Thursday 1 April 2010

Scream Treason !

We have a traitor amongst our ranks, a person who has put his personal benefit above the Greater Good of bird and birder's welfare. He clearly must think that his act of severe treason will elevate him to the rank of an internationally well-known birder, as his field knowledge will obviously never suffice to achieve this aim of his.

I am talking about Corey F., of 10,000Birds.

You see, I had trusted him, and have done so once too often, which I regret severely now. He misused my trust and went public with one of the best-kept secrets of ornithological history, the European Treecreeper mystery.

When I learned about his intentions, I tried to convince him to abandon his endeavor in an email I wrote to him. It was of no use. He didn't even have the guts to cite me correctly, stating my "comment" was too long.

This, Corey F., is pure and sheer cowardice.

And as the secret is out now and the web is abuzz, I - as one of the Treecreeper Secret Keepers - may as well come forward with the entire story behind what is commonly referred to now as a "prank".
Here is the email I wrote to Corey F., in full length, uncensored and unaltered.
May your birding career rest in peace, Corey.

"Corey, I am not entirely sure you are fully aware of what you have done! My only hope is that 10,000Birds is too small a platform to make this go public any further than it already has, and I sincerely urge you to back out of this before more damage is done.

This "prank" has a very long and honorable history, and I think this needs to be respected. To emphasize my points, I'll give you a quick summary of the events.
You see, the "prank" (let's call it prank for now, even though it deserves a more respectable naming) started in Germany in 1820, which is 190 years ago, Corey. Please, this is a historic dimension I urge you - again - to respect! It was initially directed at the British ornithologists and only later evolved into the trans-Atlantic dimension we see today.

Back then, Christian Ludwig Brehm discovered that the Treecreeper of continental Europe shows not only sexual dimorphism in its plumage but that male and female Treecreepers also have distinct songs and vocalizations. Their reproduction strategy is comparable to e. g. the phalaropes in that the females also take a more active role in courtship. This difference in plumage and vocalizations is far less pronounced on the British Isles, likely as a result of genetic drift or other island-related factors.
Christian Ludwig Brehm immediately recognized the opportunity to use this against the British.

Well, I guess you'll need some historic background about the ornithological "community" of the Old World in the early 1800's to appreciate why he did this.

Back then, Germany was at the forefront of ornithological research worldwide. Those nations in the lead today, e. g. the British, were still largely in the hunter and gatherer state while the scientific standard in Germany was particularly high. Christian Ludwig Brehm for example was an "ordinary" man, not a professional scientist, yet he had the largest collection of bird skins in the world, numbering 15,000 specimens. More important still, those specimens were labelled and allowed for biogeographical and seasonal studies of birds and their variation. Most other collections of that time were simply very "showy", and no particular importance was given to the labelling. He also was the father of Alfred Edmund Brehm, who is to German ornithology what Audubon is to you and your hobby, and who must rate as one of the most popular and influential zoologists of his time worldwide.

I have now hopefully demonstrated to you how prestigious German ornithology was back then. In the first half of the 19th century however, the British ornithologists increased their knowledge and scientific expertise gradually and Brehm felt that the pioneering role of Germany was jeopardized by this development. Germany as a nation didn't exist back then, it was made up of numerous independent states, but a feeling of patriotism and unity was starting to emerge, and this patriotic trend (so to speak) made the newly arisen challenge of the British so unbearable to Brehm.

You have to understand all this, Corey, even if it might bore you at the moment.

So, thanks to the labelling of his specimens he discovered the sexual dimorphism in the Treecreeper and that this was less pronounced in Britain. To give German ornithology a permanent and unbreakable lead (to give them a "blocker" in modern twitching slang), he decided to "split" the Treecreeper and assign species rank to the two genders. More specifically, he scientifically described the female as the Short-toed Treecreeper and split it from the male, further stating that the "Short-toed Treecreeper" only occurs in western mainland Europe and not the British isles.

By doing this, he completely fooled the British. As the sexual dimorphism was far less pronounced on their territory, they had no means whatsoever to double-check his findings and thus had to accept the split as scientific fact without giving it too much consideration. Those British ornithologists who had the rare privilege of travelling through mainland Europe tried to investigate the situation but invariably failed to see through the "prank" as the differences are so subtle. Whenever a British ornithologist would notice that e.g. "Short-toed" and ordinary Treecreeper were attending to the same nest (as all bird parents are wont to do), a German ornithologist who was privy to the conspiracy would step in and state that individual variation was significant as well, that correct identification required substantial field experience which the British lacked due to there being only one form on their islands and that the Brit had therefore simply misidentified the birds.

As a consequence, the British got the clear impression that they weren't "advanced" enough yet to tackle such complex identification challenges and the superiority of German ornithology was saved and preserved for the time being.

During the course of the following decades, the "prank" gradually became more and more known in Germany and also amongst the British. This is not something you can cover up indefinitely, of course.

Then, however, things evolved miraculously. By the time the truth started to leak through, Britain had evolved into the Great British Empire and British pride and prejudice made it completely impossible for its ornithologists to acknowledge being fooled for so long. Therefore, the British became part of the conspiracy and promoted the "prank" further to the point we are at today: the "prank" is even maintained in the world's most modern and advanced field guide, written by a team of Irish, British and Swedish bird identification experts - who definitely knew what they were doing.

Of course, even today most birders in Europe and Britain aren't aware of the "prank" and readily identify and tick the two Treecreepers. Whenever I get a birding visitor from the USA or elsewhere, I always nonchalantly bring up the Treecreeper in a conversation. If the other birder is evidently not aware of the true situation, I'll always ask if they are missing one species. If that's the case, I'll either call the first Treecreeper we see their "lifer" or the one they already have - depending on whether they had bought me some decent beers the night before or not.

It is great, it is big fun, and even you, my dear Corey, fell for it easily when we met at the Baltic!

You might therefore reconsider your decision to uncover the "prank".This issue is bound to get very messy once discussed openly, a lot of high-profile birder careers are at stake and if the truth emerges, those - like you - who had been fooled so easily will look increasingly stupid.
And, Corey, this is not a threat but a warning: if you proceed further with this mad endeavour, you'll regret it. I know for a fact that influential US birders are involved, too. This means your birding career will definitely come to an end. Surely, you can still watch the House Sparrows and European Starlings at your Queens feeder and keep it all to yourself, but you will have no option whatsoever to proceed with a more open, public birder career - and you won't even have to bother ever reporting anything to a records committee.

You'll be deleted as a birder.

Therefore, I urge you even in your very own interest: do not post your article on the blog. You have been warned by a friend. "

He just wouldn't listen.


SAPhotographs (Joan) said...

Oh dear, this sounds like WAR!!

Don't worry Corey, if you are thrown out of the birding world there are always insects!!


corey said...

But, Jochen, you'll still believe me when I report a Kirtland's Warbler from Queens, right?

Hilke Breder said...

Jochen, I read your entire post, and Corey's too, shook my head, wrinkled my eyebrows, scratched my nose, then went straight to the "Birds of Europe" guide... You really got me fooled :))))

Jochen said...

@Joan: yeah, it's total annihilation, which happens ever so often specifically on the first of April. :-)))

@Corey: I am about to report to the public that I've seen a small flock of 4 Lesser Kestrels in Germany, without propper pictures. It really doesn't matter what I believe you as my word of honour won't be worth a gnat's fart after that.
Which means I'll reconsider it over and over again over the Easter weekend.

@Hilke: REALLY ??!! Errr, I mean, what do you mean by "fooled"? It's the golden truth I am telling you here, the pure truth. :-)))

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