Now we’re getting into a little bit of a sticky topic: how and why your reputation as a birder matters, and what it has engendered in birding! Birding is an “honor-based” hobby. That means that no one else can tell you you didn’t see something if you say you did. However, this is where the “boy who cried wolf” fable becomes relevant; if you kept reporting unusual things that no one else was able to verify, people would stop believing you, even if they couldn’t disprove you. In the story, the boy was ostracized from his community, which can happen in birding too. (In my experience though, the birding community is pretty forgiving, and it usually takes personal misconduct to be excluded from e.g. a local group.) In any case, though, information about your social network is relevant. When there’s no proof of a rare bird being seen other than someone’s word, their reputation becomes important. Is this person a good birder? Have they made mistakes before? If so, how many and when? Are they prone to misidentify the family of birds they claimed to see? We ask ourselves these questions because, for instance, we want to know if we should put in the effort to go look for it too.
Your status as a believable, and then a good, birder earns you a positive reputation. Within the birding community, this opens the door for popularity, elitism, ego and cliques, and birding is not immune to these dynamics. Birding reputation, which arose from the somewhat innocent reasons mentioned above, can then become too much of a burden for the good birder. A friend of mine, Laura Erickson, recently chimed in to a discussion on Facebook with a story about birders that misidentified a bird. I want to take a step back there, ask you to re-read that last sentence and realize that this is a story about the embarrassment associated with incorrectly identifying a bird. I’ve found that explaining these dynamics to someone outside of birding sounds insane, as it kind of should, if we’re honest. We really care that much about how good someone is at identifying birds? Of course we have our community centered around a common interest, but every now and then, we have to get back “in touch” with the bigger world. Anyway, the members of the group that misidentified this bird don’t want to be identified to this day, and it sounds like this happened…around the time I was born!
I don’t say this to point fingers, but rather as someone who has felt the pressure myself, especially as I became more personally connected to the wider birding community. I remember when I potentially misidentified a bird by ear that was more common from the area I moved from, when I didn’t realize it was uncommon in my new home. I actually mostly remember it because a friend from the local birding community joked that “everyone had been talking about me behind my back.” That’s the first time I can say I felt like something personal was at stake, and a failing to correctly identify a bird was something that could embarrass me. In some ways, it helped me grow into a better and more careful birder. In other ways, it held me back as I started to feel some degree of shame about my hobby that I’d never felt before. That feeling became toxic to me for several reasons, but I can say I’m slowly growing out of it. I don’t aim to be a perfect birder anymore, even if mistakes don’t feel much better than they always did. I aim to be an honest birder and say what I don’t know, even if it’s something I knew once and forgot along the way. To be honest, I consider myself a little rusty now, because I didn’t bird enough this summer! Honesty and vulnerability always make you feel exposed, and in the words of Brene Brown, don’t feel good at the time. Yet, I do believe these traits make the world a better place, so I’ll strive to be better for my community.
All of the above also fosters competition, and there’s outright competition (bird-a-thons, etc.) as well as interpersonal competitiveness. Some folks are naturally competitive, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. For me, though, I’ve found I don’t want to know everything, though knowledge of anything bird-related to your area is often social currency in birding. I feel it can go to an extreme, and to me, that extreme represents losing the quality of discovery. In an era where information about what bird was seen minutes down the block from your house ago is at your fingertips, it’s all too easy for us to know as much as we want. I want to clarify that I don’t judge anyone’s experience, and plenty of people bird differently than I do. It’s not wrong to “geek out” about different parts of it, and have a running feed of eBird texted to your phone, if that floats your boat. What I ask is to reflect on why you want to know everything up-to-the-minute: is it because you want to know the most or appear the most competent in order to impress others, or is it just your curiosity (or maybe both)?
When it comes down to it, we all want to be “cool” in whatever group we’re in. We want to be valued, noticed, included and thought highly of. Some of that has good roots, and some of that has bad roots, in my opinion. I think what we should do is embrace our humility through embracing our humanity and potential to err. Also in that vein, we need to be OK with not knowing everything, even (and especially) in a situation where we feel we should (e.g. leading a field trip of novice birders). If we’re rusty on a call we should know better, so be it. It’s better to be honest and not mislead others, if that’s the position you’re in. The only way we can all grow and learn is admitting our knowledge gaps. In fact, the best we can do is accurately assess what we don’t know.
Then, we should try to care less what people think, even though for me, that’s admittedly an ongoing struggle. We can also just actively try to be more inclusive as birders. Always remember that though someone’s eyes may not be as trained as yours, they may be just as sharp, so they have something to say. Yes, birding is a skill, and good birders know what to look at and what to listen for more so than someone who just started yesterday. Invite everyone interested to the table, though, and listen to what they have to say about their experience. That, for sure, is not less valid than your experience. So, if we can work to associate ourselves and befriend new birders in group settings, we can all grow and maybe decentralize the “hierarchy” that seems to exist in the birding community.