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Thoughts on the September 2011 Birding: Part 2 of 3

In Part 1 of this blog post, I talked about our decision at Birding magazine to publish an article, appearing in the September 2011 issue, on the presumably extinct Eskimo Curlew. Although the bird is no longer with us, it would appear, we nevertheless do well to educate ourselves about its identification and natural history. The Eskimo Curlew is a part of our field ornithological lore and legacy, and the species is, of course, on the ABA Checklist.

Which brings me to the topic of Part 2 of this blog post: a feature article in the September 2011 Birding about fifteen bird species that aren’t even on the ABA Checklist.

Ah. So this must be an article about birding in Cuba or Iceland or the Kamchatka Peninsula or somewhere, right?

Wrong. This is a feature article about fifteen bird species that fly “under the radar” right here in the ABA Area. The article, “Under the Radar: ‘Non-countable’ Exotic Birds in the ABA Area,” is by two of the best-known names in field ornithology in North America: Bill Pranty and Kimball L. Garrett. This article introduces the reader to a variety of species that are present, right here and now, in our ABA Area, but that are not on the ABA Checklist.

Why aren’t these birds—Purple Swamphens, Rosy-faced Lovebirds, Nanday and Rose-ringed parakeets, Nutmeg Mannikins, and others—on the ABA Checklist? Well, the reasons are varied, and a fair bit of it has to do with the procedures and “politics,” even the personalities and philosophies, of bird records committees. But that’s not my point in writing, and neither was it Pranty and Garrett’s objective.

02a Orange Bishop Rather, their objective, simply and commendably, was to equip birders with a very basic foundation of knowledge about some of the most successfully established—albeit “non-countable”—exotic bird species in the ABA Area. Read this article, and you’ll get a solid introduction to the Rosy-faced Lovebirds of Arizona, the Orange Bishops of California (photo at right by Mike Danzenbaker), the Egyptian Geese of Florida, and a dozen others.

And this article does a wonderful job of steering birders toward additional resources for knowledge and understanding. The Literature Cited section contains 58 references, and various additional online sources are mentioned in the main body of the text.

I mentioned in Part 1 of this blog post the Will Turner–Spencer Shaffner thesis, namely, that bird books—for example, field guides and checklists—influence how we perceive nature. When field guides decline to depict extinct species, they are being subtly insidious: They are sending the message that everything’s okay. We need to be wary of the “new normal,” Turner and Shaffner appear to be saying. Field guides ought to help us, not hinder us, in our formulation of a realistic, if sobering, view of the way things are in the natural world today. Field guides oughtn’t gloss over extinction. And human-caused extinction, as awful as it is, isn’t the only thing that’s wrong in the natural world today.

02b Hill Myna Enter Pranty and Garrett and their exotics “Under the Radar.” Our ABA Area is increasingly populated by exotic birds and other organisms. Pranty and Garrett aren’t saying that this is in any sense “good.” It just is. It’s a fact of life. In the 21st century, one finds Rosy-faced Lovebirds and Cactus Wrens around Phoenix, Rose-ringed Parakeets and Lawrence’s Goldfinches near Bakersfield, and Hill Mynas (photo at left by Roberto Torres) and White-eyed Vireos in the Miami metro area. (I explore this matter further in a commentary in vol. 64 no. 4 of North American Birds, published by the ABA.)

As we were going to press with the September 2011 issue of Birding, I got an e-mail message from a high school classmate whom I hadn’t heard from—I’m dating myself—in some 25 years. She had found an astonishing bird around her house in the West Palm Beach area, a bird she eventually determined to be a Lady Amherst’s Pheasant. It took her practically a day of searching online and in print to figure out what it was.

It shouldn’t be that way. Folks—whether they’re serious birders or just intelligent citizens—ought to have easy access to knowledge about the true “baseline,” as Will Turner puts it, of the North American avifauna. That means articles in Birding on extinct Eskimo Curlews and “non-countable” Lady Amherst’s Pheasants. Want to learn more about naturalized populations of Lady Amherst’s Pheasants? Then check out “Florida’s Exotic Avifauna: A Preliminary Checklist,” appearing in the August 2004 issue of Birding. The author?—Bill Pranty, not surprisingly.

02c Bill I’d like to wrap up now with a few words about Bill Pranty (photo at right). This will probably annoy and embarrass him, but he deserves it. From my editor’s perspective, he’s a godsend. He’s fast, efficient, and accurate. He crosses his t’s and dots his i’s. He submits copy on time or ahead of schedule. He meets deadlines. He helps with photo procurement. He bends over backwards to track down a date or location for a photo credit. And he’s prolific. I’ve lost count, but he’s produced more than a dozen articles since I’ve been editor, not to mention a bunch of comments and short communications. And if that weren’t enough, he’s a technical reviewer for Birding: He and his colleagues James J. Dinmore, Donna L. Dittmann, and Michael L. P. Retter graciously review every article to be published in Birding.

And check this out: As far as I can tell, the two prime motivations for Bill Pranty, at least with regard to his involvement in Birding magazine, are a deep fascination with birds and a passion for helping folks understand the identification, population status, and natural history of the birds of the ABA Area. That’s it. No further agenda, no ego. Just a passion for sharing and learning with others.

I’m looking forward to Bill Pranty’s next article in Birding—right around the corner, by the way, in the November 2011 issue. As is always the case, I’ve learned a great deal from reading the manuscript. And I’m sure you’ll learn a lot, too, when you see the article in print.

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