Counting birds is simple. But this is America. We have rules for everything and can make a competition out of anything. On Feb. 18, 2009, fellow birder Kristen Lindquist and I discovered that we each had 296 birds on our Maine bird lists. She suggested a little challenge to see who could get to 300 Maine birds first. I accepted the race, certain that I would win.
I lost. Five years later, I’m still losing. She’s at 320, I’m stuck at 317. A northern bobwhite wandered into my yard a couple of years ago, and it would have been number 318 if it had counted, but that would be against the rules.
Wait. Rules? Of course. The bobwhite does not naturally exist in Maine. This quail is a southern bird that is sometimes raised by sportsmen for private hunting and to train bird dogs. They escape and are seen in the wild regularly. If such a bird could be counted, where would it end? Escaped parakeets? Zoo peacocks? What should count and what shouldn’t?
To be countable, then, the bird should be present naturally. That means that it is a local native or it wandered here on its own. That’s when things start to get nutty. The house sparrow is the most common songbird in North America, but it was not a native and did not arrive naturally. Is it countable? Yes, once it is established and its population is self-sustaining. These sparrows are countable anywhere in the United States.
The chukar is the national bird of Pakistan. This species of partridge is native to Eurasia, and it is also raised by sportsmen for hunting and dog training. Like the bobwhite, it sometimes escapes into the backyards of Maine, as well as many other sites around the country. Obviously, it does not count, except that it has now become firmly established in parts of Colorado. If you see it there, it counts. If elsewhere, it doesn’t.
Miami is the hotbed of listing wackiness. The red-whiskered bulbul is native to the steamy countries of Asia. Long favored as a caged songbird in America, many escaped and established a population in urban Miami. They’re countable. Parrots, parakeets, mynas and canaries also escaped, and some are now established. Then in 1992, Hurricane Andrew destroyed Parrot Island, releasing hordes of tropical birds from this tourist attraction. There are now parrots all over Miami and some are becoming countable.
So who makes the rules? The American Birding Association was established in 1968. The association is responsible for many events, services, and publications, but it is best known for maintaining the official lists for states, regions, nations and the world. Its most famous list is the ABA Area list, which unites the U.S. and Canada into one countable region. When most American birders refer to a life list, this is the one they are often speaking about.
For an exotic bird to become countable, the population must be stable or growing over many years, without human assistance. The ABA makes the ultimate decision, but it generally relies on the local experts. For instance, the purple swamphen is a large member of the rail family, widely distributed from Europe to New Zealand. In the early 90s, a subspecies common to the Caspian Sea was introduced to a park near Fort Lauderdale. It escaped and spread rapidly. Florida wildlife officials tried to kill them all, but never came close. Last February, the ABA agreed with the local experts that the swamphen was now firmly established and it became the 977th officially recognized countable bird in North America. The decision was made just two weeks before I went birding in southern Florida. I saw it in March, and it became number 515 on my life list. If I had seen it in January, it wouldn’t have counted.
When an unusual bird shows up, the first question is: how did it get here? A mandarin duck appeared in Ogunquit nine years ago. This gorgeous Asian waterfowl is popular in aviaries, so it’s a hundred times more likely to have escaped from a zoo than to have journeyed here from China. Not countable. A green violet-eared hummingbird showed up in Bar Harbor seven years ago. If it rambled here from Central America, it’s countable. If it rode here on a cruise ship, it’s not. The Maine Bird Records Committee (yes, there is one) accepted it as a countable vagrant.
Here’s the easiest rule. Is it dead? Not countable.
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.