The Dark Side of Birding

A common loon readies to launch from Cupsuptic Lake, part of the Rangeley Lakes Heriteage Trust, on Saturday June 23, 2012 (Photo by Carl D. Walsh/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

Avid birders are no longer all kindly septuagenarians bedecked in Tilly hats and multi-pocket vests, binoculars glued to their eyes. For some, birding has even become a competitive sport. At Outside, Jessie Williamson reports on how birding has evolved with the advent of eBird, an online platform where birders can register to report sightings. The app has been instrumental in helping scientists “understand species distributions, population trends, migration pathways, and even habitat use,” but because it is used by humans who are not nearly as magnificent as birds, participation can have its downsides, including being publicly mocked and shamed for mis-identifying a species.

Birders are typically friendly, both in person and online, with email exchanges often ending in well-wishes of “Good birding!” But a code of ethics is necessary because, as with any activity that can become competitive, birding has a dark side. Rivalry, animosity, and ego have long been hallmarks of the bird world. Even the famous naturalist John James Audubon plagiarized and invented species to convince members of the English nobility to promote his work. Birders sometimes go to semi-desperate lengths to track down birds, and online platforms like eBird that rank birders and sightings, akin to athletes on leaderboards, can amplify competition.

Although eBird is primarily an observation tool and a scientific database, the site still allows users to size each other up: anyone can view rankings of the top eBirders in different hot spots, counties, states, and entire countries. You can even peruse a list of the top 100 eBirders in the world. These types of competitive lists have birthed trends like endless Big Years, in which birders constantly compete to see who can spot the most species in a year. In turn, such fads have spurred counterinitiatives, like the five-mile-radius challenge, which encourages birders to enjoy birds in local areas rather than seeking them out in far-flung places. Local birding has soared during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many work from home and explore their own backyards.

I had my own run-in with bad behavior on eBird last November. I’d gotten wind via the eBird Rare Bird Alert that a vagrant woodcock had been spotted along the Rio Grande near Albuquerque, New Mexico, just 15 minutes from my house. American woodcocks are iconic little solitary shorebirds that live in forests and constantly bob while they walk, and they’re rarely seen out west. Naturally, I had to chase this bird. At 7 A.M. on a Sunday, I found myself walking along the river, kicking up piles of dead leaves in an attempt to flush the woodcock.

After a few hours, I’d had no luck. As I headed back to my car, I passed a group of birders also searching for the woodcock. We chatted for a bit before a well-known birder—the one who misidentified the DICK—recognized me. With a facetious smile, he asked, “How’s your goose ID going?”

The other birders stared blankly while I brimmed with silent shock and anger. He was publicly mocking me—a week before, he’d emailed me about a misidentified Ross’s goose I posted on eBird. Embarrassed, I quickly updated my observation. Our interaction should have ended there, but instead he was now calling me out for my mistake—gleefully—in front of others.

“Fine,” I said curtly, before walking back to my car.

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