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Hooded Cranes and burden of proof

January 6, 2012
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Unless you’re a birder who spends much of their time birding under rocks, by which I mean you look at the birds around you instead of speculating wildly about the origins of rare birds in the fast paced, high stakes game of ABA-Area vagrants, you’ve no doubt heard the hullaballoo regarding the continental mega Hooded Crane currently blowing both minds and socks off at a wildlife refuge in eastern Tennessee. The bird has been present, in the company of thousands of wintering Sandhill Cranes, for just over three weeks now, and birders and chasers from all over the continent have made the pilgrimage to find what is apparently an easy continental mega rarity to tick, in so far as continental mega rarities go.

And for a way off-line bird, this one in particular is something of a novelty among novelties.  Hooded Crane is an east Asian bird, migrating between southern Siberia in the warmer months and southern Japan in the colder ones.  The many machinations that are required for this bird to find its way a third of the way around the world, across a massive ocean and three quarters of a continent are convoluted at best and impossible at worst.  It is simply not supposed to be here, which, amazingly, in the birding game is neither completely out of the ordinary or particularly unexpected.  Vagrants are the prizes at the bottom of the Cracker Jack box.  The $20 dollar bill stashed in the pocket of the old pair of jeans.  Exciting sure, but still sort of expected; the reward for putting in hours upon hours of looking at normal, every day birds.  For that reason, it’s not hard for we birders to find ways for the wildly unexpected to be reasonable.  Fortunately, birds are all too willing to help us out.  They have long migrations, impressive stamina, and a penchant, every week of every year, for showing up somewhere where they’re not supposed to be.

A Hooded Crane in Japan, where it's supposed to be

It’s not my intention here to make an argument for the natural occurrence of this Hooded Crane.  I don’t think it requires much of a stretch, though.  North American birders have accepted the provenance of Common Cranes, another east Asian species, in flocks of North American Sandhills for decades.  One does not even have to accept that this bird is a recent arrival to North America, as it would be all to easy for a single crane, however different, to get incorporated into a migrating flock in eastern Siberia and cruise the continent among many millions of Sandhills for years, particularly given the family’s famous longevity.  The logistics are daunting to be sure, but no more daunting than Siberian nesting Long-billed Murrelets showing up on the east coast, or a Fork-tailed Flycatcher heading the wrong way at Panama in ending up in Nunavut.  Birds have wings, after all, and they use them.  No, my ire was raised with the initial disregard of the record by many high-profile birders, at least in my state, as “obviously an escapee” and therefore, not a bird with chasing or seeing.

Let me be clear up front.  It is absolutely reasonable to expect that the bird in question, and a similar record of a Hooded Crane in Nebraska in 2010, are of escaped birds.  I trust that the bird record committees in Nebraska and Tennessee are taking the record seriously and doing their due diligence to get to the bottom of the complicated, and fascinating, story that surrounds this species in North America (Key question: Were the escaped birds really pinioned?  If so, how far could they really go?).  And from everything I’ve seen, notably this statement from a Nebraska BRC member and this blog post from a Tennessee BRC member, they absolutely are.  I await their decisions eagerly.  No, my concern is with the attitudes and processes of bird record committees more generally.

Vagrant species, particularly those held regularly in captivity, are singularly difficult species for BRCs, perhaps even the most difficult species for which they come to a decision.  Identification to species is rarely difficult in these cases, but the rub is that without an obvious indicator of captive origin, such as pinioning, bands on legs or neck, or obviously and unnaturally distressed feathers, it’s impossible to differentiate a well taken care of bird of captive origin from a wild bird.  So, what to do?

Many BRCs, for fear of allowing these questionable records to mar an otherwise pristine list of birds, take the conservative route.  They choose to not accept any record that has even a hint of question about the origin of the bird, claiming that the burden of proof lies on the observer to make the claim that a bird is not of a captive origin.  But this is a completely unattainable standard for the reason specified above, the impossibility of differentiating a wild bird form an unmarked captive bird.  It reaches its illogical conclusion when you’re faced with a bird like this Hooded Crane and the only explanation one can come up with to deny the record is, “it’s unlikely”, or worse, “it can’t be proven to be natural”.  This, taken together with the occasionally insular nature of BRCs, leads to an increasingly parochial view on these records, and a perpetuation of a mindset that prevents any hope of a legitimate record ending up as anything other than “origin unknown”.  It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a parody of how a BRC is supposed to operate.

But this, to me, is completely backwards.  Unless there is solid, iron-clad, evidence that a bird is of domestic stock – not only obvious things like pinioning and bands, but behavior and history of vagrancy, weather patterns, etc – there’s no reason why a species shouldn’t be accepted as wild.  The burden of proof should instead lie on those making the argument that an apparently wild acting bird is somehow of questionable providence, because there’s no way, short of being present when the egg hatches, to prove a bird – any bird, even the Cardinal out your back door – is wild.

Bill Pulliam, linked above, says it best.

My initial knee-jerk reaction on hearing of the bird was “that’s gotta be an escapee.” But as I have learned more, I have shifted from this starting point. There are two critical questions:

1. Is it there a reasonable scenario under which a wild Hooded Crane would arrive in Tennessee without human assistance?

2. Is there a plausible source for an escapee?

And frankly, these questions can be applied to every potentially troubling vagrant you find.  Bill keyed in on the two most important questions here, questions that are too often ignored to preserve a completely arbitrary status quo.  It is not simply enough to claim a bird is an escapee, there has to be evidence. And until that evidence arrives, anyone is justified in thinking anything, this Hooded Crane, a North Carolina White-tailed Pintail, an Arizona Brown-backed Solitaire, is a wild bird.  I would, almost certainly, vote yes on every one of them.

And when the day comes that I’m passed over for the 10th time for a spot on a Bird Record Committee, I’m sure they’ll point at this essay as the reason why.

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5 Comments
  1. January 6, 2012 10:19 am

    Nice commentary Nate. Being too conservative on accepting records can also have the effect of ignoring early data on birds changing their ranges.

  2. January 8, 2012 8:01 am

    Excellent commentary (…per usual)… will be fascinating to watch this case unfold. BRCs certainly do tend to act conservatively, and we understand why that is the case… and why it may lead to mistakes. More often than we admit, probabilities are not truly measurable, but are in the-eye-of-the-beholder.

  3. Nate permalink*
    January 8, 2012 1:39 pm

    @TCN- Thanks. Absolutely agree. And I think the perceived countability of birds causes a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. If a bird is tarred as uncountable, or an exotic, its precense may not even be noted by the birding community in some sort of formal way, so even if a trend is in the process of occurring, it may well be ignored

    @cyberthrush- Thanks! I think there’s a certain arbitrariness in some of these decisions based on personal experience, expectation, and just organizational inertia that’s not entirely unexpected. That’s not to say BRCs don’t do great work and I don’t have a great deal of respect for what they do, and I realize I come off a little bitter towards the end and I don’t really mean to, I just think there needs to be a change in the way we think about vagrancy and BRCs, as the de facto leaders of the birding community, should be out in front of it.

  4. January 26, 2012 2:03 am

    I have always agreed with this logical thought. Birds have wings and they use them so prove to me that is isn’t wild. I’m sure I’ll never be invited for the California Bird Records Committee for that reason too.

  5. February 12, 2012 5:59 pm

    Bit late, but a small correction. If the hooded flew northeast instead of its normal migratory pattern – which record-accepted common cranes from the same region as breeding hooded apparently have done, joining with siberian sandhills, the overwater distance needed to be flown is about 80 miles. Given cranes happily fly at 30 – 40mph +, this is only 2-3 hours. Ask a hummer crossing the Gulf Of Mexico if it wouldn’t love that to be all it had to do.

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