Big Years: towards a fair competition ?
Now that the World Big Year record has been broken by Noah Stryker, with more than three months and much of Asia and Australia to go, I guess a blog post on Big Years is in order.
Big Years are an inheritantly unfair competition for a variety of reasons. Of course they have nothing to do with the quality or knowledge of a birder since they are primarily a function of a) dedication b) time c) money and d) a good internet connection. But that’s not the point, or at least not the point I am trying to make. They are inheritantly unfair because the birds and the birding within any given area – say the ABA region – will be different from year to year because biological systems are variable and thus unpredictable. This means that any comparison of results obtained in different years may not reflect the success of a birder’s endeavours but rather the variation of the overall birding conditions of the respective years, which are outside the sphere of anyone’s influence.
The first strongly variable aspect that influences the occurrence of birds is the weather. For example, there are years with a strong winter and an influx of northern species, making them quite easy to chase, and years with mild winters where these species will be much harder to track down. Also, the chances for adding vagrants depend on the occurrence of storms from the right direction during the right season. In some years the storms are perfect, in others they aren’t. And there’s more: In a North American context, trying to break the Big Year record outside a strong El Nino year is very near to futile, as I was told, and even El Nino years cannot reliably be predicted during the planning phase leading up to a Big Year. This not only leads to an unfair comparison between the results of different years. It even adds insult to injury as a birder who has failed to break the record in an obviously less-than-ideal year can’t even blame the overall conditions. Because it is not possible to quantify how much harder or not the birding was in that year compared to the record year. On the other hand, a record holder may not receive the full recognition they deserve if they just happened to break the record during an ideal year. You see? Frustration all around. The inheritent unfairness of a Big Year competition.
One of the best aspects of this post is that it is not about a specific bird species. This means that I can include random pictures of rare or cool birds, like the hawk-owl above or this wallcreeper, a classy bird even on classless pictures
Now, one may simply state that these are the disadvantages birders have to live with on a daily basis, and if a birder doesn’t like it, they should just take up conducting electrophysical experiments in controlled laboratory conditions as a hobby instead. Which is fair enough. However, there’s more unfairness at hand in Big Year competitions: a variation in the number of species occurring within the boundaries of the competition area.
For example, the ABA rules clearly state that one may only count species that are found on the ABA checklist. Chasing “firsts” for the ABA area during a Big Year therefore is a silly endeavour as they won’t count. Which is difficult to comprehend as the number of vagrants is what separates the wheat from the chaff during Big Years. Then of course there is the issue of taxonomic changes, most significantly splits, that makes it difficult to compare year list totals from different years. And last but not least, the ABA list is constantly growing due to the inclusion of escapes and ferals with established, self-sustaining populations. Heck, 20 years from now a birder may easily break today’s Big Year record by simply driving through the suburbs of southern Florida for a day or two. You see? It is inheritently unfair to compare list totals when the list is constantly changed.
Staying true to our European values and ideals so well expressed in the colouration of our original warblers, the Eurasian Jay has cast most of its blue for the superiority of a brownish plumage
By now I am sure you are rightfully disgusted at the inherent unfairness of Big Year competitions and are more than willing to blindly follow my call for change. (Boy, if that’s really the case I should go into politics…) It is with great joy and curiosity about your reactions that I introduce to you my idea for making Big Year competitions fair:
In today’s world – and the world dating back to surely the late 1980s – it should be possible to establish the number of species that were seen in any given area during any given year. Once you have that total from all birders combined, all you have to do is calculate the percentage a birder has seen of that total to reach a fair, neutral value of how well that birder did during their year’s birding adventures. The precentage accounts for taxonomic changes, established ferals and weather conditions since these factors will likewise affect the total number recorded in the area by all birders combined.
If you’ve seen e.g. 748 + 1 provisional species for the ABA area during a year where 759 species were recorded overall, you may consider this a record even if someone else managed 748 + 1 provisional in a year with 760 species. Your percentage will be 98.55% compared to 98.42% ! However, if you have seen 750 species during a year when 765 species were observed (maybe the result of easy additions due to splits or added exotics), you really haven’t broken the record since your percentage is only 98.04%.
Yes, I know. Boasting about a two-digit number with two to three places behind the decimal point doesn’t sound quite as cool as throwing about a fully-grown three-digit number. But we are birders. We have adapted to uncoolness. We even wallow in uncoolness for the sake of a scientific approach to our hobby. (Why else would anyone bother with Empid identification?)
So I think the percentage is a veritable way of assessing the success of a Big Year and establishing a record holder.
Red Kites are cool on such a high level that they surely wouldn’t feel embarrassed to have a conversation on two-digit numbers with two or three places behind the decimal point