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Trashing my ABA list

January 8, 2010

I’m about to do it. Yep.

I’m going to give up and throw away my ABA lists. I’m not going to maintain them any longer. I’m going to take the data contained therein and transfer them where applicable to other lists. But I will no longer recognize the “ABA area” as one worth keeping a list for.

I dunno. Is this a big deal? Seems like it. The ABA is a pretty big, established, prestigious organization, with a storied history. I’ve never heard of anyone else doing something like this – forswearing the bird checklist for the ABA. Or at least, I’ve never heard of anyone being as theatrical about it as I am. Still, the point stands – it’s rare to trash one’s ABA list, perhaps unheard of, except maybe by those who give up birding altogether.

So what brings this on? What’s my story? Why am I pursuing this seemingly radical track? If you’re thinking that maybe I have a beef with the ABA, you’d be right.

Well, let me temper that a bit. I don’t really have a beef with the ABA per se. Actually I like the ABA. I’m a dues-paying member, and I eagerly await every issue of the magazine. What I don’t like anymore is the ABA listing area. I’ve never really understood it, and I’ve reached a point in my birding and bird study that the more I think about it, the more ridiculous and nonsensical it seems. And in light of the ABA’s recent decision to keep the ABA area as it is currently defined for no other reason than historical consistency, well, I feel the need to take up arms against a sea of troubles the only way I can and rage, rage against the dying of the light. Or at least breath life into mixed literary allusions.

Once again, I need to temper my rhetoric. Calling it an act of rage really overstates the case. I’m not really angry. I’m not really angry at all. But I do finally feel like I understand the situation well enough, and that I don’t feel the need anymore to simply follow along just because it’s easier, if I perceive something as redundant or overly contrived. In the case of the ABA area list, I definitely find it overly contrived, and essentially uninteresting. That many thousands of birders will certainly continue to keep an ABA list fascinates me, in the way that a slow-motion train-wreck is fascinating. Sure, you can’t take your eyes off it, but you sure as hell don’t want to be a part of it if you can help it.

About 5 years ago the only list I ever kept was a life list. Most of my birding had been pretty solitary, and I liked it like that. I never even thought of things like state lists or year lists even. I just figured that all there really was were life lists. But when I moved to Colorado and got to know other birders better, I came to understand the appeal and utility even of keeping many more lists. I joined the ABA, and of course started keeping an ABA-area list. After all, I wanted to fit in with the kool kids and be able to measure my progress as it were against other ABA members. I did note the ABA area definition at the time, but didn’t really think about it much.

The ABA area is defined as follows:

The geographic area covered (sometimes referred to as the ABA Checklist Area) is essentially North America north of Mexico. Specifically, the area encompassed is the 49 continental United States, Canada, the French islands of St. Pierre et Miquelon, and adjacent waters to a distance of 200 miles from land or half the distance to a neighboring country, whichever is less. Excluded by these boundaries are Bermuda, the Bahamas, Hawaii, and Greenland. A subarea of the ABA Checklist Area, or other prescribed area, is as defined by its legal boundaries. If not legally defined otherwise, it includes adjacent water (rivers, lakes, bays, sounds, etc.) out to half the distance to a neighboring area, but not beyond 200 miles. Birds observed on or over an ocean are counted for the area having jurisdiction over the nearest land, if within 200 miles.

Basically, this boils down to saying the area includes mainland Canada and the continental USA (49 states). And that’s it. Nothing south of the Rio Grande, no Hawaii (even though Hawaii is part of the United States of America, last I checked, unless the anti-Obama birthers recently took over the country), and no Greenland for that matter. But it does conveniently include any ridiculously remote islands that happen to be politically connected to a mainland continental political entity, like a US State. In other words, if a Eurasian vagrant like, say, a Common Nightingale lands in Kap Farvel in Greenland, that’s not countable, but if one lands on Attu on the very end of the Aleutian Island chain off Alaska, then break out the champagne, we’ve got ourselves a new bird for our lists! Never mind that Kap Farvel is closer to Labrador and the Canadian mainland than Attu is to the Alaskan mainland. For the purposes of the ABA list, political boundaries are paramount, as is the peculiar artifact of Attu being not just US territory but technically part of the United States proper.

Which is fine. As part of the United States, Attu should have the benefit of having its bird list included with that of the rest of the country. In this way, what you see birdwise in Attu is as countable as what you see in Central Park in Manhattan. But what about Hawaii? What if that White-tailed Eagle leaving Kamchatka takes a wrong turn and instead of landing in countable Attu, it lands on Kauai? Sorry, as far as the ABA is concerned, a bird in Attu is more important than one in Hawaii, even though Attu is practically as far from North America as Hawaii is.

OK then, so we’re keeping to islands that are at least connected geologically (if not so much geographically) to mainland North America. I get it. Attu is OK, but Bermuda is not. But then why is it that if I travel north of the border, I can count a Boreal Chickadee in the heart of British Columbia, but I can’t count that Hook-billed Kite on the other side of the Rio Grande riverbank at Santa Ana in Texas? What is so magically important or different to the ABA about birds in Canada as opposed to birds in Mexico?

I certainly believe that people and even institutions are free to create and adhere to lists of whatever nature they like. That’s our prerogative, one for all of us. But that prerogative says nothing about whether or not it makes any sense to follow it. And the more I think about the ABA area as it is currently defined, the less and less sense it makes. And to have an institution like the American Birding Association continue to ignore rather conspicuous parts of America, defined either geographically (Mexico) or politically (Hawaii) when it had the choice not to, makes me think that it’s not worth keeping up a list for the birding area that they most proudly lay claim to. (note – link requires ABA-member password to access) The continuing insistence of allowing freaky Attu birds to count on an ABA list just because Attu has had some awesome vagrants just by conveniently being downwind of Asia, while the Bahamas are likely excluded because they will never be able to keep up with the Attu’ses birdwise, shows me that the ABA doesn’t really have its priorities straight. But just because they don’t doesn’t mean I have to follow suit.

So instead, I’m going to convert all my ABA lists to AOU lists, and USA lists. I’m also going to integrate my Hawaii and ABA lists to create a USA list. (This won’t be too hard for me, since I’ve not yet been to Canada or Mexico anyway.) I’m also going to forget ABA year lists, and convert those to US and North America lists. My ABA lists will be dismantled and forgotten, and I will instead focus on lists that make more biogeographic or more political sense. Continent or biogeographic regions, like say, North America, the Western Palearctic, or Australiasia make sense to me. Country lists make sense. State lists make sense. County lists make sense. Yard lists make sense. But does the ABA list make sense? Nope, not really. It never could decide whether it’s a political or a biogeographic list, so it tries instead to be a mysterious hodgepodge of both. It’s just there anymore because some people (OK, lots of people) are stuck in the past, and don’t want to lose whatever sense of prestige gained from keeping a list based on such a strange definition.

And again, that’s fine if that’s what they want. They’re allowed. But I’m allowed to call that kind of thinking ridiculous, and move on to something that makes more sense.

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