Double-crested Cormorant: the rarer the bird, the more significant each record
There has been some misinformed discussion about records committees on birding discussion groups recently, so this seems a good time to set out my experiences of the committees for which I have served: many years on a county records committee (L&R), many years on a national records committee (BOURC) including a term as secretary, and attendance at a European (AERC) records committee meeting in 2009.
Without exception, these committees have worked hard and done a good job. Perfection is of course an unattainable target – committees are groups of people who by nature sometimes make mistakes – but the vast majority of their decisions stand the test of time.
Europe At a formal level the AERC has not been entirely successful, partly because of its nature and the logistical problems associated with such a large and varied body. At an informal level it has been very successful. For example, conversations I had at the 2009 meeting contributed to subsequent reviews of controversial records of Slender-billed Curlew and Louisiana Waterthrush.
Britain During my time as secretary of BOURC I saw every file on a first for Britain up to my retirement in 2013. The standard of almost all files was very high. Although the committee was sometimes criticised for being slow, it is the case that decisions taken too quickly are more likely to be problematic. In maintaining the British List, BOURC has to consider taxonomy, identification and provenance. Contrary to some statements any previous record can be reviewed, including those placed in Category E.
Determining the status of species on the list also requires occasional reviews of historical records: the rarer the bird, the more significant each record, and we have a lot more information available to us than many previous assessors. At both county and national levels it is clear that determining first records of rare species is important. The alternative ‘voucher’ system sometimes proposed would quickly prove unworkable.
County The LROS records committee maintained consistent high standards, and undertook a review of historical records as part of the preparation for publication of BLR in 2009. As committees should, it erred on the side of caution.
Do we need committees? Although committees have their critics, it is unclear that there is a better alternative. Collective decision-making by a body of experienced individuals has a proven track record, and as already noted the vast majority of their decisions stand the test of time. One of the problems with many historical records is that they were assessed by individuals, not committees.
How many? Many countries manage with one committee, and the same might be possible in Britain (though Britain does attract relatively large numbers of rare birds, so assessing their records involves a significant workload). It is still unclear what BOU will decide about its approach to taxonomy, which is an unfortunate vacuum. The assessment of historical records is an area which should preferably be informed by dedication and experience. I have occasionally heard suggestions that we should simply disregard all Category B records, which would be irresponsible.
In the absence of a better alternative, we should support those who serve on our records committees. I’d go further: we should applaud them.