Birding Without Borders

Day 141: Determining Which Non-Natives Count

Some escaped former pets now make their homes in U.S. cities—do they count for the big year?

May 21, 2015, Phoenix, Arizona — After hearing the Black Rail last night, Michael Retter and I got to sleep at 3:30 a.m. We were up again at 9:30, and spent this morning working our way up to Galveston Island on the central Texas coast, spotting a Pacific Loon and a Redhead under a funny sign (see photo). 

In this area, the landscape is flat, flat, flat. The outer beaches are packed with houses and condos on stilts, built practically right up to the tide line. In one neighborhood, Michael remarked, “None of these houses were here 10 years ago,” and we wondered how many more years the buildings will last before the next hurricane sweeps them into the sea. Haven’t these people heard about what happens when you build on the sand? The insurance must be stratospheric.

We spent the afternoon in an urban park in Houston, in a 90-degree rain shower, looking for Northern Red Bishops and Bronze Mannikins. These birds are African species that have inadvertently escaped in several U.S. cities (while being kept as pets) and established their own semi-wild populations. Non-native birds count for me as long as they are clearly maintaining themselves in the wild, but there are many gray areas. In the U.S., the American Birding Association maintains an official checklist of “countable” introduced species which, so far, does not include the bishop or the mannikin, so I wouldn’t be able to add them to my year list until, one day, they might be recognized as part of North America’s established avifauna. As it happened, we got wet and didn’t see the birds, so it was a moot point. I should find almost all these introduced species in their native ranges this year anyway!

The park was busy with families, joggers, couples, and other groups. After a while, Michael realized that we were the only white people in the neighborhood, a fact that had completely escaped me. After four and a half months in Latin America, it feels normal to be the only blond guy in a crowd! Besides birds, I have been surrounded by thick slices of humanity this year, mostly in earth tones. Every day, I see thousands of faces—on the street, in the cities, even in the remote areas, and people wave and smile and go about their business. 

This evening, I joined another river of humanity at the Houston airport and winged westward to Arizona, ready to hit the desert when the sun comes up again. 

New birds today: 7

Year list: 2595

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