn’t enough. In this age of effortless bird reporting, we in the birding community need to a better job of: first, having a conversation about what role these listservs serve; second, making tough decisions about reporting that take into account the wellbeing of birds as well as birders own need to see rare or unusual birds; and third, mentoring others (ratcheting up the social) so that sightings can be shared and birds protected.
- I think it might be interesting to figure out why people have such an interest in owls over other birds—I’ll suggest that they’re predators, fairly large, and unusual all come together to make them particularly compelling—but that’s beyond the scope of this post [↩]
- and this could be exacerbated by an increasing population of birders—the percentage of birders behaving badly remains the same, there are just more of them now [↩]