Wednesday, 31 December 2008

The Dangers of Bird Forum

Here is a priceless gem of a piece of journalism, and I use that term loosely, by reporter Vicky Collins and many reasons why you should watch what you say on that orcale of birding knowledge that is Beginner Forum, and I suppose on blogs too ! She was such a good journalist that when she was given the task of writing a piece on Britain's only endemic the Scottish Crossbill she apparently only used Bird Forum as her primary source ! If you haven't read this please do and have a good laugh. At the time I had to delete all my posts so she didn't use them in her article. She was also emailing me asking if "I was affiliated with the RSPB" so she could get some dirt. As you all know I am not. I did warn the RSPB and being such nice guys they probably didn't tell her to just go and forth and fornicate as I would have - jeez it's great not to be moderated !

Here it is, enjoy !

"Feathers Flying Over Scottish Crossbill: is It a Unique Species? Ornithologists' Dispute Rages on the Net"

Posted on: Friday, 4 November 2005, 09:00 CST


ITis a pastime usually associated with quiet hours spent observing nature, but now a bitter row over Scotland's only unique species is dividing the world of bird-watching.
Ornithologists are questioning the very existence of the Scottish crossbill, which was officially identified as a separate and endemic species only four years ago.
Arguments about the status of the bird, which is virtually identical to the common crossbill except for a slightly higher and less staccato call, have been raging on one of the biggest internet birdwatching sites. Birdforum. net, which has more than 33,000 members, features heated discussions about the Scottish crossbill, with many claiming it is not a separate species and has been designated as such only because of its usefulness to conservation bodies.
There are three crossbill species in the UK: common, which is widespread, the slightly larger and far rarer parrot, and Scottish, whose size is midway between the other two.
They all rely on pine trees for their food, with the Scottish crossbill said to live exclusively in Scots pine forests.

It was declared a separate species four years ago after research by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) found it did not breed with the other two species.
So far, DNA tests have shown no differences between the three.
However, many Birdforum members are highly sceptical about its existence. Michael Frankis, from Newcastle, argues the Scottish crossbill's status has less to do with scientific evidence than it does with the need for a flagship species that can be used to attract funding for the preservation of Caledonian pine forests.
"The more interesting the species, the more likely it is to get funding (politicians being what they are! ), " he writes.
"Which one? Capercailzie - what, a re-introduced species that is also common in two other EU countries? - No, sorry. Red Grouse? - Endemic, yes, but not a pine forest species. No, won't work. Aha - invent a crossbill! That does the job just nicely.
"Of course the official UK ornithological bodies will strenuously deny all of the above because, if they don't, the funding might get stopped."
Everyone contributing to the online argument admits the near impossibility of identifying a Scottish crossbill, and two members of the forum claim the call associated with the species has been heard at least twice in Kielder Forest, in Northumberland.
Another contributor, jpoyner, lives in Strathspey, the heartland for Scottish crossbills. He reports several sightings of mixed pairs of crossbills in the forests there and questions whether the Scottish species may in reality be a cross between them.
An RSPB spokesman said:
"RSPB Scotland has carried out a detailed research project.
The results have yet to be published, but at this stage the indications are that the Scottish crossbill should still be regarded as a separate species."
Description: chunky finch with large head and bill
Length: 16.5 cm
Wingspan: 27 to 30.5cm
Plummage: mainly red with dark wings and tail
Description: large, powerful finch with deep parrot-like bill and sharply forked tail
Length: 17.5 cm
Wingspan: 30.5 to 33 cm
Plummage: orange to red with dusky wings and tail with dark wings and tail
Description: chunky, thick-set finch with large head and substantial bill
Length: 16.5 cm
Wingspan: 27.5 to 31.5cm
Plummage: mainly red with dark wings and tail
Source: Herald, The; Glasgow (UK)

Rather than highlight the list of absolute howlers and gross inaccuracies that Miss Collins has written regarding the species let's just look at what the BF's said. Michael Frankis used to be on BF and appeared to be a very knowledgeable guy. But, maybe it is just me, he really comes out of this sounding, well, quite silly ? Yeah, I can just see the RSPB having a Black Op's unit to invent a species for funding the preservation of the Caledonian Pine Forests ! Believe me the RSPB can do this themselves. The argument also falls flat when we take into consideration that scotica also thrives in non-native and mixed plantations of the type that Forestry Enterprise own !

As to JPoyner's "mixed pairs" how does he know they are mixed pairs ? Based on calls, which as far as I know none of the Speyside guides know anything about (even though, and I quote, "they are working with scientists to obtain the technology" to do this ! )? Based on apparent bill sizes, when in reality there is overlap and variation within species ? Nope, thought not.

Two things come out of this:

1) Bird Forum (and the web at large) is full of misinformation and faulty information and opinions that have no basis or peer validation. There is some really good stuff, but......

2) Most journalists are idiots who don't know the meaning of 'research', or certainly doing their own !

Be careful out there people !


Loxia Fan said...

In the spirit of my post hows about we list the howlers incase some school kid, PhD student, or more likely government minister is using this blog as source !

Here goes mine:

Scottish Crossbill was NOT given full species status only "4 years ago". It was Voous 1977 and BOURC 1980 as far as I know. Where did she get 4 years ago ? It of course had sub-specific status before these dates.

Next ?

Loxops said...

Easy stuff first:
Archaic spelling for the caper.
Capers only found in 2 countries??

Anyone else care to have a go?


Loxia Fan said...

How about Scotbill's "higher and less stacatto call" than Common Crossbill ? ! WTF did she get THAT from - Bird Forum ? ;-)

Seriously though, people will read this crap printed in newspapers by "environmental correspondents" and believe it.

At the time I was just relieved she didn't quote me !

Loxops said...

I'll bet!!
M. Frankis' comments were a puzzle. I thought he was first and foremost a conifer-lover. Surely he wouldn't have taken a pop at any efforts to fund Caledonian Forest restoration. I reckon he was just 'shit-stirring' with the BF rabble.