Monday, July 2, 2012

More on escaped waterfowl and our whistling-duck

The other day, I posted about a Ringed Teal that turned up at the exact same place and in the same time frame as a Black-bellied Whistling-Duck. The latter, if considered to be a wild bird, would be Ohio's third (fourth, in some estimations) record. I don't think anyone will try and make the case that the teal is a wild bird that arrived here from South America under its own steam.

Both of these species are kept in captivity with some frequency, and when I learned of the appearance of the teal, I made a post to the Ohio Birds Listserv about it. My post had two messages: 1) alert whistling-duck seekers to the presence of the teal and a link to its photo (most people in these parts probably aren't familiar with Ringed Teal); and 2) offer some thoughts about the possibility of the whistling-duck being an escapee (totally within bounds of listserv guidelines). Thought #2 set off one of the listserv users, who followed with a post that stated that "I believe the issue is best left with the OBRC (Ohio Bird Records Committee), and not to individuals (your blogger, presumably) guessing."

I tried to do my best to avoid "guessing" at such things during the ten years that I served on the Ohio Bird Records Committee, and when my last term expired, I was not required to turn in my magical avian divining rod that offered me mystical insights into the wildness of free-flying waterfowl. So as far as I am concerned, I - and anyone else for that matter - should be free to discuss such fare on the Ohio Birds Listserv. Even while an OBRC member, I did not subscribe to some rule that stated that only official OBRC members are free to publicly discuss records of rare birds. For that matter, there is no mandate that states that anyone has to accept an OBRC decision - I certainly disagree with a few, and that includes some records that were accepted/rejected when I was on the committee!

Part of the problem, I believe, is that birders have a predisposition to want to prove that rare birds that have the potential to be escapees are wild. I think we should always view such animals with a healthy dose of skepticism, especially if there is evidence that suggests that a captive origin is possible. In many cases, we'll probably never know with certainty, and in the final analysis, whether it is one individual "guessing" such as me, or an Ohio Bird Records Committee of nine people making the guess, there is oftentimes still an element of guesswork. Once a firm pattern of wild vagrancy becomes established, as may eventually be the case with Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks in the Upper Midwest and Ohio, issues of provenance become less critical. But in the infancy of such apparent distributional shifts, care should be taken to investigate extralimital records, especially of waterfowl species that are known to be widely kept by aviculturists.

Anyway, my Ohio Bird Listserv message about the ducks triggered a private response from someone who wrote me the following: "I think you've got it Jim. I've seen a "duck" farm on the edge of Mt. Vernon with loads of exotic birds for many years. It's on RT 3 at the north edge of town. I always look at it with fascination on my way to Wooster to the O.S.U. AG. Research Station." Further discussion with a colleague who lives near Mount Vernon revealed that there was, and may still be, a farm on the outskirts of town whose owner kept Trumpeter Swans, among other waterfowl. I am uncertain if this is the same farm as the one cited in the email quoted at the beginning of this paragraph, but if someone really wants to thoroughly  investigate a record such as the Mount Vernon Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, these are the sorts of things that need to be looked into.

The above exchanges led to my discovery of something else relevant to this case:

This is a screen shot of the website of the Meyer Hatchery in Polk, Ohio, which is about a one hour drive north of the pond where the teal and whistling-duck appeared. If you can't read the captions on the photo, click it to enlarge, as with all photos on this blog. Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, and Ringed Teal, both for sale.

I shot off a quick email to the Meyer people, and they responded that none of their birds are missing. But the  Meyer Hatchery is a large and professional outfit; there are scores of private breeders out there who have many of the same species, and are much harder to track down.

All I am saying is that caution should be exercised when evaluating supposedly wild waterfowl records, and the Mount Vernon whistling-duck sends up a few red flags, at least in my estimation. I'd like the bird to be wild as much as the next avid lister, but trying to determine its true status should trump another tick on the list.

NOTE: I apologize for the off-color text background; I don't know what the issue is. Blogger occasionally has its strange and inexplicable gremlins.


Wes Hatch said...

Hey Jim, I went to see the Black-bellied Whistling-Duck yesterday and the bird was alone away from all the other ducks and geese that were in the same pond. There was not Ringed Teal sadly, I was trying to add it to my exotic list (non ABA).

Wes Hatch

Jim McCormac said...

Glad you got to see the whistling-duck, Wes. Wild or not it's still a beautiful bird!

KirstenJL said...

I live not too far away in Morrow County. One day I was gazing idly out the window when a trumpeter swan landed in the field just beyond my backyard. I REALLY wanted it to be wild. Sadly, it belonged to a neighbor who kept a pair of them to keep the geese off his pond!

Scott Pendleton said...

Jim- After I saw my fist Eurasian Widgeon and then my first Tufted Duck and then my first BB Whistling-duck all on the same pond in the formerly unknown hot spot of Hopedale, I came to the realization that being on the BRC has to be a rough job when it comes to waterfowl. So I agree with the dose of skepticism you call for.
The other comment I am wondering about is the ever dwindling listserv. Even though I rarely bird outside of Harrison Co, I enjoyed seeing what was going else where in the state. I especially enjoy the behavior posts like today's Grackle kills House sparrow. Perhaps it is going the way of the phone tree.
Scott Pendleton

C. R. Elvey said...

Jim - LOTS of Amish farms with exotic birds in Wayne and Holmes County too - not including all the game farms. We get lots of calls about peacock, chukars and other things wandering into yards. There's even a farm on the Wayne/Holmes line with poor bio-security and I have, on several occasions, found strange birds wandering with my chickens.

Bob (in Powell) said...

I got a "kick" out of the logic of the analogy from the listserv post--about if an exotic showing up at Castalia made "all" the rest of the ducks exotics. I wanted to reply, "No, just the other exotics."

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone. Seems like that part of the state is a hotbed of keepers of exotic fowl. I'm not saying the Black-bellied Whistling-Duck ISN'T wild; just that it MAY be and there are red flags, and one should err in the side of caution. Bob, his Castalia analogy is nonsensical; the sort of thing one hears from avid listers who tolerate no alternative discussion that might suggest a bird is not countable. Scott, one reason the listserv is drying up is the rude treatment of posters by a few of its members. Such behavior, in part, has spawned the creation of the Birding Ohio Facebook group, which now stands at nearly 750 members. Everyone there is civil, and the group is already more active than the Ohio Birds Listserv. If you're on Facebook, give it a look.