The burden of proof

Steve Gale’s latest post on the North Downs and Beyond blog (http://northdownsandbeyond.blogspot.com/2009/05/duff-gen.html ) has got me thinking more on what makes a ‘good’ record. Back in the 70’s, poor Steve twitched a Laughing Gull that turned out to be a fiction – beyond the initial report that inspired him to twitch it, nothing more was seen or heard of the bird in question. Was it ever real? Who knows.

Going back half a century again from Steve’s dip, it turns out that the Dorset Wallcreeper record from the 1920’s I poked fun at a day or two ago appears to be on the historical record as genuine. Or at least, it’s referred to as legit in a couple of recentish books (i.e. Morrison’s “Rare birds in Dorset” & LGRE’s “Rare birds in Britain 1800-1990”) and shows up in RBA’s online Past Records database. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so quick to pour scorn on it… or maybe not. They all refer to the record being just 1 bird, and as we saw in the secondhand finder’s account, there were allegedly 2 birds involved. In somewhat questionable circumstances…

The point I’m skirting around is how we could ever judge these old records. This one appears to be accepted as legit in the current literature, but looking back to the only reference I can find to it at the time, the evidence for the record was pretty scanty and (that word again) questionable. What’s an acceptable level of proof for records from the mists of time? A photo is unlikely, as camera ownership, technology and use at the time mitigate against there being in-the-field shots. Field shots back then were more likely to involve bird powder and a shotgun – so is a prepared specimen enough to prove a claim of a vagrant bird? The Hastings rarities scandal says not, and Richard Meinertzhagen’s many fraudulent specimens prove that there needn’t even have been commercial gain involved for fraud to take place. Kudos was enough of an inducement. All of which leaves us with a good old-fashioned description, and field sketches where possible. Rather like today…

Is the Dorset Wallcreeper’s description good enough to pass muster? On the basis of what I’ve seen, I’d say not, and certainly not by the standards of today; the BBRC quite rightly expect a convincing level of proof.  A good description is still enough, but for how long?  With technology (and cynicism) moving on apace, how long will it be before single observer records are unacceptable without supporting digital photos and their revealing EXIF data?

Hmm… I wonder what the standard of rarity description is like today compared to say 20 years ago…

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One Response

  1. The advent of ‘new technologies’ such as digital photography and quick information dissemination means that records not backed up by photographs and mass obsevation will become the modern day records that might not pass muster in the future. It is already clear that single-observer records are considered risky where as this was not the case several years ago.

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