The difference between constructive guidance and harsh (and public) criticism

November 13, 2013

Two people posted photos of very common birds on the birding egroup, and asked for ids.

One expert replied:

“I am shocked and stupefied that people do not even put-in minimal effort to thumb through those wonderful bird fieldguides to ID some of our most common birds themselves. Also, we should not forget that there is help at hand to learn birds though the Sunday outings, that happen almost every Sunday in the city. This ID PLEASE habit amounts to degeneration of time-honoured birdwatching. I am fine with some of those really difficult ones, but an ID PLEASE for a male Purple-rumped Sunbird!!!???

“My apologies for being rude. This is nothing personal, just an observation.”

Another expert added:

” I find the dependence on images and photos to identify animals appalling and believe it has gone overboard.

I always wonder what happened to the wonderful skill of watching a bird noting its behavior or making a sketch of it;leafing through the books; reading descriptions and comparing the sketch with the illustration; then arriving at a suspected id; going back again and seeing the bird and confirming it.

“It used to be a long iterative process but was fun. Still is fun. Just that now cameras have replaced the field notes and telephotos replaced binoculars and birdwatchers ready to help have replaced the field guides!

“This is true not just with birds but with other animals like frogs and snakes too. Are we hardwired to simply do pattern matching?”

I do agree that a budding birder should try other methods of id’ing birds and not simply post photos asking for help.

The expert has mentioned, too, that it’s just an observation by him, and he does not mean it personally.

However, by including two emails in the thread, it has, indeed, become a pointed reference to two particular people, and this has gone out to the whole group of many hundred birders, which, I feel, will make them feel singled out.

And sometimes…our assumptions are wrong. One of the people who posted the photo of a common bird, the Pied Bushchat, asking for id, emailed me. He is an amateur photographer who has got interested, by sheer chance, in birdwatching. He says he did use a field guide to identify the other birds in his online album, but just could not identify this bird, and so posted to the egroup.

The point is that a beginner does not really know if the bird is common or not. I do remember writing about how, when I started birding, I not only needed help with the id, but also needed a bird-book opener to open the book at the right place! So it can, and did, happen that even after consulting a field guide (he may not have had a good one, I don’t know) he could not arrive at the id.

Making examples of people like him on the egroup, and criticising his action publicly, will result in several people becoming very reluctant to ask for help…as I said, beginners do not know if the bird is a common one or not. I saw my first Ashy Prinia in….Corbett! Kalyan then explained to me, privately, that it’s common in Karnataka, too.

Getting people to use field trips and field guides as tools to know more about birds is something that you experts most certainly must do. But it would be better not to couch it in such harshly critical words as “degeneration”, and not holding them up in public on a very large egroup. In this instance, the gentleman did consult a field guide, and it was his inexperience which prevented him from getting the id.

So… the point that I am making is that we all make mistakes as we begin, and constructive criticism, with a word to the person privately, would be far more fruitful than public criticism. Private guidance from experts has, indeed, helped me when I was beginning.

I haven’t had any contact with the other person, who posted pics of another common bird, the Purple-rumped Sunbird…but I remember thinking that in the photos, the bird really looked as if it had a reddish head (it must have been the colour balance, I suppose!) so I wonder if he had a doubt as to what bird it was, and so posted the photos? I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt, and not assume that he was too lazy to look up the id of the bird.

Sorry, but when i got this rather sad email from one gentleman, saying, “This mail from the experts reduces my interest as a beginner”, I thought I’d put across my point of view.