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Hooded Crow in New York: A new ABA species?

Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix) is a common and gregarious species within its core eastern and northern European range.  With more than 50 records from Iceland, it was likely on the short list of potential ABA firsts to make it all the way to North America proper.  So yesterday, when an unequivocal Hooded Crow was photographed at a fishing wharf in Staten Island, New York, (photos are available here), it was not entirely unexpected.  It's a fabulous bird; big and flashy and attractively attired (at least compared to our native crows) in gray and black.  But along with it comes the question that accompanies nearly every vagrant to the ABA area.  Is it legit?

For the Hooded Crow, though, this is a two-parter.  First, is this a captive bird?  You wouldn't think so at first, though a handful of records in the middle of the continent – Chicago, Illinois (2000), New Braunfels, Texas (2002), Salton Sea, California (no details), Whitecourt, Alberta (2006) – suggests that there are, in fact, captive Hooded Crows in North America, that they do escape from time to time, and that birders are apt to report them when they find them.  In the case of the Texas report, the birds were definitely tracked back to a bird trader, but the others remain in limbo.  Certainly this record should be largely considered independent of those that came before, but they can't help but muddy the waters

And second, assuming the bird is determined to be wild, is ship-assistance an explanation for its presence in New York City?  After all, New York is one of the busiest ports in the world; container ships abound.  And another Corvid, the Indian House Crow (Corvus splendens), has famously taken to hitching rides on container ships to ports across the globe.  In fact, ship-assistance might be* the dirty little secret behind many remarkable vagrants (Red-footed Falcon, anyone?), and the question as to whether is should be taken into account with determining the veracity of a vagrant record is a contentious one.  But, if a legitimately wild Hooded Crow were to make the jump unassisted from Europe, the northeast United States is not a completely outlandish place for it to turn up.

These are certainly interesting questions to ponder, though probably academic for those of us not on the New York Rare Bird Committee.  

We may never come to a satisfactory conclusion on this Staten Island Hooded Crow, but the questions are still worth considering.  What do you think?  Is it "countable"?  And does the source and means by which it arrives even matter when a cool bird is hanging out just down the road?


*The post originally stated that "ship-assistance is probably the dirty little secret".  I've edited the post to make it clear I was not implying there is evidence of ship-assistance in the case of the Martha's Vineyard Red-footed Falcon specifically, and long distance vagrants generally. 

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
Nate Swick

Latest posts by Nate Swick (see all)

  • Matt Pelikan

    Both natural and assisted arrival would seem possible for the crow, and I doubt it’ll be possible to determine definitively which was the case. I’d lean toward ship-assisted, simply because that seems like something I’d expect a crow to try, or end up resorting to, sooner or later! The countability question seems to come down to whether one feels that proof (of either assisted or unassisted arrival) is needed to make a determination, or whether presumtpion or the balance of evidence suffices. Being a non-lister, I don’t much care how they decide; the presence of the bird is interesting no matter how it got here, and one might argue that the “assisted/unassisted” dichotomoy isn’t really as absolute as it seems.

    I’m curious why you’re so dismissive of Red-footed Falcon. At least w/ respect to the Vineyard bird, the migratory tendency of the species and its pattern of vagrancy in Europe made this species seem overdue on the East Coast as a natural arrival, rather than implausible.

  • Even as a lister, I agree with you. I think whether or not a bird is ship-assisted is not as important with regard to provenance as some may make it out to be. I know some birders who care more about that sort of thing, thinking ship-assisted vagrants are less legit. To each their own.

    As for the Falcon, I didn’t mean to imply I was dismissive of it (how can one be dismissive of such a fabulous bird? 🙂 ), it was just the first bird that came to my mind for which ship assistance was considered as an explanation for its presence. My own opinion is that that is pretty much irrelevant except to the individual birder.

  • ” And does the source and means by which it arrives even matter when a cool bird is hanging out just down the road?”

    No, it doesn’t matter at all…which I why I will be chasing after it shortly.

  • Not much of a lister here either, but personally I see ship assists as a wild bird using a part of its environment to aid travel and survival. The part of the environment just happens to be man-made, but we don’t quibble over whether Peregrines that nest on buildings are less countable than Peregrines that nest on cliffs.

    The bird (general ‘the bird’, I have no way of knowing as pertains to this particular crow obviously) is wild and no one moved it on purpose, those are the main things to me.

  • Eric Salzman

    It seems worthwhile to point out that Staten Island is probably the first sighting of land that would be sighted from a ship coming into New York Harbor. In fact, there are container ports in Broooklyn that are probably within sight of the Great Kills Park where this bird has been hanging out and New Jersey container ports are not very far away.

    Eric Salzman

  • I agree it’s legit unless demonstrated to be an escaped captive bird.

    I’ve long surmised that many hummingbird rarities in odd locales are merely birds that got caught in the rear of a truckload of traveling plants/flowers (and then released when rear door opens at new location), but they are routinely accepted as new local species with no means to prove how their presence came about. (I’ve often seen ‘li’l brown jobs’ in the back of large carrier trucks; no telling how many other small vagrants also unintentionally travel via such means).

  • Scott

    It matters little that the origin of the Martha’s Vineyard’s falcon is “irrelevant except to the individual birder”, Nate. By stating, “ship-assistance is probably the dirty little secret behind many remarkable vagrants (Red-footed Falcon, anyone?)” you’re suggesting that it’s more likely that Falcon arrived by ship than by natural vagrancy, without offering any evidence to back up your misguided assertion.

    As Matt already explained, and if you weren’t aware, this is a species that is highly migratory and a regular vagrant to western Europe, and it’s certainly not at all far-fetched to assume that this bird was perfectly capable of powering itself across the Atlantic.

    No need to share your sour grapes about missing another tick on your ABA list, by snidely and naively proclaiming the Falcon to be “probably” ship-assisted, and calling this a “dirty little secret”. What’s dirty about it, if as you say, the origin is “irrelevant except to the individual birder?”

  • That wasn’t my intention. What I meant was that ship-assistance probably plays a bigger role that we realize with regard to intercontinental vagrants. My own personal view is that the possibility shouldn’t be considered a problem with considering records like this.

    Is it entirely plausible that the Martha’s Vineyard RF Falcon arrived under its own power the whole way? Absolutely, for precisely the reasons you and Matt state. Is it possible it rode a ship part of the way? Sure. We’ll never know, and I mean it when I say it doesn’t matter. In the end the bird was there, people had a lot of fun chasing it, they added it to their lists (as I would have without a second thought had I been fortunate enough to get there), and that’s really that.

    I’m happy for all the people that saw that fantastic bird. Sour grapes don’t enter into it. Believe me, I’ve got so many misses on my ABA list another hardly matters.

  • Going back I can see where I was imprecise. I said “ship-assistance is probably the dirty little secret behind many remarkable vagrants” when I should have said “may be”.

    I implied there was evidence when the entire point of my statement was that there isn’t.

    I’ll edit the post to make that more clear, and I apologize for the confusion.

  • Carrie said, “but personally I see ship assists as a wild bird using a part of its environment to aid travel and survival.”

    I agree, and I’ve been preaching this for years: that the notion that humans “destroy nature” is simply wrong. There is no question that we radically change pretty much any place we live (which is just about every place), but humanity is as much a part of nature as a family of Bush Dogs in the deepest Amazon forest. Manhattan is every bit as “natural” as the Australian outback.

    Now (before we go there), I’m not in any way trying to imply that our overwhelmingly negative impact on our environment is “okay”. We have a tendency to mess things up, and badly. Conservation is extremely important, and I’ve dedicated a large part of my life to protecting the wild places and restoring some not-so-wild places…but that’s not the point here.

    Other animals and plants are rapidly adapting to live successfully in this changing environment we create (Cave Swallows or Cooper’s Hawks, anyone?), and I don’t think that a ship-assisted bird is any different than a coconut-assisted crab arriving on some Pacific atoll.

  • I have to say, I’ve long supported the “ship” = “big coconut” theory as it pertains to avian vagrancy and countability. Unless, of course, the bird is somehow held captive by the coconut.

    In all seriousness, though, I agree with what Greg and cyberthrush and so many commenters here are saying. Nice discussion.

  • Having seen the bird today, I think we can probably discount claims that it is from captivity. It was actually quite shy and wary of humans, far more so than your average American crow. No bands or noticeable wing clipping either. Unless someone finds evidence to the contrary, I think it can be assumed as wild as any other bird.

    The question then comes to ship-assistedness. Honestly, given the location and that it is not known previously as a US vagrant, I think it is highly probable this bird didn’t fly the entire way from Ireland or farther afield. When researching the subject last night, I was pleased to find that the ABA had no set policy on ship-assisted birds. I agree with previous commenters that birds using ships as cross-continental transport is a natural phenomenon and should be considered as much. Long before humans were sending vessels across the seas, birds, mammals, reptiles, and smaller things used floating mats of vegetation, downed trees, and other objects to cross vast distances. How else would the Hawaii’an islands have been colonized? Since we will likely never know for certain whether this bird is ship assisted or not, I say that it should stay in the category of every other trans-oceanic vagrant: countable till proven guilty.

  • James Fox

    Doesn’t the ABA have a policy that ship-assisted birds are countable as long as the bird isn’t caught or forced to stay on the ship in any way? I think as long as the bird is not an escape from captivity it should be countable.

  • I could be wrong, but this is my interpretation of the rules:

    – the ABA allows you to count ship-assisted birds

    – the ABA does NOT allow you to count birds that aren’t on the ABA Checklist

    – the checklist committee will NOT add a ship-assisted species to the checklist

    So you can count a ship-assisted Red-footed Booby or Bahama Mockingbird because they’re already on the checklist. Hooded Crow is not on the checklist already and (IMO) is unlikely to be added to the checklist if there’s a “reasonable” possibility it was ship-assisted. Therefore, you most likely won’t be allowed to count it on lists submitted to the ABA.

    I will probably go look for it myself because it’s still interesting and not a terribly far drive for me and also just in case the rules get changed at some point. 😉

  • Sorry for not finishing the line of logic: the reason you wouldn’t be able to count the crow (not to be confused with Counting Crows) is because it isn’t on, and probably won’t be added to, the ABA Checklist.

  • So far as I know, your interpretation is correct, John. I think it’s unlikely to even get past the New York State Committee, which would be the prerequisite for the ABA to even consider it.

    Heckuva bird though. And certainly worth going to see if you’re in the area and like novelties.

  • “…which would be the prerequisite for the ABA to even consider it.”

    In practice, yes…technically, no.

    From the ABA-CLC bylaws

    “It is generally the policy of the ABA-CLC to wait for review of potential first ABA area records by the appropriate state or provincial records committee before taking the record under consideration. This will not always be the case (e.g., a few states/provinces do not have functioning records committees).

    Potential first ABA area records that have NOT been accepted by state/provincial records committees may still undergo ABA-CLC review if requested by one or more ABA-CLC members.”

  • Ah ha. That I did not know. Thanks for the clarification, David!

  • A thought occurred to me while driving back from seeing the Hooded Crow this morning, and no, it wasn’t “Now that I’ve seen it, I’ll argue all day long that it’s countable.” I realized that it could be countable, not on your ABA Area, North American, and New York lists but on your World list, that is if you think it got here by willingly hopping on a ship. Does that make sense?

  • Derek

    I may be misinformed, but I simply do not understand the logic proposed by John and Nate. “The ABA allows you to count ship-assisted birds” — Makes sense as it is explicitly stated in the counting rules available from this website. “The ABA does NOT allow you to count birds that aren’t on the ABA checklist.” — Again this makes logical sense. But, “the checklist committee will NOT add a ship-assisted species to the checklist” — I don’t understand this comment at all. Is there a separate set of rules for checklist committee members? Based on the ABA’s published recording rules,, Rule 3B defines what a “WILD” and countable bird is. Thus if a bird is identified to the species level beyond reasonable doubt, and meets the ABA’s own critieria of being wild, which specifically makes reference to ship-assisted birds … then how could the checklist committee ethically vote in contradiction to the ABA’s own rules. Regardless if it is the NY Avian Records Committee or the ABA Checklist Committee, the decision of acceptance or not will have to be based on the evidence in the report submitted. The crux of that report will undoubtedly be two pronged – 1.) Establish the correct identification and prove that identification 2.) Perform due diligence in establishing the bird was not an escapee, product of bird trade, etc. The question of ship assistance should not even be raised or discussed in voting unless there is a different set of rules floating around. Otherwise, the Checklist Committee (or any records committee) becomes dangerous to both the birding and scientific community. It seems they have already made the proper decision in this regard by their actions in 2008 (I think) to add Graylag Goose to the checklist based on the record of one that landed on a ship off of maritime Canada. Granted, that ship was stationary and not steaming from Europe. But, per the ABA’s rules as referenced above, there is no difference between the two. Likewise, I cannot find any published guidelines from the AOU that would refute this line of reasoning.

  • Derek, good point about the checklist committee(s) not necessarily having anything in print that precludes accepting a ship-assisted bird. It’s one of those things I recall, or so I think, reading or hearing at some point, but now I can’t find it online, so perhaps it isn’t written in stone as much as I thought. I’ll need to do some more research. With that said, I don’t expect this bird to be accepted by the state committee.

  • Derek, one reason it might appear that there are two separate sets of rules is because there are two committees that serve different functions. First, the ABA Checklist Committee determines whether or not a bird is added to the ABA Checklist. With regard to ship assistance, each committee member votes based on his or her own philosophy. This is a change in practice from the mid-90’s as mentioned in these two links:

    ABA Checklist Committee Bylaws (last sentence):

    1996-1997 ABA Checklist Report (page 488):

    A second committee, the Recording Standards and Ethics Committee, determines whether or not a bird can be submitted on a life list for ABA publication. This committee basically establishes the rules of countability. Take the California Condor as an example. The ABA Checklist Committee has included California Condor on the ABA Checklist, but the Recording Standards and Ethics Committee only allows sightings of California Condor prior to 1987 to be included in life lists and big day reports published in the ABA Big Day and ABA List Report.

    Here are a couple of more links for you:

    The rules, as established by the Recording Standards and Ethics Committee:

    The two committees are defined in Section 8 of the ABA bylaws (page 5):

  • James Fox

    I think it is ridiculous to allow counting ship assisted birds that are already on the checklist but say ship assisted birds not already on the ABA checklist are not countable. There is definitely a precident for rejecting ship assisted birds, however, as I just checked the California Bird Records Committee’s site and a Nazca Booby that rode a ship into San Diego was rejected because it was ship assisted. To me though, if we can’t count birds that have taken advantage of moving ships to show up in new places, why can we count vagrants that show up at at a man made reservoir for example, since the birds would never have stopped there if humans had not modified the habitat? By the way, I have never seen a vagrant that might have been ship assisted so I am not biased, I just think anyone who sees a ship assisted vagrant should be allowed to count them.

  • Derek

    David, thanks so much for the links with the information. It seems, thanks to this Hooded Crow, we have brought some discussion to a significant issue. And an issue which the ABA is at present, in my opinion at least, handling poorly. Based on published documents presented by David the Checklist Committee can ignore the ethical rules laid down by the Recording Standards and Ethics Committee on the issue of ship-assistance. This a frankly terrible position. What is noted as a “thorny” issue by the Checklist Committee, has been summarily handled in a pretty fair and even handed manner by the Records Standards and Ethics Committee. Maybe Mr. Gordon or Mr. Hartley can present such blatant contradiction to the Checklist Committee so that they can rectify the error. Based on the limited definitions of each separate committee laid forth in the bylaws, I am honestly surprised that the Checklist Committee even has the power to summarily dismiss the ethics and regulations laid forth by the Records Standards and Ethics Committee. The Checklist Committee’s biggest role seems to be literally compiling the checklist. It seems absurd to me that a Checklist Committee member can be allowed to vote up or down on a record based on a purely personal prejudice without regard to the merits of the record itself. To any Checklist Committee member reading, I am not saying this happens or has happened … but the fact that it can be condoned is disconcerting. The answer seems simple … as this is an ethical birding problem, the Checklist Committee needs to fall in line with the Records Standards and Ethics Committee. Fix it! Imagine the logical ramifications of a Blue Petrel showing up on a Carolina pelagic trip in South Carolina waters (ACCEPT IT!) but the boat chumming the bird into North Carolina waters (REJECT IT! Ship assisted) if this kind of logic pervades records committees of all types. I have seen that scenario play out several times by the way, with relatively minor rarities in Maryland/Delaware waters.

    John, your projection is probably the safe bet. In other words, if I was a betting man I would say the Hooded Crow will probably be rejected. What I am hoping, if that is the case, is that the NY committee reaches that decision based on a lack of evidence on the escapee vs. wild front as opposed to individual committee members promoting their own ethical agendas.

    James, I have to agree with your senitment. I am unfamiliar with the California BRC’s actions on that Nazca Booby report. Was the Booby restrained in any way? Rescued from perilous danger or injury? A pet of a crew member? If not, I would be dismayed indeed at the California BRC’s actions. Where is Mr. Floyd, defender of all things California BRC related when we need him 🙂 Even if the bird was seen wild and “chummed in” to follow the boat into US waters … that is pretty much the basis of every single pelagic trip out there.

    The ABA is (possibly, definitely, should be, or wants to be) the preeminent birding organization in the United States and Canada. It sets the tone for all state, local, regional organizations. Seize the opportunity to lead by … shockingly enough … supporting the ethical guidelines already in place. Since Mr. Gordon has stated his support for this prior, let’s hope he seizes the opportunity to spearhead the acceptance of the practice of ethical birding and listing by the Checklist Committee.

  • A few things:

    1) The Nazca Booby – My faulty memory seems to recall that it was rejected on the “ship-assisted birds don’t get accepted” philosophy

    2) Accepting ship-assisted birds – I’m a little on the fence on this one, though I tend to be on the side of acceptance. However, what if a bird that has essentially no ability to fly long-distances, let’s say 5 to 50 miles is the maximum, ends up offshore and lands on a ship because it has absolutely no ability to fly back to where it came. The bird would like to fly back to its point of origin but no longer can, and the boat is on is headed to another continent. Therefore, the bird remains on the ship until within sight of land and then disembarks. It ended up on a new continent but more or less against its will. Is that worthy of inclusion on the new continents checklist?

    3) Checklists – Many people (but not all) see a checklist as a sort of holy document, and its purity must be maintained. This may be the ultimate reason why the committees have such differing viewpoints on ship-assistance.

  • Derek

    John, Thanks a bunch for your contributions here. Good discussion such as this can only help the ABA (or any organization for that matter) improve itself. I am going to respectfully disagree with your points. But only as it pertains to the ABA (or state) checklist. For an individual’s checklist, if thoughts such as those John put forth pervade, then so be it. For example, I would like to see the ABA disallow heard only birds from any checklist/lifelist (just an example here folks). Why? Because there is just no evidence that a birder encountered an actual bird. But that is my choice, and how I choose to keep my list. It would be imprudent (and probably discriminatory) to enact my practices as effect for the ABA checklist and its members. In reply to John’s points:

    1) If the California records committee had language in their bylaws to reject ship-assisted birds, then it acted appropriately … and should immediately change its rules. If otherwise, then it is just wrong.

    2) What if the bird is a Kiwi with essentially zero ability fly? If it ends up on a ship of its own accord (or that necessitated by a natural phenomenon I suppose e.g. storm, earthquake, tsunami, etc.), then it counts wherever it ends up. Would John or like-minded folks have different feelings if the ship was replaced by a giant iceberg? My guess is yes. There is unfortunately a deep-seated bias amongst those in any natural or environmental cause or hobby against “man”. “Man” is evil, the enemy … and probably worse if that “man” is Republican it seems from a prior blog entry 🙂 However, in the case at hand here there is every indication that species of pretty much every large group of organisms has used man-made transportation opportunistically to find new territory. Bacteria, plants, insects, birds, mammals … you name it and it has hitched a ride as a stowaway. Moreover. Before there were ships (or people) this manner of transplantation, according to prevailing scientific wisdom, accounts for many instances of species transplantion. (The big coconut argument from above.) It happened before we were here, happens while we were here, and will happen after we are gone. Seems silly, even pretentious, to ignore that. As for the supposition that a ship-assisted bird is somehow brought here “against its will”, I would ask how can any of the dozens of storm-blown ABA firsts be considered to have arrived here “willingly”? Obviously, this doesn’t hold water. Those birds simply chose to survive as opposed to flying against prevailing current and possible death. No different at all than John’s short distance flyer. As such, this line of reasoning simply cannot be used againts “ship-assisted” birds.

    3) I certainly hope this isn’t the case. The “Checklist” (cue the harps and heavenly lighting effects) is nothing more than an up to date account of avian life in this fabricated geo-political area. If history has shown anything it is that “purists” pushing their own agendas are ultimately nothing other than blind, intolerant and dangerous. I disagree whole-heartedly with many, many decisions and actions made by the ABA and the Checklist Committee. Hawaii exclusion, Fea’s Petrel, the list goes on … But I can at least appreciate the line of reasoning generally. I am all for the Checklist Committee being a more conservative than liberal body in its actions; careful consideration of what record or issue it faces and deliberate follow-up after that. But those cases at least have some reason, some logic behind the resultant actions. In the case of ship-assistance, there is every indication that the Checklist Committee is acting against logic, reason and science. There is definite evidence that the Checklist Committee allows itself to act in breach of the very ethical standards held up as one of the great attributes of the ABA as an organization. And there is no evidence, aside from ill-informed personal bias, that the Checklist Committee should act in such a manner. The Checklist Committee gives itself the authority to over-rule what wild animals do naturally. There is no reason to accept that.

  • James Fox

    Just explain further about the California Nazca Booby, this is the exact listing of the record on the CBRC website {Record=2001-107, Status=O, Species=Nazca Booby, Count=1, First Date=5/27/2001, Location=San Diego, Co=SD, Note=A healthy imm that landed on a sport fishing boat in Mexican waters 60 miles sw of San Diego and rode that boat unrestrained into San Diego Bay.} According to the website O=Not Accepted – Natural occurrence questionable Based on this I think is is pretty clear that the committee accepted the ID and that the bird was not restrained on the boat, they rejected it because it was ship assisted.

  • Bob Sergeant – [email protected]

    On January 8th, I sighted a bird that I was not familiar with in Atlantic City NJ that matches the description of a Hooded Crow or a House Crow. Black head back and wings, grey collar and breast. Sorry no photos.

    I found this blog and was reassured that this was possibly a Hooded Crow or a House Crow Crow based on migrations to Norther Europe, Iceland and your recent sighting in Staten Island.

    Can anyone speak to the differences between a house crow and a hooded crow>

  • Tom Clayton

    Just saw my first yesterday in Cumberland Co. TN.

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