The RUMOUR MILL
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