“Northern Flicker subspecies should definitely be different species.”
The birder I had just met presented his epiphany with conviction to the rest of the group. A can of worms had been spilled. The following squabble was deemed inevitable from the moment the birder had opened his foolish mouth. Tempers were high, and voices were raised, and in the midst of it all, several good points were brought up. Finally, someone delivered the fatal blow by mentioning that Yellow-shafted and Red-shafted Flickers might not even be subspecies, and the birder piped down and quickly changed the topic to life lists and the latest gross mis-ID on the eBird Rare Bird Alerts.
The birder who had brought up the subspecies point had presented it confidently, and with the perfect amount of patronization, to prevent further questioning by everyone else. We all pretended to think about his proposal for a few seconds, then nodded in pretend approval as we moved onto the next topic.
But, as always, the best questions came up long after the debate. On second thought, what even was a subspecies?
After a few minutes of existential pondering of this question without finding answers, it was time to find out the answer the Millennial way and hit Google to find the answers. First, off Wikipedia:
According to Wikipedia, “A common way to decide is that organisms belonging to different subspecies of the same species are capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring, but they do not usually interbreed in nature due to geographic isolation, sexual selection, or other factors.”
Wait, isn’t that just a species? you may ask. But just wait, don't give up on Wikipedia yet! It has this vastly clarifying detail:
“The differences between subspecies are usually less distinct than the differences between species.”
Gee, thanks, Wikipedia, so specific.
However, as I was to find over the course of the next few months, Wikipedia (writers) had tried their best. No one at all really knew what a subspecies was.* There could be no subspecies for a species, or forty-two hundred. It also seems that some people want to “discover” another subspecies so they can niftily name it after themselves -- so next time Joe Bloe says there’s a Northern Cardinal subspecies named after him, take him with a grain of salt (and preferably reply by asking if it’s C. c. igneus.). The subspecies playing field is therefore a mess of gore and taxonomic claim jumpers.
*To be fair, I didn’t ask any actual taxonomists, although I did ask some people who study the work of taxonomists (aka. taxonomistmists).
It seems that some notable people agree with this verdict.
In the abstract of the article “Subspecies Are For Convenience", Cornell researcher John Fitzpatrick states that in regard to solid definitions for subspecies, “trinomial epithets will inevitably be applied to a heterogeneous mix of evolutionary phenomena, thereby precluding genuine standardization of the concept.“
Thankfully, Fitzpatrick picked an especially apt and descriptive title to sum up his article for those who don't know what he was talking about in that last sentence. Subspecies are for convenience. The line between subspecies and normal population variations is hard to draw, and rather arbitrary.
The implications are dear to my chaparral-hugging, sagebrush loving heart. Among the article's many discussions is one on how arbitrary subspecies concepts led to the rejection of Coastal Cactus Wrens for federal protection. For any Californian birder who has personally witnessed the struggle of Coastal Cactus Wrens against the terrible forces of fire, hearing this is enough to burn down the AOU headquarters that made the decision (which might be counterproductive if the AOU headquarters were in Cactus Wren habitat, but they're not, so burn away).
Here’s a little background. The high at-risk “San Diego” Cactus Wren is the more unassuming sister of its loud and charismatic sibling, the interior Cactus Wrens. Recent genetic evidence suggests additional breeding isolation of the San Diego Wren from its more northerly cousin, C .b. anthonyi.**
** C.b. anthonyi could also be called 2-3 other names. Like I said, it's a messy playing field.
Although there are some morphological differences as well, the AOU decided, after the deep and contemplative intense examination of dozens of specimens in a few hours, that there wasn’t enough to designate the bird as a subspecies. They just don’t use the same level of in-depth inspection when it comes to the Willets or Redpolls, do they?
And Californian birders all joined in a mutual screech of protest upon the announcement of this decision--except there was no mutual screech of protest. As far as I know, very few people knew or cared. Few birders realized that the “San Diego” Cactus Wren not being listed as a subspecies would also mean the “San Diego” Cactus Wren could not be federally listed as endangered.
This is more than just an one-person (me) outrage. And more importantly, this isn't really the AOU's fault. This is a deep flaw in the system: using an arbitrary definition that no one fully agrees on to determine something so important as federal protections. Nowhere is this more evident than recent developers efforts to de-list the federal listed Alta California Gnatcatcher by hiring "scientists" to proclaim that Alta California Gnatcatchers are not a separate subspecies.
As the title of the article I just paraphrased half of this from says, “Subspecies Are For Convenience.” Truly. Whether you're a conservationist or a developer, subspecies can be yours to manipulate.
(Moving to the next topic now - read the article here)\
Even if birder's borders between subspecies are AOU-burning-worthy blurry, that’s not to say that subspecies are invalid--just like species, some subspecies are more obvious than others, or to put it in more accurate terms, a few subspecies are obvious. The rest, however. are in fact AOU-burn-worthy.
On one hand, contemplating these topics and reading these articles ruined the pristine concept of taxonomic perfection I had always seen certain authorities as. On the other hand, arming myself with this background on subspecies debate allowed me to assess the earlier Northern Flicker claim a little better. After going through the abstracts of a dozen papers for a few hours, I felt as qualified as the AOU to determine if Northern Flicker subspecies were truly distinct or not. ***
***In all honesty, no hate on the AOU. I like what they do. Actually, I like them a lot more than most birders, who seem to think the AOU is the second coming of the European Starling or something.
Also, I'm sad to say I did not conduct my investigation with an unbiased mind. I thought (and still think ) that they are distinct enough to be a subspecies. My goal was more to find out about how distinct these subspecies really are.
A little background first. Chances are, you're familiar with Red-shafted and Yellow-shafted Flickers. Perhaps you've had some extensive encounters with their integrate, the aptly named Orange-shafted Flicker. And that's the key word: extensive. Orange-shafted Flickers are exceedingly common, and what's more, they may fill a gap in a smooth cline from the color spectrum of red to yellow.
My goal was to find, not by my incapable self, but by Google Scholar-ing and J-Storing the work of others, any papers that could be sacrificed to the horrors of being read by a high school student for the higher cause of determining how distinct Northern Flicker subspecies were.
The answer? There is no answer!*
I found that there was a complete lack of direct concern about Yellow-shafted and Red-shafted Flickers' distinctness and an overwhelming focus on the hybrid zone itself between the two. In other words, the subspecific distinctness of Yellow-shafted and Red-shafted Flickers seemed to be a given.
At this point, it could get philosophical. Even if the two flickers aren't distinct enough entities to be considered subspecies, should this lack of concern matter? If subspecies are truly for convenience, what does it matter that the two flicker population groups are not really as well-defined or clear as we would like them to be? The dubbing of the two groups certainly makes it easier for researchers to describe and study the unique flicker hybrid zone. In the end, a subspecies is like an emo or a prep -- it's just a label.
*Cue evil 8th grade science teacher laugh
But enough of the Socratic rambling. Let's get back to the research. The only thing research cemented for sure is that Yellow-shafted and Red-shafted Flickers are not separate species. Not by any 21st century definition of species, anyway. And not that there's much advocates for a Northern Flicker split anyway -- who knows? Maybe this post will bring out an army of Flicker separatists, marching with their 1940 field guides and proudly proclaiming their Northern Orioles and Plain Titmice.
In any case, unless you're trying to be a hipster in birding, the consensus that Northern Flicker is one species is undebatable. There's no intergrade breakdown, most intergrade areas seem to have random selection, zygotic barriers seem to be largely lacking, and the main mystery of the species lies not in its definition of species but its unexplained unchanging hybrid zone.
So given all of this, why the difference in morphology? The differing coloration on the under wings and shaft comes from different caretenoid processes, making them possibly geography-related.
Intrasexual rather than intersexual selection also might be the cause of these genetic shifts. Key words: might be. In the end, it always, always, ALWAYS comes back to these three words : need more research (I'm not complaining. That's what's providing future jobs for my generation of aspiring ornithologists).
Whether these findings can trickle down to flicker subspecies as well is an entirely different question.
The only tenet I can still safely hold on to anymore is that the two subspecies/whatchamicallits have vast morphological differences and exhibit at some degree of breeding isolation, blurry morphological cline or not, which many would say defines the two as separate subspecies regardless of whatever shady hybrid business goes on backstage. In other words, although subspecies lines can be difficult to draw, the Northern Flicker subspecies line is not one of them.
But I'm no AOU, and I'm going to throw the reader under the taxonomical bus by allowing them to make the decision. After reviewing the whole incident, Mr. Northern-Flickers-Are-Not-A-Subspecies was just looking to shut down the argument once and for all, and may have or may not have believed in his own blurted words. But his simple statement took me on a long journey of learning.
Only one thing at the end of this mind-boggling mess is clear: a subspecies is a subspecies is a subspecies. Whatever that means.
Also----subspecies are a form of taxonomical colonialism, and you should try and get a subspecies named after myself while you can.
INTERESTED IN NORTHERN FLICKERS? Click on these links!
P.S. I predict noone who reads this will actually click on these links.
Some of the zillion papers on which hybrid zone hypothesis fits the NOFL hybrid zone and NOFL subspecies selection habits.
Paper on hybrid zone
OKAS Paper on morphology
Jstor paper 1
Jstor paper 2
Jstor paper 3
Jstor paper 4
Jstor paper 5
Ring-necked Ducks in the process of mutating will often show a striped, evil-appearing tiger eye (see: right photo). Or they could just be blinking. I think my mutating theory sounds pretty legit, though.
Chances are, you are one of the multitude of birders, who has, at one point or another in their nonbirding oblivion, fed a duck. It’s one of the unquestionable tenets of Bird-dom: ducks love bread, and nonbirders (plus some birders) love feeding ducks bread even more. At first, the duck-bread love affair seems like a win-win situation for both parties: non menacing, seemingly harmless ducks receive food; humans reap the enjoyment of watching mass anarchy in the throngs of chaotic ducks that join in the desperate rush for freebies. Politicians give speeches on future beneficial collaborations with the Duck Species and Humans , and ducks continue to quack and gobble up the free bread that humans fling at their faces. What could go wrong?
What, indeed, could go wrong? The second tenet of the duck dynasty--that ducks are not to be trusted--is in place for a good reason. Underneath their innocent “quacks-quacks,” and smiling beaks lies a cunning brain, that when powered with the unlikely fuel of bread, gains enough processing power to craft world domination. That’s right. Ducks are out to get us--and we’re slowly falling into their laps. That sourdough loaf you're tossing out into the lake is just one piece in their mastermind plot to dominate all watery, habitable, and bread-feeding-human-filled corners of the Earth. As you read this paragraph, the soggy, spongy bread that is going to ducks at this. very. MOMENT. is mutating them.
As if ducks--masters of the land, air, and water-- needed any more methods of motility, now they're growing an extra set of wings. Luckily for the throngs of oblivious birders who continue to shove huge amounts of bread into ducks daily, the wings are nonfunctional. The ducks' plan is backfiring, badly. The sad fact is, eating an excess of bread just gives them a bad case of malnutrition.
But before the ducks find out and turn on humans with physical attack ...it's time to counteract our actions on the Duck Dynasty. Inform people of the lack of necessity for feeding ducks bread. Pretend you're a city official who is concerned about the cleanliness of the park (on second thought, I'm pretty sure that's illegal, never mind). And if you ever get in a staring contest with a duck.... Stare it down. Assert your dominance. Let them you know about their bread loaf plot.
And remember: Duck Dynasty is very real, and it's out there.
Chances are we all know one of those stereotypical old lady birders. You know how the whole drill: a backyard-confined birdwatcher who can’t tell the difference between a House Finch and a House Sparrow and only set up a feeder because of the 21 cats they own, each of which used to be outdoor cats but have, according to their owner, “never touched a feather on a bird’s head.” * And chances are that backyard birder will have, through some form or the other, heard of the name Sibley.
Perhaps the more vivacious of birders, who fancy and go through with a twitch on occasion, will even give the full name of Sibley and bubble on about his field guide on what is now a birder bandwagon. Simply the effuse of “David Sibley! His field guide is my favorite!” will reveal more about a birder than their binoculars. And while that statement may have legitimate backing, a fifth of those people don’t own any Sibley field guides, or any of the major ones anyway.
Enough of the slick-slack, though. There’s no doubt about it; Sibley is a great guy. And a few months before, I was left in jaw-dropping awe after discovering an article on how Sibley pioneered a whole new method of cladistic analysis involving DNA hybridization, and had proposed such wonderful things as the idea that totipalmate birds were not a natural grouping.
Writing a field guide AND developing a radical new method of DNA analysis? Truly jaw-dropping! Well, at least jaw-dropping until I learned that there were not one, but two, legendary ornithologists with the last name of Sibley that knew each other personally, and furthermore, they were in no way related. Not even distant cousins to the 3rd removed. It was a shock. A shock I had somehow overlooked the fact that there were two great Sibleys.
To see if I was alone in my ignorance of the “other Sibley,” I queried a few young birders, all knowledgeable, about his existence and influence. Responses varied from “He wrote the Sibley field guides,” to “David Sibley is THE Sibley.” Depressing maybe, for Charles Sibley’s ghost, given how his personality is described by a fellow of his in this neat summary:
“.. a rebel with a cause. In argument he would bulldoze through, brooking no contradiction. Critics were baited with an acid tongue, and, in fits of temper, he could be a cruel mimic. In short, lesser mortals were not tolerated easily and, as has been said by others, collegiate friends were few. ... I never found him malicious or vindictive, even against those who had tried to bring him down. Nor was he particularly sophisticated or cultured, just a big, up-front Yank possessed by 'the big picture' in avian phylogeny and convinced of the righteousness of his cause and invincibility of his intellect”
A rebel with a cause? Yes, indeed, because Charles Sibley revolutionized cladistics and DNA analysis with his method of DNA hybridization and daring new taxonomy. . The AOU, which most bird-politically involved** birders have a love-hate relationship with (and in some cases a hate-despise relationship), has been looked straight into the eye by Charles Sibley. And since Sibley’s field guides are based on AOU taxonomy, Sibley influenced Sibley. Sibley-ception.
*I’m not trying to be offensive. Old lady backyard birders are just a stereotyped archetype among many birders.
**Splitter or lumper? Willet species or Willets species? What about Redpolls? Forget the 2016 election, the 2016 AOU proposals are on.
Five funky bird names and the stories or meanings behind them
Ninja'd: The Warbler Name Game
If you've ever heard of Dr. W. T. Tolmie, it's sure not because of his widespread affiliation with any common bird names.
Almost every early, well-known ornithologist, from Nuttall to Townsend, has had his good share in the spotlight when it comes to "first" on bird names. So when the number of warblers, woodpeckers, and corvids that can bear an ornithologist's name without making him seem like a blatant narcissist was exhausted, ornithologists began to pull some lesser-known colleagues on the list.*
Such was the case for birder's favorite little yellow warbler of the West (No, not Yellow Warblers. Yellow Warblers wear down favor after you see and hear them a couple hundred million times). As soon as Townsend discovered the Macgillivray's Warbler, and decided it was another bird that desperately needed a name, he thought twice before slamming his own surname down on the table and put his friend, Dr. W.T. Tolmie, on the line.
Unfortunately for him, Audubon was playing the same game and nabbed the name spot himself. Before Townsend could react, the bright yellow warbler Townsend had discovered was bearing the name "Macgillivray's Warbler" after Audubon's dear ol' friend and fellow ornithologist. Now Tolmie is relegated to the Macgillivray Warbler's scientific name, Geothlypis tolmiei, who noone besides ornithologists ever looks at anyway.
When discussing odd bird names with serious birders, it's almost inevitable that "Northern Beardless Tyrannulet" will pop up in the conversation sooner or later. Or when poring over their bird books, sometime or later a new birder will come upon the poor tyrannulet's name. It's a favorite go-to subject for bored birders.
Unbeknownst to the majority of the population, most insect-eating birds have beards--or, in a more proper way to put it, rictal bristles. Unlike human beards, which are completely arbitrary, rictal bristles are undoubtedly important. Noone quite knows why. The theories about them range from bizarre (food-catching beards??) to boringly logical (tactile or sensory beards???). To compound the issue, a study done in which researchers removed the functions of rictal bristles showed no impact on the efficiency of flycatcher flycatch-ing.
Either way, it's a mystery the Beardless Tyrannulet doesn't have to deal with.
So why do Beardless Tyrannulet have no rictal bristles? Before I pull that science teacher "we'll never know" stuff again, let me theorize that it has something to do with the tyrannulet odd feeding behavior that differentiates it from its fellow boring flycatchers. Although I guess, in the end, I'll never know--and you won't for sure, either.
Ending note: Although, like most small flycatchers, the Northern Beardless Tyrannulet has no social life, someone decided it would be hilarious to name a group of tyrannulets a "shaving."
Someone, somewhere, right now, is laughing their asses off.
A Name Fit For A Duchess
In the good ol' days when female naturalists were far and few, and female naturalists of nobility were even farer and fewer, the Anna's Hummingbird stands as an exception of the ways of the 19th century.
Oh wait, Duchess Anna De Belle Massena wasn't even a naturalist (at least in the field). Her husband was. Apparently, having an Anna's Hummingbird discovered in her husband's collection by another naturalist was enough to land Duchess Anna the name.
Just like how the role of women in society has changed over time,** the Anna's Hummingbird (and its buddy the Allen's Hummingbird) has been rapidly morphing as of late. Thanks to the fancy ol' gardens and exotic flowers of Southwesterners tired of boring old sagebrush, desert, and lawns, the range of both hummingbirds have been expanding like a balloon. Everyone loves hummingbirds anyway so noone's complaining.
Phainopepla and Pyrrhuloxia: Curious in Latin
Something about unusually colored, crested birds attracts weirdly latin names. Take Phainopepla and Pyrrhuloxia, for example.
It's time to go back to Latin Class 101, because both of these names can be dissected and understood through some good ol' sleuthing. "Pyrrhuloxia" literally translates to "fire-colored bird," while "phainopepla" translates to shining robe-- so to the 0.0001% of fluent latin speakers on the planet, these two bird names do make plenty of sense.
So what's in a name?
Next time someone says they saw a lifer "Brewer's Duck," or are counting a "Brewer's Duck," take their ABA list with a grain of salt. For, worse than counting Oldsquaws or Chickenhawks (gasp) or even introduced species not approved by the ABA (double gasp) Brewer's Ducks is a hybrid. More specifically, a common hybrid between a Gadwall and a Mallard.
There are scores more hybrid and subspecies names to remember. Olympic and Kumlien's Gulls are a product of the mess that is the genus Larus. Macgillivaray didn't get his namesake just from a warbler, there's a subspecies of seaside sparrow named after him. Which species does the subspecies of Timberline Sparrow come from? Not all birders could tell you. *
What's with a lot of these names anyway? Was Purple Finch named by a colorblind person? Why is the name Rock Pigeon always being changed to Rock Dove and vice versa? Canada Geese aren't nice, so where did they get their name?
The classic answer to all these questions: we may never know.
Next time you meet an unusual or noteworthy bird name, stop and ponder the possibilities and stories behind each word of its title. There's a history in each title. And don't forget, new species of birds are still being discovered once in a while, so don't hesitate to swoop in and try to get a bird named after yourself. Especially if it has a nice ring.
*Or they were being genuinely nice to their friends. One or the other.
** That was deep!!
*** Brewer's Sparrow
The Brown-headed Cowbird. Feared. Despised. Debated over. A cursed product of forest fragmentation and one of North America's top competitors for infamous birds, right along with European Starlings and the reviled House Sparrow. The cowbird's only competitor to fame are the cuckoos of the Old World, whose ganglike behavior and foul bodily juices have crowned them the title of the cuckoo mafia. To add to everyone's already strong distaste for the species, Cowbirds demonstrate this behavior too. The only saving grace that cowbirds possess is that they're native, which somehow, for most of us birders, makes up for all their atrocious behavior.
Did you know? Almost 100 species of birds have been recorded to display conspecific or intraspecies nest parasitism, many of which are foreign to American ears.
After the villainizing of the Brown-headed Cowbird, it may shock you to learn that cowbird-like behavior, namely, parasitism, is rampant among one of America's most innocent faces and the subject of the name of an ABA camp: the American Avocet. Camp Cowbird just doesn't have the same ring, does it?
Avocets are already a basketcase of weird behavioral traits such as their "Doppler effect" alarm calls and their oddly independent chicks that, much to the jealousy of parents of teenagers worldwide, leave their nest within a day of hatching. So it may not be surprising after all that avocets can sometimes demonstrate egg-laying habits that border on Cowbird Alert.
It may be some comfort to the public image of American Avocets that, unlike cowbirds, avocets are inexperienced in their egg-laying methods and often fall victim themselves to a stray egg from another species which they obliviously raise.
Waterfowl, on the other hand, are not to be ridiculed when it comes to both conspecific and brood parasitism. The entire dabbling duck complex is a basketcase of parasitism and sneaky mother ducks who take any opportunity they can to avoid having to bring up their young, whether it be with another species or their own.
Even worse, there is no strategy or single perpetrator in the rapid egg-laying game that many land-nesting ducks race in, although Redheads and Goldeneyes have been noted as the most offensive players.
Despite what you might think, rising obesity rates would be a blessing for victims of waterfowl brood parasitism, as parasitism seems to be a last resort of desperate ducks who, upon arriving upon their breeding grounds and deciding that they are not fat enough for another vigorous breeding season, deposit their eggs in a fellow duck's nest instead.
Is nothing sacred? Apparently not, as America's springtime symbol has been found to be engaged in behaviors of conspecific parasitism. Coming soon to avian television across the world: You Are Not The Father.
Southern California is in danger of aliens.
It's no secret. Southern California is rife with introduced species. The beachy climate and raging pet trade is all but a perfect recipe for a flurry of exotic birds to escape and settle in Southern California. In what is a post-apocalyptic battle for these escaped birds, populations form, rise, and collapse. Epic battles ensue. Civilizations rise and fall in the blink of a birder's eye. The ABA scratches their head over what to count, or not count. Birders sit in agony praying for an armchair tick. It's a hapless mess for all.
Just take this Japanese White-eye, for instance. Just a short while ago, most birders in Orange County would have regarded a Japanese White-eye as a relic from World World II. Now, these little birds and slowly but steadily infiltrating the cracks of Southern California, one yard at a time. And there's no stopping them, or so it would seem. Read on to discover four other little-known species introduced and on the rise in California.
Find'em Tip: White-eyes are localized. Hop over to Northern Orange County for your best shot at this species.
Threat Level: In Hawaii, where White-eyes are firmly established, these little yellow birds pose a major threat to native Hawaiian birds. As for Japanese White-eyes in SoCal, only time will tell but threat is likely very little.
Hails from: Doesn't take a genius to figure this one out.
Northern Red Bishops may be conspicuous, but not to worry. The only two points of significance for bishops in Southern California are the controversy surrounding the proper common name of Euplectes franciscanus and how distracting the gaudy, one-buck highlighter color on the male Orange Bishop's African plumage is. Bishops are problematic for another reason altogether:
they keep in context with the rest of the series of confusingly-plumaged introduced species. If you think birds here are sexist*, take a look at the female Orange...er...Northern Red Bishop. It may look like a DICK, but other than that, it appears to have no affiliation with anything that its male equivalent possesses.
Find'em Tip: Look for bishops masquerading around on top of plants in warm reedy areas and blaring out their "tinktinktinktinktink" song like a miniature orange megaphone. Best seasons for bishop-hunting are late summer and early fall, when they practically fall into your lap in some places.
Threat Level: Low, but established in some areas.
Hails from: Africa
Besides the long tail on a male Pin-tailed Whydah reminiscent of a Fork-tailed Flycatcher and causing panicked reports of Fork-tails to pop up on Listservs across Southern California, Pin-tailed Whydahs are also notable for being incredibly unintelligent, as proven by their unbelligerent nesting habits.
Most birders would hail the news of whydahs being nest parasites as devastating. As if Brown-headed Cowbirds and the occasional Code 5 Old World Cuckoo being blown into North America wasn't bad enough, now a third member has to come in and try to take the stage. Right? Right? Wrong.
Ornithologists are hailing the case of the Pin-tailed Whydah as unique and unmirrored in any other location on Earth: a case waiting to be studied and pored over.
That's because Pin-tailed Whydahs have a specific preference: they parasitize Scaly-breasted Munia nests exclusively . Their brains having been hardwired from millenniums of evolution on a different continent, the only bird Whydahs recognize how to parasitize is a victim only because it hails from whydahs' homeland.
Munias, you ask?
Mistaking Scaly-breasted Munias for Black-chinned Sparrows was one my lowest points of birding.
To be fair, my 80-year old guide was missing more than one species that had landed a firm place on the North American ABA list, including but not limited to Long-tailed Duck and Merlin.**
Scaly-breasted Munias are tragic. Ever since the ABA legalized officially listing them, "munia" has skyrocketed to the top of the list of top target birds for birders not from California, surpassing California Gnatcatcher, Elegant Tern, and just about every desirable bird that isn't scaly. That's right. Aliens are taking over our minds. Be careful, Earth. Be very careful.
Find'em Tip: Munias are very social. Often the first sign that munias are in the air are the loud, continuous calls that give away a flock, so learn the vocalizations! Munias are common year-round in parks, gardens, backyards, and everywhere where you don't want them to be.
Wherever you find munias, you're likely to find a few whydahs. And vice versa.
Threat level: Relatively unassessed, firmly established since 2008.
Spotted Dove is a case-in-point for why not to get down if a few escapees go awry. In the late 20th century it seemed like Spotted Doves were all boom and no bust. Then it hit. The great Dove Depression. Spotted Doves all across Southern California vanished much in the way that birders today hope the Eurasian Collared-dove will vanish. Today only a few obscure pockets have Spotted Doves available for viewing.
It doesn't end just at the species in this post, however. Waxbills. Java Sparrows. Red-crowned Parrots are already countable by the ABA and Egyptian Geese in California are on the path there.*** The plethora of introduced species is advancing on Orange County like birders would to Alaska if the airfare didn't cost a life's savings.
An All-American Robin to repel all the aliens invading our country.
***A note on Red-crowned Parrot populations. Sadly, the Red-crowned Parrot population in the U.S. already outnumbers the native population in NE Mexico, in a more extreme version of the situation of the European Starling here in North America. Who knows, maybe one day the California parrot population will play a key role in conservation of this species.
*Some people just can't take jokes, so this asterisk is here to guide them. Also this post does not in any way reveal the political, social, and religious affiliations of the poster.
** Because Oldsquaw and Chicken Hawk were their old names.
Comment your thoughts on introduced species below. Or not. I'm not the boss of you.
Question: Why do kingbirds barf?
That's right: Kingbirds find it impossible to digest the husky exoskeletons of the insects they feed on. It takes a kingbird three seconds to vomit up the buggy remains: two to look around and see if anyone's watching, and one to aim properly for their target of a fellow rival kingbird or idiotic birder watching them. The real impressive ones can fling an exoskeleton a couple feet.
Question: What's causing all the excessive damage to my sunflower leaves?
Goldfinches need their greens too. A lesser known garden tip is to leave out lettuce for vegetable-hungry Americans.
American Goldfinches, of course. That's definitely what I meant.
Question: I saw a warbler drinking nectar. Is this normal?
Just like hummingbirds go on insect raids like wannabe warblers, warblers do the vice versa. And who can blame them? If I ate insects all day, I would probably want to become a hummingbird too.
Many unexpectedly sweet birds, whether it's sap-sucking woodpeckers or shy grosbeaks, have a taste for sugar, so don't be surprised if you catch one sneaking a sip at your nectar feeders!
Fun Fact: Orioles are mainly insect-eaters, but a lot of birders will tell you that they feast mainly on fruit. I blame the oriole feeders.
Vortex: Do birds experience parallel universes?
Something's fishy about this Red Turtle-dove standing on this apartment roof. Maybe it's the oddly placed coat hanger. Or maybe it's the fact that the apartment looks like it was painted by Picasso, with everything shifting in three different directions. It doesn't matter: either way, it looks like this poor unsuspecting dove is seconds away from being hurtled into a parallel universe.
Mystery Bird question of the month
Whatever your first thoughts of what this was were, they probably weren't "Common Gallinule" which is exactly what this is. God knows what the sneaky little bugger is planning in this eucalyptus bramble. Either way, it doesn't want to be seen by the other gallinules, wherever in the forest they are.*
Question: Who thought it would be a good idea to introduce House Sparrows?
A lot of people, apparently, since they were released several times.
What do two birds of different species think when they meet each other eye to eye? Well, now we know. Maybe birders aren't alone in the universal hatred of House Sparrows.
House Sparrows and humans go a long way back. They were first released by a bunch o' bozos who thought the good cities of America needed some cheering up with the lively jive of HOSPs.
Just when things are looking mighty stupid, remember that it could have been worse. It's widely purported that the European Starling, an even more destructive bird, was released by some corny sucker who thought that the New World needed all of the birds that Shakespeare had mentioned in his plays. You never quite read Shakespeare the same way again, after you know he indirectly launched a plague that nearly pushed many species, such as our lovely "All-American" bluebirds, out the door.
It's also a little know fact that Loggerhead Shrikes, which are in a precipitous decline today, were shot in good numbers back in the good 'ol days to protect the newly introduced House Sparrows.
Did you know? A few of the introduced species in Hawaii, like the Northern Cardinal, were released by homesick men who needed something to remind them of the lower 48 U.S. where they came from.
Grebes are absolute loonatics, and loons are an e-grebe-ios lot. The minute you take their eyes off them, they become little Grebeman U-35 submarines and Loon Ness Grebesters. So, for grebes and loons to adapt to the lifestyle of extreme marine mastery, their wimpy little feet moved further backwards and they found it consequently much harder to take off.
Not to be confused with the humbly-dumbly of Cassin's Auklets. Temporarily disabled by their gluttony, fat Cassin's Auklets that have gorged a little bit too much for their own good find it impossible to take off.
Question: Are smaller raptors scared of bigger ones?
This Red-tailed Hawk is no buts about this Golden Eagle getting too close to its lawn. Or, his dead brown grassy expanse, considering this is taken in California.
Of course, not all raptors display such mutual daring. You don't want to touch Great Horned Owls, not if you're a Golden Eagle or a Red-tailed Hawk or even another Great Horned Owls No one messes with them. They take out ospreys, falcons, and other various assorted raptors.
Even your small dog, too, so NO --- that isn't just a myth! Keep an eye on your pups.
Comment and share!
*Not factual information. Gallinules prefer swampy marshes and the sort, not forest.
The Heartwarming Story of Frankie the Gull, who Traveled Thousands of Miles Through Deadly Storms, Devastating Hurricanes, and Worst of All, Kansas, to Finally Arrive at his Cruddy Winter Vacation Home at a Concrete Pond in Orange County
California, for birders, is essentially a 15 hours from head to toe, gazillion mile long, eighth-a-gazillion mile wide mushy pot hole of vagrants.
Cold weather? Birds of a feather will flock Together!
In summer? No bummer! Even in Southern California! If you enjoy birding on the surface of the sun, that is!
Spring? Time for a bird fling.
Fall? It's a birder's mall.
OK, so maybe this wasn't taken in California. This is still the best shot of an Ovenbird I have, if you discount the photos I took of of the little clay bird models I made in middle school that exploded in the kiln.****
Which is heaven if you're a compulsive lister, a twitchy birder, or a birder looking to compose absolutely atrocious poems, but for the average Susan John birder with an average job, I can imagine the tiny stab to the gut that comes with sorting through Listserv reports with photo-contest winning shots of some country bumpkin Rustic Bunting or criminal-looking Piratic Flycatcher or ugly-as-an-elephant Ivory-billed Woodpecker*** that's only a couple hours away and could be accessed if it wasn't for blahblahblahblah.
These giant Christmas-ball-ornament nests that cormorants build are the closest things Southern California has to a white (and smelly) Christmas. In summer.
The worst is fall. A heap of rare bird reports the size of all the swimming pools in Beverly Hills floods every California birder's senses. It can turn any wannabe twitcher more insane than they already are, which is an accomplishment of the highest degree.
Of course, this is all just a small hair on the face of California birders. California is, after all, the place where you can take a leisurely drop-in at a concrete lake with 2 potted bonsai trees and stale water filled with dead koi and get in-your-face looks at an Eurasian Wigeon, or two. Or a Falcated Teal.
Eurasian Wigeons may be considered as a tad rare here, but I still don't think much of their sanitary habits.
This miniature model of my local water reservoir was also a home to a Glaucous Gull and a Cackling Goose two winters ago. Doubtless it will continue to attract exciting birds with its classic concrete charm.
On this particular day, I was strolling along at some hole-in-the-ground lake that was chock full of masquerading coots and frivolous-looking Mallards with pompoms perched upon their head making the lake look like Invasion of the Alien Duck Parasites had dawned. And then, there, sitting on the poop-carpeted fence, was a Franklin's Gull making the most hideous "waffle, waffle" racket I have ever heard from a gull, and considering that gulls don't exactly have the most lyrical of sounds, that means wow, was that sound awful. I scrutinized its ubiquitous plumage from 10 feet away. It didn't budge a Gony's spot.* The first thing I thought was "Shoot, I forgot this darn thing was even here. Of all places." The next was "Crap," because that's what I had leaned on without realizing it.**
A heartbeat later, some cool biker dude zoomed right past the gull. Almost being barreled into by a cool biker dude was apparently too much for the gull, who took off over the concrete coot-filled lake, never to be seen again (or for the next hour or so) by the next two birders who came a second too late.
Cheers to the best kind of bird lifer there is.
Below: The extremely rare Ospgeon, a previously unrecorded hybrid of a Rock Dove and an Osprey,was discovered in California last year, continuing to add to the state's already unprecedented birding fame.***
*The Gony's spot is a part of a gull's bill. On Western, Herring, etc. gulls, it's the thing that looks like a miniature Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer nose. On other species of gulls it can be a lot less noticeable.
**And because I forgot my binos and cam. This time, it was a known continuing bird, so I just enjoyed the view. But imagine being unarmed with Weapon of Vagrant Proof (camera) while being in the same park as a House Finch or European Starling. Yikes. I can imagine the eBird confirmation emails already.
*** Joke. I know, I know... but just remember that people on FB were working themselves into a fit about Jurassic Park because they thought Spielberg murdered dinosaurs to produce the film. And only half of those posts were probably satire, knowing Facebook.
****This didn't actually happen.
You can see the humongous Gony's Spot quite clearly on this Western Gull. The owner of this bag of chips unfortunately did not.
Aquatic Warblers Gone Wild: Quickie
An Aquatic Warbler appears as a simple brown bird when seen in a glance through binoculars, resembling that of thousands of other simple brown bird species in the Old World. Only those who know more about the warbler’s odd mating habits would be inclined to take a longer look at this Old World LBJ.
Next time you see one of these little cute suckers, don't be fooled by that adorable warbler-ly face. Aquatic Warblers are anything but innocent. It all begins with the species' extreme promiscuity, with some broods being fathered by up to five different male Aquatic Warblers. Add in the mega-sized warbler genitalia that would make any passerine jealous, factor in the marathon average mating time of 24-minutes, cube by the frequent inseminations during copulation, and you've got the nymphomaniacs of the bird world.
It all starts with this curious warblers' sexual habits. With female Aquatic Warblers going rampant with males, males sticking with the females for a larger length of time have a greater chance of their genes making it into the next nest. Cue the huge warbler glomerula, record-breaking mating times, and a very unique bird that most birders are oblivious to.
SCHULZE-HAGEN, K., LEISLER, B., BIRKHEAD, T. R. and DYRCZ, A. (1995), Prolonged copulation, sperm reserves and sperm competition in the Aquatic Warbler Acrocephalus paludicola. Ibis, 137: 85–91. doi: 10.1111/j.1474-919X.1995.tb03223.x
by Elisa Yang
There have been countless "IBWO expert" teams gathered in search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and an infinite stream of videos, photos, and movies on the topic of the desperate search for signs of its existence. It's never been rediscovered; yet everyone still seems to think it exists somewhere in the deep reaches of North America. People see Pileated Woodpeckers and they're Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. People go hunting for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker with a 1-pixel camera and come back every time with infallible evidence of it. It's enough to give every pessimist a nightmare. Not that our national obsession with the Ivory-bill a bad thing; several nature preserves were established for the sole reason that with all the publicity the Ivory-billed Woodpecker had garnered, it just didn't seem fit to not try and protect it.
In honor of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, here's a gallery of birds that were, in the words of the optimistic, unrediscovered but found again.
Above: No one was searching for the Blue-bearded Helmetcrest that hadn't been seen for 69 years when they unexpectedly noticed it on an expedition to document the habitat in peril, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta during March 2015. Look, it's identifiable in this photo, too.
The Myanmar subspecies/species (The news articles are just as hung up about taxonomies as our kind are.) of Jerdon's Babbler vanished for 70 years and rediscovered in a grassland quite recently. Here is the extremely rare, thought-to-be-extinct bird nonchalantly being held, by a person whose fingernails are far too clean to belong to a field biologist's.
No way am I going to put citations on an informal blog post, unless I get threatened to be sued in which case I'll do anything you want faster than you can say, "lawsuit. "Suck it, MLA format.
Here we go: "Extremely Rare Subspecies of Jerdon's Babbler Rediscovered in Myanmar," by Sci-news
In 2007, the Banggai Crow, which was "known to science only by two specimens described in 1900," according to "Article With a Really Long Title" (aka "Long Feared Extinct, Rare Bird Rediscovered") was observed hunching around in Indonesia.
It took two years for (probably) high school scientists to (probably) procrastinate for 23 months and then confirm its actual presence. This was due to its morphological similarity with the Slender-billed Crow. Here it is, in utter rage and disbelief that anyone would ever confuse it with that ugly Slender-billed Crow for a year, let alone two.
"OMG, Millie, did you hear what those brat high school scientists had to say about me?"
Three centuries. Almost three centuries of being thought extinct. Perhaps that has to do with how this seabird earned its name, Bermuda Petrel. With this rediscovery, every optimist can now hope that all the planes that dissipated in the Triangle of DEEAAAATTTHHHHH and were almost fated to never see land again will be spit unto the Western Paleartic ocean where the Bermuda Petrel now happily glides.
On the other hand, noone was really getting down and combing the ocean for this guy anyway. They were looking for a different kind of petr(o)l, the sort that resides in politically rife waters that Mr. Bermuda would avoid with a penchance.
Source: "Bermuda Petrel" by Birdlife
They didn't rediscover Forest Owlets for 113 years until 1997 in India. But when they did, they "forest"
it to pose for photos. The reply was, "Ok, Owlet you." It was either that or "hoot hoot." I'll let you decide which one is more realistic.
The Forest Owlet has the long-term conservation benefit of being cute, and therefore is probably more likely to keep on not-being-extinct as decided by the public.
Source and photo: "Forest Owlet" by Atula Gupta on India's Endangered
In 2009, thought-to-be-extinct Worcester's Buttonquail was rediscovered quailing in fear at a Luzon poultry market before it was enthusiastically digested and eaten by hungry humans. This is the type of story that you listen to disbelievingly and then bitterly remark "It's not April 1st, get with the times." Believe it or not, this sort of thing happens all the time... "in EVOLUTIONARY/GEOLOGICAL TIME!! aka once every 50000 years," -every geologist/evolutionary biologist ever
Article source and photo here: "'Extinct' Bird Seen, Eaten" courtesy NatGeo's Christine Dell'amore
Yes, I am reposting some of the better posts from my blog and editing them to be less offensive and have better writing while I'm at it. This is because For the Birders is going to replace Chiccadee's FTB! I know, sad.
Sorry this wasn't a citation, bibliographiles.
End. Happy birding!