Wednesday 23 November 2016

The Records Committee. Part 4. The Decision.

So, you send in the description of the rarity you've seen and the records committee sits down to assess it. They come to a decision. In London, in the 1980s, that decision would be Accept or Reject. In Devon today (and probably everywhere else) it is Accept or Not Proven. I'm not sure when 'reject' morphed into 'not proven' but one can't help wondering why this happened. After all, there's no actual difference in the decision - it's certainly not 'accepted' is it? And isn't the end result for that particular rarity description precisely the same? In the bin!

Well, yes...I suppose it is...but rather than just mock this little game of semantics, can we learn something from it?

A bit of insight into what 'not proven' means can be found on the Devon Birds website. Here's a quote:

'Records will be accepted if a majority of the Committee agree that the evidence presented is adequate. The criteria used by the Committee are necessarily strict to maintain the credibility of the Annual Report and Devon Birds database.' 

'if...the evidence presented is adequate.' Notice that? What we as observers have to realise is that when we send in a rarity description we are not telling the records committee what we've seen, no, we are presenting evidence for what we've seen. We are making a case. And, as in a court, the evidence may, or may not, be adequate to prove the case in the eyes of that court. The case might possibly wind up 'not proven'.

In a courtroom the decision will affect lives, of course. But what's at stake in the County Records Committee room? Well, it's there in the above quote: '...the credibility of the Annual Report and Devon Birds database'. The committee is simply trying to safeguard the credibility of the county's Annual Bird Report and birdy database for posterity, trying to keep them free of anything that might in the future be pointed at with a raised eyebrow and a "Hah! Re-e-e-e-eally??!" *

Logically then, our description - our 'evidence' - will need to meet a very good standard. And the rarer the bird, the higher the bar.

Unfortunately we don't necessarily see it in such sanguine terms. Our view might be that we've seen what we've seen, and we are graciously offering the records committee our description for their files. And quite often we're a bit miffed at being asked to go through such a process at all. So if our offer is deemed 'not proven', well, it's been turned down, hasn't it! Our offer has been...yes...rejected!

We don't tend to take rejection well. We're much better at taking offense.

I suspect this is why we've seen the move from 'rejected' to 'not proven'. In a sense, I think the records committee represents the Establishment. It doesn't mean to, and certainly doesn't want to, but it does. In previous generations, most folk would willingly kowtow to various forms of the Establishment. Indeed, historically many birdwatchers would have come from its ranks, would have seen no problem with having a committee act as guardian of avifaunal records, and certainly not been upset by a 'reject' decision. "On the chin, dear boy..." Feelings towards the Establishment are very different today. Many, understandably, do not wish to conform. Folk are much more prone to bristle, fume and kick hard against what they will now see as imperious, high-handed behaviour by jumped-up, self-appointed twerps in questionable authority. Records committees do not wish to be seen as imperious and high-handed. Or jumped-up twerps. Hence...softly-softly...whisper it...

Not Proven...sorry about that...

To put it simply, we're more touchy these days, and need gentler handling. I reckon the move from 'reject' to 'not proven' is a recognition of that shift in sensitivity, and though a bit of a cheesy move perhaps, suggests to me that records committees are keen not to alienate us, but to win us over and gain our support. Anyway, that's my little theory.


On a different note, some have asked what happens when a committee member submits a rarity description. Well, that's easy. All his mates on the committee clap him on the back and out comes the rubber stamp marked 'Accept'.

Next question?

Okay, seriously. I've seen it happen many times, and their descriptions go through the process just like anyone else's. It is worth noting at this point that the vast majority of descriptions which pass through a committee's hands are unanimously accepted. A very small number are unanimously deemed not proven, and another small number give rise to a split decision or otherwise come up for discussion. In my experience that statistical outcome was equally true for committee members...with the notable exception of the 'unanimously deemed not proven' bit - after all, I think you'd expect someone on a records committee to be better than that.

So, what occurs when a committee member's description came up for discussion? Well, it happened to me a few years ago. I was asked to step outside for a bit so the others could freely express their thoughts, then I was invited back in - with my fresh pint - and clapped on the back while somebody got out the rubber stamp marked 'Accept'. But of course, this is what you would expect. These were my imperious, high-handed buddies after all, and I was one of their number...

Here is the description that had bothered them...

What do you think? Safe decision? Ah, you're thinking, has the observer conclusively ruled out Pallid Harrier? Hmmm. By the way, nowadays there is a nice electronic form that you can download from the Devon Birds website.

You might recall from Part 2 that in London in the 1980s we didn't get descriptions in advance. Unless they had been posted to us personally, the first time we got to see them was at the next committee meeting. I well remember one meeting when a committee member presented a description of his own for us to consider. Just to be on the safe side I shan't say which county, but I will tell you this: it was a Goshawk. Status in London at the time? Seriously rare. Probably still is. Add to that the fact that Goshawk is notoriously hard to describe convincingly - along with Black Kite it is probably responsible for more 'not proven' decisions than everything else put together. So, the description was read, and there was a lot of coughing and shuffling and looking at the table, while our happy Goshawk observer beamed excitedly at his colleagues...

I'll cut to the chase. Yes, it was accepted **. Yes, I obviously think it was well dodgy. And yes, it probably still happens on occasion. As I said in the last post, what we have here is a subjective, imperfect system. But, as Steve Waite pointed out in a comment on Part 1: if you want to gather and preserve records, what's the alternative?

* Like Sooty Tern at Staines Res, say...

** By the way, that's not a cue for any London readers to reach for their 1980s LBRs...though I wouldn't blame you.


  1. Another great post. Just want to add that whilst I was chair we had one Records Committee members record get the old Not Proven stamp. Also I can recall records from three different ex Records Committee members also being Not Proven. No names will be mentioned though :-)

    1. Thanks Steve, that's good to know. I did rack my brains to try and recall if any descriptions from committee members during my stint managed to earn themselves a Not Proven, but couldn't bring any to mind. I can think of at least one that was flagged up for discussion though.

      This evening I realised that on my computer I still have a full set of Devon Birds descriptions plus my decision sheets for every circulation from 2008_1 to 2012_3. I was having an idle browse through some of them and it made me think that there might be potential for someone to write an interesting little paper. There is probably a lot to be learned from the statistics related to DBRC descriptions and decisions. Food for thought?

  2. I guess every county has observers who refuse to submit records of their rarities. These rarities are never seen by others and never photographed.

    Funny that.

    1. I touched on that topic a few posts back. Records committees no doubt consider their reluctance to submit records something of a blessing.

    2. As one such individual, who has opted out of this farcical nonsense, I will offer a slightly alternative view; if I may? I do not submit records of any of my sightings (birds, moths, butterflies, etc) nor do I make any claims for the fish that I catch, my decision. I do, however, make records for my personal use and am happy to tell others of my finds, should it be applicable. I care not a jot for the data integrity of the county/national records - the thought of a committee sitting in judgement over something so unimportant is abhorrent. The natural world is to be experienced and enjoyed, not reduced to an entry on an excel spreadsheet. And yes, there are photos and plenty of others have enjoyed birds that I've found - Caspian Tern at Stodmarsh, Red-rumped Swallow, Alpine Swift, Great Grey Shrike, etc, etc - plenty of admirers, yet no description from me!

    3. Dyl, thanks for taking the time to comment again. In my comment above I was referring to those who make stuff up - as implied by anon's point - not someone like yourself. Your own view re submitting records is one I have some sympathies with - in the past I have been tempted to opt out of the whole thing also. There's probably just one reason that keeps me submitting records though (when I'm in the mood) and I'll hopefully explain in a future post.

    4. Gavin, there are Walter Mitty's in every walk of life; angling is full of them. Those guys without scales or cameras, who have stories of "monsters" which are better than anything I've ever been privileged to put on the bank. They don't upset me in the least, just as the birding equivalent isn't a problem either. Guys (and gals; I guess?) who are happy to lie to themselves are only fooling one person - the rest of the world will continue to exist in blissful ignorance of their claims unless "committees" deem the tale worthy of scrutiny. If we didn't have these unelected high priests, sitting in judgement, there couldn't be a problem. Comparing the ratification of county bird records to that of the judicial system is ludicrous. One exists to ensure civilized society can function, therefore a vital function, the other is a whimsical nonsense based upon nothing more than a simple hobby and a mistaken id will not result in the downfall of anything more important than an ego! I have no objections to anyone getting involved with this system, indeed it might well be part of the enjoyment of a wonderful pastime for many. What needs to be understood is that it is not mandatory to be part of the system, therefore the county/national records only, ever, tell part of the tale - that of those within the clique. The rest of the world doesn't care - me included! Some of the finest naturalists, I know, are shooting men - they are hardly likely to become part of the county system with the extreme "anti" views held by many within birding circles.

    5. Dylan, it is fascinating the number of different ways we all find to enjoy our hobby, and I guess many (most?) of us go through a number of stages as the years pass and we gradually come to learn what really works for us individually. Each to their own is a pretty sound philosophy.

  3. Yes Gav, another great post.
    I imagine there are some birders who wouldn't accept anything, regardless of the decisions of committees.
    You know, the sort that if they didn't see it. It wasn't there.

    1. Thanks Ric, I guess the birding community reflects a broad cross-section of humanity. You name the personality type, and it'll be there!

    2. It's extremely rare. Birders whose birds are not seen by others and are never photographed are stringers. Birders who don't submit their rarities are almost always stringers. A very few good birders opt out, but even then their birds are seen by others or photographed

      It's really that simple. And pretty much all birders know it

    3. Based on my own experience I would tend to agree. By and large, it is really that simple.

  4. There's also a lack of confidence on my part to submit a detailed description. Not sure if it matters enough to me in the first place but feel I'm only half baking the job if I just go and say "well i thinks it's one because it looked like it".
    As in the case of the Common Scoter - Jan 1st London day list - Me -"Oh there it is". You, "Tell me why that isn't a Pochard?".
    I knew we were in safe hands that day.
    Also, You -"Glaucous Gull!!!!!", Me "er, where?". You, "There in front of us!!. The pale one".
    I never saw it for looking. Limited.
    1986 - GH. A gull man at work.

  5. Btw, did that chap who 'clicked' THAT!!!!! Red-Billed Tropic bird ever submit a record.
    I imagine some gripped off types would dismiss it on general principle.

    1. Oh yes, and here it is: