Why have a state bird records committee? First, some general background will help to explain the significant values that panels like the Pennsylvania Ornithological Records Committee (PORC) offer to scientific research.
Basically, records committees fulfill the important need of ornithological research for a credible, reliable, and well documented record of species that have occurred in a state, province, region, or nation. Ornithologists in the United States, Canada, and many countries around the world began to recognize in the 1970s and 1980s that research into the distribution and occurrence of bird species had a serious deficiency. Unless museum specimens of a particular species in a particular state or region were available, the researchers had no way of knowing whether published records were valid.
In North America such records typically appeared in continental journals such as Audubon Field Notes and its successor American Birds or in one of the many state or provincial publications. These were respected journals, but typically their reports offered no documented evidence whether a species involved was identified correctly. Thus studies of patterns in occurrence of rare or accidental occurrence of species were usually based on nothing more than the opinion of a journal’s editor about the validity of a report. Details that might have indicated the accuracy of an identification were seldom provided. Even if documentation did exist, it was not easily available in one place in an archived collection of records.
A major purpose of the Records Committee is to fill those gaps, providing future ornithologists and students of bird distribution with an adequate archived record of rare and unusual birds that have occurred in the state. The archives include committee members’ votes and comments on the adequacy of the documentations submitted, so researchers can judge the authenticity of the reports.
A second important function of the committee is to maintain the Official List of the Birds of Pennsylvania, which consists of species judged to be documented satisfactorily as having occurred in the state. This list is updated every five years and published in Pennsylvania Birds. The most recent edition was published in 2000 (PB 14:105-109). The committee also publishes an annual report in Pennsylvania Birds of all records that have received a committee vote and a decision for or against acceptance in the previous year.
The bylaws assign PORC with a final pair of responsibilities, each dependent on ther other:
1. “To provide a means by which sight records can gain acceptance as credible scientific data.” This assignment addresses one of the ornithological needs explained above, to obtain and evaluate detailed documentation for sight records that in the past would have been published only on the unsupported authority of a journal editor.
2. “To establish standards in the methods of collection and submitting quality field data.” To achieve this goal the committee periodically publishes in Pennsylvania Birds guidelines and recommendations for documentation. The Tips for Documenting Rare Bird Species and the Rare Bird Report Form are the committee’s newest efforts to standardize and improve the quality of information supporting reports of rarities.
The complete details of PORC’s procedures are in the committee’s bylaws, which can be read here. The following is a summary of the important provisions.
The committee consists of seven voting members whose qualifications should include expertise in identification of birds, knowledge of Pennsylvania birds, and familiarity with localities in Pennsylvania. A geographical balance to the committee is desirable, but should not override the other criteria. Members are nominated for terms of three years by the chairman and other committee members. PORC elects its chairman, vice chairman, treasurer, and (non-voting) secretary for one year at the committee’s annual meeting.
The members vote to place records they accept in one of three classes, which are divided into five categories depending on the nature of the evidence. Records in Class I are placed on the Official State List. Records in Classes II and III are placed on a Provisional List until the physical evidence of a specimen, photograph, or recording is obtained. Following are the classes and categories:
Class I-S: An existing identifiable specimen adequately labeled as to date, place, and collector, and available for public inspection.
Class I-P: A diagnostic photograph(s) adequately labeled as to date, place, and photographer, a copy of which is deposited with the committee.
Class I-R: a diagnostic recording or sonogram adequately labeled as to date, place and recorder, and available for public inspection.
Class II: An accepted sight record documented independently by two or more observers.
Class III: An accepted sight record documented by one observer. (The important word here is documented. Many people may have seen a bird but if only one observer submits documentation, it is considered a single-observer record.)
Records not accepted are placed into one of the following classes and categories:
Class IV-A: A record for which there exists a majority of evidence in support of the observer’s identification; the record is probably correct, but not beyond reasonable doubt.
Class IV-B: A record for which there exists insufficient evidence for evaluation.
Class IV-C: A record for which there exists a majority of evidence in favor of an identification other than what was submitted.
The bylaws also provide a special Class V: The identification is correct, but the bird represents or may represent an escape or an introduced bird not yet established in Pennsylvania.
PORC has adopted a policy not to vote on reports of hybrids, but it welcomes detailed descriptions for archival purposes as potentially important ornithological records that might otherwise be lost to science. Exceptions to the hybrids for which documentation is desired are domesticated birds, Mallard x American Black Duck, and Black-capped x Carolina Chickadee.
The voting process functions under detailed rules established in the bylaws to provide fair and consistent evaluations of all records. Voting consists of either one or two rounds. In the first round, members vote without discussion among themselves. In the second round, members see comments the others made on the first-round ballots, which may or may not change their original opinions for the final vote.
Voting results are determined as follows:
1. Acceptance requires a final vote of 7-0, 6-1, or in the case when a member abstains, 6-0.
2. If a record receives a vote of only 5-2 or 4-3 for acceptance, it goes to a second round of balloting for a final vote.
3. When the vote to accept is 6-1 and the dissenter provides arguments for the negative vote, the record also goes to a second round for re-evaluation in a final vote.
4. Upon a negative vote of 3-4, 2-5, or 1-6 on the first round, a record is not accepted nor is it normally circulated for a second round.
After a final vote has been cast, members may request at any time that a record be reconsidered in a new round of balloting. In a case where additional evidence has been received or new circumstances have arisen since the final vote, the Secretary is directed to schedule reconsideration in a new vote.
A member must abstain from voting when he/she was one of the primary persons who discovered the bird and considers the identification to be accurate. However, if the primary group includes three or more Committee members, then each member should vote. A member should vote also if he/she traveled to see a bird someone else found. Alternatively, a member who has seen a bird submitted as a record is always permitted to vote in Class IV or V not to accept it.
The committee emphasizes that it does not accept second-hand reports (i.e. written by someone describing what another person saw.
The committee’s basic principles of relations with observers were published in the PSO Newsletter of October 2001 and were patterned on a policy adopted by the British Birds Rarities Committee more than 40 years ago:
“The Committee is fully conscious it must command the ongoing confidence of the birding community including county compilers or it would not be able to function. PORC has no automatic or legal expectation that birders submit records to them. We can only perform our task of record assessment and keeping of the state record with the good will and cooperation of the majority of birders in Pennsylvania. Confidence in the Committee’s fairness and efficiency is essential. Any suggested improvements in its operation are always welcome and should be sent to the Secretary.”
PORC’s current Secretary is Ian Gardner
A variety of specific policies not included in the bylaws have been adopted by the committee over the years, for example:
The committee sends an email to all observers who submit a record acknowledging that their documentation has been received. After the committee has made a decision, observers whose records were not accepted receive an email from the committee explaining the reasons.
In the committee’s annual report announcing its decisions, the observers’ names are published for accepted records but not for records failing to gain acceptance.
The committee emphasizes that it does not rule on whether a bird was seen or not seen, or whether a bird should be added to an observer’s life list or state list. The committee can base its evaluation and decision only on the documentation it receives. If a report fails because the documentation does not support it, the result is disappointing not only to the observer but also to the committee. What might have been a valid addition to the state’s bird records could be rejected for lack of evidence. For guidance in submitting reports, see the documentation form and the tips for adequately documenting rare birds.
In some cases reports that reached the committee were rejected for lack of details, and later the committee discovered that the observer had never intended a cursory description to be submitted for formal evaluation by PORC. To avoid this problem, which has created ill will toward the committee at times, county compilers who receive descriptions are requested to ask the observer’s permission before forwarding the report to either Pennsylvania Birds or PORC.
In its policies, procedures and votes, PORC’s goal is fair, objective and expert evaluation of all reports submitted – toward the ultimate purpose of assuring a credible and useful ornithological record for Pennsylvania.