BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at MORC
[Author's Note, September 2010 – Since this article was published, the acronym MORC became MOURC as the committee's name changed to Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union Records Committee.]
It’s time for a quiz! Put your books under your desk, get out your No. 2 pencil and a sheet of paper. There will be 12 questions, all of them True or False. And no cheating — keep your eyes on your own paper!
1) True or False: The acronym MORC stands for Mean Old Rejections Committee.
Contrary to popular belief and the perceptions of some, the answer is False. It actually stands for the Minnesota Ornithological Records Committee, a committee of the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union (MOU). And for extra credit, without looking, try to spell “Ornithological” and “Ornithologists’ ”, and tell me which word belongs with MORC and which one with MOU. Now, I’ve been a member of MORC since its inception in 1974 and a faithful MOU member since the 1960s, but I’ll be the first to admit that for many these names are unwieldy, confusing — and how am I supposed to remember where that apostrophe goes, anyway?
2) True or False: MORC has no business telling birders what they can or cannot put on their personal lists.
That’s absolutely true, and be aware this is something MORC has no interest in, has never done, and never will. As a committee of MOU, the state bird club, MORC only acts as an editor of sorts, deciding which unusual records are included in MOU’s historical record of bird sightings in the state. This historical record includes MOU’s archives filed at the Bell Museum of Natural History in Minneapolis and all those reports published in this journal and other MOU publications. Note, though, that one of these publications is an annual list supplement — and when a list is published it is no longer “personal”, but subject to editing, just like any other published material.
3) True or False: MORC is the only records committee birders have to deal with.
Hardly. Almost all states and Canadian provinces have similar committees collecting and editing what birders report within their geographical boundaries. And within Minnesota, in a very real sense, there are literally as many records committees as there are birders. Really! You are your own personal committee, making a judgement each and every time you place an identity on a bird, deciding what to include on your personal lists.
Another example: did you participate on a Christmas Bird Count? Whatever you reported was submitted to another sort of one-person records committee — i.e., the CBC compiler. Indeed, although MORC is the only such entity reviewing this state’s bird sightings on behalf of the MOU, birders could certainly form their own records committee on a more local level. Why? In order to edit and publish a checklist for your county or local nature preserve, or to decide which sightings to print in your bird club’s newsletter.
Actually, the possibilities are endless and enticing. Here in Duluth we could form DORC, although I suspect birders would just call us names. Fridley or Fairmont could create FORC: when rejecting a record they could say, “Put a FORC in it, this record is done.” And Pipestone’s committee, PORC, might only accept dubious records “When pigs fly!”
Finally, keep in mind that no one is ever required to submit anything to MORC for review. Ideally, of course, every unusual sighting is documented so it can be included in the MOU’s historical archives of bird records, and the efforts of all birders who do so, no matter what the vote, are important and appreciated. But there will always be birds — some correctly identified, some not — which will only exist in someone’s memory or personal records.
4) True or False: There must be some alternatives to having a records committee judge what birders see.
True, though they are hardly “Acceptable” options. (Get it? MORC either votes Acceptable or Unacceptable. . . Never mind.) One alternative would be to include everything reported in The Loon or the MOU’s archives without being edited — both fact and fiction together, with no way to distinguish the two. The opposite choice would be to publish and file only photographic or specimen records — all sight records by birders disregarded.
5) True or False: MORC has little interest in birds regularly found in Minnesota since it only votes on Casual and Accidental species and other rarities.
False, although on the surface this might seem true. In reality, MORC does evaluate lots of reports of Regular species when they involve birds out of season, out of their normal Minnesota range, or those which are rare and often subject to misidentifications. There are also many more documented reports of Regulars not considered by MORC which are reviewed by seasonal reports editors.
If you stop and think about it, there are certainly many more Regular species seen and reported (and misidentified) than there are Casuals or Accidentals, but obviously birders do not have the time to document every bird they see. Nor does MORC have the time to vote on them. After all, when there is an erroneous report of a normal species within its normal season and range, its impact is negligible within the context of all the other accurate reports of this same species. (Another way to rationalize all this: if, for example, a Song Sparrow is misidentified as a Savannah, odds are sooner or later this will be offset by a Savannah mistaken for a Song.)
6) It’s been said that having a record judged Unacceptable is nothing to be ashamed of or to get angry about — that, after all, most MORC members have had records of theirs rejected? No way!
Way! All birders make ID mistakes, and almost all MORC members have on occasion submitted records which were not accepted. While no one likes being judged or having their sightings excluded from the official record, remember that an Unacceptable vote only means the documentation provided was insufficient on its own to support the identification. It does not necessarily mean the observer didn’t see the bird, that anyone misidentified anything.
There are times when MORC has to reject a record’s documentation even when it’s thought the observer’s identification was probably correct. And even if a mistake were actually made, we are supposed to learn from our mistakes: thus, an Unacceptable vote can be something constructive, not something to “grouse” about. (Get it? Grousing about a bird record. . . Never mind.)
7) Wait a minute. This Hindsight series of articles is supposed to provide bird identification help — none of this stuff about MORC is relevant.
False. Since MORC reviews descriptions of birds, some correctly identified and others not, there is much to learn from these reports about the ID difficulties birders encounter, about those elements of written documentations which have the greatest import. And these records considered by MORC are easily found, and have been for 20 years. Without exception, since the Fall 1981 issue, every Spring and Fall issue of The Loon has included an installment called “Proceedings of the Minnesota Ornithological Committee.”
Want to improve your ID skills? Simply study these Proceedings articles, which include a summary of those records found Unacceptable and why. Study these and learn which species someone found difficult to identify, which similar species were not precluded, which field marks should be noticed and described the next time that species is encountered. You will also notice the reports of some species are turned down more than others. Obviously, then, it would be a good idea to take a second look when you encounter these species especially, and use care in your ID and documentation.
8) True or False: The three most important parts of documentation: Description! Description! Description!
You bet. Unless the bird you see is described as completely as possible, nothing else matters. Ain’t no good at writin’? A simple field sketch is fine and typically more informative than a written description. Artistic talent isn’t necessary — what is necessary, though, is that your sketch or description is of the actual bird you saw in the field, not what the bird looks like in the book.
Besides the actual description, however, there are other aspects of correct identifications and convincing documentations to be aware of, aspects MORC considers with the records it reviews:
• Are there similar species with which the bird in question could be confused? Unless the observer considers these other possibilities, MORC is left wondering if it could have been something else.
• Does the observer have experience with the species and those similar to it? As in everything else in life, there is no substitute for experience in the skill of bird identification.
• Did the observer know it was an unusual bird? If not, there’s a good chance the observer did not carefully study and identify it. There’s always a better chance of a cautious and critical ID when the observer is aware of the importance of the find.
• How much time passed between the observation and the documentation? The less, the better. Trying to remember exactly what something looked like hours or days previously is difficult at best; field notes written during or just after the observation are always preferable and more convincing.
• Was a field guide used during or after the observation? Of course, most birders use a field guide to help identify what they see, but there’s a natural tendency for the guide to unduly influence what was really seen. Especially after the passage of time, even if it’s only a minute or two, the mind tends to remember the field guide picture more than the bird itself. MORC is especially suspicious when “it looked just like it does in the book.”
• How well was the bird seen? Birds seen without binoculars, in poor light, at great distances, or for only a few seconds are sometimes reported but often misidentified.
• And how difficult is the species to identify (an Ash-throated Flycatcher report is more difficult to document than a Scissor-tailed); how unusual is it in Minnesota (thus, MORC will more critically examine a second-state-record Ash-throated than a near-Regular Scissor-tailed); and does the bird have a history or pattern of misidentifications (e.g., the Swainson’s Hawk holds a dubious distinction — see below).
9) True or False: MORC has reviewed the documentations of 1,686 bird records.
False! By my count, there have been only 1,685 such votes. In truth, though, my count might be off some since MORC’s filing system of records and votes in the earlier years, 1974-1980, was not as organized as it has been in the last 20 years when those Proceedings articles have been published on a regular basis. Also note this number only includes votes on identification (not on things like wild vs. captive origin), and that some records over the years have been considered more than once (but counted here only once).
Of these nearly 1,700 records, 477 were judged Unacceptable. These include: 225 votes on species now classified as Regular (some of which were formerly Casual or even Accidental, and thus voted on more often); 85 votes on Casual species; 132 on Accidentals; and there were 35 Unacceptable votes involving 22 species not currently included on the Minnesota list.
There is a point to reciting these numbers, by the way. And now brace yourself for a few more. Of the 313 species on the current Regular list, 84 have been voted on at least once and found Unacceptable. Of the 26 Casual species, 22 have had records rejected — I find it interesting that MORC has yet to turn down any records of King Eider, Red Phalarope, Burrowing Owl, and Rock Wren. And of Minnesota’s 87 Accidentals, 77 of them have had Unacceptable records.
Again, as mentioned earlier, these data on Unacceptable records can play a role in improving your ID skills:.The more often a record of a species is turned down, the more likely it is birders have difficulty with it, and the more attention and study paid to its field marks the better.
10) OK, it has to be reports of raptors, shorebirds, gulls, flycatchers, confusing fall warblers, and sparrows that are turned down most often by MORC. True?
Well, that’s mostly true, but it’s not quite that simple. Remember that the number of Unacceptable records of a species is a function of more than just its ID difficulty. For one thing, Regular species are involved with relatively few votes. While all Casuals, Accidentals, and potential first state records require a MORC vote to be admitted to the historical record, generally a vote on a Regular species occurs only when seen out of season or out of range.
With this in mind, there have been these Unacceptable votes:
– raptors (including vultures): 84 votes involving 17 species
– gulls: 59 votes / 14 species
– warblers: 45 votes / 19 species
– shorebirds: 21 votes / 12 species
– flycatchers: 19 votes / 11 species
– sparrows: 16 votes / 8 species.
That raptors and gulls present so many ID problems and result in so many rejected records comes as no surprise. But it is difficult to explain why so many warbler records are turned down, especially considering hardly any of them have been so-called Confusing Fall Warblers. In fact, the warbler species with the most Unacceptable votes (7) is the Yellow-throated, whose ID is about as easy and straightforward as they come.
There are also other surprises to be found within this list of Unacceptable records. Why have there been so few such votes over the years on swans (3), accipiters (2), shrikes (1), thrushes (1), Chipping Sparrow (1), blackbirds (4), and Hoary Redpoll (0)? Part of the explanation is that all are Regular species (i.e., misidentified more often than they are voted on), but at the same time they all present real identification challenges for many birders.
Conversely, some species appear relatively and surprisingly often on the list. As a formerly Casual species, the now-Regular Western Tanager (9 votes) used to be documented with some frequency, and its ID is not as easy as many think: molting male Summer Tanagers get mistaken for Westerns, and sometimes juvenile/female Scarlets have Western-like wing bars.
And when the House Finch (11 votes) began showing up as an Accidental in Minnesota around 1980, it was usually at someone’s feeder, and the resident was typically a casual birder not used to documenting bird records. I find it less easy to explain, however, the number of rejected Black-headed Gull and Barn Owl records (6 each) — neither seems that much of an ID challenge.
11) True or False: This is just plain depressing, thinking about all these records MORC turns down.
Well, not really. On balance, there is actually some improvement in adequately documented records, in the sense that several species are turned down less often than they used to be. In part, this is due to several species attaining Regular status and requiring fewer votes.
But looking at the last ten years (1991–2000) and comparing them to MORC’s previous years (1974–1989), there are now clearly fewer Unacceptable votes than before of these species: Clark’s Grebe, Ross’s Goose, Swainson’s Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon, House Finch, California Gull, Black-headed Grosbeak, Whooping Crane, Barn Owl, MacGillivray’s Warbler, and Anhinga.
There are, though, a few species which show the opposite trend — more rejected records in the last ten years than previously: Red-throated Loon, Gyrfalcon, Laughing Gull, Sprague’s Pipit, Western Sandpiper, and Black-headed Gull. It would appear, unfortunately, that birders’ skills at identifying and documenting these six have been declining.
12) There’s something missing here, isn’t there? I smell another Hindsight sequel in the works!
True enough. What’s missing, of course, is the list of birds for which there are the most Unacceptable records — i.e., the species which have a noteworthy history of being misidentified and/or inadequately documented. Until Part II of this Hindsight installment appears, see if you can guess what they are: there are 17 of them (some already named earlier in this article) which have been involved with seven or more rejected records.
* * *
So, how did you do on the quiz? If you answered all the questions correctly, mail your test paper to the Chairman of MORC, and you will receive one free 7–0 Acceptable vote on the next record you document. And if you didn’t do so well, if you got less than half the answers right, come up to the blackboard after school and write 1,685 times: “I will not confuse Ornithological Records Committees with Ornithologists’ Unions.”