With Addition of Hawai’i, Birders Will Be Confused About Which List to Care Most About
Report by Spencer Fullerton
The American Birding Association’s recent decision to add Hawai’i to its widely recognized “ABA Area” has the potential to put the nation’s birding community in chaos. For decades, the golden prize for American birders was clear: see as many species as possible in the ABA Area. Until recently, this geographic area was defined, quite logically, by the boarders of the 49 US States on the North American continent, all of 15 of Canada’s provinces and territories, and the French controlled islands St. Pierre et Miquelon1. Now that Hawai’i has beenadded to the ABA area, birders won’t know whether the top prize in birding will be the “New ABA Area” or the “Old ABA Area”.
Cooper Harris, an 82 year old who has seen 912 bird species in the ABA area, was debating whether to keep with tradition and spend three months this fall on remote islands in western Alaska or start a new trend by visiting Hawai’i for the first time. “I have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars traveling all across the continent to be the top birder in the American Birding Association, and I am at risk of losing that title to my closest competitor if birders put a higher value on a newly defined area,” Harris vented while we walked through freezing rain on Alaska’s Attu Island earlier this year. His frustrations continued, to “I took thirty-four boat trips off the California coast before I saw my first Hawaiian Petrel, and now someone might be able to sit on the shore at Waimea and count that bird on his ABA list. I hope birders continue to revere the original definition of the ABA area”. Murphy Cook, who is attempting to set the record for the most species seen in a single year, is also banking on birders respecting tradition. While sitting next to the radios in the comfort of a lodge eagerly anticipating a report of a rare bird from the birders scouring the remote snow-covered village of Gambell, Alaska, Cook complained between sips of hot chocolate, “I just don’t see how anyone could admire a birder who doesn’t work as hard as I have this year for getting a higher total just because they had a larger playing field”.
The perspective is a little different for Harris’s nearest competitor Ross Franklin. During his youth, Franklin, who has seen 907 species in the ABA area (not including Hawai’i), took many trips to Hawai’i with his father to document the archipelago’s bird life. When asked about the addition of Hawai’i, Franklin responded with a smirk on his face, “I do like tradition, but between you and me I would benefit from the addition of Hawai’i and the new ABA area taking over as America’s gold-standard for bird listing. Hell, eight species I saw when I was younger have since gone extinct, do you know what kind of advantage that would be for me?”
Based on conversations with mere mortals who have seen well below 900 species, there is no clear consensus on which list will determine the grand poobah of American birding. One person I talked to used a sports analogy to describe the situation. She said “I think birders will adapt with the changes and recognize the premiere list as whatever the definition of the ABA area happens to be at the time, especially if it helps break records. You didn’t hear anyone complaining about records when baseball changed its schedule from 140 to 162 games.” Another birder had a different perspective: “These people have given their lives to this, and it would be a shame to negate that tenacity. Do you know the determination it takes to pass up trips to travel the world to see colorful quetzals, bee-eaters, and fairy-wrens and instead focus on spending weeks looking for drab old world warblers and flycatchers at the same three places in Alaska year after year?” Only time will tell how the American birding community reacts to the addition of Hawai’i to the ABA area.
1. So you actually know something about Canada, eh? Well, most Americans didn’t catch that.
This report is brought to you by an anonymous contributor, who wrote this birding satire piece for "The Onion". The views in this essay do not reflect the opinions of The Birding Project, and this is intended as lighthearted humor only.