I recently asked ChatGPT some questions about the best birding locations in the United States and the results were decidedly mixed. I tried some new queries that might be better suited to a large language model of AI because they essentially ask for summaries of broad topics that have been extensively addressed online. Here are the results, which are much better, and a brief analysis of each response.

Here are the queries and the ChatGPT responses are below:

  1. What is birding?
  2. What is a “nemesis bird” in birding?
  3. What is a “big year” in birding?
  4. What is a “spark bird” in birding?
  5. What are the best field guides for birds in North America?
  6. What is the American Birding Association and what does it do?
  7. In birding, what is a “countable” bird?
  8. Describe the current debate regarding changing eponymous bird names because of controversy regarding their namesakes.
  9. How many birders are there in the United States?

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Query: What is birding?

Birding, also known as birdwatching, is a recreational activity and hobby that involves observing, identifying, and studying wild birds in their natural habitats. Birders, or birdwatchers, engage in birding as a way to appreciate the beauty, diversity, and behavior of birds.

Birding typically involves observing birds with the naked eye or using binoculars and spotting scopes to get a closer look. Birders often venture into various habitats, such as forests, wetlands, grasslands, or coastal areas, to encounter different bird species. They may also visit specific birding locations, known as hotspots, where a wide variety of birds can be found.

The primary objective of birding is to identify bird species based on their physical characteristics, behavior, and vocalizations. Birders learn to recognize field marks, such as plumage patterns, size, shape, and coloration, to identify birds accurately. They also pay attention to the birds’ movements, flight patterns, and calls or songs.

Birding can be enjoyed at various levels of intensity, from casual birdwatching in one’s backyard to more dedicated pursuits that involve keeping birding lists, participating in birding competitions, or contributing to citizen science projects. Many birders keep personal birding lists or life lists, documenting the species they have seen throughout their birding experiences.

Beyond the enjoyment and personal satisfaction of observing birds, birding also contributes to conservation efforts. Birders often play a vital role in monitoring bird populations, contributing data to scientific research, and participating in citizen science initiatives that help track bird distributions, migration patterns, and breeding behaviors.

Birding has a rich community aspect, with birders joining local birding clubs, participating in birding festivals, sharing sightings on online platforms, and engaging in discussions with fellow enthusiasts. It is a hobby that fosters a deeper connection with nature, encourages environmental awareness, and promotes the conservation of birds and their habitats.

Analysis: This seems like a fine general-purpose summary of birding, and it even includes and properly uses terms such as “hotspots,” “field marks,” and “life list.” Grade: A.

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Query: What is a “nemesis bird” in birding?

In birding, a “nemesis bird” refers to a specific bird species that a birder has been trying to see or observe for a long time but has been unsuccessful in finding or encountering. It is a bird that has become a personal challenge or goal for the birder to spot.

The term “nemesis bird” implies a certain level of difficulty or elusiveness associated with the species. It may be a rare bird that is rarely seen in the birder’s location or a species that has specific habitat requirements, making it harder to find. It could also be a bird that is known to be secretive, shy, or difficult to approach.

Birders often keep lists of the bird species they have observed, such as a life list or a year list. The nemesis bird becomes a target for birders to add to their list, and they may invest significant time and effort in searching for it. Successfully spotting a nemesis bird can bring a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction to birders.

Analysis: The first and third paragraphs seem right to me, but the second is weaker, in my view. Although I’m sure there may be several usages, my impression of “nemesis bird” is a bird that one ought to have seen given its occurrence and the effort that has been expended. My impression is that rarities are not nemesis birds, as they are definitionally rare. Grade: B.

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Query: What is a “big year” in birding?

A “big year” in birding is a personal challenge taken on by birders to observe or identify as many bird species as possible within a specific geographical area, usually a country or a specific region, during a single calendar year. The goal of a big year is to maximize the number of unique bird species seen or heard within the designated time frame.

Birders who embark on a big year often dedicate a significant amount of time, effort, and resources to travel to different habitats, explore various locations, and encounter a wide range of bird species. They may go on birding trips, join birding events, participate in birding competitions, and collaborate with other birders to gather information about rare or elusive species.

Big years can be competitive, as multiple birders may be simultaneously attempting to achieve a high species count. The competition may be on a local level, with birders aiming to break regional records, or on a larger scale, with birders vying for national or even global records.

The concept of a big year gained significant attention through books, such as “The Big Year” by Mark Obmascik, which chronicled the experiences of birders participating in competitive big years. It was later adapted into a Hollywood film with the same title.

It’s worth noting that a big year is a personal challenge, and birders can adapt the rules and scope of their big year to suit their preferences and circumstances.

Analysis: This is a fine summary and it even cites the book and the movie. Grade: A.

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Query: What is a “spark bird” in birding?

In birding, a “spark bird” refers to a specific bird species that ignites or sparks a person’s interest and passion for birdwatching or birding. It is the bird that captures someone’s attention and enthusiasm, often leading them to develop a deeper curiosity and appreciation for birds.

Encountering a spark bird is a transformative experience for many birders. It might be a visually stunning species, have an intriguing behavior, or possess a captivating song. The spark bird resonates with the birder on a personal level, creating a sense of wonder and fascination.

The spark bird often serves as a gateway to further exploration of the avian world. After encountering their spark bird, many birders become more committed to the hobby, actively seeking out new bird species, studying their habits, and learning about their conservation.

Each person’s spark bird can vary, as it is a subjective and individual experience. It could be a common bird found in their backyard or a rare species that they encounter during a special trip. Regardless of the species, the spark bird plays a significant role in inspiring and kindling a lifelong interest in birds and birding.

Analysis: Good summary. Grade: A.

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Query: What are the best field guides for birds in North America?

There are several highly regarded field guides for birds in North America that are widely recommended by birders and ornithologists. Here are a few popular options:

    1. “The Sibley Guide to Birds” by David Allen Sibley: This comprehensive guide is known for its detailed illustrations, accurate information, and extensive coverage of North American bird species. It includes multiple illustrations for each species, showing different plumages, variations, and age groups.
    2. “National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America” by Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer: This field guide is praised for its user-friendly layout, excellent illustrations, and informative text. It covers a wide range of bird species, including rarities and vagrants, and provides helpful maps, notes on behavior, and habitat information.
    3. “Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America” by Kenn Kaufman: This compact and portable field guide is popular among birders of all levels. It features detailed illustrations by Kenn Kaufman, concise species descriptions, range maps, and useful identification tips.
    4. “Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America” by Roger Tory Peterson and co-authors: Peterson’s field guides have a long-standing reputation for their accessible format, clear illustrations, and useful bird identification keys. The guide covers a broad range of North American bird species and includes helpful information on field marks, vocalizations, and habitats.

It’s worth noting that personal preferences may vary, and different guides may suit different birders based on their preferences, birding locations, and level of expertise. It can be helpful to explore these guides in person or consult reviews to determine which style and format appeal to you the most. Additionally, many birding apps and online resources also provide valuable information and digital field guides for bird identification.

Analysis: Birders cannot agree on the “best” field guide, and this list includes what I perceive to be the consensus mainstream picks. But the descriptions of the books are vague and each could apply to many (or all) of the others. And it even adds a note about online sources and apps. Grade: B+.

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Query: What is the American Birding Association and what does it do?

The American Birding Association (ABA) is a non-profit organization based in the United States that focuses on promoting birding and bird conservation. Established in 1968, the ABA serves as a membership-based organization that supports and connects birders across North America.

The primary objectives of the American Birding Association include:

    1. Promoting birding: The ABA encourages birdwatching as a recreational activity and promotes its benefits to individuals and society. They strive to foster a community of birders and provide resources, information, and opportunities for birders to connect and share their experiences.
    2. Conservation: The ABA emphasizes the importance of bird conservation and works to protect bird habitats and species. They engage in advocacy efforts, raise awareness about conservation issues, and collaborate with other organizations and initiatives to preserve and restore bird populations and their environments.
    3. Education and Publications: The ABA produces publications, including the “Birding” magazine, which provides articles, tips, and news related to birding and bird conservation. They also offer books, field guides, and other educational materials to assist birders in identification and learning about birds.
    4. Code of Ethics: The ABA has established a Code of Birding Ethics to promote responsible birding practices. This code encourages birders to minimize disturbance to birds and their habitats, respect private property, and prioritize bird welfare.

In addition to these core activities, the ABA organizes events, birding tours, and birding competitions. They maintain a checklist of bird species recorded in the ABA area, which includes the United States, Canada, and certain territories. The ABA also plays a role in verifying and documenting rare bird sightings and maintaining birding records.

Overall, the American Birding Association serves as a hub for birders, providing resources, promoting conservation efforts, and fostering a sense of community and shared passion for birds and birdwatching.

Analysis: This seems like a reasonable summary of the ABA and its activities.  Grade: A-.

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Query: In birding, what is a “countable” bird?

In birding, a “countable” bird refers to a bird species that can be officially recorded and included in a birder’s checklist or birding list. Countable birds are typically native or naturalized species that occur within a specific geographical area or region.

The term “countable” implies that the bird is recognized and accepted by the birding community as a valid and legitimate species for inclusion in birding records. These records can be personal lists, local checklists, or larger-scale efforts such as state, national, or global birding competitions or surveys.

To determine if a bird is countable, there are generally certain criteria that need to be met. These criteria may include factors such as:

    1. Natural occurrence: The bird must occur naturally within the defined geographic region and not be an introduced or escaped species.
    2. Established populations: The bird should have a self-sustaining and reproducing population within the region, rather than being a transient or accidental visitor.
    3. Taxonomic validity: The bird’s taxonomic status should be recognized and accepted by relevant ornithological authorities, such as regional or global birding organizations.
    4. Documentation: In some cases, there may be requirements for proper documentation or evidence, such as photographs, written descriptions, or reliable eyewitness accounts, to confirm the presence of the species.

It’s important to note that countable birds can vary depending on the specific rules and guidelines set by different birding organizations, competitions, or regional checklists. Some regions may have additional criteria or specific rules regarding the inclusion of certain species.

Countable birds play a role in monitoring bird populations, understanding distribution patterns, and documenting changes in bird occurrences over time. They contribute to scientific research, conservation efforts, and the enjoyment of birding as a hobby.

Analysis: I was curious how ChatGPT would do on this relatively obscure nuance and I think it did rather well, as it defines the concept and identifies several of the key criteria, and it does so concisely. Grade: A.

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Query: Describe the current debate regarding changing eponymous bird names because of controversy regarding their namesakes.

In recent years, there has been an ongoing debate surrounding changing eponymous bird names due to controversies associated with their namesakes. Eponymous bird names are those that honor individuals, often scientists, explorers, or collectors who made significant contributions to ornithology or the discovery of the species.

The debate centers around two main arguments:

    1. Addressing problematic historical associations: Some argue that certain individuals honored by eponymous bird names had affiliations with or engaged in activities that are now deemed controversial, such as involvement in colonialism, racism, or other harmful actions. Advocates for renaming argue that using the names of such individuals perpetuates and glorifies their legacies, which may conflict with modern values and social justice principles.
    2. Preservation of historical and scientific legacy: Opponents of renaming argue that changing eponymous bird names erases historical and scientific contributions made by the individuals in question. They contend that these names serve as a reminder of the historical context in which ornithology developed and recognize the significant contributions of these figures to the field.

The debate is multifaceted and often influenced by cultural, social, and historical perspectives. Some specific cases that have sparked discussions include the potential renaming of birds associated with figures like John James Audubon, Alexander Wilson, and others who have controversial aspects to their legacies.

Efforts to address this issue have led to discussions among ornithological societies, researchers, and the public. Some proponents argue for renaming, suggesting alternatives that honor diverse individuals or reflect the characteristics of the species itself. Others advocate for contextualizing the historical significance and contributions of the eponymous individuals, providing educational resources, or creating opportunities for dialogue on the topic.

The debate is ongoing, and decisions regarding renaming eponymous bird names vary among regions and institutions. It involves careful consideration of historical context, the impact on scientific integrity, and the social and cultural implications of changing established names. Ultimately, the goal is to strike a balance between acknowledging past contributions and values while fostering inclusivity, diversity, and a more equitable representation in the naming of bird species.

Analysis: I had to play with the query to get it to address the proper issue, as it initially provided answers about changing names for conventional taxonomic reasons. This is a nice concise summary of the current debate and it is provided in a balanced way. I think it underplays the desire for consistency and continuity, but that is a relatively minor critique for a very short summary. Grade: B+.

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Query: How many birders are there in the United States?

As an AI language model, I don’t have access to real-time data. However, I can provide information based on estimates and trends up until my knowledge cutoff in September 2021.

The number of birders in the United States can vary over time, and obtaining an exact count is challenging due to the diverse nature of birding activities, including casual birdwatching, participation in organized events, and citizen science initiatives. Nonetheless, birding has consistently remained a popular and widespread hobby in the United States.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation conducted in 2016, there were approximately 45 million birdwatchers in the United States. However, it’s important to note that not all birdwatchers actively engage in the hobby year-round, and the level of involvement can vary significantly among individuals.

Furthermore, the American Birding Association (ABA), a prominent organization for birders in North America, has a membership base of several thousand individuals. While this number represents a fraction of the overall birding population, it gives an indication of the active and dedicated birders who actively participate in birding events, competitions, and other organized activities.

It’s worth mentioning that birding has experienced significant growth in recent years, attracting a broader demographic range and greater public interest. The accessibility of information through digital platforms, the rise of birding apps and online communities, and the growing awareness of birds’ conservation importance have contributed to the expanding interest in birdwatching.

For the most up-to-date and accurate information on the number of birders in the United States, I recommend consulting recent surveys, studies, or reports from organizations involved in birding research or wildlife-related recreation.

Analysis: I have written extensively on this topic, and think the FWS is wrong, but it is not surprising that ChatGPT thinks this FWS survey is the most authoritative thing out there, as it is cited by the media. I don’t know how “several thousand individuals” in the ABA supports rather than undermines the 45 million number, but my view is surely the outlier in its source material. Grade B+.

Written by Jason Crotty
Jason Crotty is a birder, lawyer, and occasional writer currently living in Portland, Oregon with his wife and daughter. A Bay Area native, he started birding while working at a large law firm in San Francisco, but birds less frequently now that there's a kid around, so he writes instead. Jason started at 10,000 Birds with a few guest posts and signed on as a beat writer in March 2017. He is particularly interested in the intersection of law and birding (especially the Endangered Species Act), other bird-related federal litigation, and federal public lands. Jason's writing has also appeared in BirdWatching, Birding, and Birder's Guide, both online and in print.