There has to be a last of everything: Passenger Pigeons, unicorns, Jedis, suppers. One of birding’s most historic and influential institutions isn’t quite there yet, but the phone services that announce unusual bird sightings—known as Rare Bird Alerts, hotlines, or dial-a-bird numbers—are clearly an endangered species. Cutting-edge in their day, these services capitalized on emerging telecommunications technology to deliver news to birders in what then would have been considered real time.
The Rare Bird Alert loomed large in my childhood. My parents were divorced, and my brother and I spent weekends with my bird-obsessed father. While other kids passed their Saturdays attending matinées or playing Little League, our afternoons followed a different routine: After arriving at my dad’s house, we’d call the New York Rare Bird Alert. We’d crowd by the receiver to hear a list of the week’s unusual sightings. That would determine our pursuit, whether chasing a Northern Saw-whet Owl in the Bronx’s Pelham Bay Park or a Sabine’s Gull on eastern Long Island.
The first birding-by-phone service rolled out in the 1950s, and the concept’s popularity grew through the next five decades—before crashing headlong into listservs, social media, and ultimately the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird app and website, which allow instant lookup of logged bird sightings anywhere in the world. In contrast, the avian dial-ins were usually labors of love, managed by a single person who gathered local sightings and recorded the (generally) weekly notices on an answering machine, often housed at a local Audubon Society office or in the compiler’s home. To access the updates, birders simply called and listened to the outgoing message.
Rare Bird Alerts once set the rhythm for the lives of serious birders. The dispatches and the pursuits that followed were ritualized, narrow, and highly curated. That search for the unusual, the stray, the accidental, has now been folded into a vast array of information that makes birding a more expansive, more democratic activity. Though the technology that has replaced these hotlines still honors the chase, the experience—like everything that has been transformed by data and analytics—feels less personal. And for the birding hotlines that have hung on into this century, with one very notable exception, there is a sense that time has run out.
columnist in Woman’s Day seemed incredulous, but impressed, by the technological advance heralded in the August 1956 issue: Fifteen hundred people each day, he wrote, “get half a minute’s updating on just what feathered friends have been sighted where. This is because they are connected with a talking telephone...”
At the time Boston’s “Voice of Audubon,” the very first recorded avian hotline, had no parallels in the birding world, but it launched at the dawn of a golden age of dial-up information services. Unanswered phones meant hundreds of thousands of “lost” calls daily, according to a 1954 U.S. Federal Communications Commission report. Improvements in recording technology offered a solution, and with its advent, dozens of hotline services sprang up. Callers could hear a daily prayer, a report on which fish were biting, and, most popularly, a weather report. (New York’s meteorologic line alone received an average of about three million calls monthly, according to Woman’s Day.)
The first recorded avian hotline had no parallels in the birding world, but it launched at the dawn of a golden age of dial-up information services.
The Massachusetts Audubon Society founded the Boston alert to help stem the tide of bird-identification requests that flooded the group’s switchboard as the hobby grew. At the time, birders communicated mostly via phone trees: One birder would dial several others, who’d notify whomever they’d been assigned to alert—creating a literal game of telephone. At Mass Audubon headquarters, staff member Ruth Emery “got trapped into answering the many calls that came into the office from an insatiably curious public,” wrote James Baird, who eulogized Emery in a 1991 issue of Bird Observer. A meeting was arranged between renowned Harvard ornithologist Ludlow Griscom and several other society members. The idea discussed was something totally new: a universal dial-a-bird. A board member who worked at New England Telephone, Henry Parker, helped obtain the technology and Emery became its first voice. The service launched in December 1954 and was an instant hit. “Not only was the Voice greeted with enthusiasm by birders,” Baird wrote, “but it achieved considerable notoriety through demonstrations at sales meetings and boardrooms all across the country (and abroad), where it was presented as an example of the new communications frontier.”
Early dial-in services had to rely on expensive technology, such as the 28-pound Tele-Magnet (whose 1950s price of $300 is equivalent to more than $3,000 today), and Boston’s alert stood alone for more than a decade. That changed with the introduction of the Ansafone in 1960, followed by a slew of other recording devices, like the PhoneMate. In 1968 the Audubon Naturalist Society, which covers the Washington, D.C., area, launched its own service, “The Voice of the Naturalist,” which incorporated announcements of field trips and other endeavors. By the 1970s many local birding organizations were offering their own hotlines.
As with Boston, New York had an ideal candidate for helping to set up its own Rare Bird Alert, a task first undertaken by the Linnean Society of New York. Tom Davis was a shorebird expert legendary for his formidable identification skills. Davis worked in telecommunications, as a technician for New York Telephone, and he was already known for setting up conference calls with birders around the country as a way to socialize his hobby. “He was able to use sophisticated equipment,” recalls Joseph DiCostanzo, a former president of the society. “You’d get a call from him and never know who else would be on the line.” The system Davis organized with Hofstra University ornithologist Paul A. Buckley had, at first, a single call-in number for listening to alerts—the one my dad would dial—along with a network of local numbers so that callers could report finds without incurring a pricey long-distance charge.
Davis was a rigorous interlocuter of bird sightings. Calling in a rarity didn’t mean instant addition to the Rare Bird Alert. I saw Davis’s meticulousness firsthand in June 1973—I was 11 years old—when my father thought he’d spotted an Audubon’s Shearwater off a beach on eastern Long Island. After reporting the bird, my father soon received a call from Davis. A few hours later, Davis, my father, my brother, and I were standing at the Atlantic shoreline, telescopes trained on masses of Sooty and Great Shearwaters. Mixed among them were a few Manx Shearwaters, a bird unusual in the Northeast at the time. Davis determined that my father spotted a Manx Shearwater, not an Audubon’s, but the sighting was interesting enough to make the Rare Bird Alert.
By 1976 there were at least 17 U.S. bird-alert services, according to the February issue of American Birds. (The journal described New York’s, almost certainly to the consternation of the Massachusetts cohort, as the “crème de la crème.”) The phenomenon manifested in pop culture the following year when avant-garde composer John Cage premiered “Telephones and Birds.” The composition instructed performers to make live calls to U.S. Rare Bird Alerts, sequenced according to a randomization scheme based in the ancient Chinese divination guide, the I Ching.
Though most birding hotlines remained regional, one well-known “voice” had greater ambitions. Seeing the potential in Rare Bird Alerts that would later be realized by electronic databases, Bob Odear, with his wife, Pamela, launched a subscription service called NARBA—the North American Rare Bird Alert—billed as “the first continent-wide reference service with rare bird sighting information.” Lacking advanced technology, the Odears reportedly had to use a crude method of verifying customers: listening to who was phoning in and stopping the message if they weren’t members.
Through the late 1990s, there were about 150 bird hotlines across the United States and Canada, according to an archived online directory from the American Birding Association. Over the next few years, the internet would become ubiquitous, and bird spottings could be more easily announced via social media, listservs, and websites. By 2005 the directory had diminished by one-quarter. In 2018 it vanished. Today, it has been replaced with a page aggregating email and Facebook alerts.
So, how rare have rare bird alerts become? I came across a directory of about 40 surviving dial-in numbers from birdzilla.com, then went about calling each one. It was gratifying to learn that New York’s crème de la crème line was being maintained. Tom Burke, who has run the service since shortly before Davis’s death in 1986, says the deluge of online data about bird sightings makes his hotline—which he records once a week through a Zoom line hosted by Audubon—more valuable. “The information is so fragmented and vast,” he says. “We’re the only true, easy-to-access summary out there.”
In Massachusetts, Wayne Petersen, director of Mass Audubon’s Important Bird Areas program, had become the Voice of Audubon. There’s something charming, almost magical, about his reports. One told of a very rare European Golden-Plover spotted on Duxbury Beach, a thin spit of land extending into Cape Cod Bay. As exciting as that find was, Petersen took the time to add a tender reminder to go beyond tallying and sighting birds. “Listen to the trilled calls of common toads,” he tells callers, “and be sure to notice blooming coltsfoot along gravelly roadsides and the delicate blossoms of hepatica on dry wooded slopes...”
For most of the rest of the country, the Rare Bird Alert appears to have sunsetted. More than 30 of the numbers I called were simply dead. Others have zombified—featuring alerts from years back that haven’t been erased or updated. A few, including The Voice of the Naturalist, referred callers to general phone lines or web addresses. One hotline seemed to be of ambiguous vivacity. Though no bird sightings were listed, the solicitation of new finds appeared to be ongoing: “Hello! You’ve reached the birding information hotline, sponsored by the Grand Valley Audubon Society and the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Leave your sighting information and we will update this message as appropriate.”
Hoping against hope, I emailed the Audubon chapter and got this reply from conservation chair Nic Korte: “This was forwarded to me...No one uses it. The truth is, we are glad someone reminded us to stop paying for the line.”
But there was one ray of optimism. Though my calls to Ohio hadn’t yielded much (Cleveland and Cincinnati are defunct), when I rang the number for north-central Ohio, I got this message: “Thursday, May 4th. The new number for the Bobolink Area Rare Bird Alert is 574-642-1335...I want to thank Eli Miller for the effort that he has put in to continue with the Rare Bird Alert. Please continue to report your rare bird sightings as you have before and hope to see you in the field.”
When I called that number, I was met with a detailed report. A Nelson’s Sparrow had been seen “along the trails of the observation tower,” while “Joseph Miller reported a flock of seven meadowlarks hanging around.” The sightings spanned a wide swath of Ohio, yet they had an intimate quality to them. My interest was piqued. How was it that an archaic form of communication still thrived in this pocket of a world that had nearly rendered it obsolete?
The answer, once found, seemed both obvious and unexpected. It’s Amish birders. Lots of them. And Eli Miller is their voice, the voice of what is perhaps the country’s most active remaining Rare Bird Alert.
Like a lot of people, I have an idea of what Amish practices are, but also have no idea if my notions are accurate. The Amish faith is one of several offshoots of a 16th-century Protestant movement called Anabaptism. Along with Mennonites, the Amish came to North America in the 1700s, looking for the freedom to conduct, as scripture instructed, lives of quiet. Though there are many affiliations of the Amish faith, nearly all follow the tenet of simplicity. That includes restrictions on the use of computers and other technologies. “We don’t have access to Facebook or internet reports in a regular way,” Miller says.
The Ohio alert system works similarly to other hotlines. Though Amish families generally don’t have personal phones (exceptions are made for business needs), the 12 counties that make up the Bobolink birding area have access to communal “Black Box” telephones, which allow multiple families to share a cellular line via a wired receiver. Spotters also phone in rarities by borrowing a cell phone belonging to a non-Amish taxi driver—a service they use, along with bicycles, to get to birding areas. Miller supplements his reports via a permitted computer connection (that is, he’s on eBird) at the lumberyard where he works. During migration season, Miller says, he’s received as many as 280 calls a day.
While the Amish have always had a strong connection to nature, birding didn’t really flourish in the Ohio Amish community until the 1990s, when a group of local birders started organizing Christmas Bird Counts and launched a birding journal called The Bobolink. Among them was Robert Hershberger, the owner of a local clock repair shop. It was his voice thanking Miller on my first call to the Bobolink line. Hershberger expanded his business to include binoculars and telescopes, and Amish birding took off.
“He helped lay the groundwork for a community that has become filled with lots of active, young birders, and which is still growing,” says Bruce Glick, who writes a column about birds for the local Bargain Hunter newspaper. Glick, who is Mennonite, says that birding is a wholesome alternative to more worldly, and possibly wild, activities that occur during a freewheeling rite of passage called “rumspringa,” in which Amish teens can sample outside life before choosing to be baptized in the faith. “Some of these kids got in trouble before they joined the church. Birding is seen as a way to avoid those troubles, and it has really succeeded,” Glick says. “A lot of Amish kids learn to identify birds before they can walk.”
Calling Miller’s hotline doesn’t feel so much like a throwback as it does an encounter with something handcrafted. His delivery is folksy, slightly tinged with a Pennsylvania German accent, with relevant commentary thrown in. His report for June 23, 2021, noted Upland Sandpipers, Henslow’s Sparrows, and an extremely rare White-tailed Kite. Remarking on the appearance of a pair of Least Sandpipers, seen mating, Miller said, “It’s hard to tell what those are up to. Do they actually nest in Ohio?” He then told listeners how to find these birds and answer the question for themselves.
or decades the familiar voices of rare bird alert narrators have made thousands of birders feel included, even befriended. Marshall Iliff, eBird project leader at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, recalls dialing in to hear Claudia Wilds, then the voice of The Voice of the Naturalist, recite sightings near his childhood home in Maryland: “I’d call to hear her every Wednesday. It was something I looked forward to. I’d sit there with a red pencil and try to write down everything that she said, though sometimes I’d fall behind and have to call a second time.” Those who remember Ruth Emery’s New England roundups share similar warm feelings. It’s something I felt when I first heard Eli Miller. What I was listening to wasn’t just a public service, it was an act full of meaning.
When I interviewed Petersen in April, he told me that he spent a couple of hours every week working on his recordings. But parts of the Massachusetts hotline were already operating in the past tense—pressing the keypad to branch into regional reports would yield sightings many months out of date. Mass Audubon was, he said, debating whether to “pull the plug” on the institution, now nearing its seventh decade of operation. “It’s a jump ball at this point,” said Petersen, who, like New York’s Burke, is in his 70s. By the time this story went to press, its fate might have tipped: New alerts were being distributed only in written form, and now seven months later, the recording I found so charming is still at the other end of the line, still lyrical, still lovely, like a fading family portrait.
Seven months later, the recording I found so charming is still at the other end of the line, still lyrical, still lovely, like a fading family portrait.
In my own family, my father lived for rarities. In February 1997 he heard Tom Burke announce that an Ivory Gull had been spotted off a pier in Portland, Maine—a sighting of such import that it made the New York Rare Bird Alert. He jumped into his cramped Honda Prelude and sped north. Upon arriving at the location, my father rolled down his window, raised his binoculars, and stared just long enough to get a confirmatory look—about 15 minutes, he estimated. Then he drove home. His delight was palpable, because that sighting brought him one step closer to ticking off his North American species list. It wasn’t that my father didn’t love observing birds, but his true obsession was counting them (his life list, when he passed away, was well over 7,000 species). The Rare Bird Alerts were essential for that curated style of birding. “They probably contributed to more people seeing more life birds than anything until the internet,” says DiCostanzo.
Today’s blockbuster birds are shared and logged on multiple platforms, accessible to anyone, anywhere. That flood of data has resulted in a shift in mindset. “We’ve moved to tracking all birds, all the time,” Iliff says. Partially thanks to technology, and partially out of desperate ecological necessity, birding has become less a competitive game and more a form of community science. The electronic reports that today send droves of people to see a Painted Bunting in Brooklyn Bridge Park may indicate a migrant blown off course, but data from decades of Manx Shearwater observations in the Northeast reveal a range expansion that may offer insight into a changing climate.
The Rare Bird Alert sits at a sharp point of inflection—elite at its peak, but also a harbinger of the information-for-all age that is today bringing birding to new levels of popularity and scientific value. What both have in common is the thrill of the chase.
Recently I saw on eBird that a Harlequin Duck—not a major rarity, but beautiful and less than totally frequent—had been spotted at the Atlantic shoreline near York, Maine, about 45 minutes from where I live. I drove down and quickly spotted the bird. Unlike my father, I spent an hour or so with a half-dozen other birders. I later registered my sighting, becoming one of hundreds of observers in my state to do so this year. Although everything about the experience was modern, I felt the same excitement that I did looking at shearwaters with my father and Tom Davis decades ago. But I liked the scale at which the experience was shared. I liked knowing that I was doing something not just to see a bird, but also to help a bird, and to encourage others to peer through their binoculars.
And, of course, the Harlequin Duck, with its brilliant array of colors, is a joy to look at. It’s the kind of bird that makes you interested in birds. It’s the kind of find that feels immensely satisfying. That connection has always been at the heart of birding, no matter how the birds are announced, found, or observed. The phone lines may be silent, but the joy endures.
This story originally ran in the Winter 2021 issue as “The End of the Dial-a-Bird Era.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.