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01 Western Birds

Breaking News: I just received in the mail vol. 45 no. 4 of the still-fine journal Western Birds. To my delight and amazement, the 38th report of the California Bird Records Committee (pp. 246–275) refers not to “non-native” species, but rather to “established introductions” of species whose ancestral populations occur outside California. My life is complete. I have nothing further to accomplish on this Earth.—TF, Jan. 16, 2015

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The day before yesterday, I received in the mail vol. 41 no. 3 of the fine journal Western Birds. I look forward to receiving each issue of this quarterly publication, and it is with special anticipation that I await the annual report of the California Bird Records Committee (CBRC). The 34th report of the CBRC appears on pp. 130–159 of the current issue.

I’m a huge fan of the CBRC. In the 1990s, when I was a member of the Pennsylvania Ornithological Records Committee, I used to exhort that committee to be more like the CBRC. Earlier this decade, when I was a member of the Nevada Bird Records Committee, I left no room for doubt as to my admiration of the CBRC—so much so that the Nevada committee’s chairman called me a nuisance and a wannabe.

That said, I’ll be the first in line to declare that the CBRC isn’t perfect.

And there’s one thing in particular about the CBRC that is insane. It’s something that’s anti-scientific, potentially harmful to bird conservation, and profoundly quixotic. I’ll let the committee speak for itself. From the second sentence of the abstract on p. 130:

“New to California was the Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica), bringing California’s bird list to 641 species, ten of which are non-native.”

The 10 species rated as non-native are: Chukar, Ring-necked Pheasant, White-tailed Ptarmigan, Wild Turkey, Rock Pigeon, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Spotted Dove, Red-crowned Parrot, European Starling, and House Sparrow. All the rest, therefore, one must assume to be native.

Excuse me?

Nobody in his right mind say, “Oh, gee, I just went out to San Clemente Island, and saw the Bluethroat, native to California.”

02 Bluethroat at San Clemente Island, CA, 14 Sept 2008, by Janson Fidorra Let’s consider the extremely unlikely scenario that that Bluethroat was hatched somewhere in California—the only sense in which one might term the bird “native.” Fine, but then so are all those White-tailed Ptarmigans, Red-crowned Parrots, and House Sparrows—whose populations have been established for many years in the Golden State. The 10 “non-native” species on the California list are incontestably more “native” than the Bluethroat, the Black-tailed Gull, the Bridled Tern, and the Baird’s Sparrow reported in the current issue of Western Birds. (Left: Bluethroat. Photo by Jason Fidorra.)

I’m going to cut the CBRC a huge amount of slack right now. I’m going to assume that “non-native” is simply lousy—really lousy—word choice. By “non-native,” the CBRC intends “a well-established population of an exotic bird species.” All the other species—631 on the California list—are in some sense “natural.” Either they are of regular, annual occurrence (Great Gray Owl, Yellow-billed Magpie, etc.) or they are naturally occurring—and utterly non-native—vagrants (Bluethroat, Black-tailed Gull, etc.).

But there are two problems with that.

First is the supposed distinction between natural and unnatural. During the past 30 years, conservation biologists have come to realize that it is meaningless to distinguish between natural and unnatural populations and ecosystems. In a highly influential 1983 paper in Oikos (41:402–410), the great natural historian Dan Janzen pretty much laid to rest the folly that we might refer to certain species and habitats as somehow “natural” or “native.”

Certainly, that’s the case with the birds on our lifelists. As I argue in an essay in the October 2010 issue of Winging It (pp. 16–17), a great many of the bird populations we encounter in the wild are anything but wild. Examples abound: California Condors at carcasses specially prepared for them, as well as vagrant hummingbirds at East Coast feeders specially prepared for them; Chukar and Northern Bobwhite populations sustained by government biologists, as well as Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler populations sustained by government biologists; Red-crowned Parrots and Spotted Doves from faraway lands, as well as Bluethroats and Black-tailed Gulls from faraway lands.

Ah, but the Bluethroat and the Black-tailed Gull got here on their own, you say. Really? You sure about that? As I also argue in my Winging It piece, American birders are in denial, plain and simple, about the phenomenon of ship-assisted vagrancy. That Black-tailed Gull didn’t hitch a ride on a fishing boat? That blessed Bluethroat didn’t rest for a while on a container ship? Prove it! And here’s something to ponder. European birders who visit the Azores each autumn know to keep an eye on the container ships lumbering offshore, as their passage is strangely associated with the appearance of American vagrants on Corvo.

The second problem is the far bigger one. I believe the CBRC is biased against what it terms “non-native” species. To be fair, this bias is pervasive with records committees. Back in 1994, in the annual report of the ABA Checklist Committee (Birding 26:320–326), the Himalayan Snowcock was added to the ABA Checklist with the following commentary:

“The ABA Checklist Committee is never enthusiastic about adding an introduced species to our checklist, especially when population size is likely to remain constrained. The negative vote is merely a stronger expression of this sentiment.”

03 photo by mike bowles loretta erickson Realistically, there are substantially more than 10 “non-native” bird species in California. A few days before the appearance in my mailbox of the current issue of Western Birds, I received “the Christmas Count issue” of American Birds (vol. 64). Here are some totals from California: 37 Egyptian Geese in Orange County in 2007, 23 Mandarin Ducks in Sonoma Valley in 2005, 65 Indian Peafowl on Palos Verdes Peninsula in 1977, 1129 Rose-ringed Parakeets in Bakersfield in 2009, 687 Lilac-crowned Parrots in Pasadena in 2007, 12 Black-throated Magpie-Jays in San Diego in 2001, and many others. (Right: Rose-ringed Parakeet. Photo by Mike Bowles & Loretta Erickson.)

Truth be told, the Christmas Bird Count misses a lot. But there are other great published resources. In the November 2009 issue of North American Birds, for example, we read the following in the regional report for southern California:

“Nutmeg Mannikin continues to increase its geographical range and population size in the region, as illustrated by counts of 200 in Goleta…and 150–200 in the Hidden Valley Wildlife Area…”

04 nutmeg mannkin Steve Wolfe How can it be that Rose-ringed Parakeet and Nutmeg Mannikin, to cite just two examples, are not on the California list? The standard argument is: Because nobody’s published the data. Huh? According to the publication American Birds, 1129 Rose-ringed Parakeets were counted in Bakersfield last winter. And according to the publication North American Birds, the range of the Nutmeg Mannikin is expanding, and its numbers are increasing. (Left: Nutmeg Mannikin. Photo by Steve Wolfe.)

Let’s assume that, for whatever reason, the population numbers published in American Birds and North American Birds don’t count. Fine. In that case, then, I hereby issue the following challenge to the CBRC: Go and do the research that will prove to your satisfaction that Rose-ringed Parakeets and Nutmeg Mannikins are truly established in California. As any modern ecologist or conservation biologist will tell you, California’s psittacids and estrildids are infinitely more compelling—in terms of both pure and applied science—than random records of waif Bluethroats and such. Why, the CBRC’s bylaws (§§IIB–G) practically dictate that such research be conducted.

The next time a Bluethroat shows up in California, Stop! Stop it with all the hard work that, in the past, you would have devoted to attempting to verify the record. Use your time more wisely. Hop on over to Bakersfield or Riverside, and start counting parakeets and mannikins. Write up the results, and submit them for publication in Western Birds. Then add Rose-ringed Parakeet and Nutmeg Mannikin to the California list. After that, repeat the process for Mandarin Duck and Black-throated Magpie-Jay. And so forth.

And then, when you’re done, you can go out and play, and add more Bluethroats to the California list.

 

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