Saturday, 25 June 2011

Dead Birders Society

People are upset. They are up in arms. Teeth are being gnashed, and there is public outcry. The reason? Lee Evans, founding member of the UK400 Club, and President of the British Birding Association, has published his latest life rankings for every top twitcher in the country. And for the first time in a long time, he has placed it where everyone can see it. Like I said, outcry!

Lee Evans has the power to polarise that you would scarcely believe possible, which is strange given what a calm and rational lot twitchers are. A lot of top twitchers are all signed up to the UK400 club, largely because the taxonomy used means that they can have a higher number on the list. For instance as well as House Sparrow and Tree Sparrow, they also get Maisonette Sparrow, Bedsit Sparrow, and One-bedroom Studio Flat Sparrow. They like Lee Evans, and tell him what they have seen. They probably also tell him what other people have seen.

Conversely, a lot of other top twitchers hate Lee Evans. They would rather eat their own testicles before they told him what they have seen, and the fact that their names also appear on this list is a source of great friction. Believe me when I say it is of absolutely critical importance that there be an accurate ranking system for twitchers in this country. Oh yes. So those that don't tell Lee what they have seen, Lee instead estimates what they have seen. This is the chief source of the friction. Some may say they object to other people keeping tabs on them, but really it's because the number that Lee has against their name is smaller than the number they have against their name. Deep down, they always knew they were on the list. But now they can actually see the list, and can thus be publicly offended and upset. The school playground springs to mind.

Battle lines are entrenched, this is a matter of the highest importance. Legal action is threatened - yes, over the fact that there is a list with your name on it and a number next to it - this could only ever happen in birding. Whole websites are devoted to vitriol (who would have thought it?), and yet these are the same people who will next week be climbing the same ladder to see the same bird over the same wall.

For the minute a gross rarity breaks, all of these people at the top of this list, be they friend or foe, drop whatever it is they are doing, pull sickies and so on, and drive hell-for-leather to wherever the poor lost avian waif is. During the journey, they are hoping for only two things. Firstly, that the bird is still there and that they will see it. And secondly that all the others at the top of the list are busy and will not see it. Fat chance. Very occasionally, a member of the top twitchers will be abroad, miss an extreme rarity, and thus slip a precious place down the rankings. So most top twitchers don't ever go holiday, instead they sit at home holding their pagers. But for those that take the risk, and get caught short, they will have a gap on their list where the others have a little tick, and this will annoy them for the rest of their lives, and possibly longer.

And this is where Lee's list becomes interesting, for it also includes dead people. Yup, living twitchers are able to gain rankings places against dead twitchers. Hardly fair, is it? Dead twitchers are listed in italics, and in green. And they don't just die like normal people, no, twitchers 'unfortunately' die. I concede that in some cases that could be true, but it seems an odd way to phrase it. Oh what bad luck, you appear to have died. See? 

Anyway, phraseology aside, with very few exceptions, the reason that people are at the very top of the twitchers list is because they have been twitching for a very long time. Which means they are getting on a bit, or to put it another way, they are (very unfortunately) closer to the end of their lives than the beginning of their lives. One presumes therefore that over time, the list will get greener and greener, rather ironically because the price of fuel is becoming a significant barrier to entry to becoming a top twitcher and getting closer to the top of the list. I'm not an overly morbid person, and I would not wish for any person, not even a top twitcher, to shuffle off this mortal coil early, but I must confess to being rather fascinated by the inevitable future greenification of this list. At what point will it start becoming uncomfortable to publish? When five of the top ten are green? Seven? All of them bar one?! All I am asking is has this been properly thought through, as if you ask me, it's a problem just waiting to happen.

PS I'm not on the list. In any colour.


  1. I've never heard of the man or the debate but it certainly seems weird and wanky to estimate other people's accomplishments when they haven't asked to be included, never mind the whole dearly-departed angle. Although litigation also seems to be going a bit far.

    Then again this kind of extreme behavior seems to show up in any group of people that are a little too obsessive about any topic that doesn't actually involve life-and-death decisions...

  2. As I'm originally from Aylesbury, Bucks, I have often bumped into Lee Evans on his patch at Wilstone Reservoir. Just last weekend I bumped into him "twitching" a pair of Turtle Doves. Thought it was odd that Mr 556 would need Turtle Dove this late in the year.

    A misunderstood gentleman, no doubt...

  3. Yes and no. He does truly love birds and birding, and is very very good at it. It is rather tragic that there is all the rest of it - some of it is unwarranted, some of it he brings on himself.

  4. Davina Wydegirth26 June 2011 at 15:48

    Balanced; measured; Wanstead Birder. All - up until now - synonyms. However, the subject matter of this post is so obviously straight off some hideous daytime TV show that this poor, sheltered innocent can no longer believe a word you write...

    ...or are you just pulling our legs?

  5. Just read the Forum topic - well some of it anyway - dear me...

    He appears gets a rise out of this sort of thing, and the best course would really be just to ignore it. It's just a list!

  6. Hi Jonathan,

    Excellent post! One thing you really believe that those who want their lists removed want this because Lee's total for them is less than it 'should be'? (or is there some sarcasm there that I have missed completely?)


  7. Hi Mark
    I refuse to take sides in this puerile debate, I am happy to view it from afar and marvel at the staggering immaturity of grown-up men. What I will say is that I find the antics of the chief objectors just as bizarre as the chief object of their objections.
    Best Wishes

  8. I must admit to be a tad surprised at the level this saga has gone too, especially from one side of the argument. I note also that Lee Evans is full of praise for your blog post, suggesting you hit the nail on the head. I would suggest both sides may have had a bang on the head recently.

    Having said all that, still an entertaining distraction from a nagging bad back!

  9. Just for a laugh, had a look on the list... Been birding for a long time. Have seen over 500 in UK (according to me...)so delighted to find that Lee has not been keeping tabs on me and that I am still in the low 400's having not seen a new bird since the Spanish Sparrow at Waterside in Cumbria on the 16th July 1996. Needless to say I am looking forward to seeing those 80 odd species again. It's only a hobby... (and yes that is on my list!)

  10. Hi Jonathan,

    I wasn't trying to get you to declare support for either side in this whole thing! Just a bit surprised that you think it's all about the numbers. I think there are plenty of folk out there who for whatever reason really dislike Lee and would not want any kind of association with him or his club.

  11. No no, I am sure it is to do with one thing and one thing only. Stuff accuracy, stuff whether the number is bigger or smaller. It's 100% about who keeps the list. However, the mature response to the question "Someone who is not me is keeping a list of the birds I have seen, what shall I do about it?" is "It is just a list of birds and has no impact on my life whatsoever, I am not going to waste any energy even thinking about it. I am not going to act like a spolit toddler, I am just going to get on with my life."

  12. I agree almost completely....In the end, it is just a list, but obviously some people are more sensitive than others about this!

    However, I do think there is another mature response to the question "Someone who is not me is keeping a list of the birds I have seen, what shall I do about it?"...which is "I'll politely ask for it to be taken off"

    I hate the Lee bashing and like you I don't want to take a side (or even have a side) in this. I just wish that the 'honourable thing' could have been done a while back and then there wouldn't be any of this court nonsense, or any of the other bobbins that has filled 18 or so pages on Birdforum. Likewise, I'm pretty disappointed that there are a few folk on that thread who are not involved in any of it but are using it as an excuse to fling mud.

    What started off almost entertainingly will end painfully for some and embarassingly for us all.