I was going to write about my birding trip in the Adirondacks from last weekend, and then this happened.
You may or may not of heard, but yesterday (or two days ago, depending on when I post this), the National Audubon Society published a blog post about eBird's decision to add a sensitive species filter in order to protect 325 threatened or sensitive species. This filter has actually been in place since October, and was implemented for birders to report certain birds such as owls, grouse, etc at accurate locations without fear that the birds will be harassed or disturbed in ways that place them at risk. Bird lovers across the internet went nuts as soon as the article was posted to Facebook, saying it confirmed their fears that publishing locations for species will only bring harm to birds. I feel like it's my obligation as an ambassador for birding to do some damage control on the behalf of both the birds and birders and break down what the sensitive species filter actually means without any biased comments.
When eBird first introduced the sensitive species filter, it explained that site-level data can "put certain species at incredible risk. Fine-scale site information can be used by hunters and trappers to target certain species. eBird has a responsibility to protect the specific locations of these species so that the data are not used to exploit these birds, and the Sensitive Species initiative provides this protection. In general, species with very small populations or showing significant population declines are treated as Sensitive Species if there is clear evidence that targeted hunting, trapping, or disturbance places those species at risk. Species declining due to other non-targeted human activities—including threats from habitat destruction, introduced species, or even subsistence hunting—are not included as Sensitive Species since site-specific eBird data does not place these species at risk." Sensitive Species may be set in eBird at a global level, regional level , or at a seasonal level (e.g., only in breeding season). This list will evolve over time and species may be added or removed as new threats are highlighted or as populations recover.
Broad scale information on Sensitive Species is generally available (e.g., reports at the county level or above), but hotspot or other site-specific output is not. When viewing a checklist in eBird, Sensitive Species are not shown in the public view of the checklist and the species total is recalculated to remove Sensitive Species from the total. If you are the observer (this includes anyone with whom the checklist is shared) then you will see the species, with a clearly marked “Sensitive” icon.
Sensitive Species are also excluded from eBird alerts, hotspot outputs, first/last/high count data, and eBird profile, top 100, and yard/patch data (for the last example, your data is edited accordingly but your totals will stay the same). However, Sensitive Species will appear on personal lists, national/state/county level output (albeit restricted), media search at the county level, target species lists, and is available to researchers and reviewers. Now let me explain what the criteria of sensitive species status for individual groups are and some examples for the ABA Area
Certain falcon species are rare and highly valued in falconry, especially in Europe and the Middle East. Three species; Saker, Orange-breasted, and Gyrfalcon are treated as Sensitive to protect them from the falconry trade. While many falconry birds are bred in captivity to be used for hunting, many are still taken out of the wild to be raised for this purpose. Of these, only the Gyrfalcon occurs in the ABA Area and state and federal laws set tight regulations on falcon trapping. Since a Gyr can sell for upward at $10,000 and are easily bred in captivity, most falconers don't go out of their way to look for a reported falcon and try to locate their own for personal use as wild caught birds can't be sold in the US, only captive ones. Still, better safe than sorry.
There is a large and active trade in parrots and parakeets (Psittaciformes) around the world. While some species are bred in captivity, capture of wild birds has drastically reduced many populations and driven several species to extinction in the wild, as discussed in a 2016 Birdlife International study published in Biodiversity and Conservation that highlights the extreme extinction risk for this group of birds. Most species are treated as Sensitive in their native range only, since some introduced populations are worth tracking and may represent important populations for conservation with wild birds so close to extinction. Species that are treated as Globally Sensitive (not just in their native range) include: Olive-shouldered Parrot, Derbyan Parakeet, Great-billed Parrot, Glaucous Macaw, Sun Parakeet, and Great Green Macaw. Night Parrot is an Australian species that is not particularly prized for trade, but extremely rare and poorly known and subject to disturbance. Excluding the Critically Endangered Puerto Rican Parrot, all native parrots in the ABA Area are either extinct or extirpated, and it doesn't seem like PR will be added any time soon.
It is widely recognized (Lee et al. 2016 and Root et al. 2006, links at bottom of page) that commercial trade in wild birds in parts of Southeast Asia (especially Indonesia) is a major conservation concern. Surprisingly, this is not limited to songbirds, as this category protects several species of owls, frogmouths, kingfishers, doves, at least one hornbill, and even the Great Philippine Eagle. Other than that, I'm not going to go into too much detail on this category because none of the protected species occur in North America
Owls are particularly sensitive to disturbance. As predators, they are naturally uncommon to rare. Disturbance at their day roosts or use of playback can repeatedly disturb individuals, pairs, or small populations. Large crowds surrounding and following certain owls in winter (sometimes engaging in unethical baiting practices) disrupts natural hunting and exposes owls to great risk from vehicle collisions or habituation to humans. In North America, only three species of owl are covered as Sensitive: Great Gray, Spotted, and Northern Hawk. “A lot of the time I was just listing owls to the county level to protect them from harassment,” says Alex Sundvall, which is generally a good measure. Not only is flushing owls to get flight shots a problem, but some photographers release pet store mice to get their desired photos.
Certain species with small populations or habits that cannot tolerate significant targeted disturbance are treated as Sensitive. In North America, those are Gunnison Sage-Grouse, Lesser Prairie-Chicken, and Puaiohi. Both grouse and prairie-chickens are notoriously susceptible to disturbance on lek sites, and the Puaiohi is only found in one part of the Alakai Swamp Trail in Kauai
Certain regions of South America have active bird trade and this has led to severe declines in certain species. Like with Asian species, I won't go into much detail because they don't occur in North America other than that most of these are passerines unlike in Asia.
Some species are under particular pressure from hunting, either for food or for use of the bird's body parts (e.g., Helmeted Hornbill), and hunters may specifically target individuals or concentrations of birds. While hunting of migratory birds is strictly regulated in the United States, it unfortunately is not in many places, as I discussed in my post on Champions of the Flyway.
Certain species, which are now Extinct in the Wild but persist in captivity, are protected as Sensitive Species to ensure that reintroduction efforts have the best chance at success. Of the five listed, only the Hawaiian Crow occurs/has occured in the ABA Area, and I suggest following The 'Alala Project to learn more about reintroduction efforts for this species. Fun fact: one of the Sensitive Species, the Guam Rail, had two chicks hatch at the Smithsonian Zoo at the end of November that are candidates for reintroduction next year (warning if you click on the rail link: CUTENESS OVERLOAD)
In addition, a subset of species Sensitive in their native range or in subsets of their range are also included. For some of these (e.g., Java Sparrow, White-rumped Shama) the species is Sensitive throughout all (Java Sparrow) or most (White-rumped Shama) of its native range, but has introduced populations in certain places (e.g., Hawaii) where site-level records are still displayed. For polytypic species (ones with various subspecies groups), all subspecies are set to sensitive in the region where the parent species is sensitive, even if that form is not known from the region. This prevents erroneous entries of subspecies from exposing sites for Sensitive Species. Only three species in North America are listed as locally Sensitive: Painted Buntings in Florida and Whooping Cranes and Kirtland's Warblers in Wisconsin. The bunting's location is sensitive is to prevent illegal trapping of these birds and the cranes are supressed to protect a small reintroduced population in northern Wisconsin
As Sundvall has pointed out, is that the protocol doesn’t protect all major birds of concern. For example, the Boreal Owl isn’t included on the Sensitive Species List. “[We] do need to expand our hiding tools to users and reviewers who feel that a particular sighting on a checklist puts a bird or group of birds at risk,” Marshall Iliff says, “This will be developed in the near term.” Ultimately, this update reinforces that Team eBird and the birding community are about protecting species, not exposing them. “The birds come first,” says Johanna Beam, “I’m proud to support an organization that believes this.”
In terms of my Young Birder Odyssey big year, Sensitive Species is only a minor inconvenience for solo birders like myself as Sensitive Species will not show up in rare bird or needs alert emails, but I can still get information on Sensitive Species from state listservs and local birders (depending on how willing they are to open up to outsiders). Also, I may go on a guided birding tour at some point this year, which will make adding a sensitive species easier for me. Clifford Hawley has said that "putting information on lockdown makes local knowledge that much more valuable if you want to see desirable species." And he's right, although you don't need to pay a guide to show you these species according to Ann Nightingale, who says it's easier to get the info out of eBird, but surely conservation of at-risk species is a worthy reason to have to do a little extra work. One birder has said "I don't think having their locations hidden from a completely public database (and really only adding a couple extra steps for well-meaning birders) is too much to ask."
The biggest problem with the Sensitive Species filter is how birders are responding to the story. We have another case of a well meaning story gone wrong which is common in environmental journlism, with readers that are so desperate to have their fears about reporting rare birds confirmed, that they are willing to get up on their soapboxes and preach their thoughts without actually reading the article. In final, my opinion on the Sensitive Species filter is that it will ultimately have more positive benefits for the birding community than negative ones.
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