Truth, Lies, and Bird-Watching

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Perhaps our cynical society should learn something from the bird-watchers among us, who have the (sadly) uncommon tendency to trust one another. Alice Morgan writes a lovely piece for the new issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest about the strength of the “unwritten code of honesty” that governs the birding world, which results not only in the truthful intentions of each birder, but also in the trust of his or her peers. (The article is not yet available online.)

Apart from bird-watching, “there are not many situations in which something that matters to the participants is based entirely on individual statements without external monitoring,” Morgan writes. “Even in a sphere that is highly competitive, as birding is for many people, it is rare to encounter skepticism about what individuals say.”

If the trip leader says he has seen 800 species in North America, we accept and admire that. If we hear that a knowledgeable birder has seen a rare bird but no other sightings are reported, our natural response is that this expert may have made a rare identification mistake, but that more likely the bird has simply moved on. We don’t jump to the conclusion that the sighting is a lie, just as we don’t believe that the birder with 800 species has padded his list.

If a reported sighting does seem highly unlikely, Morgan writes, “perhaps someone will believe you were mistaken–that the reported rarity was actually a common bird in a strange light, or a juvenal plumage–but not that you intentionally lied.”

I find this fidelity to the truth to be one of the most attractive aspects of bird-watching. We all like to brag about the birds we see and hear, but we are also united in our rueful admissions that this or that bird has escaped us this season, this year, or even all our lives so far. We look forward to the moment when we can truthfully lay claim to a particular bird, or to a higher tally of birds seen this month or this year, or in this place or that. And when we finally reach our goal, we will tell our friends and fellow bird-watchers, who will share our gratification, because they will have every reason to believe us.

Source: Bird Watcher’s Digest

Image by donjd2, licensed under Creative Commons.

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