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My Life’s Bird: #437

October 20, 2010

September 16, 2007 – Pea Island NWR, NC The question of whether you can count exotic species is one that weighs heavily on the minds of many birders, especially those who aspire to follow the somewhat convoluted rules put forth by the American Birding Association’s Checklist Committee.  That these rules seem largely arbitrary and inconsistently applied is not really the fault of the committee, however, as the issue of invasives is inherently complex.  There’s no question about long-established species with continent-wide distribution like European Starlings and House Sparrows are “countable”, nor is there any doubt that the free-flying Cockatiel in your neighborhood is probably not.  But between those two extremes lie a continuum line of hundreds of species with populations in North America of varying robustness and longevity.  For instance, what about the Black-throated Magpie-Jay colony that’s been living in San Diego for 30 years, or the Nutmeg Munias in Houston?  And what’s really the difference between a Green Parakeet in South Texas that’s at least five generations wild and one that escaped from a smuggler yesterday?  The rules are ostensibly in place to clear these issues up, but the question of which species, or which populations of individual species, clear the bar just seems to just muddy the waters more.  The birds are there.  They’re breeding and interacting with wild, countable, species.  They influence conservation initiatives.  We ignore them at our own peril.

These questions were nascent in my mind when I spotted my first potentially “countable” Mute Swans in the South Pond at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on the Outer Banks.  I’d seen Mute Swans in Missouri of course, but they were the decorative types that rich folks introduce into the ponds in their housing developments to seem more fanciful, like the American ideal of the English Countryside which, if you think about it, is the misguided mindset that gets us into these messes in the first place.  But these swans on the coast of North Carolina were different, and not just because they were surrounded by actual legitimate waterfowl on a NWR instead of manky mallards and barnyard geese in someone’s backyard like you so often see them.  They also did not respond to the international waterfowl dinner bell, the feigned flinging of food in their general direction, but they were also several hundred meters away so maybe they didn’t think I was worth the effort.  In any case, the North Carolina Bird Records Committee generally considers any Mute Swans found on the coast to be “wild enough”, which is good enough for a tick, even if it’s a less than thrilling one.

As for the overall issue of what birders should do about invasive species, I’m of the belief that the birds are here so we might as well take note of them.  If that means relaxing the rules a bit on what it takes to “count” a bird on one of the official lists, then I’m all for that.  We, as birders, are in the position of being the first responders, so to speak, on any number of fascinating ecological questions, not least of which is the impact of invasive species on our native birds.  If making those birds count means that we can make them valuable beyond the toss-off trash bird reputation so many of them have, and thus make birders keeping score more likely to take notice, that can only be good for our understanding of birds, all the birds, on the continent.

And you can add them to your life list, well, that’s just an added bonus.

MUTSWA from wikipedia

  1. October 20, 2010 7:08 am

    Interesting post – any bird I see I count for my list as I enjoyed watching it, but I can understand the reasons behind the listing rules.


  2. David permalink
    October 20, 2010 8:23 am

    I agree. I always dislike the birders who ignore Starlings and Pigeons on their day lists because they are introduced species. Apparently immigration issues go further than just a wall built across Arizona. 🙂

  3. BirdTrainerRobert permalink
    October 20, 2010 10:14 am

    I got my lifer Mute Swan in Norway… yeah it was in a city park, but it had cygnets, and was surrounded by Tufted Ducks, Coots with cootlings? and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, not to mention I saw another one swimming in the open harbor. Wild enough for me!

    • October 20, 2010 10:24 am

      The situation in Europe is very much the same as in North America: most populations are introduced, and seeing your life Mute Swan in Norway (or the UK, or France, or most parts of Germany) isn’t so different from seeing it in North Carolina.
      However, Mute Swan is native to at least some parts of Europe and Central Asia, and the wild and introduced populations have merged a long, long time ago. Therefore, it is very reasonable to count your swan. It is also interesting to note that a lot of Mute Swans will breed in the wild, away from human settlements (e.g. in Poland, where they are definitely native) and spend the winter being hand-fed by people at some major city’s ponds and lakes, as if they were feral.

      Having said that, I must admit to having a somewhat different attitude towards the Mute Swans I saw in Poland and the extreme NE of Germany (their native range) as compared to the ones I saw in e.g. SW Germany.
      That’s what Nate said: it’s not a thin red line between feral and wild, it’s more like a broad red grafitti with diffuse margins.

  4. October 20, 2010 10:16 am

    During my wonderful 12 years at the German Baltic coast, I barely ever came across an introduced species except for the Baltic population of Canada Geese, so this was never an issue.
    Having moved to Heidelberg, I am suddenly confronted with an extremely varied assembly of “exotics”. Quite surprisingly for me, seeing a mixed flock of Swan Geese, Egyptian Geese, Pink-footed Geese, Barnyard Geese, Canada Geese, Ruddy Shelducks and Muscovy with Rose-ringed Parakeets in the background is something birders from Heidelberg are positively excited about while I watch them with indifference at best. And yes, I hear you Nate, I have often also neglected phyiscally noting these species in my birding reports simply because I don’t LIKE them being here (although I do not blame them or dislike them personally). Would I count them for my life list if some birding association told me that I may do so (I may officially count some of them according to the German list committee)?
    Very, very likely not.
    But I completely agree that I ought to notice and take note of them, and promise to improve in that respect.

  5. October 20, 2010 1:39 pm

    You can call my attitude irresponsible, but since Ebird is my only way to keep track of my bird list, my approach is to report to ebird whatever has feathers, and let other people do whatever they want from this. After all, reporting escapes or introduced species (as well as hybrids) might be of interest, regardless of their “ABA countability”. And if I am correct, Ebird is doing a good job in keeping my life list “ABA proof”.

  6. Nate permalink*
    October 20, 2010 10:11 pm

    @Dan- I agree, the rules exist for a good reason, but with so many exceptions these days, it’s better just to enjoy the birds!

    @David- Indeed. It’s complex wherever you go!

    @Robert- I’ve seen Old World Mute Swans in England, and they acted just like Mute Swans I wouldn’t count in the US, but because they were over there I did, mostly for the reasons Jochen lays out.

    @Jochen- Seriously, simply not liking the birds is no reason not to take note of them. Improve! I insist!

    @Laurent- EBird is not entirely ABA consistent, as it counts quite a few birds considered to be “uncountable”. However, there is an opt-out option coming that will enable you to personalize your list better by removing birds that you might otherwise included. For instance, if it’s a heard only and you don’t want it to impact your final count because you don’t count heard onlys. Look for it soon.

    • October 21, 2010 3:30 am

      Oh, I do like them, they are birds afer all. I just don’t like them being where they are and thus choose to ignore them. But as you have urged me to, I promise to improve.
      Barnacle Geese. Beautiful birds, but you can only appreciate them in flocks of 5,000+, single ones barely convey what a Barnacle Goose is all about. 😉

  7. October 21, 2010 12:13 am

    Interesting how location determines the position of a bird such as Mute Swan on one’s life list. I was surprised that it was #437 for you while it was very early addition (#9) for me.

    Damn the rules and my willingness to follow them. I’d have a Barnacle Goose on my list if I was not so willing to accept the decisions of the Ontario Birds Records Committee.

  8. October 22, 2010 12:20 pm

    Great post Nate. For me, if it is a bird I count it. The fact that it isn’t native can in some ways make the date more scientifically valid. Science is about observation and I guess I do much of my birding from that view. Record what you see. That being said, there is a certain satisfaction in having Starlings on my life list from when I was actually in their original range. At some point many of these species will have to drop the “exotic label. What is the criteria for exotic? If a species naturally comes across the pond and expands their range and sticks around for 100 years that strikes me as natural and not exotic at all. Humans bringing in species is a little different but the result in the same is the end. This all comes down to how one keeps a life list. I know for me it is a list of all the birds I’ve seen. Did I see it? Yes. Then it goes on the list. (Though, there are plenty of birds I’ve seen that are not on my list simply because I was not satisfied with my ability to ID the bird.) Someone with me may have been confident but that’s what their list is for. 🙂

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