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Conceptual Basis For The Operation Of The Oklahoma Birds Records Committee

Joseph A. Grzybowski, John S. Tomer, and Jeffrey A. Cox

Some people ask: Why a Bird Records Committee? The answer lies in recognizing the value of your observations and in establishing their long-term credibility.

Overview and Historical Perspective

Structure and Processes

Benefits to Contributors

Summary

Flow Chart Illustrating the OBRC Review Process

Overview and historical perspective

Studies of bird populations, bird distribution, and bird migration have been a mainstay of ornithology for some time. In the 1800s, museum specimens were relied upon as observations, and bird collections were effectively the database. Egg collections also added to the data we had on birds and breeding distributions. Early ornithologists made these extensive collections, partly to obtain voucher specimens verifying the existence of the species in an area, partly to study geographic variation of species and subspecies, and partly because they did not have good identification materials or visual equipment.

uralists were actually serious hobbyists. But then, as now, there was a range of interest and orientation. Many of the egg collectors, while providing valuable data, were primarily interested in the collection itself rather than how the data from these collections might expand the knowledge of natural history and breeding distribution of birds. In much the same way, some bird observers today seem to be more interested in their collection (list) than they are in the accuracy of each observation.

We have come a long way in the past several decades, mainly with advances in our knowledge of bird identification, and the various improvements in equipment, including binoculars, telescopes, cameras, and sound recording devices. With these advances, the data from which state lists and migration dates have been compiled has changed from largely specimen collections to other forms of support, largely visual observations.

Although amateurs of all sorts have clearly made substantive contributions, concerns still remain about the reliability and accuracy of any record that is not substantiated by a physical specimen of some sort (the bird itself, an egg, feathers, identifiable photograph or sound recording). Through the early decades of this century, reliability involved correct identification of specimens. Knowledge of bird identification was then in its infancy for most North American species, and many published accounts -- even those based on actual specimens -- contained identification errors. But because most identifications were documented with specimens, as collections have been re-examined, many of the problems in identification have been discovered and corrected. However, if mis-identifications were possible with specimens in hand, sight records during that era were even more susceptible to errors.

More recent published sight observations have some of the same problems, and, in many cases, are also without supporting documentations. In setting up the initial Date Guide for the Oklahoma Bird Records Committee (Grzybowski, J. A. 1986. Date Guide to the Occurrences of Birds in Oklahoma. 1st Edition. Oklahoma Ornithological Society, Norman, OK), and reviewing the current accumulation of records, the Oklahoma Bird Records Committee (OBRC) detected inconsistencies among reports for a variety of species in different parts of the state and between Oklahoma and adjacent states. Once detected, these inconsistencies raised concerns for all dimensions of the data base, including those where disparities were less obvious.

In the second edition of the Date Guide (Grzybowski, J. A., J. W. Arterburn, W. A. Carter, J. S. Tomer, and D. W. Verser. 1992. Date Guide to the Occurrences of Birds in Oklahoma. 2nd Edition. Oklahoma Ornithological Society, Norman, OK), several species were dropped from the state list because the evidence given was inadequate to exclude similar, sometimes more likely, species. Certain historical records lacked sufficient documentation to support them, or such documentation was lost or destroyed. The Broad-tailed Hummingbird is one example. In other cases, not even written documentation was available for relatively recent records.

In addition, our knowledge of bird identification and taxonomy continues to increase rapidly. For example, only a few years ago was the Clark’s Grebe recognized as a species distinct from the Western Grebe. How many reports of Western Grebes from Oklahoma before the split might actually have been Clark’s? Even today the characters used to separate the two species are not completely clear.

This all presents us with some interesting questions as to how the observations we make today will be judged in the future. What use will our efforts at keeping and accumulating records actually be in both the near and distant future if these records are questionable or unsupported? How can we deal with the range of observer skill, orientation, and motivation that is inherent to sight records?

We all recognize the potential value of observations made by the growing army of birders. Many amateur and professional birding groups have responded to concerns about the validity of sight records by establishing bird record committees (BRCs) to develop methods for documenting, and processes for evaluating these records, thus making data sets of sight observations more reliable. Over 38 states currently have such BRCs (Roberson, D. 1990. Birding 22(6):276-285).

Concomitant with this development has been the organization and reorganization of many data bases. -Many committees are extending review to past records, thus attempting to resolve some of the past problems of "questionable data." Programs and institutions of all sorts, such as the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) and Christmas Bird Counts (CBC), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Bird Banding Lab are all increasing efforts to improve the reliability of data, and now routinely request documentation for unusual sightings or captures.

We in Oklahoma are not among the few, but in the mainstream of this pattern. We have a functional BRC that does request documentation of unusual observations. Oklahoma's BRC is different from that of some other states in its reviewing of a wide variety of records, including not only extreme geographic rarities, but also geographic and seasonal rarities within the State. This is, in part, an effort to fill gaps in our knowledge of Oklahoma bird distribution and migration.

We have evaluated over 1,000 documentations since 1986, and the many changes between the first and second editions of the Date Guide reflects the contributions made by many individuals throughout the state. Nonetheless, the accumulation of the most meaningful data depends on broad, continuing support by the birding community. Thus, one of our goals as members of the OBRC in presenting this paper is to maintain communication with as broad a group as possible, and to increase participation by refreshing your memories as to what the OBRC is, what we do, how we do it, and what benefit it is to you.

We do not want to imply that we have not been receiving the benefits of your support, because we have. Many of you have contributed substantively, and continue to do so. We deeply appreciate your contributions.

Structure and processes of the Oklahoma Bird Records Committee (OBRC)

The OBRC has been operating under formal policies since 1985. The OOS membership approved bylaws covering the OBRC in 1990.

The basic goals of the OBRC are to:

  1. Accumulate records of bird observations.

  2. Assess reliability of those records.

  3. Establish standards for observation and reporting which can establish general credibility and acceptability of these records for study of bird distributions and migrations.

  4. Compile and maintain an official OOS Check-List of Oklahoma birds.
     

The accompanying figure summarizes the basic procedures for processing a bird record received by the Oklahoma Bird Records Committee. When a record is received, we determine its degree of rarity based upon its divergence from the expected occurrence dates and regions given in the OOS Date Guide.

The rarity of a record determines how many OBRC members will review it. If it is a first state record, at least five OBRC members must evaluate the record. If it occurs only rarely in the state so that no dates for its expected occurrence have been established (e.g., Red-throated Loon or Pine Grosbeak) at least four members must evaluate the record. If it is simply less than a month out of date or, perhaps, out of range by one region according to the Date Guide, then only one member need review the record.

In voting on a record, OBRC members are required to explain and support their decision. Thus, objective evaluation is encouraged, and arbitrary decisions are avoided. This opinion then becomes part of the record. If individual members of the OBRC disagree on whether to accept or reject a record, it is recirculated with comments from the first review so that OBRC members can re-evaluate the record with the opinions of other OBRC members in hand. At least 75% acceptance by voting members in the final round is needed to accept a record. Records of less rare observations found unacceptable are provided to at least two OBRC members to insure that no one person on the committee controls the rejection of a given record. If a member feels strongly that an outcome is incorrect, or questions the outcome, or wants a re-evaluation for any reason, it is brought forward for discussion to insure that a record receives fair treatment. This will also occur if new information is provided for that record.

Because photos cannot be readily and inexpensively duplicated, and may be lost in the mail, these are evaluated at one of the OBRC's bi-annual meetings. Also discussed at these meetings are records where members disagreed and records of species that are difficult to identify. There is much sharing of information in these meetings; discussions are lively, and sometimes heated.

Because the OBRC wishes to avoid arbitrary decision on any record, evaluations are based strictly upon the written documentation, i.e., what was actually observed and under what circumstances, not simply the judgments of the observer.

Comments such as "all field marks observed," or "carefully identified," or "looked just like the picture in the field guide" are not useful, because they provide only the interpretation and judgments of the observer, but not what led the observer to that conclusion. Rarely are all fields marks noted, and few birds look exactly like field guide illustrations. The factual basis for the identifications is what is needed. Thus, documentations need to be written with this in mind. Photos need to be identifiable independent of, or in combination with, written details of the observation. We would refer the readers to Grzybowski (Grzybowski, J. A. 1987. The Scissortail 37(4):49-50) for instructions on how to document bird observations. This will be reprinted in a future issue for convenience. Dittman and Lasley (Dittman, D. L. and G. W. Lasley. 1992. Birding 24(3):145-159) provide additional information.

All records received and deemed noteworthy are incorporated into the OBRC files. Those requiring documentation but received without it are incorporated into the files, but noted as being undocumented, and will remain unpublished. Rejected records are also retained in the files and noted as rejected; reasons for rejection are published in the Scissortail. Those records accepted, and those noteworthy but not requiring documentation, are published in the Scissortail, normally within nine months of their being received. Records that take longer to process, but are later accepted, are published in Addenda. Efforts are underway to store processed records with the Oklahoma Biological Survey.

Only about half of the records requiring documentation are received with such documentation. Those undocumented have most frequently been of seasonal rarities. While documentations of such records need not be as detailed as those for very rare species, and are perhaps tedious to write, they are still important in establishing the times and places of bird occurrences in Oklahoma and should still be documented. Data from these files are then used in revising future editions of the Date Guide. Supplements detailing status changes between Date Guide revisions are occasionally published in the Scissortail.

Benefits to contributors

 

Why provide documentations of rare and unusual species? Well, all of us know that not all of our identifications are correct. We are also aware that other birders may not maintain the same standards in "counting " a record on their lists. There are differences in skills among us. Some of us birdwatch simply for fun, and may not be interested in how useful our records are, but may want them printed in local newsletters for the social pleasures derived. If we really want these observations to be used collectively to learn something real about birds, then this disparity in standards and interests needs to placed against a standard of reliability so that potentially questionable records can be removed.

Some may argue that data are being lost if unusual records without documentations are excluded. Two points can be raised here: (1) Our observations only sample the occurrences of birds in the state. Most bird occurrences are never observed or recorded. But if our sampling is representative, we can still draw inferences about statuses of birds in Oklahoma from the portion of our sample with known reliability. (2) Reducing that sample, but also making it more reliable, is better than adding bad data to the good. Undocumented records that are excluded may be false records that could confuse our understanding. This is actually worse than no data at all, as we may be led to believe something that is untrue, rather than simply not knowing.

If we discover discrepancies or errors at a later date, we are left with serious questions about other data that may be valid, but whose validity then becomes uncertain. This belittles our efforts in assembling these records. For example, if individuals who may be providing consistent mis-identifications leave the reporting system, we may be left to evaluate data representing a change in status, when in fact, no change may be occurring. Such mis-identifications may also mask actual population changes. Folks -- it can be a mess!

There is also a personal value in providing some level of certainty to your records. While you may derive immediate social benefits and status among birders from the publication of these records, if and when your less reliable ones are discovered or questioned without some form of "proof" present, it then reflects automatically on the rest of your observations. Once questioned but published, every subsequent publication must deal with the uncertainty or error. Future researchers will have no way of assessing an observer’s credibility except through written documentation or other physical evidence. Without supportive documentation, they will be left with the uncertainty of whether an individual record is an exception, or whether it is a general lack of reliability for the observer. Our names can effectively become "dragged through the mud" for the history of time. If we examine the past literature, we can identify some individuals of uncertain reliability. Would you like such lack of credibility and stigma provided your name in the future? Well, then document your records. It is no disgrace to make an error, even if not discovered until a later date, if there was a clear attempt to disclose how the identification or conclusion was determined, and it was, at least at some point, judged acceptable by unbiased and objective review.

It takes but a few minutes to prepare documentation. If it takes more than 5 or 10 minutes, it probably means you have seen something very rare or difficult to identify -- in which case you would likely have spent the same amount of time studying identification guides anyway. Having identified an unusual bird with certainty, the additional time spent preparing documentation is really minimal. One measure of the quality of a birding trip is how many documentations you get to write up.

The other benefit of documenting unusual sightings is more personal. That is the improvement you are likely to see in your own birding skills. The skills of all members of the OBRC have improved significantly by reviewing records and asking themselves, "What field marks support the identification?" "What else could it have been?" "What makes it this and not something else?" The next time you see an unusual bird -- or even a common one -- ask yourself those questions. Do not focus merely on one or two characters that a field guide says may be diagnostic -- field guides are not always completely right. They generally do a pretty good job of representing the current state of knowledge, but variations do occur in bird plumages, and our understanding of those variations continually increases.. Look at the whole bird -- size, shape, color; head, wings, legs, tail, back, breast; songs, calls, behavior -- and you will find yourself looking at all birds differently, and more knowledgeably.
 

Summary

The Oklahoma Birds Records Committee provides a system establishing standards for observation and reporting of the occurrences of birds in Oklahoma, and for publishing, storing, and assessing reliability of such bird observations so that they can maintain credibility through time, and provide a useful data base for study of bird distribution and migration. A series of policies and procedures have been established to insure objective and unbiased review. We believe we have a credible system very much in line with other BRCs throughout the country, in some dimensions better, in that we can still deal with seasonal and local rarities.

 

We hope it provides a service to researchers and conservationists, as well as to the contributing birders in establishing credibility for their records through time.

 

Flow chart illustrating the OBRC review process