Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Where does meaning reside--in the thing, or in us?

I receive a daily email from "Oregon Birders OnLine" which allows members to share birdwatching experiences and thoughts with others. Many of these posts focus mainly on birds seen, where and when, and a substantial number address issues of scientific behavior--field observation, identification techniques, fine points of species differentiation, etc.

As the list has expanded over the years, so has the range of interests expressed by subscribers. Occasionally, a brief spat will erupt between those who wish to spend a substantial amount of virtual ink on a particular point of ornithological importance, and those who experience birdwatching more as an absorbing and rejuvenating pastime. Of course, in between these two groups, the majority leans first one way and then the other.

In the midst of these discussions, sometimes quite heated, we get the occasional insight that, to me, seems so fresh and straightforward that all the strife becomes at once meaningless and worth having slogged through. Below is such an insight, from Paul T. Sullivan, birder extraordinaire, and a most sensible human being.

I offer it in its entirety. The argument to which it responded concerned the less than satisfactory data obtained from amateur birders who tend to cluster at "hot spots", leaving large areas "underbirded". Paul's response says as much about human language and how we make meaning as it does about birding.

I suggested earlier that our society should value scientific ornithology done by trained scientists, and be willing to pay for it. Another voice advocated putting teams of volunteer birders out in disciplined teams, perhaps a demonstration in a few select counties, to collect data on bird migration through the NAMC. To get good data, statistics would need to be applied to the resulting reports.

I think both these suggestions are wishful dreams. We will never have "enough" funding, "enough" trained ornithologists, "enough" good birders, "enough" coverage, "enough" discipline, "enough" reports, "enough" photos, or "enough" publications. (Well maybe we're close on the last two...;-) )

This brings me to my question: What does 'UNDERBIRDED' mean?

Is 'underbirded' an attribute of the place, like a building that needs a fresh coat of paint? Does a local marsh or woods care that it is underbirded? Does it loose something for being underbirded? Or might it be just fine being that way?

Or is 'underbirded' a judgment on the way other humans behave, all flocking to certain sites and not others? In that case, is it a fault, a reason to lay blame? Are some other places 'overbirded'?

Or is 'underbirded' the expression of a WISH on the part of the speaker, a wish to get data about birds from locations where the bird population and migration pattern is not documented? Is it a WISH to have more data to add to "the body of scientific knowledge," to add the next new species to the official state list, or to "provide facts" to support land management decisions? Is it a wish to control the behavior of fellow bird enthusiasts?

The swamps of Arkansas and the Florida panhandle went "underbirded" for 50 years -- for good reason, they are inaccessible. Did the Ivory-billed Woodpecker care? Life went on in those swamps without the benefit of being "birded."

On the one hand, I hear voices that advocate for bringing more birders into the fold, and call for better education of birders so that they can identify dowitchers with more comfort. On the other hand I hear voices scolding birders for doing what they enjoy, chasing rarities, clumping up, and not going very far from their cars. These voices want birders to fan out, cover all habitats, and collect data and report it to them.

My point is this: YOU GET WHAT YOU GET. There will be some folks who follow a protocol-based approach to birds, some professional scientists, some government managers, some conservation activists, some casual folks who don't work at it too hard at birding, some who go for quiet walks in the woods and never report their sightings, some keen listers, some backyard feeder-watchers.

We will never cover it all. We will never put enough competent observers in the field. We will never distribute them uniformly across the landscape. We will never collect all the data and get it published.

There will be places that go "underbirded." It's always been that way, and that's OK.

Good birding, everyone,
Paul T. Sullivan