American Birding Podcast



The Chicago Connection

So, Ted Floyd sent me the cover of the current issue of Birding (about to hit your mailboxes, and available online right now for ABA members):

…and pointed out that on page 3 of the magazine, it says:

What do Chicago in winter, the ABA Checklist Committee, field ID of the Slaty-backed Gull, and Daryl Hannah have in common? Greg Neise, the ABA’s web guy and raconteur, has an answer to that question. Go online for Greg’s spirited commentary:

First of all, I’d like to point out that none of this was my idea. I was as surprised as the next guy that Chicago, rather than Miami, or New York, San Francisco … or maybe even Houston, made the cover of a birding magazine. I mean, it’s not exactly a birding destination.

But then I noticed the inset of Daryl Hannah, and it started to make sense. She’s from Chicago. I’m from Chicago. When I was a crazily birding-obsessed grade-school kid, she was attending Francis W. Parker School. My bedroom, on the 14th floor of the Webster Hotel, cast a shadow on her every day. Literally:


So as you can see, our connection is tight, and I expect to get a call from her any minute now asking to meet for coffee or a cocktail. But do take a moment to read Noah Strycker’s interview with the star of screen and stage. And by the way, Daryl, At Play in the Fields of the Lord is one of my all-time favorite movies.

Chicago winters and the ABA Checklist Committee (CLC)? Hmmm… Well, Chicago winters can be brutal.

Oh yeah. Monk Parakeets. Monk Parakeet was designated as countable only in certain places by the CLC—just as with the Egyptian Goose on this issue of Birding’s cover, which the CLC says is countable only in Florida. With the Chicago parakeets, the CLC felt that the birds relied on human-provided food to such an extent in winter, that if it weren’t for feeders, they’d never survive. Well, at least some members of the CLC felt that way, at any rate. But, as the Chicago birders well know, that certainly isn’t true. The parakeets take advantage of feeders just as much as House Sparrows and Northern Cardinals in the winter. They also strip crabapple trees clean, leaving the European Starlings wondering what the hell just happened. Despite cold winters and concerted eradication efforts, the parakeets live on. Most recently, many have moved from sites where their huge nests were getting knocked down (cell towers), and now have set up housekeeping 100 feet in the air, among the girders on the underside of the Chicago Skyway.

Monk Parakeet says: "You want some a 'dis? Come get me."

Monk Parakeet says: “You want some a ‘dis? Come get me.”

The Monk Parakeets arrived on the scene in Chi-town in the 1970s. They were released by a notoriously “leaky” quarantine station just north of downtown. I know, because I worked at that station in the early 80s. They initially spread to Lincoln and Jackson Parks, and gained a foothold in the latter. From there, they’ve spread all over the south side of Chicago, the neighboring south suburbs, and adjacent Indiana. They’re a bit of a Chicago tradition. And we take our traditions seriously.

The business of adding exotics to the ABA Checklist is a loaded gun. The committee has been criticized for adding the Egyptian Goose, yet there are others who think the committee needs to hurry up and add a few more. I’m pretty sure Ted Floyd and Alison Sheehey feel that way. I hope it goes without saying that I admire the work of the ABA CLC. And even though we all might not agree with some of the CLC’s decisions, those decisions do provide a lot of enjoyable, and spirited argu… ahem, debate during the cold winter months. Seriously, there’s not much else to do but go watch gulls. Speaking of which…

Last winter was terribly long, cold and merciless in Chicago. It was made even more unbearable by a Slaty-backed Gull.

Slaty-backed Gull—SBGU in bander’s code—is one of those enigmatic vagrants that makes birding really exciting. The species breeds in Japan, and traditionally one had to travel to Alaska to have a shot at it. But recently, the species has become regular on the west coast. It’s also been found in over a dozen states and provinces away from the Pacific, including south Texas, Newfoundland, even Iceland, and the British Isles.

Sightings of Slaty-backed Gull reported to eBird.

Sightings of Slaty-backed Gull reported to eBird.

SBGU is a bit of a nemesis for me. Last winter, gull guru Amar Ayyash found a beautiful adult bird just north of Chicago. It would be the second time Amar was involved with a SBGU that would ultimately vex me. But I don’t think that’s what Ted had in mind, because the article in Birding is titled, Vagrancy and Identification of First-cycle Slaty-backed Gulls – – North American birders face a formative identification puzzle…

So I’m betting that he’s thinking about this bird, which I found near Chicago in June of 2011, and remains in Records Committee Twilight Zone to this day.


A worn first-cycle Slaty-backed Gull (away from the Pacific) is birding kryptonite. You think extralimital Pacific Wren is tough? Pshaw … that’s child’s play compared to 1c 2cy SBGU*. See how hard it is? Even the shorthand description of the bird is indecipherable.  There is no defense, there is no amount of documentation, no collection of experienced opinion, and never enough photos of a bird like this to ever be accepted by a records committee. But, 9,000 words by Tristan McKee, Peter Pyle, and Nial Moores about first-cycle Slaty-backed Gulls awaits. Not for the faint of heart. I’m digging in as soon as I’m done writing this…


* – okay, okay. It means first cycle, second calendar-year Slaty-backed Gull. By the way, if you think ABA CLC decisions may elicit some amount of controversy, they’re nothing like the four-letter words birders use for gulls…