The RU­MOUR MILL

Bird Watching (UK) - - 30 Years Of Bird­watch­ing - WORDS: ANDY MACKAY

Ru­mours and hoaxes about bird sight­ings have been around for years, but how they are spread has changed dra­mat­i­cally over the past three decades

IT’S HARD TO to be­lieve these days that fewer than 30 years ago, up-to-date bird sight­ings in­for­ma­tion was passed around solely by word of mouth. This was the ‘grapevine’, an in­for­mal and ever-chang­ing net­work of friends and ac­quain­tances who passed all the lat­est news to each other, ei­ther face-to­face or by use of the tele­phone (strictly land­lines, of course – mo­biles didn’t be­come ubiq­ui­tous un­til the turn of the cen­tury). Inevitably, with such a ‘sys­tem’, some of the in­for­ma­tion that got passed around was some­what un­re­li­able, to say the least. It was a time when facts would get dis­torted along the way, and ru­mour would flour­ish.

The gen­uine bird­ing ru­mour, as op­posed to out­right hoax, is just about ex­tinct now. The slight­est hint of any­thing not-quite-right is in­stantly ques­tioned, dis­sected and dis­missed on so­cial me­dia and on Bird­fo­rum. Dig­i­tal im­ages are pored over for pos­si­ble in­con­sis­ten­cies with the claimed time and date of sight­ing, and the cry of ‘hoax!’ is enough to stop the ma­jor­ity of such re­ports dead in their tracks. A re­cent ex­am­ple on Twit­ter was a photo of a Sa­van­nah Spar­row, sup­pos­edly taken in Sus­sex. Within min­utes it was be­ing dis­cussed on­line, and it wasn’t long be­fore some­one (pos­si­bly with too much time on their hands) no­ticed the bird was perched on

an Amer­i­can type of barbed wire, rather than the usual Bri­tish sort. The ex­act spot of where the bird was ‘pho­tographed’ was quickly found, and it was soon es­tab­lished that barbed wire there was of the Bri­tish type. The photo had clearly been taken on the other side of the At­lantic, not in Sus­sex as was claimed. Why any­one would want to do that, and be la­belled a hoaxer for­ever, is un­clear, although there are many par­al­lels out­side of bird­ing, such as Pilt­down Man and the Loch Ness Mon­ster. There will al­ways be some peo­ple, it seems, who are pre­pared to stoop to dis­hon­esty to try and get their 15 min­utes of fame.

When ru­mours were just a bit of ‘fun’

The ru­mours of yes­ter­year were not hoaxes – the in­ten­tion was not to de­ceive, or to ex­pect any­one to waste their time search­ing for the bird, but more a case of find­ing in­no­cent amuse­ment in see­ing whether, and how quickly, the ru­mour would spread and how it would evolve. So what were the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of a good ru­mour? For a start, there was rarely an ex­act lo­ca­tion, as that would quickly be checked out and found to be er­ro­neous. Se­condly, the species in­volved had to be ex­tremely rare. No-one would be in­ter­ested in a ru­mour about a ‘pos­si­ble Red-throated Pipit in Nor­folk’ as most peo­ple would have seen one be­fore. And the best ones of all of­ten had some lit­tle de­tail that made them more be­liev­able. Some­thing like “ap­par­ently there was an Evening Gros­beak in a gar­den in Suther­land the other week” would be a per­fect ex­am­ple – a com­bi­na­tion of an al­most myth­i­cal species in Bri­tain, in a re­mote area of the coun­try and in a gar­den. News of rare birds in gar­dens of­ten take a while to get out, so that lends the whole thing an air of truth. I just made that one up, but one of the clas­sic,

gen­uine ru­mours was about ‘a Lit­tle Blue Heron some­where in south Wales’. The best bit about this one was the claim that Bri­tain’s top twitcher at the time, Ron Johns, had been taken to see it by the find­ers. He wasn’t just sworn to se­crecy, it was claimed, but blind­folded to pre­vent him know­ing ex­actly where it was! Ab­so­lute non­sense, of course, but it had that slight pos­si­bil­ity that it might be true, and it did the rounds for quite a while. An­other good one, un­usu­ally this time with an

So what were the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of a good ru­mour? For a start, there was rarely an ex­act lo­ca­tion, as that would quickly be checked out and found to be er­ro­neous. Se­condly, the species in­volved had to be ex­tremely rare

ex­act lo­ca­tion, in­volved a pair of Black Wood­peck­ers breed­ing ‘near Bran­don sawmill’ in the Breck­land of East Anglia. This ex­am­ple in­cluded some ex­tra de­tail; an un­named twitcher had been to check it out but had been forcibly thrown off the site by RSPB war­dens. This also had the use­ful ef­fect of dis­cour­ag­ing any­one from go­ing to have a look for them­selves. Rare breed­ing birds were al­ways a good bet for a ru­mour, as they had the ad­van­tage that, if they were gen­uine, they would prob­a­bly be kept quiet any­way. Coun­ties such as Kent, be­ing close to the con­ti­nent, were al­ways said to be full of rare breed­ers, such as Crested Larks, Ic­ter­ine War­blers and Hoopoes. I’m sure some of the ru­mours that used to cir­cu­late had some ba­sis of fact, maybe orig­i­nat­ing as an un­con­firmed re­port of a rare bird. I’m also cer­tain that many were sim­ply made up. And I know that be­cause I started some of them! The very best place to start ru­mours pre-in­ter­net days was the Isles of Scilly in Oc­to­ber. Sim­ply talk­ing loudly in the pub about some­thing be­ing sup­pressed ‘some­where’ would guar­an­tee be­ing over­heard by other bird­ers, who would then pass this ‘news’ on. I’ve for­got­ten most of the ones we started in the At­lantic Inn or the Bishop & Wolf pubs, but one that does stick in my mem­ory was a vague re­port of a Lit­tle Bus­tard ‘be­ing sup­pressed some­where in Corn­wall’. This was com­pletely be­liev­able as, rightly or wrongly, Corn­wall at that time had a rep­u­ta­tion for fre­quent sup­pres­sion of rare bird news. But the rea­son I re­mem­ber this one is that, when we were sit­ting in the he­li­port a few days later, wait­ing to leave for the main­land, I over­heard a birder say to his com­pan­ion, “I re­ally hope news of that Lit­tle Bus­tard gets out so we can go and see it on the way home”! Think­ing about it now, I do feel bad that I might have got his hopes up of see­ing a Lit­tle Bus­tard. So, per­haps ru­mours weren’t al­ways quite as harm­less as we liked to think. One way in which the clas­sic ru­mour does per­haps still live on is in the oc­ca­sional ‘rub­bish­ing’ of good birds, usu­ally by those who didn’t get to see them. There was a clas­sic one about ‘Bri­tain’s lead­ing im­porter of thrushes’ liv­ing not far from the site of the 1990 Nau­mann’s Thrush in east Lon­don, the im­pli­ca­tion be­ing that this ex­treme rar­ity had es­caped from one of his cages. Or, in sim­i­lar vein, that some­one was of­fer­ing Siberian Rubythroats for sale in a car park in Dorset, not long be­fore one turned up nearby in 1997. And there are plenty of li­bel­lous ones that I can’t re­peat here! But just oc­ca­sion­ally a good ru­mour does still sur­face. Not too long ago the in­ter­net was buzzing about vague re­ports of a Tat­tler species in Corn­wall. Amus­ingly, it turns out that this ru­mour was in­ad­ver­tently started by some­one on Bird­fo­rum, de­scrib­ing a dream he‘d had. It might have been an on­line fo­rum rather than a pub con­ver­sa­tion, but the out­come was the same – some­one get­ting the wrong end of the stick and es­ca­lat­ing it into ‘news’ of a very rare bird! One of our favourite re­cur­ring bird­ing ru­mours is of Black Wood­peck­ers in Cum­bria - sadly, what would be mega-rar­i­ties, turn out to be mod­els fixed to tele­graph poles to de­ter our more fa­mil­iar wood­peck­ers!

Adult lit­tle blue heron

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