Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Most Overrated Bird

There are a lot of birds in the United States. There are even a lot of birds in Canada. One can see hundreds of species in a single year, without leaving your home state. Remarkable! Those that get out regularly can find a brilliant diversity of birds without leaving their little corner of the world. There are a lot of birds to see.

As the years go by and a birder sees more and more birds, certain things happen. A birder will start to feel a certain way about certain birds. For example, I'm quite fond of Baird's Sandpipers.


Baird's Sandpipers are one of the dullest North American birds. They have a severely limited color palette to work with. In migration, the only time I ever see them, they essentially behave the same as all the other peeps, though they tend to forage on slightly drier mud rather than out in the water. Is that fascinating? I think not. They are a bit bigger than other peeps and have long wings. Their calls are distinct, but not terribly interesting. They are pleasantly patterned but it's nothing a sandpiper can brag about. I suspect they are much more interesting to watch up on their breeding grounds on the tundra...but I've never been there and never seen them north of North Dakota.

And yet...I'm quite fond of Baird's Sandpipers. Perhaps it is just a function of their abundance, or lack of it. They are not a rare bird here, but they are respectfully uncommon. It's difficult to put a finger on.

Perhaps a commoner bird would be a better example of what I'm talking about...I like rare birds, so maybe I'm biased. How about...Mew Gulls.



Mew Gulls are dirt common here. One can see hundreds in a morning without putting in any effort at all. When someone tells me they haven't seen a Mew Gull before, I look at them funny, even if there are a multitude of excellent explanations for why they have not seen one. A life of birding without Mew Gulls is a strange notion to me. They are here in the bay area, in large numbers, for almost half the year. They are a familiar sight. Unlike other gull species, one does not see a flock of Mew Gulls and immediately think, "Oooh, there could be something good in there", which is my reaction whenever I see a bunch of Glaucous-winged/Herring/Western/Thayer's, etc. Yet, like them I do. They are small, they are unobtrusive, they occasionally make cute noises, and they don't hybridize with all their cousins. They aren't terribly unique, looking like a cross between a kittiwake and a Ring-billed Gull, but that doesn't bother me. Looking at them pleases me.

But with other common birds, I feel a bit differently. I need not list them all...I approve of them, surely, but after seeing so many...it can get old. The years go by, you see thousands of them..."familiarity breeds contempt", as the saying goes. You understand this. I doubt you are thrilled to see a Double-crested Cormorant these days, there is nothing wrong with that.

However, there is one bird that people consistently really, really get worked up about in California; I don't know why...they are not rare, they are not limited to a specific habitat. They are regular here in large numbers. See?


Look at that. They seem to be everywhere! A truly abundant bird. This bird, for about half the year, is reported to listservs more than any other single species, including a lot of significantly rare species. The amount of listserv traffic the Marin Dusky Warbler generated last month was a drop in the bucket compared to the praise this species inspires. Amazing for something so common right? So what could this species be? Surely it must be something beautiful, something charismatic, something that strikes a chord deep in the heart of every birdwatcher. Could it be a bird of prey? A facemelty oriole? A striking species of waterfowl? A hell of a warbler?

No.

It's a Pine Siskin.



Why? Why is this bird so revered? Look at it! It makes a Savannah Sparrow look crippling in comparison. Minus a dash of yellow, it rocks the color scheme of a female House Finch, one of the most aesthetically-loathed birds out there. I get that people are excited about birds that show up in their yards, but why is such attention not lavished on California Towhees? Anna's Hummingbirds? Allen's Hummingbirds? Chestnut-backed Chickadees? These birds are just as worthy of praise, if not substantially more so. I have seen thousands of Anna's Hummingbirds and can still be fascinated by one...with siskins...I'm sorry, I just don't get the universal appeal. It's not as if they are a highly irruptive species here. Give me Bushtits for my team, you keep your siskins.

And so there we have it...the most overrated bird in California, in my opinion, is the Pine Siskin. It is not a bird that I have hate for, but I seem to have an empty heart for this species compared to so many other birders. Why this species dominates listservs in counties from Oregon to Mexico is not something I can fully explain.

What do you think is the most overrated bird in your state? Is it also Pine Siskin? I suspect it could be. Just don't tell me "Snowy Owl" or some other awesome bird that rightly deserves the pedestal it occupies. Let's get to the heart of this thing.

16 comments:

  1. I'm going to defy your orders and say Snowy Owl anyway. I would wager that the relative difference between actual awesomeness and outsized reaction is greater for Snowy Owls in the Great Lakes than for Pine Siskins in California. (Admittedly, I only learned of this PISI cult in Cali a couple weeks ago.) Bald Eagles and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, too. But if you really want a blah bird that is the Michigan equivalent of Californian siskins, I don't think we have one.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah I imagine the owl hype can get old....I've only seen them once though, and it was fucking awesome.

      Don't know why RTHU are so big in the east, we do not have that kind of scene here with our hummingbirds (of any species)...maybe because they are truly abundant and present year round.

      Delete
  2. But, they mimic lazerz....must count for something....

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes that does count for something, I won't take that away from them.

      Delete
  3. I believe the same phenomena happens in North Carolina, so I am going to agree with you on Pine Siskin being the most overrated bird on the right coast. They are a little more irruptive here so maybe I can understand a little the posting of large flocks of them, but what gets annoying is that everyone has to weigh in and agree that "yep I have have a huge flock of them and they are going through my thistle so fast that I am going to have to put up a second mortgage". Why does everyone seemingly complain about the Siskins but in a way that is almost like bragging rights. I was going to say Ruby-throated Hummingbird is way overrated based on the constant sightings and posts on list serve, but then remembered that they are truly badass.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well-put. There's a definite "me too!" thing going on. I'm sorry your state is in the same state as my state with the state of siskins.

      Delete
  4. Bald Eagle. Maybe not if I was like 70 years old and remembered a time when they were truly uncommon, but in Indiana they make the newspaper if someone has one hanging out in their neighborhood.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Damn. I wish we had eagles all over the place instead of siskins.

      Delete
  5. In northwest Ohio, (Hancock County) we've got at least a dozen active Bald Eagle nests. I watched a lady scare off a Piping plover to walk over and ask if I saw the eagle. In a rare instance of non-sarcasm, I asked 'Which one?', since there were 3 hunting the reservoirs that day. But in winter, I have to agree with Kirby. Snowys start showing up and everyone loses their minds. Looking at the listserv, PISI are the most common 'Me too!" bird.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Pileated Woodpeckers are way over-documented on some MN bird sites.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I'm not sure Washington has a truly good one. Pine Siskin is noted more for when they're absent then for when they show up. Last year I didn't get my year PISI until the end of June. The winter after that I couldn't leave my house without hearing them in the Douglas Firs around my yard. I had a local birder tell me they'd never seen one. They might as well have said they never saw a crow.

    Rufous Hummingbird, as one of the first obvious migrants, gets a lot of traffic, but it's hard to call it overrated.

    Among the general public though, Eagles and Herons. I wish I had back every moment I've spent where someone stops me on a trail to tell me about where I can see and Eagle or a GBH.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Just like Washington, Bald Eagle and Great Blue Heron are extremely overrated in BC.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I'd have to say cuckoos are the most overrated, at least in Massachusetts. It isn't even a specific species (Yellow-billed and Black-billed get about equal amounts of attention), but the amount of attention for two pretty common birds is astounding compared to posts on rarities and such. Both are fairly common in Massachusetts, yet every one or two years there is one person who says "it must be a cuckoo irruption year" because they had two cuckoos in one day (which is common place in forested areas any year), and everyone says that they are having the same experience as well. They may not be as popular as Pine Siskins in Cali, but they sure do get undeserved praise. I mean, they are parasitic and are mainly tones of white and brown!

    ReplyDelete