or How I beat the blues by sharing bird information on Wikipedia.
I made the claim some time ago that I was going to post about some of the good birding things that happened in a bad birding year – 2020. Little did I know when I wrote those words that we what we were experiencing was not the end of the road but a brief lull before another wave and another lockdown. The April to June third wave of 2021 – in Canada at least – was not the worst in terms of mortality rates and overstretched hospital capacity. But for many of us it was the most challenging of all. It was becoming harder to maintain morale – we were languishing.
Now here we are again climbing out of the pit and hoping that we are on an upward trajectory. For the first time in almost a year I stopped by my local for a socially-distanced pint at an outdoor patio. It felt like a bit of a victory.
So to pick up the thread of good things in a lockdown year… I spent a couple of hours this morning on my new working-from-home pastime: adding bird content to Wikipedia.
I admit to being a major fan of Wikipedia. It’s what we early net enthusiasts thought cyberspace would be: people all over the world sharing information, with no paywalls or ads. Most of the worldwide web went, as they say, in a different direction, but Wikipedia has stayed true to its purpose.
And despite the cries of the Cassandras, it is a very useful tool indeed. It’s a living encyclopedia, replacing the biases of an expert author with the collected wisdom of the world, all carefully annotated so you can check the source documents yourself. Yes, it is true that you can replace a carefully-written page with stories about your cat, but virtually every page has someone watching it who will rapidly correct your vandalism.
The true beauty of the tool, and one that may not have been foreseen by its creators, is that it gave enthusiasts (nerds, if you must) a place to share and refine their enthusiasms. Star Trek is a prime example. Prior to web 2.0 there were lots of Trekker fan newsletters but each one only reached a small audience. Wikipedia gave them a forum to share and contribute on a global scale. So if you want to know anything about any episode from the Star Trek universe there is a page for it – and the same is true for any significant TV series, book, or movie, not to mention highly detailed pages on every aspect of hundreds of other interests.
And that finally leads us to birds.
When I get back from a birding trip I have a workflow for identifying photos and adding the new birds to my list that involves checking field guides, eBird, Avibase and Wikipedia so that I am sure of the identification, ideally down to subspecies level. It’s a somewhat baroque process but I’m not aiming for efficiency – I’m trying to consolidate the new birds in my memory.
When I started seeing birds in the neotropics I ran into an information vacuum. A large number of the South American bird species have only a line or two of text on their Wikipedia pages – information which I later learned was generated by a clever bot that a Wiki contributor had invented.
So with time on my hands I set about learning how to flesh out these entries. The obvious place to begin – for me anyway – was with the endemic birds of Colombia.
It was a bit of an adventure getting started but there is a full set of tutorials under Learn to Edit, and an online forum where you can ask for advice from fellow editors. A bit of browsing around took me to the WikiProject_Birds page , which includes ideas for information on sources, a set of guidelines for editing articles and links to highly-rated bird pages.
Coding for non-coders
The process of editing is relatively straightforward. I won’t try to give a precis of the tutorials – if you want to try your hand that is the place to start. But it’s worth highlighting one key feature: you do not have to learn hypertext markup language (html). Wikipedia uses behind-the-scenes coding to make it easier for the average punter to make their edits without blowing up the system. For example, this phrase from Alice in Wonderland:
“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
In html you would need to enter the following code:
<p>”Take some more <a href=”/wiki/Tea” title=”Tea”>tea</a>,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.</p>
Whereas in Wikipedia you simply write:
“Take some more [[tea]],” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
Wikipedia and research
The challenge is finding sources. Wikipedia wants information referenced to sources that other people can check, so the preference is for books, journal articles and websites that have permanent URLs (permalinks). A certain amount can be gleaned from field guides and websites, but to achieve the goal of a good quality article I needed to sharpen up the research skills I used to get my MA.
After some prospecting and some good tips from Wikiproject Birds I was able to build a list of reliable sources. The best ones are listed at the end of this article… in case you might be interested. 😊
Referencing is straightforward – it looks complicated on the screen but the actual input of data is relatively simple (though it is a bit tedious).
Alas even the best references can’t totally fix the issue that a lot of South American birds are under-studied. Sometimes there is just not enough information available to fill out a species page. If reincarnation is a thing I wish to come back as a field researcher.
And of course if the page lacks photos you can add your own through Wikimedia Commons.
So what’s the point?, you ask…
This was an idea for an activity that would occupy my mind during the lockdown(s), the alternative being endless doomscrolling. And I think this one has stuck – I intend to keep editing pages until all my beloved neotropical birds are properly described. This may require more years than I have left but it’s a worthy pursuit.
If you seek internet fame and fortune this is not the way to go. Even if someone wanted to see what I was working on they would have to know my username, which is purposefully opaque. (It’s not a good idea to use a recognizable name).
But I find it very satisfying to complete a project and increase the bird information available to everyone. So it’s definitely a good birding thing that came out of a bad birding year.
In case you’re interested in what one of my “finished” pages looks like, check out this one: the Gold-ringed Tanager.
The University of New Mexico’s Searchable Ornithological Research Archive – SORA – applies your search term to a large collection of publications. https://sora.unm.edu/
Google Scholar – often turns up good journal articles, and they are generally available as free downloads. (Search by the scientific name of the species).
Avibase – for general information, but particularly for the Synonyms section, which provides good clues on who first identified and named the species.
The Biodoversity Heritage Library – an online archive of historical journals. If you have a date and the name of the publication you can usually find the original journal here.
The publication archives of the American Ornithological Society. You need to be a member to access these publications, and it’s a bit pricy. But one of the add-ins is a subscription to the Birds of the World website, which contains much of the content of the very expensive Handbook of the Birds of the World (17 volumes at €140 each!!!).
Searches by these methods typically lead to English-language sources, which leaves out a wealth of information in Spanish-language ornithological journals. I started to pay attention to the bibliographical references in the papers and journal articles I unearthed, and these led to good sources like Conservación Colombiana and Caldasia, as well as regional journals. I usually run the key paragraphs through Google Translate, which has become very good, though you still need enough Spanish to work out what is going on when the magic doesn’t work.
The two volumes of the Colombian Libro rojo de aves de Colombia are invaluable, as they provide full information on all species of concern.
And in the course of my research I discovered some rather abstruse books that really deserve a place on anyone’s coffee table, including the Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names, the Eponym Dictionary of Birds, and the trusty IOC World Bird List.