There are two types of birders that everyone hates – assholes and stringers. Which is worse, I don’t know. But everyone has dealt with their share of assholes, for assholes are a fact of life. Today, we are here to talk about stringers.
Some stringers are inexperienced observers, and some have done it for decades and have no excuse for their birdcrimes. Birders have different definitions of stringers; a stringer can be either someone who completely fabricates a bird sighting, or someone (for our purposes today, not a rank beginner) who chronically misidentifies common birds, claiming they are something rare or unusual. In my (highly esteemed) opinion, those who invent sightings of rarities out of thin air are the lowest of the birding low – they are beyond help. As for the other kind of stringer, they are not necessarily a lost cause. For some stringers, there is still good in them…it just needs to be coaxed out.
I know a lot of stringers, but as a general policy, they are not my friends. I do not wish to bird with people who I don’t trust. If I ever listed them publicly, the world of birding would be thrown into turmoil. As a Great Ornithologist, I am one of the few birders who has access to the Global Birder Ranking System’s Master Stringer List, which is updated every minute of every day. Once a birder is on this list, they tend to stay on it forever…for even in death, the Global Birder Ranking System does not forgive one’s misdeeds. However, some people who have made it on the list have managed to bird their way out of it, out of the cold darkness of lies and isolation and into the warm and loving light of acceptance, trust and honesty. What these ex-stringers have in common is that they can never recover alone…it takes a village to raise someone from a stringer into a birder.
Is this what goes on in the mind of a stringer? Though no one knows for sure, it seems likely. Image by Fluxglac.
Some birders are in the dubious situation of having some kind of relationship with a stringer. The stringer can be an acquaintance, a good friend, even a lover. The birder in this relationship always resents the stringer, but since they actually care for the stringer, they are often unwilling to just cut them off due to their stringing tendencies (though it has been done). The birder wants to help…but how? How do you help someone who is addicted to convincing themselves that they are seeing rare birds all the time?
Interventions are a nasty business, they can go wrong very easily. The stakes could not be higher. The Global Birder Ranking System actually has some confidential material on this (well, all of their material is confidential), which I have access to. With all due respect to GBRS…this belongs to the people! So at great risk to myself I now present to you the Global Birder Ranking System’s Certified and Approved Stringer Intervention Talking Points.
If one encountered this bird at a migrant trap in, say, Arizona, most birders would only call it a “Western” Flycatcher if it did not sing a signature song. The stringer would likely identify it as either a Pacific-slope or Cordilleran, depending on whatever they are hoping to see more…one must always anticipate how a stringer will operate. Fortunately, they are quite predictable. This is a Pacific-slope Flycatcher, in case you are wondering.
Know Their Ways. Stringers, in the end, all use the same ploys to trick others and themselves into thinking they saw the bird they want to see. It is surprisingly predictable. Learn to recognize these warning signs prior to the intervention so you may be fully prepared to catch them in the act. They will tell you they left their camera at home, they photographed the wrong bird, they were looking at a different bird than everyone else there, the bird just flew away, the bird just dove, the bird they want to see was seen by someone else there so they must have heard or seen the correct bird, and so on and so forth.
The Harsh Truth. Some stringers can take it, and even appreciate this in the long run. Tell them about their reputation…many people care about that, and birders are no different. Many (not all) stringers are actually blissfully unaware of their low status and poor birding skills, and not only would they like to improve their standing, they would like to be identifying birds properly. If they have been only playing ignorant the whole time, they will be humiliated that the rest of the birding community knows The Truth. Though stringers lack common sense, everyone knows that being skilled and having respect is more fun than deluding yourself and sending people on goose chases. Of course, birders are notoriously prone to becoming extremely butthurt/overly defensive, so confront with care.
This is a Glaucous-winged X Herring Gull hybrid. If you did not know that at first glance (or second, or third, etc.) that is totally OK. Birders know their limits, but stringers rarely do.
It Is OK To Misidentify Birds…but err on the side of caution. This must be stressed to the guilty party. [Even I, the Great Ornithologist that I am, have misidentified birds. It happens, it really does – TGOFJ.] What good birders do more often is not identify a bird at all, if they are not sure. The point is that it is ok to be wrong…but not all the time! And simply not knowing is better than being wrong…if there was no mystery in birding, would we still be doing it?
Evidence. When you catch a stringer in the act, first try to figure out what they are hearing/looking act that makes them think a bird is a certain species. After you have collected their mistakes, dissect them. After the dissection is complete, you then unleash a tidal wave of evidence that proves their strung rarity has been misidentified. Talk about field marks, previous records, status and distribution. Leave no stone unturned, and they will be powerless to stand their uneven ground with your knowledge and wisdom.
Go Birding. Bird with the stringer. Bird with them a lot. This is the best advice we can give. Bite the bullet and go birding with the stringer. Some say that there is no right or wrong way to bird…but that is wrong. This is when you can catch them in the act, see what they are doing wrong. Teach them how to identify birds properly. When they become unhinged over some crazy rarity they just found, you can talk them down from the very typical-looking Yellow-rumped Warbler that they are getting so worked up about. And when you are birding with a stringer, dont forget to…
If a stringer posted this photo with the caption “Brandt’s Cormorant”, it is your duty to correct them (this is a Pelagic Cormorant, of course). Do it out of spite if you must, but you can still do it with love.
…Always Shoot Them Down. If a stringer is very deep in their delusions, you have to demonstrate to them how often they are making mistakes. Do not baby them. Shoot them down in the field. Shoot them down when they show a photo of their supposed rarity, and do not let them shrug it off with the old “I photographed the wrong bird” excuse. When they share an eBird checklist, look over it for birds that don’t belong…and shoot those down. Hey, no one said interventions were easy! Eventually they will tire of being constantly doubted, and will break down under the weight of their failures. Hopefully, they will accept the truth and begin to produce real evidence for how their birds are identified.
And there you have it…if a stringer has the willpower and mental toughness to transform from their deceitful larval state into a brilliant birding butterfly, these tips can get them there. But they cannot, and will not, do it alone.