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A Pox on Politics (I Ain’t No Stool Pigeon!)

I, for one, feel no such obligation. I care little for lists. What attracts me to this story is the bird, its improbable appearance and its mysterious origins. Since we can never know its provenance, we can allow ourselves to put birder on the shelf and go back to simple bird watching. We can return to a time and age when committees didn’t matter and we celebrated the simple existence of a wayward soul. There will be many more rare birds for the lists; not all will be so enigmatic. But for this moment, these precious days and hours, we have been offered a glimpse at a bird whose value transcends the constrictions of our recreation. The sparrow humbles us, and reminds us that there is a limit to what we can know.

Ted Lee Eubanks (2) In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Tybalt challenges Romeo. Best friend Mercutio expects Romeo to defend himself. Romeo refuses (Juliet is Tybalt’s cousin), and Mercutio decides to vindicate Romeo for his “vile submission.” Tybalt slays Mercutio, and as he dies he damns both Moneagues and Calulets with the immortal curse “a plague on both your houses!” In time Shakespeare’s plague morphed to pox, and the latter phrase remains with us still.

Romeo refused to defend himself, and Mercutio died for Romeo’s failure. Mercutio covered Romeo’s back, yet Romeo still abandoned his best friend in the thick of it. There are lessons here. Be cautious of the politics of intrigue (be not Montague nor Capulet). Choose your friends wisely. Watch you own back. Don’t play with knives.

The Montagues and Capulets were born to rank and privilege; Democrats and Republicans are made. Yet the deceitfulness and contrivances of Shakespeare’s feuding families do seem eerily familiar. The human psyche only expresses itself in a finite number of ways; there are few original plots and the Greeks own them all. Yet if you want a ringside seat to the human drama, no better actors can be found than politicians and family. And birders.

Yes, birders. This recreation, this hobby we practice for fun, is a cherry bomb just waiting to be lobbed into the girl’s restroom. All that’s needed is for someone to light the fuse. I confess; at times my political writings are meant to spark. But now I want to steer clear of the Teapers and Weepers, and cautiously edge out onto the thinner ice of rare birds.

I served on the Texas Rare Bird Committee (TBRC) for a number of years. What a blessed way to make enemies. Birding is this queer pursuit where scoring depends on the the credibility and the integrity of the person reporting the achievement. Serving on one of these committees places you in judgement not only of rare birds but the rare people who report them as well. In hunting you can shoulder the gutted corpse back to camp to be seen and measured by others. Anglers drag in their stringers. Birders have little to measure other than veracity. You tell what you saw, and the rest of us either believe or disbelieve.

Scoring-JudgesGiven the judgmental character of birding, could it be anything but political? Scoring is completely dependent on whether or not others believe you. Without a photograph or a recording, every smidgen of evidence you provide will be completely based on your personal recollections. Whether or not you win is contingent on whether the judges like you, trust you, are in awe of you, are jealous of you, or are envious of you. Think of this aspect of birding as Olympic ice skating with binoculars.

Submitting your thoughts on a rare bird report form does not make them fact. The form only makes it easier for the experts to read your regurgitation. The report is simply a way of formalizing your thoughts that your bird looked “just like the one in the book.”

Miss-hathaway-bird-watcher Birding hovers between science and sociology. Birding sucks ideas from both, yet remains neither. At times birding is humorous. The new movie, The Big Year, stars Owen Wilson, Jack Black, and Steve Martin. Sounds like serious drama, doesn’t it? You can’t beat a birder flick for a good laugh. Let’s invite Jane Hathaway back for a cameo.

At times birding is elevating, like in a Neruda poem. At times birding is depressing, as when we stop to consider the fate of some of those we watch. And at times birding is perplexing, like when birders try to weigh the validity of others’ sightings.

Consider this example. I am certain that I saw my first Rufous-collared Sparrow in the mountains of Chiapas. I have now seen the bird many times, but I am almost sure that my first were in or around San Cristobal de las Casas. Wherever my first sighting, I am certain that the location was a long way from Georgetown, Colorado.

In early May Tim Davis and Andrew Davis found a Rufous-collared Sparrow in Colorado. There is no doubt as to the identity; in the weeks that followed photographers had a field day. Rufous-collared sparrows have no business in Colorado; they only occur as far north as southern Mexico. Nevertheless, the bird is now in Colorado. What do we make of this?

The immediate question is origin. By origin birders mean provenance. Birders want to be sure that the bird traveled to Colorado on its own two wings. Otherwise, the bird doesn’t count. The bird is a marked a cheat, a victim of the fear that the bird traveled from the tropics with “human assistance.” Is this bird a hitchhiker? Did it come on a train, in a bus, or in a cage? Did a family bring their faithful pet rufous-collared sparrow to Colorado when they relocated? How it the hell did it get to Coors Country?

I should draw out the intrigue, the drama, but I am going to let you in on a little secret. No one knows. No one will ever know. Only the bird knows, and he ain’t talking.

I ain’t no squealer. I ain’t no stool pigeon.

The bird blogs have been on fire, crackling with discussions about this one lost bird. Ted Floyd wrote a fine article about the sparrow on this blog, and the responses predictably reflected the two camps, the counters and the discounters. Here is one position, that of the discounters, as submitted by Mike Patterson:

Wild is not the best descriptor in this case either. Let’s use the conservative default “escaped”. Insisting on the word “wild” in the framing of the hypothesis is not a neutral position. It’s an “I want to be able to count this on my list” position. It’s the position of a birder, not a biogeographer. The null hypothesis should reflect the conservative position. The bird is an escape from a zoo or aviary. The alternative hypothesis would be the bird came to North America without any human assistance. Given the amount of scrambling we’ve been doing with organisms on the planet, we should not be starting from: this rare, extra-limital and popular aviary specimen is not an escapee. This assumes our goal is to better understand the distribution and patterns of movement for species. If the goal is tickability, let’s dump the concept of “unassisted” and avoid the argument altogether.

Out of curiosity, just how many of you, my readers, have ever considered yourself to be a biogeographer? How many of you even knew the term before this article? I suspect that most birders consider themselves to be exactly that, a birder, and little more.

But even within the discipline of biogeography, I would question the scientific value of one outlier. How does one bird tells us anything important about distribution and patterns of movement in the species? Bird Seller

Mike and many others have commented that the species is a “popular aviary specimen.” I assume he means “pet.” Yes, the cage bird trade in the tropics is extensive. I have traveled in every state in Mexico, numerous in Latin America, and years ago I took photographs and notes about the birds I saw for sale in the markets. Given that I live in Texas, a state where the “origin” question is raised frequently, I decided to better familiarize myself with the bird trade.

My experience is that bird vendors sell three general types or classes of birds. Consider this photograph of a bird seller in Monterrey. He has all three types in his inventory. The first type is the colorful bird. Our bird seller has Northern Cardinals, Scott’s Orioles, and the like. In cages nearby he sold Painted, Indigo, and Orange-breasted Buntings, along with Lesser Goldfinches.

The second type is the singer. Toward the bottom of this stack, somewhat in the shade, is a Blue Mockingbird. Thrushes are prized, and I have seen several species including Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush for sale. Brown-backed Solitaires may be the most prized of all, and it is difficult to drive through a Mexican village in the early morning and not hear this remarkable song (courtesy Nathan Pieplow).

Parrots are the third and final general type of caged birds that I have seen for sale. Sadly, parrots are for sale everywhere. I remember one vendor who set up in the parking lot at a Pemex station on the way to Mazatlan. His small truck bulged with various parrots and parakeets for sale.

There is a fourth type I will mention, one I have seen only rarely. There are birds that are prized for their mythological or symbolic value. One spring in Monterrey I noticed young men hawking hummingbirds in small cages. I learned that young women believe that a hummingbird brings good luck in attracting a mate. I have also seen vendors hawking hawks by the roadside just outside of Matehuala.

Let’s get back to the bird in question. The Rufous-collared Sparrow is widely dispersed within its native range, and haunts include urban and suburban environments. In other words, it tolerates people well, and I can see it being an attractive cage bird. However, I have never seen it for sale in the various markets that I have visited. I respect that others have, but I can only tell about my own experiences.

Yet the discounters continue, arguing that “anything with color and/or a song is put in a cage in Latin America, sold, and cherished by its owner” and “the bird accompanied the shipment of rescued circus lions which arrived on a direct flight to Denver from Bolivia.” I like the last one the best. Maybe I could interest Steve Martin in that story line for his next big flick. What a riot!

One blogger wrote that “it may take a committee of experts to determine its wild vs ex-captive status.” How? Exactly how will a committee know what can never be known? There in no way of determining how this bird traveled to Colorado. Not now, not ever.

One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain’t nothin’ can beat teamwork…Edward Abbey

Birds have wings and do not read the range maps. Ever so often their wiring goes haywire and they plop into some place they do not belong. Birders, faced with the fact that we can never know the bird’s means of transportation (I still like the lion’s cage), are left to speculate. And that, my friends, is all that we can do. We can do no more.

Bird committees invariably brag about adopting a conservative approach. I am sure that many of you understand that the word itself, conservative, gives me the willies. Therefore my approach, for what it matters, is to adopt the liberal line. I believe that the onus is on the committee that judges rare birds, and not on the observers who see them. The observer’s task is to prove the identification; the responsibility of the committee is to prove that which is rarely provable. For those of you interested in this topic I recommend an article published in Birding in 2007 titled “More on the ABA Checklist Committee.” I appreciate this quote from that article;

…the provenance of many species that stray to the ABA Area can never be known with certainty.

Blue MockingbirdIf provenance cannot be disproven, and the identification can, how can a reasonable committee invalidate a record?  Notice that I said disproven or disqualified by circumstantial evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. To my knowledge no one has actually seen a Rufous-collared Sparrow stowing away on a ship. I am curious if anyone has actually seen a caged sparrow being transported across the border. I wonder if anyone knows of other examples of exotic birds being discovered in freight in the Denver airport. Is there any firm evidence, circumstantial or not, that would lead a reasonable person to judge this sparrow’s presence as being assisted by humans?

I did not travel to see this bird. I have no dog in the hunt. Yet my hackles rise when I read statements that support one position or another lacking any firm evidence that should underlie a position. The identification of the bird is without question; the evidence is irrefutable and convincing. The evidence questioning the provenance of this bird is shallow, conjectural, and reliant on supposition and guesswork.

These committees do important work, typically for no compensation. In a real sense the committees are the rule keepers, those who decide, in the end, who scored and who did not. There are regional rule keepers, state rule keepers, and national rule keepers like the AOU and the ABA committees. They do not always make sense (like excluding Hawaii), but I believe that all sincerely try to toe the conservative line. I believe they all feel an obligation to defend the sanctity of their respective lists.

I, for one, feel no such obligation. I care little for lists. What attracts me to this story is the bird, its improbable appearance and its mysterious origins. Since we can never know its provenance, we can allow ourselves to put birder on the shelf and go back to simple bird watching. We can return to a time and age when committees didn’t matter and we celebrated the simple existance of a wayward soul. There will be many more rare birds for the lists; not all will be so enigmatic.  But for this moment, these precious days and hours, we have been offered a glimpse at a bird whose value transcends the constrictions of our recreation. The sparrow humbles us, and reminds us that there is a limit to what we can know.

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