DNA test restores besmirched birder's reputation after alleged misidentification

DNA testing on a Bullock's oriole has finally vindicated the amateur birder who first identified the bird when it made an ultra-rare appearance in Pakenham, Ont.

Amateur ornithologist Ray Holland spotted Bullock's oriole in Pakenham, Ont., 1 year ago

Birdwatcher Ray Holland says things got 'a little bit ugly' after initial DNA testing cast doubt on the identification of the Bullock's oriole he spotted in Pakenham, Ont., one year ago. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Ray Holland's fall from bird world hero to featherbrained zero came swiftly, and without mercy.

"It's horrible going into a pub and have a lot people saying, 'Holland! How's your fake bird doing?'" the amateur ornithologist said.

Now Holland is finally starting to restore his good name, once the toast of Pakenham, Ont., but then just toast.

It was one year ago that the avid birder and his colleague Richard Waters made their exceedingly rare discovery of an orange-plumed Bullock's oriole while out looking for a completely different species.

"Quite by chance, sitting in a tree with a whole bunch of house sparrows, there was a bird... We had to look at each other twice," Holland said.

Carloads of birders

The Bullock's oriole, a bird that normally makes its home in California, appeared to have made an unheard-of stopover in the Ottawa Valley. Wary of causing an unnecessary flap within the birdwatching community, Holland double-checked his guides before making the announcement online.
The sighting drew hundreds of birdwatchers to Pakenham, Ont. (Michelle and Paul Martin)

Amateur ornithologists from across the province flocked by the hundreds to Pakenham to focus their binoculars and telephoto lenses on the exotic visitor, which closely resembles the better-known Baltimore oriole.

"It's absolutely fantastic. It's been mind-boggling," said Holland at the time about the carloads of birders descending on the tiny hamlet to tick the rare find off their lifetime list.

Holland kept a fatherly eye on the oriole and a month later, when the temperatures dipped below those suitable for a California native, scooped the motionless creature out of the snow and had it delivered to Ottawa's Wild Bird Care Centre, where it recovered.

Initial test cast doubt on ID

Jeff Skevington, a researcher at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, tested the mitochondrial DNA of the bird's droppings in the hope of confirming its identity for provincial records.

I had a lot of people sort of teasing me around town and then it kind of got a little bit ugly.- Ray Holland

But because DNA in the mitochondria is passed on solely by the female parent, it provides only a partial picture of an animal's heredity. The preliminary results revealed some ordinary Baltimore oriole ancestry, throwing in doubt the bird's more exotic identification.

Additional testing of the bird's nuclear DNA, which involves both maternal and paternal genes, would have yielded more conclusive results.
'You could show a photo of this bird to hundreds of birders and all the good ones ... would have come to the same conclusion as him,' says Mike Burell.

But the damage had been done. Around town, Holland's name was mud.

"To go into the gas station, and [hear], 'Huh, too bad about your bird...'" said Holland. "I had a lot of people sort of teasing me around town and then it kind of got a little bit ugly."

There were even accusations of malfeasance.

"People were saying it was a big scam to get money for the Wild Bird Care Centre," Holland said. "I got all this stuff for weeks and weeks... It became a big joke."

Further testing proved Holland right

"That [initial test] complicated the story," admitted Mike Burrell, a Ministry of Natural Resources zoologist and secretary of Ontario Field Ornithologists, a birders' group.

Since that initial analysis, testing of the bird's nuclear DNA has shown that both of its parents were indeed Bullock's orioles. (At one time both types of oriole were considered a single species, the northern oriole.)
A Bullock's oriole spotted at a backyard feeder in Nova Scotia. (Sue King-Gosse)

"At some point in the past — it could have been a grandmother or the great-grandmother — there was a Baltimore oriole, and that DNA was being passed along through the mitochondria," Burrell said.

"For all intents and purposes it's a Bullock's oriole."

As far as Holland's reputation goes, Burrell believes the whole thing was overblown.

"I don't think he needs exonerating... You could show a photo of this bird to hundreds of birders and all the good ones, if they did their research, would have come to the same conclusion as him."

Last month Holland was handed a certificate of appreciation from Ontario Field Ornithologists for "monitoring and providing updates on the Bullock's oriole in Pakenham."

"I'm feeling great, as of now," Holland said. "It's just absolutely fantastic. It's a nice plaque. I have it up on the wall of my office."
Vindication:Ray Holland's certificate of appreciation from Ontario Field Ornithologists. (Submitted)