About the OBRC
How to Document
Official OK Bird
CONCEPTUAL BASIS FOR THE OPERATION OF THE OKLAHOMA BIRD RECORDS
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
Structure and Processes
Illustrating the OBRC Review Process
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.
Amateurs have always been an
important component of the data collection process and many of
the early naturalists 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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