But Can You Count It?

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Central Park © Agatha Kadar

New York’s Central Park is an extraordinary place for birds. Over the years, this 843-acre island in the heart of Manhattan’s sprawling urban expanse has hosted a dazzling avian extravaganza—more than 260 species running the gamut from waterfowl to warblers. Most of the birds you’ll find are more or less expected for the park’s location—in the Northeast and along the Atlantic flyway—and the particular season you might be birding there. Some visitors are less common than others, and some seasons are more productive. Migration, as you might imagine, is particularly good. It’s the sheer number and variety of birds that makes Central Park so special, though. Hemmed in on all sides by concrete and steel and the constant press of urban humanity, Central Park is the largest expanse of green for miles—and it beckons like a seductress, promising food, shelter, and rest to these weary winged wayfarers.

However, Olmstead’s creation is also justifiably famous for attracting vagrants from all over North America—Barnacle Goose, Painted Bunting, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Pine Grosbeak, and Black-throated Gray Warbler have all put in appearances. Occasionally, circumstances will conspire to bring in a wanderer from Europe—birders finding themselves at the happy confluence of time and place have been rewarded with Tufted Ducks, Eurasian Wigeons, and European Goldfinches. Rare enough, but it does happen.

Mandarin Duck, Livingston Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy

This fall, though, a traveler from way out of town found his way here: a drake Mandarin Duck, native of East Asia and one of the showiest waterfowl anywhere, materialized out of nowhere and settled in among the park’s workaday waterfowl. How, one might ask, did this happen? How is it possible that a duck common in eastern China and Japan journeyed some 6500 miles to Central Park?

The answer is, it didn’t.

Probably.

When speaking of birds, I avoid the words “always,” “never,” and “impossible.” They invariably cause trouble, as the minute anyone utters one of them—often in a voice replete with assurance—some bird shows up to present an opposing view. As a good friend of mine is fond of saying, “birds have wings and they like to use them”—and I’ve witnessed enough and heard of even more to realize that, as far as birds are concerned, almost anything is possible. Still, in the case of the Central Park Mandarin, this would be extreme: Mandarin Ducks are short-distance migrants, and East Asia is a long way from New York.

So where did it come from? There are two probable sources: a nearby zoo/wildlife center or a private waterfowl collection (these ducks are very popular among collectors). Even under the most carefully controlled conditions, escapes still happen and formerly captive birds find their way into the wild. And sometimes people intentionally let birds go, because they either can’t or won’t care for them any longer.

Regardless of the bird’s origin, birders from all over have been flocking to Central Park for a glimpse of New York’s newest winged celebrity. This raises what, for many, is a question of paramount importance: can it be counted?

A brief digression for my readers not intimately familiar with the language of birding: A “countable” bird is one that can legitimately be added to your life list (a list of birds you’ve seen over your lifetime). Though the rules vary in their details from region to region, generally for a bird to be countable it has to be two things: 1) wild, and 2) a full species (not a subspecies or a hybrid). Each major birding region has its own arbiter that sets the rules (in North America, it’s the American Birding Association, or ABA), following the most recent science and research; birders then use these rules to determine which birds can be listed (a note to my experienced birders: yes, I know this is a gross oversimplification, but for the purposes of this discussion, it’ll do).

Black Swan, Cape May

That’s if you want to keep your list “official.” In practice, you can list anything you want, and many birders do. Some maintain multiple lists, keeping records of everything they’ve seen as well as the agency-approved list of countable species. Birders make life lists, year lists, country lists, state lists, county lists, yard lists, lists of birds seen while running, walking the dog, using the bathroom… there’s an endless variety. Myself, I keep track of anything I see in the wild—including hybrids and escapees. If it’s out there, I make a note of it, provenance be damned.

To be sure, there are valid and extremely important scientific reasons to determine the origin of an out-of-town arrival. Foremost is conservation—of the bird’s native habitat (has it been displaced due to loss of its former home?), the new habitat it’s chosen to reside in, the bird itself, and the native birds upon which it may have an impact (think European Starlings or House Sparrows in the United States). There’s also the issue of disease—is the bird harboring some foreign pathogen that could gain a foothold in a new area? And there’s another, more sobering, reason: as our climate continues to heat up, a bird that shows up well beyond its typical range might be warning of disruption on a massive scale, a rumble of distant thunder signaling the coming storm.

But that’s a discussion for another time.

Asking whether or not Central Park’s Mandarin Duck is countable misses the point. The real question is this: Does it matter? If you go out birding simply to keep score, if you care more about your life list than the birds that are on it, then there’s something wrong. I once heard someone say, rather loudly, that a hybrid Clapper x King Rail was worthless because he couldn’t count it. Unable to appreciate this spectacular bird or the life it represented, he angrily moved on. To him, birds existed solely for his benefit; a bird he couldn’t list had no reason for being. He’d reduced birding to a competition devoid of joy or any remnant of the spirit of wonder that drives those of us who are truly passionate about birds. I felt sorry for him.

Yes, I keep a life list. Listing is, after all, fun. But for me, a list is greater than just marks on paper. It represents a collection of experiences; reviewing it is a trip into the past, a reminder of places I’ve been, what I’ve seen there, and the times I’ve spent with friends and family among the birds that I love.

Brewster’s Warbler, Sweet Alice Conservation Area, Amherst

But there’s something larger, something far beyond the tangled threads of my own experience. For me, listing a species of uncertain provenance is a way of showing it respect, of celebrating it and acknowledging its value as an individual. Central Park’s magical Mandarin is, after all, a life—full and complete and existing on its own terms—and whether it’s an escapee or a wild vagrant, it has found a way to make a living on alien shores. It is, in every sense that matters, wild.

How did it get here? Where did it come from? And where is it going? These questions are at the heart of all of birding’s great mysteries, and exploring them leads down the paths of discovery, revelation, and wonder. Once you set out upon them, you’ll begin to ask other questions: How do these creatures live? What do they need to survive? And how can we safeguard their future? These are the questions that truly matter, the ones whose answers lead to a greater appreciation of the lives that surround us, an awakening to the connection of all things, and a realization that we, like they, have our part to play in the survival of all.

Ultimately, the question of a bird’s countability is insignificant. Worse, it distracts from a fundamental truth: There is dignity in these uncountable birds, as there is in all life. And regardless of origin, they are entitled to the same level of respect, appreciation, and love that we all deserve. By listing the birds we encounter—wild or otherwise—we acknowledge their existence and make a record of their passing, and remind ourselves that for a moment, our paths crossed and we shared a brief slice of time with something beautiful and extraordinary. If you let it, it will change your life.

That’s why we bird.

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Mandarin among the Mallards, Central Park

 

Life On The Margins

Verdin, Phoenix, AZ

A friend of mine was recently traveling through Arizona, and while waiting out a flight delay at the Tucson airport, she wandered over to a tiny park jammed in between the rental car office and pickup garage. It had picnic tables, benches, small arbors, and even a water feature—so she did what any self-respecting birder would: looked for birds. If anything, she expected those most ubiquitous of urban birds: House Sparrows (the park was, after all, surrounded by concrete and jet noise). What she found was something else entirely: two Yellow-rumped Warblers foraging in a flowering bush, and, much to her surprise, a pair of Verdins busily constructing a nest in one of this mini-park’s little trees. She spent a fair bit of time enjoying their company, amazed at their ability to find succor in this rather depleted habitat.

It’s a story I’ve heard (and experienced) many times. Different species and different locations to be sure, but the theme is always the same: birds making a living in the unlikeliest of places, on the margins between the natural and constructed worlds. Peregrine Falcons are prime examples, able to thrive in the heart of the urban jungle, substituting skyscrapers for cliff ledges and making off with whatever prey presents itself (pigeons are favorite targets, and the falcons’ preference for these birds makes them very popular with city dwellers). Red-tailed Hawks have likewise found a place among humans—in some cases, attaining celebrity status (New York City’s Pale Male being perhaps the most famous). Ducks and geese are exceptionally good at making the most of the smallest of ponds. And gulls, pigeons, House Sparrows, Crows, and Starlings have all discovered the bounty offered by the detritus of our daily lives. But there are other, less obvious stories: Yellow-breasted Chats—Cardinal-sized warblers, highly secretive—show up in postage-stamp city parks; the flowered walkways outside New York’s American Museum of Natural History hosted a Rufous Hummingbird through one winter; and I know of an Ovenbird—a shy warbler of the forest floor—that spent part of the year in and around a city convenience store’s meager lawn.

Peregrine Falcon

These are somewhat extreme examples, but they are no means the only ones. Far from natural, many places we think of as ideal for birds are islands of habitat surrounded by harsh and inhospitable terrain. Arguably the most famous of these is Central Park, 843 acres of green set in Manhattan’s concrete core. To say that the park is good for birds is a gross understatement: on a normal day, it’s fantastic; during migration, it’s extraordinary. Warblers, orioles, blackbirds, tanagers, vireos—a host of species descend upon the park to feast on its bounty and shelter in its sylvan grounds. Birding here, it’s easy to get caught up in the extravaganza without questioning why it takes place. Take a look at a map of the city, though, and the reason is obvious: it’s one of the last, best naturescapes left in this vast metropolis. To birds exhausted by the trials of migration, Central Park offers sustenance and safety, a verdant oasis in an otherwise alien land—a margin, but on a grander scale.

Sanderlings

Grandest of all margins, though, is the one that marks the boundary between earth and ocean. Here along the coast, where the land slips into the surf, are birds who push the notion of survival to the extreme. As a group, shorebirds undergo some of the longest migratory journeys—and longest non-stop flights—in the world. Most travel tens of thousands of miles each way, and sometimes stay aloft for days at a stretch—a feat that pushes endurance far beyond the reasonable; in addition to nearly doubling their weight before setting out, some birds, like Red Knots, Bar-tailed Godwits, and Sanderlings, digest muscle tissue and internal organs to carry them the distance. Those who break their journeys to rest and refuel (and some don’t) do so on beaches up and down the coast. For other birds, the beach represents migration’s end: American Oystercatchers, Least Terns, and Piping Plovers are among those who make their homes on the shore, nesting in depressions they dig out of the sand. But whether they pass through or settle down, these birds share something crucial: Beachfront property isn’t a luxury for them, it’s a necessity. And yet this narrow, vital edge is under constant siege, imperiling all who rely on it. The birds who survive here exist at a confluence of conflicts: the shifting balance between land and sea; development against conservation; political will versus ecological reality; and human want versus avian need. For now, they still persist—but they’re forced to do so on an ever-shrinking landscape, each vanishing piece taking with it another chance for the birds.

The capacity to exist on the margins, to find food and shelter on the edges of our lives, is a testament to birds’ knack for survival. But they can be pushed only so far. Every species has a breaking point past which it can no longer recover, a threshold that, once crossed, leads to a finality frightening to contemplate. Without care, sooner or later these margins may become too small to support the birds that depend on them, leading them down the path traveled by the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, Eskimo Curlew, Labrador Duck, and many others. Still, all is not yet lost. Birds can adapt, given adequate time to do so and enough open space to call home. But ultimately it’s up to us. Their fate is in our hands, and we must ask ourselves if we can find it in our hearts to make room for them, encourage their recovery, and champion their survival. A world rich with birds awaits us, if we only have the courage to create it and the wisdom to understand why.

Piping Plover