Monday, October 19, 2009

Bird Documentation in the Digital Age: What Is a Bird Record?

"Whenever I think seriously about why I love notebooks I'm reminded of those cave walls covered in drawings of game by our Neolithic ancestors. Bison, deer and horses gallop across their subterranean galleries in exuberant patterns of charcoal and ochre....They are precious documents about our past, but also about our present condition, since their unconscious beauty finds its echo - if not a direct lineal descendant - in the birder's notebook." (Cocker 2001)

In the beginning, there was a bird.

Some time afterward, there was a human being that wanted to tell other human beings about a bird. This would have been long before any form of written language was invented, so speech was the likely medium (though birds also appear in cave and rock art, of course). Since speech tends to be ephemeral unless it is written down or it persists in a carefully-maintained oral tradition, those earliest bird reports are lost to us today. This is unfortunate, since they would doubtlessly be very interesting.

An encounter between a bird and a human observer is a unique experience. A bird report is the result of that unique experience being translated into a form that allows it to be communicated to people that did not participate in the original experience. That translation is often made with the help of technology. The type of technology used in the translation process inevitably affects the final form of the report (for example, a written description of a bird and a photograph of a bird are very different from each other, even if they report the same individual bird). Technology may affect the circumstances of the observation as well.

The distinction between a bird report and a bird record is subtle but significant. A bird record is a bird report that has been examined and approved by a person or agency with the authority to designate what is accurate and what is not. Various entities claim this authority; the claims of ornithologists and bird records committees are widely accepted by the birding community and others, but any individual can claim a similar authority (whether that claim is honored by others is another matter entirely). To complicate matters further, different authorities may have different criteria for considering a report to be a record.

Both bird reports and records become part of the avian historical record, although a bird record has more status than a report. A basic criterion for a bird record is that there is sufficient information available for future reseachers to review the evidence for a claimed observation and draw their own conclusions. In other words, though current authorities do the best they can in terms of designating accuracy, there is an acknowledgement that future generations may make different designations. Future researchers may even look at observations currently considered to be reports and upgrade them to being records (or vice versa).

To boil it all down to the essentials, the process of turning a bird report into a bird record is the process of turning an anecdote into a data point.

What you just read (if you are still with me) is an idealized version of a stable situation. Technological and social change (which are often entwined with each other) tend to throw such ideals into chaos until a new status quo appears. We are currently living through one of these periods of technological and social change, but the next post in this series will look back at a previous shift: the transition from a shotgun to binoculars as the must-have tool for a bird student.

Cocker, Mark. 2001. Birders: Tales of a Tribe. Atlantic Monthly Press.

Previously in this series:


No comments: