Friday, March 22, 2013

The Human Birdwatcher Project Presents: Cage Bird Conspiracy Theorists



Ah, the Common Cuckoo. Undoubtedly California's best bird of 2012, and undoubtedly a bird that flew a long ways from home. Photographed in Watsonville, CA.

Birders, it's time to put the kibosh down. Over the years, I've heard birders questioning the origins of high (and low) quality vagrants more and more often. Some skepticism is certainly healthy, but needlessly claiming a rare bird is someone's escaped pet is bad for everyone. This is a disturbing trend, to say the least...it is a persistent pattern observed in birders, and is often based on a lack of understanding of natural patterns of occurrence, how birds migrate, and what birds are and are not frequently kept in captivity.

In case you are not up on this contentious and very nerdy issue, let me catch you up. Birders like seeing wild birds. However, not all birds that live in the wild got there on their own. If you go to the duck pond at your local city park, you will probably come across Muscovy Ducks. They may be able to live there without supervision, but the chances that this popular barnyard bird migrated from a wild population in Central America is about nil...something we can all agree on. They are no more wild than the peacocks that get the run of your local zoo.

Problems arise when birders poo-poo a naturally-occurring bird as an escapee when there is little to no evidence to back it up. This happens over and over again, and I think less experienced birders may be prone to heeding these uninformed opinions.

For example, a friend and well-known California birder who goes by Red Phalarope Man instantly shat upon the Black-bellied Whistling-Duck (to his credit, not literally) that showed up for a brief period in the middle of the state last May. He was completely convinced it was a bird that had escaped captivity. Although there was the very small possibility he was correct, there was no compelling evidence suggesting it was anything but a wild bird, which had occurred here a few times in the past. Sure enough, you may remember last summer was a huge year for Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks that wandered far north of their usual range all over the country. Our bird, since accepted by our state's Bird Police, was just leading the first wave. Any unwitting birder who may have paid Red Phalarope Man too much heed may have passed on chasing this California MEGA, something they would have regretted for the rest of their life.


Emperor Goose is a species that has been questioned as naturally occurring outside Alaska, but has a proven regular track record of occurrence at coastal sites in the western U.S. during the winter (which is when and where one would anticipate them). If Emperors were really being released willy-nilly, you would expect them to be found all over the country, at all times of year. This vagrant Emperor Goose was photographed at Ocean Shores, WA.

Escaped birds usually come in 3 flavors:

1) Waterfowl collections and zoos. You or I don't know anyone who collect exotic ducks and geese, but these bird hoarders are out there. They hold really bizarre and exotic birds that could also migrate here from their native lands...sometimes. While I have seen some species in the wild that unquestionably originated from these bird collections (i.e. Ringed Teal, Black Swan, Egyptian Goose), people are always questioning the legitimacy of vagrant waterfowl...White-cheeked Pintail, Falcated Duck, Smew, Barnacle Goose, Bean Goose, you name it, these birds always raise doubts among certain people when they are found on our shores.



This undoubtedly wild Harris's Hawk is part of a family group that is resident in Jacumba, CA.

2) Falconry birds. Falconers keep a variety of hawks and falcons of both species that are native and not native to the continent. Sometimes they escape. I have seen a Harris's Hawk perched, with jesses, on the TV antenna of Dipper Dan's house in the Sierran foothills of Angel's Camp, CA...certainly not a wild bird, and not in a very likely place a wayward vagrant would appear.

In California, our state Bird Police for many years bizarrely refused to accept Crested Caracara as a naturally-ocrurring vagrant, despite their regular and repeated visits all over the state. They have since become less ultraconservative (always a good thing, amirite?) and accept new records of this bird just about annually.



Black-throated Magpie-Jays roam free in the Tijuana River Valley, just south of San Diego. This is a great example of an obvious escapee...it's a nonmigratory species that is found nowhere near San Diego, but is known to be kept in captivity (unfortunately) just across the border in Mexico.

3) Cage birds. This category includes parrots and many Carribean and Mexican birds that were likely caught in the wild but were released or escaped far from where they were kidnapped. Many species that fall into this category are known. However, birders often get too wrapped up in the "cage bird" hypothesis, i.e. the Red-legged Honeycreeper found during spring migration on the Dry Tortugas that was rejected by the state's ostensibly then-corrupt Bird Police.

Most experienced birders have encountered at least a couple of birds that truly fall into one these "escaped" categories in the wild. California seems to get a lot of them...mixed with wild birds in wild settings, I've run into flamingos, Pin-tailed Whydah, Red-billed Leothrix, Black-backed Oriole, White-collared Seedeater, Phyrruloxia, Blue Mockingbird, Gray Silky-Flycatcher, who knows how many kinds of parrots and parakeets...the list goes on.


Brambling is one of many Siberian/Asian birds that make a wrong turn during migration and show up in North America. This one spent a winter in Woodburn, Oregon.

So how does one avoid being overly cautious? Learn about the species in question. Does it have an established pattern of occurrence? Is it a long distance migrant? Where have strays shown up in the past? Would it be more likely to find in certain seasons than others? There is much wisdom to soak up from other birders, but not the self-proclaimed authorities who rank a lot lower on the Global Birder Ranking Scale than they think they do...and it can take more than some decent bird ID chops to really sort these folks out.

There are known repeat offender escapees, and known areas where there are high concentrations of these birds as well. For example, southern California gets all kinds of bizarre stuff, mostly on the coastal plain; it is widely believed that these birds originate from cage birds just over the Mexican border. Florida is awash in strange exotics as well.



A recent instance where the Cage Bird Conspiracy came up was when a Common Cuckoo (a long-distance Siberian migrant) spent some time in California this fall. This species occurs rarely but regularly on Alaskan islands during migration, so as with other "sibes", birders have always known that a stray could potentially fly down the west coast of North America. There is a definite pattern of this happening with many other species...many Asian-flavored waterfowl birds, plovers and sandpipers, Red-throated Pipit, Northern Wheatear, wagtails, etc. stray regularly to Alaska, and sometimes down into Canada and the Lower 48. When you look at the above map, you can see that the Bering Strait separates Alaska's Seward Peninsula and easternmost Russia by a mere 50 miles or so...it is no stretch of the imagination to think a lost Russian bird could find themselves migrating down the wrong coast by mistake. However, to invent a scenario in which a Common Cuckoo is born in Russia/East Asia, captured, sold to a tourist, taken to the United States and somehow freed during the height of fall migration (something a couple birders insinuated) sounds more like Hollywood to me. And yes, that is a movie I would see.

What about ship-assisted birds you ask? Well, that is another blog post for another time.


Pin-tailed Whydahs are becoming increasingly common in southern California, and have now been reported at least twice as Fork-tailed Flycatchers. This is also an annoying trend, but misidentifications always have and always will happen. Whydahs are African birds, so based on the fact that no passerines migrate between North America and Africa (except Northern Wheatear?!), we can deduce that this is not a true vagrant.

Of course there are instances where escaped birds are mistakenly considered naturally-occurring as well, but I feel those cases are a bit easier to sort out. It is certainly true that birders are falliable and are probably not correct 100% of the time in either case...as the Human Birdwatcher Project reminds us, "birders are people too!".

24 comments:

  1. Ah ha! Iconoclastic Seagull blows the doors off another bastion of old-guard birding record parsimony!
    Very interesting read Seagull.

    P.S. For your next HBWP installment, you should look into a defense of the Tucson Goshawk Crusader. Has he been maligned wrongly for so long? Are all of the field guides and experts wrong? Hey, they said Galileo was crazy too...

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    1. Thanks Laurence. Goodbye parsimony!

      Oh yeah, good ol' Nelson. I've thought about featuring his...his crud. I've even talked with Dipper Dan about pretending to do a serious interview with him. Alas, I think only a sort of insanity-based defense could work.

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  2. Interesting stuff. Birders are definitely fallible - something that, much to my amazement, many people do need to be reminded of.

    I guess this skepticism you're kiboshing is mostly coming from record committees, huh? I was a little confused at first because in my experience of watching birders (admittedly far less extensive than yours), I find people are more often all too eager to believe that a rarity is legit (particulary less-experienced birders). People just want that sweet twitch too badly. But I can totally see the committee types being overly conservative. (I'm still miffed that my neighborhood Yellow-chevroned Parkeets in L.A. don't "count," though that's another story.)

    Anyway, agreed - may research and common sense prevail.

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    1. It's not meant to be aimed specifically at committees, although they have certainly been guilty. Just birders in general.

      I think when birders are just starting out, they are very prone to counting escapees. After they get some more years under their belts this habit often wanes, but sometimes they go way off in the other direction that I am nerdily bitching about in this post.

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  3. Well stated and as a build that the reaction is particularly unwelcoming as fraternity. We are constantly whining about behaviors (using recordings), venomizing someone's posted list because they don't contain any rare birds, challenging with spit and vinegar the possible sightings made, or grumbling because not enough of us have bought a duck stamp as our license to bird. There is so much freaking complaining in the base we seem a 'retirement community for professors of disproved theories - people who argue so vehemently because so little is at stake' and we wonder why more people don't take up the passion! The recording communities are just the tip of the iceberg - there are a bunch of angry assholes out there with bins who have never learned to communicate with another human. If we really want people to work hard to save the birds we so love to chase, view, study - we'd learn how to use a little charm and elegance in how we interact.

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    1. There is a wide disconnect between many birders and doing anything to save them. As you correctly stated, birders are petty (as is this blog post, but I don't mind). They/we are often indeed "a bunch of angry assholes...with bins who have never learned to communicate with another human"...which is why some were drawn to birding in the first place. The solution to this disconnect is not something I have...YET.

      Some birders make poor ambassadors for birds and birding in general, but assholes tend to have the loudest voices unfortunately, and there are a few in every crowd.

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  4. As a close, personal friend of Red Phalarope Man, I must point out that, knowing him as well as I do, I can assure you his assertions that the Black-bellied Whistling-Duck of Tulare County was an escapee were almost certainly an attempt to excuse himself from having to drive all the way to the well-known cesspool of Corcoran California. After all, Corcoran is home to Charles Manson (seriously, look it up).

    Also, some prominent ornithological wizards have postulated that many Siberian vagrants actually catch the jet-stream and fly non-stop across the Pacific, rather than working their way down the coast. To me, this hypothesis makes sense, given the paucity of records of species such as Red-throated Pipit, Dusky Warbler, Little Stint, etc from Washington and Oregon.

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    1. Ah, the old I-dont-want-to-go-so-I-hope-its-not-legit routine. Let us refer to this sort of scenario as The Whistling-Duck Paradox forevermore.

      As for the Siberians, it is an interesting theory, although I wonder what evidence there is...I think birds that can migrate like wheatears, Bar-tailed Godwits and Blackpoll Warblers are more the exception than the norm. I do not know if these Sibe species are thought to make such long flights during their normal migration routes but I am inclined to doubt it...it is a long way from the Russian Coast to northern California (well over 2,000 miles minimum), even with favorable winds the entire time. I think the disparity between California and Oregon/Washington in Sibe records has a lot to do with a combination of a lack of available good habitat that act as vagrant traps, or too much habitat and not enough vagrant-ready birders to cover it well (such as around Coos Bay). I reckon this phenomenon applies, to some extent, to North American vagrants as well.

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    2. Well, there are several examples to cite in support of the trans-Pacific hypothesis of Siberian vagrancy.

      First, it's fairly well supported fact that the farther down the Pacific coast, the more frequent fall records of Red-throated Pipit become. This is especially true in Baja California, where birder effort is far, far lower than in Southern California, yet the number of records of Red-throated Pipits per unit of birder effort is far higher. To me, this doesn't make as much sense in the context of birds moving down the coast from Alaska. Why would Red-throated Pipits be more frequently encountered in Cabo San Lucas than in Pt Reyes, given the birding effort put in to the two locales?

      Secondly, think about the number of Siberian vagrants that have occurred on the far-flung islands of the tropical North Pacific. Peter Pyle told me (pers. com.) that he once watched a flock of Olive-backed Pipits fall out of the sky onto Midway Island. It's not too hard to imagine birds being blown out to sea by fierce Siberian storms, then pushing on across the sea. This establishes that these birds do, in fact, move across the Pacific.

      Thirdly, the 90 degree east-west mis-orientation of Warblers breeding in eastern North America is a well-known, well-cited fact. Why wouldn't Siberian birds have the same rate of mis-orientation? The fact that the breeding ranges, and thus the breeding populations, and thus the pool of potential vagrants, of many of these Siberian vagrants increase the potential for one to make it all the way across the Pacific. Obviously most of these individuals wont make it, but if 1 million Brown Shrikes leave the coast of Kamchatka, headed east-southeast, by probability, one will make it to central California.

      Finally, many of the species of Siberian Passerines that have been recorded in California breed at lower latitudes than the Bering Sea. Does it make more sense for them to fly north, hit the Bering Sea, turn east, then south? Or does a trans-Pacific flight, aided by tail winds make more sense?

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    3. Well Matt Brady, for your first example about southern Baja birds pertains to wintering individuals, not migrants, so there is no point in guessing where they made landfall.

      Second Matt Brady, although Sibes are regular out there, relatively few Sibes show up in either the main or the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands compared to the Aleutians or Pribs (I believe Sharp-tailed Sandpiper is the one big exception). You could easily spend a decade birding many a tropical island and see vagrant no pipits of any sort. Just because these birds are, yes, moving across the Pacific does not imply they are making landfall in North America, as you know those tropical islands are not in the neighborhood. What about all the American birds that show up on those islands? Are they riding a fancy reverse American Express jet stream? Or are they just lost as fuck?

      Thirdly, Matt Brady, I agree in that regard it is certainly possible Old World birds are miswired like that. Birds get lost as fuck. It happens.

      Finally, Matt Brady, what species are you talking about? Surely they are not Red-throated Pipit, Northern Wheatear, White Wagtail, Yellow Wagtail, Dusky Warbler, Arctic Warbler...and yes, these are the most expected Sibe passerines in California.

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  5. As a bird photographer I'm not afflicted by whether a wild bird is an escaped cage bird or a rare vagrant, I'll take photos of it anyway and for me that "counts".

    But I've recently learned that even though I belong to a birder's group I don't belong because I am a bird photographer and as such am not counted in their limited demographics.

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    1. They afflict the hell out of me, I don't mind though. Knowing a bird is 3000 miles (or more, or less) from where its supposed to be AND made it there on their own is sad, profound and inspiring, all at once. At least for me. When I see an escapee, I can wish it luck but also hope they don't start their own exotic population...

      In a recent post on here, you acknowledged you are at least part birder..."faux birder" I think it was. You can't deny it!

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    2. Steve, I also hope escapees don't start their own exotic populations be it birds or mammals.

      "Knowing a bird is 3000 miles (or more, or less) from where its supposed to be AND made it there on their own is sad, profound and inspiring, all at once." <-- It is for me too.

      Yeah, I am a faux birder but even that doesn't fit in their demographics.

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    3. I see...there has been a recent birder cyberconflict I gather?

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  6. I find it interesting that you include the Gray Silky-Flycatcher At Blue Jay Campground and Blue Mockingbird at the El Dorado Nature Center in the obvious cage birds category. I thought those to be cases where the committee and birders in general fell to the "escapee theory" with no evidence to make the case either way. Blue Mockingbird range with vagrants: http://sdakotabirds.com/species/maps/blue_mockingbird_map_large.jpg Gray Silky-Flycatcher range map with vagrants: http://sdakotabirds.com/species/maps/gray_silky_flycatcher_map_large.jpg

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    1. After seeing a number of BLMOs in Mexico and knowing they are not inclined to migrate very far, I just would be very surprised that one would get to El Dorado Park under its own will, especially considering the number of decidedly unauthentic weird Mexican birds that have been found in SoCal. There isn't a very strong pattern of vagrancy for BLMO or GRSF occurring north of their expected range, which is quite good evidence I think to make a case. Why no Arizona records for GRSF? Why just one from New Mexico? The location did have an admittedly "authentic" feel though, and if we somehow learned the bird was truly not an escapee, I would not be shocked. There is another Silky record from San Diego but I don't know the details.

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  7. Overall I find birders are far too conservative with cases like this. With certain birds it is obvious as the birds show clear evidence of being in captivity but in a lot of cases the birds look perfectly fine and there is no real reason to dismiss the record except for a hunch that it is a possible escape.

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    1. Truth. And if someone is not very informed, what good is a hunch?

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  8. This brings to mind the Tropical Mockingbird fiasco from last year. I've never seen so much aggressive discussion about tail feather wear. And then that fucker went and had babies with a Northern Mockingbird. Records Committee has yet to make a ruling.

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  9. In regards to the Dry Tortugas (DT) Red-legged Honeycreeper, I'll answer your questions from the perspective of a former member of the FOSRC: "Does it have an established pattern of occurrence?" No, at that time that record was two weeks after the only record in the ABA record, also in the FL Keys. Red-legged Honeycreepers are commonly kept cage birds and the first was near busy shipping lanes and ports in Miami. The DT bird could well have been the same bird. "Is it a long distance migrant?" No, Cuban populations are residents. Mexican resident may move a bit seasonally but are not long-distance migrants. To me it seemed the best explanation was an escaped cage bird that moved west through the keys. That most or all subsequent records have been adult males (the most commonly kept and sold in aviculturealso indicates that these may be escaped birds from aviculture.

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    1. Sticking with patterns of occurrence is a valid way to look at things obviously, but a first record in a given area often does not abide by those rules...so how many escapees have been recorded on the Dry Tortugas?

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  10. Actually there are sightings of Gray Silky-Flycatcher from Arizona. However we don't know about them because they have been suppressed or assumed to be escapes. Same was the case with early records of Ruddy Ground-Dove in Arizona.

    How do we get a "pattern of occurrence" when we prejudge the earliest reports as presumed escapes? Even the first Cattle Egrets in Florida were assumed escaped exotics! Same with records of Eurasian Collared-Dove in California before 2002.

    And then there is the Monterey Swallow-tailed Gull, one of my all-time favorite cage birds.

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    1. The records have been suppressed? Are you just assuming no one knows about these records because they are classified? Now that sounds like a conspiracy theory.

      I'm not sure what you mean about Eurasian Collared-Doves either. They were established in Ventura years before the nationwide invasion...what else would they be? I'm assuming you don't think they actually flew here from the Old World.

      At this point I think most people accept Swallow-tailed Gull(s) as naturally-occurring, unless one wants to add a "ship-assisted" conspiracy, which I think is BS.

      Fully agreed that the pattern of occurrence cannot be 100% relied upon, but it is certainly useful. It can also be used in retrospect...for example, if the American Southwest started getting silky-flycatchers regularly starting this year, people would probably reexamine/reconsider the previous records.

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    2. Heh. Not a conspiracy, just ingrained assumptions that such sightings are not worthy and thus they don't get in the pages of "North American Birds" or make the hotlines because of those assumptions.

      Eurasian Collared-Dove was not "officially" on the California state list until a flock at the Salton Sea in May 2002 was accepted. The earlier reports were not accepted because of their "questionable natural occurrence." As far as I know the Ventura birds were never submitted or considered acceptable as either naturally occurring vagrants or as an established exotic introduction. In fact a check of patterns of occurrence prior to 2002 did not show clear evidence of colonization from east to west. Instead the pattern looked more like a spreading of birds from west to east with the source being Ventura.

      As for the Gray Silky-Flycatcher; the same year the bird showed up in the highlands of Orange County, there WAS a major incursion of the species into the lowlands of Mexico. Hundreds of birds were seen in areas where none had occurred before. Coincidence?

      Honestly I have no idea how one can be sure of the provenance of any of these kinds of birds. It's all just speculation, isn't it? I'm all for excluding caries and budgerigars etc., but prefer to give the benefit of the doubt to many of the more contentious candidates. If we assume they are all escapes, we may overlook key patterns by disregarding these sightings. That's what happened with Ruddy Ground-Dove in Arizona and I suspect it is happening or has happened with other species.

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