Historical Bird Records: How much should we believe?

We are very lucky to live in an age, where most birders carry a digital camera out into the field.  If a rare bird appears, it can be quickly and definitively photographed and the pictures shared across the internet in a matter of minutes.  Obviously in the old days, this wasn’t possible.  Birders didn’t commonly lug cameras into the field, the camera’s were not nearly as good as they are now and you still had to develop the picture, which if you didn’t do it yourself, could take a couple of days.  This often meant the bird was gone before anyone knew what it was.

Recently I’ve been reading old reports from The Kingbird (www.nybirds.org) from 1950 on, about my home region (Region 8) in Eastern New York.  While it has been fascinating to learn about certain species which used to occur in certain places (but certainly don’t anymore), every now and then a report makes the list (Which implies confirmation) which makes you just go huh?

remember there were no Avian Bird Record committees then.  If it made it to the Kingbird it was likely discussed by the editor of the region and the person who made the sighting.  In many cases, no details were given, but phrases such as “Convincingly described” or “Almost certainly this species” were used.  There are species reported and “Convincingly described” which would never be accepted by a records committee today. 

 With that in mind, how do we treat these historical records with little or no details?  Your thoughts?

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3 responses to “Historical Bird Records: How much should we believe?

  1. I guess the question depends on whether the bird was convincingly described based on an actual observation or whether it was described based on expectation from a field guide.

    For the 50s I’d suspect the first is more likely, simply because their were fewer field guide options in those days, and those that did exist were less comprehensive than those today. These days it would be nothing to pull out a couple field guides and write a convincing report based on nothing but field marks gleaned from the texts. I would think that would be more difficult from using only a Peterson’s, which for all it’s rightful importance to birding history and culture, didn’t really illustrate the birds in super realistic fashion for my money.

    I dunno, I’d be inclined to believe the old records, but it certainly would be nice to have a written record you could refer too even 50 years later.

  2. Good question.

    A friend of mine once reviewed very old publications of birds from a certain region of Germany and chanced upon a published photo of one of Germany’s very few “genuine” Harlequin Duck observations, generally considered genuine because it was made during a time when keeping ducks was not very popular and the chance of an escapee was low.
    Turns out the bird was a plain ol’ Velvet Scoter female, a species that’s actually common in that region, so one would have thought both observer and publisher would have immediately recognized it.
    They didn’t, and the “record” made it into the most well-respected scientific publications. This seems to be the case with quite a lot of the old records: wherever they can be reviewed today, they often turn out to be mistakes.
    No decent field guides, no real optics.

    The German rarities committee therefore assesses these records with the same method as it would apply to a recent record. A bird who is described in detail and whose description and circumstances sound okay might be accepted, but if there is just one line, stating things like “convincingly described”, it gets rejected.
    Which means most old records get rejected unless there is a collected skin that can still be checked today.
    Which is sad when you live in a country where a lot of collections and skins were lost during WW2’s bombing raids.
    F*&%§#g Nazis!

  3. Pingback: Ornothological Information in New York…

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