Birding blasphemies

OK, what I am about to write here could be seen in some quarters as sacrilege, or, in others, a sophisticated and convoluted means of aiming a wrecking ball at my own credibility. I assure anyone who may read this that neither is the case.

In birding circles, while there is an acknowledgement that mistakes can be, and are, made, and that (at least in theory) everyone is always learning, it is also true that it can be a cut-throat world, where honest to goodness errors of judgement can be held against someone, or people go around scared of even offering opinions lest they be proven wrong and this to damage their reputations. Now, reputation is important, to an extent. It's what makes birders go and twitch one's rare bird claims even before seeing documentary evidence or sussing the details out. And I am not advocating that anyone should just decide to throw away a solid reputation out of sheer devilment. But I wonder if it is time that us birders ask the daring question: if protecting a reputation at all costs leads to stunted debate or discussion, then should we be as hung up on it as many of us (I will admit including myself, sometimes) seem to be?

When I was a younger man, in my 20s, I admit to having returned, in my mind, time and again to an idealistic view of a slightly less uptight birding scene, where 'cul de sac' theories, calls from the hip that proved incorrect, mistakes when commenting on someone else's claim and so on wouldn't be held against a birder, particularly if they were known to be more or less competent but even if they were unknown quantities or beginners. Indeed, given that everyone is a beginner at some stage, some leeway should always be given to people in such a position. The reality was ever less Utopian, and I can recall comments where people might have found it amusing if and when I or others dared to poke our heads above the parapet and be proven wrong, even if we admitted our error, or having a genuine enquiry and the tentative beginnings of an identification discussion summarily shut down by some withering remark or other.

The sacrilegious part is this. We all make mistakes, all the time. They may not be very big, we may correct them ourselves most of the time, or, if we don't, we would have had someone else not gotten the right call out there first. Indeed, there are forms of birding where, indirectly, making a 'mistake' is very much the right thing to do. If seawatching with others, for one, I think it is always best to call anything potentially of interest. I doubt I would be alone in preferring to hear about a possible scarce or rare seabird that later transpired to be something altogether commoner having been seen under misleading circumstances than to have had the observer, scared for their reputation, to have kept quiet and thus possibly missing something extraordinary.

Another reason for advocating at least a little more understanding of and openness about genuine mistakes is that each of us knows his or her own mind and thoughts. If nobody else will admit to at least occasional errors or uncertainties, then it can seem a very lonely furrow to plough if one is all too aware of their own 'shortcomings' and not those of others.

I am not advocating making errors purposefully, or throwing any caution to the wind and just calling anything that comes into one's head. By all means, strive to improve and to be precise where possible, just don't demonise the occasional error that slips in for us all. But maybe I'm still just a dreamer, in spite of being far less naive in my middle age...


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