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.