Thursday, 28 September 2017

Ticking dilemmas

Today I would like to take up one of the greatest ethical dilemmas of our age and one that I am surprised the Donald has not tweeted about more regularly.

I consider myself a man of good ethics and solid principles and these have been put to the test over the last few days with regards to what can be “ticked” or not.

The first dilemma concerns “tickable views”. This is a common dilemma for a birder or twitcher and many a birder has scoffed over what they know (or at least think) others have ticked based on (very) poor views. I had this dilemma twice on Værøy last year with PG Tips and Pechora Pipit where the identification of the bird was not in doubt but my views were poor. This year I had the same dilemma with the Savi’s Warbler which was a Norwegian tick although not a lifer. Kjell, the finder, had seen the bird very well and the ID was secured but my views were very brief. I did see it was grey/brown and unstreaked on the back and undertail coverts (it had its tail cocked) and that its jizz and behaviour were typical acro but is that enough for a Norwegian tick? I think so…

The second dilemma occurred yesterday when I saw a Red-crested Pochard that had been found near Oslo.
eclipse male Red-crested Pochard
This species is the classic plastic wildfowl with it being a very popular bird in captivity and also one that has established feral populations many places. So, the question is whether this is a wild bird and therefore “tickable” or an escaped bird and therefore “plastic” and untickable on official lists. I have always been very sceptical of other records of this species in Norway with the species often turning up with Mallards and some being very photogenic. The bird in question is also with Mallards (a particularly large flock which today numbered 400 but was over 1000 at the weekend). All photos have been long range so no suggestions of it being tame (yet) but was doesn’t do this bird any favours is that what must be the same bird was seen very close by on 21 July which is not a particularly promising date for wild vagrancy and begs the question as to where it has been in the meantime. Here the decision of the national rarities committee (where I sit) will determine this birds fate although based on precedence I would expect it go into Category A (wild bird).

The third dilemma is one that perhaps fewer people will understand and concerns ticking a bird in the hand. The Siberian Thrush on Værøy was not surprisingly a lifer for me but is it really tickable? It is my understanding that Dutch listing rules do not allow ringed birds to be ticked (even after they have been released) but I do not know the reasoning behind this. For me though it is a matter of ethics in so far as I do not think ringing purely in the pursuit of a rare bird (and tick) should be allowed. This is because trapping/ringing is an activity that is intrinsically bad for the bird and can only be justified (in my mind) where the ringing will potentially give data that can be helped in conservation – potentially sacrificing one bird for the good of many.

Trapping that is solely focused on the hope of finding a rarity is not good as there is no conservation value in the trapping of the single vagrant although if other birds are regularly trapped, processed and ringed in the process then it can be argued that some useful data is being collected. The intentional trapping of a bird that has already been found and documented in the field and which is usually stressed into the net can in no way be justified though and is done purely to satisfy individual peoples desires with no thought given to the bird. In some countries this isn’t allowed and from what I read the BTO in the UK is cracking down on this type of trapping with people losing their licences. In Norway however I would go as far as saying that the main motivation for the majority of ringing is to find a rarity. It is also allowed under “self-found” rules in Norway to include birds that you have pulled out of a net which is just an absurdity and undermines the perceived value of the list as a proxy for how good you are as a field birder.

The pictures I have posted of me and the Siberian Thrush tell their own tale and I was clearly mighty happy to see the bird and be photographed with it. The extreme rarity of the species in Europe and its mythical status amongst birders  clearly got the better of me and principles seem to have been forgotten for a moment. For someone who is anti rarity ringing I did get rather carried away although I do envy John the honour of trapping the bird. He had been out patrolling the nets for 11 hours ringing large numbers of Redpolls and Yellow-browed Warblers (30!) and on the last round of the day the bird was hanging in the net all of its own accord. But should I tick it? It is not a question of self-found tick as I was not at the net when it was discovered but should I refuse to tick a ringed bird out of principle? I was sat in the house cracking open a can of IPA after having given up birding for the day and had already done the washing up that was overflowing in the sink. I didn’t even have to move more than 10 meters to see the bird – it was driven to me in a bag! Seeing it in the field after release did ease my conscience a tiny bit.

I’m sure that you are glad to see that I have chosen to address ethics and principles that are of utmost importance to the world we live in ;-)


  1. Hello Simon! My name is Astrid Kvendbø. I am not going to discuss ethics with you, but I think you are wrong in saying that most ringing in Norway is to find rarities. That is an insult to all the ringers that do ringing all the year around and provide us with a huge amount of knowledge.
    By the way, I love your blog!

    Kind regards, Astrid.

  2. Hi Astrid, thank you for your comment and I am glad you like my blog. I know that there are many ringers that put a lot of time into ringing and take their hobby very seriously and it wasn’t my intention to insult them but my question is what does the results of this ringing deliver that is helping the conservation of the birds that are being ringed? Lots of interesting data is recorded but what new things are we learning that we did not already know and how is this being used in conservation? Random ringing of birds with traditional metal rings is an incredibly inefficient method of research as retrap rates are so low. For me the information recorded has to be balanced against the negative effects to the individual bird of being ringed – hanging in a net for a long time, being man handled and carrying a ring for the rest of your life are hardly things that are expected to increase life expectancy. In addition a number of birds die during the process of trapping and ringing and these of course will never deliver any useful information.

    I can see that use of colour rings and technology such as geo locators and GSP senders can deliver us incredible amounts of information at the expense of only a few birds welfare and I applaud this use of ringing as long as there are specific conservation issues that are being addressed.
    I also applaud the work done at Constant Effort Ringing sites which in Norway are I believe done at Lista and Jomfruland. Here the ringing can give very important data sets that over the years can be used to understand population trends, breeding success and migration dates.

    However, I really do not see the value of much of the other ringing that is done. How is the data that is collected used in conservation and where is the basic ringing data published?

    Norway has a liberal attitude to ringing compared to other countries and this has become the norm here such that I think there are very few Norwegian birders or ringers who understand my point of view. However I hope that will change over time and before that happens I will continue voicing my thoughts on the matter (and keep on sending emails to Ringmerkingssentralen and Miljødirektoratet).

    1. Hi Simon! A short reply from me. I guess some bird lovers agree with you, and some don't.. There are other ringing sites in addition to Lista. Look up Sunnmøre Ringmerkingsgruppe. One of their ringers once said to me: I can't see the joy in watching rare birds that are doomed to die in the open sea. Personally, it's a great joy to see a bird I haven't seen before.