Savannah Sparrow hoax and Bird Forum

You would have to have had your head in a bucket of sand for the past few days to not be aware of the fact that a birder claimed to have photographed a Savannah Sparrow in East Sussex last week. The photo appeared online and sent "at least 40 car loads of twitchers" sparrow-bound. The trouble was, the whole thing was a hoax. The birder in question even turned up on site and showed those who turned up where it had been. What he (it was a he) didn't bank on was for a team of Poirot/Morse/Marple-influenced birders to get to work on his image and come to the conclusion that the sort of barbed wire that his Savannah Sparrow was perched on in his photograph was of North American provenance and not the type found in Europe. Said hoaxer quickly retreated, 'fessed up, removed himself from various forums and is currently enjoying the sort of public profile that is enjoyed by the likes of Jimmy Savile, Adolf Hitler and Fred West.

My first reaction was to have a bloody good laugh. This hoax, to me, is symptomatic of the screwed up world that many birders have created.

I went onto Bird Forum (something that I rarely do) to try and gauge what sort of reaction this incident has induced. Apart from one or two level-headed responses, most of the posters want him sent to the stocks, pelted with bricks and made to pay back all of the money that the desperate (and gullible) spent on getting to Sussex to see the non-existant bird. Seriously, there is earnest posting on the legal validity of sueing the hoaxer!

The birder in question has fallen into the trap of wanting to be accepted as a 'player', a finder of rarity and somebody who has a name in the twitching world. This is unfortunate. The way he tried to manufacture this is undeniably wrong, but rather than ostracise him it might be better for the birding community to understand that he obviously has a few personal issues to deal with. He is that desperate to be accepted by the great unwashed that he is willing to go to such lengths. He deserves our sympathy - not our wrath.

Is what he did any worse than the bunking off of work that some of the fooled twitchers undertook? Or the breaking of the national speed limit to get there? No. He didn't break a contract, or the law. Other birders did that, and do it most days of the year.

So, before anybody gets to righteous, think about why he did it and ask if you are you guilty of helping to create the self-centred world that he was trying to gatecrash?


Paul Trodd said…
Having just removed the bucket from my head and washed away the sand from my eyes (how parochial am I) and had a good laugh I was particularly impressed with the jury`s knowledge of American barbed wire (probably bigger and more barbed than ours); and what is it with Sussex and stringers... There have of course been a number of these types of fantasist claims down the years, as I well remember from past twitching days, and no doubt more will follow for the very reasons you eluded too. For further reading on the subject of `String` the named chapter in Mark Cocker`s, Birders: Tales of a Tribe, is worth seeking out, particularly the story of the legendary stringer Bob Shutbill and his infamous Black Lark claim back in `91, another misfit who badly wanted acceptance into the tribe. Paul
laurence.d said…
Ooh,I hadn't seen that ,thanks for the heads up,these threads are the the most entertaining thing on Bird forum,amazing level of cynicism to check the barbed wire first !,sorry for those that were conned but its gonna happen now and again.

Steve Gale said…
I must re-read that book Paul. Thanks for reminding me!
Steve Gale said…
It has happened before and it will surely happen again Laurence.
Alastair said…
A photo is a thing but is it not a wee while since someone has made a really good model? Do I recall a Steller's somewhere, and wasn't there a model heron / egret down your way?

Steve Gale said…
Yes Alastair, there have been a few 'well positioned' models over the years. Also a Scops Owl spoof, with somebody mimicking the call on Scilly. Plus another incident on those very isles of skins of North American passerines being left on footpaths... I know the names of those behind them!
Ed Hutchings said…
Very well said Steve.

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