Vote 2014.04 – Native Reintroduced Species Countability

This vote is on the following change to Article 2.B(vi) of the Interpretations of the Recording Rules:

CURRENT VERSION – “an indigenous species which is reintroduced into an historic range of the species may be counted when the population meets the ABA Checklist Committee’s definition of being established or when it is not possible to reasonably separate the reintroduced individuals from naturally occurring individuals”

WILL CHANGE TO – “an individual of a reintroduced indigenous species may be counted if it is part of a population that has successfully hatched young in the wild or when it is not possible to reasonably separate the reintroduced individual from a wild-born individual”

If you approve of this change, please respond with a YES vote and relevant reasoning. If you have suggested minor edits to the wording, please submit them with your YES vote.

If you do not approve of this change or think the wording should be changed significantly, please respond with a NO vote and relevant reasoning.

VOTES – ROUND ONE

YES – Four (4) votes
NO – One (1) vote
Proposal will proceed to Round Two of voting.

Nick Block – YES
My bottom line thought – if a birder sees a native bird doing its thing in its native habitat, the birder should be able to count it. However, that thought is tempered by the feeling that it’s not quite right to count a native bird that’s only going to survive for a short time following its release from captivity without reproducing and adding to a population. Thus, I think the breeding requirement for counting native reintroductions (NRIs) is the key aspect that makes me have no hesitations about accepting the proposal to allow counting of NRIs.

I know this decision would go against long-standing rules that require a countable population to meet the Checklist Committee’s definition of established. However, I strongly believe that native and exotic species should be treated differently when it comes to counting being tied to establishment. We are in no way claiming that these NRIs are established; we are just saying that birders should be able to count a native bird in its native habitat. It just seems right to me. For example, why should a birder have to wait 15 years to count condors in habitat where they could count condors 40 years ago? The current condors have started to hatch eggs in the wild and seem on a positive trajectory toward full reestablishment, so why not count them now?

In the end, counting/listing is a fun game for birders. Some take it very seriously, others play the game casually. I think this proposal will make the game more fun for all players without it feeling like a rule change done simply to let some players add a couple more ticks.

Shawneen Finnegan – NO
If approved, this rule change would be a major deviation from established tradition that a reintroduced native species needs to be self sustaining before becoming countable. Reasons for not voting for this rule change reflect both my opinion and the majority of people I polled.

Intellectually, counting species that are unable to sustain themselves doesn’t feel right, particularly in cases where a species was completely removed from the wild for multiple years, like California Condors. Condors as yet have no ability to survive in the wild without major support. Lead poisoning continues to be a major issue for birds in reintroduced into the wild. Twice a year they are captured for blood testing. Those with levels that are too high have to have to receive chelation therapy to detoxify their blood. Some need surgery. The ABA Checklist Committee assigns codes to each species with the condor being a Code-6 defined as: “Cannot be found. The species is probably or actually extinct or extirpated from the ABA Checklist Area, or all survivors are held in captivity (or releases are not yet naturally re-established).” This change will create an internal conflict between the two ABA committees. The condor is a very charismatic species regardless of its official countability. If people will only go look for condors if it is countable, then this rule change can easily be interpreted as list driven.

The other primary species whose countability this rule impacts is Aplomado Falcon. The situation here is not as clear cut as it is for California Condor. Most birders are likely unaware of just how many Aplomado Falcons have been released over the past twenty years in New Mexico and Texas. Since 1993-2004 the Peregrine Fund has released over 1800 falcons, plus a recent final release of 52 more. An additional 112 were released at Ted Turner’s Amendaris Ranch in New Mexico. The New Mexico and west Texas releases failed for a variety of reasons.

From 1993 to 2004, 839 Aplomado Falcons were released along the southern Texas coast. According to The Peregrine Fund’s website, there are 28 breeding pairs in two areas. The more northerly group on Matagorda Island which was thought to be stable is showing a decline in individual falcons and a loss of adult males. Habitat loss continues to be the primary hurdle for Aplomado populations both north and south of the U.S./Mexico border. Any hope of self-sustaining populations appears to hinge on habitat management. It should be noted that brush-free habitat is rapidly disappearing in northern Mexico and it is feared they will soon be extirpated there as well. There is good news as encroaching mesquite and huisache is being removed in part of Laguna Atascosa Refuge which will improve their habitat requirements.

Another consequence of this rule change is contradiction with state and provincial bird records committee rulings. Using the Aplomado Falcon as an example, the Texas Bird Records Committee (TBRC) currently considers the reintroduced population of Aplomado Falcon to be not established, nor self-sustaining and thus deems this species not countable. Traditionally, the ABA Checklist Committee has been respectful of state and provincial bird records committee decisions and rarely, if ever has added a species to the ABA Checklist that was not first accepted by a state or provincial records committee. This unilateral rule change not only undermines decisions by state/provincial BRCs, but also ignores the precedents that have been set by the ABA Checklist Committee. In my opinion, this ruling tells ABA members that records committee decisions and the viability of a reintroduced population is irrelevant. All one of these species has to do is lay an egg in the wild and it becomes countable, even if no offspring survive.

From a conservation standpoint, the species this rule mostly affects (California Condor, Aplomado Falcon, and Whooping Crane) can be viewed at a distance and will probably not be affected by increased viewing pressure once they are countable. However, we might expect that in the future some small passerine or secretive species will be impacted by this rule change. Does it make sense to subject a modest number of breeding pairs to the anticipated stress from birders hoping to add such species to their lists?

Some believe that changing the countability of the species discussed above will generate an increase in donations ear-marked for their conservation and potentially boost local economies in areas where they occur through increased ecotourism. There is also a belief that with countability comes greater awareness to their plight. At best, I believe these reasons for supporting the rule change are dubious. Of these three claims, only the potential windfall to local economies seems plausible. Designating a non-sustainable population countable may actually deemphasize the plights of these species, as it may suggest to some that they are doing better than they actually are. Lastly, I have to question the belief that there is a direct correlation between a species countability and the conservation donations that will come from those who seek to count them.

One respondent’s opinion reflects my own stating that “the spirit of birding is to find, identify and record wild birds. I think counting birds that still need the support of scientists, etc. goes against the very basics of birding. The joy of seeing the birds fly once again over their old natural haunts is a different aspect of birding that is not part of the spirit of counting, enjoying and recording information about wild birds.”

ABA has changed during the 30 years since I first became a member. When I first joined, I eagerly awaited every issue of Birding. These issues were filled with articles extolling the joys of birding, sites guides to places I had yet to visit, annual listing reports, and cutting-edge identification articles. In the mid-1990’s there was a strong push from the board to move away from listing and become more “relevant” by putting more focus on conservation issues and publishing articles that appealed to wider audience of birders. As the effects of climate change ramp up, it seems an odd time to make birds “easier” to count. This opens the door to criticism that ABA is pandering to people who want bigger lists. I’m concerned that ABA’s credibility as a player in conservation efforts will be questioned by the scientific community, other conservation organizations and agencies charged with preserving and protecting native habitats and wildlife populations. Worse yet, we may alienate many within our own membership, who have strong opinions about what is and isn’t a wild population of birds. If ABA is trying to make itself more relevant, in my opinion, this is a step in the wrong direction.

Matt Fraker – YES
Yes. Aplomados are why we bird; Condors and Cranes are why we care about conservation. We should be doing everything possible to support these efforts and by making them countable, as distasteful as that might be to some (and I completely understand this sentiment!), we should only help bring them the attention they so need.

Greg Miller – YES
Yes. The addition of the BREEDING requirement makes sense.

Jennifer Rycenga – YES
I vote in FAVOR of this change.

First, to clarify, this means that native species that are reintroduced or repatriated with human assistance, will be treated as countable once they have successfully bred in the wild. These re-patriated native species, therefore, are not being held to the standard of ‘established’ that is used to add exotic species to the ABA checklist, since these repatriated native species are already on the ABA Checklist. The logic of this rule change derives from the fact that human intervention created the three situations in question here: 1) exotic introduced species (which are either harmful or, at best, neutral to native birds and habitats), 2) recent extinctions or extirpations of native species (due to human-caused changes in habitat, human-produced climate change, or hunting pressures), and 3) scientifically-based (and supported) reintroduction of endangered (and partially or wholly extirpated) native species (which have evolved with native climates, flora and fauna, and therefore are beneficial and harmonious with native birds and habitats). Human intervention for repatriation of native birds (henceforth “repat-o-nbs”) stems from a positive motivation and pro-active response to threats of extinction and climate change, while the introduction of exotic birds (henceforth “intro-exo”), when created by human intervention, lacks any motivation reasonably stemming from conservation or ecological purposes. Regrettably, with scientific estimates running as high as 50% of bird species facing extinction within a century, Birdlife International writes that species in steep decline “are often reduced to tiny populations that may persist for some time but are nevertheless almost certainly doomed to extinction in the absence of intervention” (http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/sowb/state/STATE1; see also http://birds.audubon.org/state-birds). This final clause – “in the absence of intervention” – suggests that, in the near future, there will likely be many more captive breeding programs and similar interventions to rescue and expand populations of endangered species. Birders should be encouraged to care about these species, to support the efforts to save them, and to use our field skills to document the progress of repat-o-nbs in citizen-science forums (eBird, iNaturalist, Christmas Bird Counts, Breeding Bird Atlases, etc.). In my home county of San Mateo California, for instance, three sightings over the past decade of free-flying California Condors – a good fifty miles (as the Condor flies) from their release sites in San Benito and Monterey counties, is certainly good news, indicating the wide-ranging behavior characteristic of this species. Declaring this bird as non-countable because of continued human intervention and hands-on monitoring, comes across as a stringent wait-and-see policy for a species that belongs in and to the habitat and area in question. Furthermore, the handful of species affected by this change – Whooping Crane, California Condor, and Aplomado Falcon – are disproportionately affected compared to other species, because they were in imminent danger of extinction or had been totally extirpated. Other reintroductions conducted with massive human scientific intervention (e.g. Peregrine Falcon) were of species where not all individuals had to be (or even conceivably could be) removed from the wild. This produces an odd situation, in which the last free-flying California Condors in 1987, being driven to extinction by negative human behaviors, were more highly valued by birders then the descendants of those last birds in the wild, now numbering over 400 (http://www.defenders.org/california-condor/basic-facts), which represent a growing success story (now aided by California legislation against the use of lead in ammunition, passed within the last year).

Of course, some may say that repat-o-nbs will turn out to be failures, go extinct in any case, and/or never fully wean themselves from human support. But, I would argue, should the reintroduction of the California Condors fail utterly, and the species become extinct, no harm was done in allowing them to be countable by birders during the time that the experimental reintroduction was underway (1992-present). This would be congruent with the change that the RSEC has made on the countability of exotic species that have been extirpated from North America (e.g. Crested Myna, http://birding.bc.ca/regions/vancouver/crested-myna-exterpated.php). I would underline, though, that the clause I added – “no harm was done” – needs added stress in the revised ABA Code of Birding Ethics: birders are not to interfere, in any way, with scientists and the protocol they are using in the field when involved in repat-o-nbs, and that birders count these species only when they are observed in the wild (thus, I could count the individual California Condor I saw flying above the Pinnacles National Monument, but not a California Condor that I observed in the hands of a scientist who was administering treatment to the bird; this is congruent with other listing rules).

I am aware that we have no precedent for this situation. But the high likelihood that this doleful (but, ultimately hopeful) project of rescuing species from extinction through captive breeding will expand, makes it imperative to change the rules now. The very possibility of saving a species from extinction through captive breeding is still new, and, while growing in sophistication, likely will suffer many vicissitudes between failure and success. But, by making this change to the ABA countability rules, the RSEC and the ABA (and birders in general) will announce that we would rather be on the side of repat-o-nbs, that we would rather bet on native species coming back than to bet against them. In other words, while pessimism concerning the eventual success of repat-o-nbs may be scientifically valid, it is hardly unanimous: the mere fact of ‘doubt’ does not raise an opinion to the level of scientific method. More crucially, our doubts and pessimism should not be regnant over support for repat-o-nbs. Finally, it is just insulting to be holding the reintroduced California Condor to a higher standard than the noxious Eurasian Collared-Dove; I recently had the occasion to be watching a CACO at a distance, while being surrounded at close quarters by EUCD that were looking for handouts and human-produced garbage around cars in a parking lot. The countability of the EUCD over the CACO was, to say the least, ironic, let alone the rationale that the CACO is more dependent on human assistance than the EUCD – that was certainly not an obvious conclusion from the evidence around me.

VOTES – ROUND TWO

YES – Four (4) votes
NO – One (1) vote
Proposal will proceed to Round Three of voting.

Nick Block – YES
Although my vote is not changed on this issue, I think Shawneen brings up many good points. A few responses:

  • Code 6 (specifically, “releases are not yet naturally re-established”) – I do not think we are going against the ABA Checklist Committee (or the Texas records committee) here because we are not trying to say that these native reintroduced (NRI) populations are re-established. That is a point I do not think we can emphasize strongly enough. This decision, I think, is changing a rule in the counting game, not trying to undermine any scientific opinions of the CLC. I completely agree that condors should not be considered established. I just don’t think that should play a role in counting native species in native habitats.
  • Large numbers of Aplomado Falcons released – Just a quick correction to Shawneen’s comments: the Matagorda Island population is apparently secure, and it is only the Brownsville population that might be showing a declining trend in male recruits. “The number of pairs on Matagorda Island has remained more or less constant for almost a decade” (Hunt et al. 2013). Although I think the verdict is still out on the Brownsville population, I personally think the Matagorda Island population could be considered established. Regardless, I don’t think that’s relevant to this particular vote.
  • Conservation – I know the committee has varying opinions on how this issue relates to conservation, but to be honest, it has not played a large role in my thought process. I think it’s just speculation to argue the possible conservation results (i.e., more awareness and support vs. less); we just don’t know.
  • I found the quote from a respondent to Shawneen very well-said, and I am very glad she shared it. I think it’s important that we understand the different viewpoints that the ABA membership might have on this decision. Having said that, I simply disagree with the statement that “The joy of seeing the birds fly once again over their old natural haunts is a different aspect of birding that is not part of the spirit of counting, enjoying and recording information about wild birds” (my emphasis added). Why is it not part of the spirit of counting? I absolutely think it is. I recognize that this is a very subjective issue, though.
  • My main concern is that Shawneen’s majority of respondents could mirror the majority of the entire ABA membership. The majority if birders I have spoken to about the topic were actually quite open to the idea of counting NRIs, particularly after we discussed the issue beyond the kneejerk reaction of “no, because that’s how it’s always been”. However, I’m still concerned that the reaction to this decision could be the opposite of what I anticipate—that most birders will welcome the change. That’s why it’s imperative that we present the final decision with an in-depth and open explanation.

Shawneen Finnegan – NO
No changes.

Matt Fraker – YES
I share perhaps more than I would care to admit Shawneen’s reticence in allowing the passage of this clause. But when I really delve deep into which bothers me more — being able to count a species that cannot survive without a huge direct investment from mankind versus letting these creatures remain uncountable because of a mantra that science must dominate a lifelist — the latter situation bothers me much more, and to me comes off as much more arrogant than the purported arrogance of the listing world.

We are talking about a piece of paper with boxes on it. To make NRIs countable is not scientific AT ALL. It is an adjustment in a sport that at it’s most basic level has nothing to do with science (and yet at it’s most complicated level has made huge contributions to citizen science). The thought that we are directly undermining the CLC with this decision due to its Code 6 clause and it’s clearly outdated or off-topic direction that native re-introduced species need to abide by the same set of establishment rules to which exotics are subjected makes no sense to me at all. The CLC is science; their’s is a streamlined process of how or why a species is added to our ABA list. But Code 6 and the shared rules of establishment — that’s muddy as hell, and this is where I fear an arrogance of anti-countability that I do not understand. These are OUR NATIVE BIRDS. We are why they are screwed. So we are supposed to apply the science of their being screwed to a piece of paper with boxes on it and say a person cannot enjoy the act of seeing one of these birds and counting them?

In the wild, just as in zoos, breeding is the ultimate measure of success. If these birds are able to create, lay, incubate, hatch, and raise young to a fledgling state, then biologically they have succeeded. Their juvenile and adult attrition is not classic evolutionary selection — it is human caused loss of habitat; human caused lead toxins in the environment; humans with guns that like to shoot big white birds. And because of this, we feel we have the right to keep people from putting them on a list that in all actuality is arbitrary anyway?

I am comfortable that it’s time to put these birds on our lists and not in any way that is meant to offend the science of the CLC.

Greg Miller – YES
My original vote was YES. I will stick with that.

Jennifer Rycenga – YES
My vote remains the same, in favor of the change.

VOTES – ROUND THREE

YES – Four (4) votes
NO – One (1) vote
Proposal is accepted; Rule 2.B(vi) is changed accordingly.

Nick Block – YES
No additional comments.

Shawneen Finnegan – NO
Thanks, Nick for correcting me on the stability of the northern subgroup of APFA. You are correct that it is currently considered a stable group. I do hope they can monitor the habitat of the southern population so that it thrives. I have amended my first round vote to reflect this and have attached it.

Granted listing is a just game and the reason for ABA’s original establishment. Yet even in the early years there was friction among members when it came to the emphasis on listing. I recently asked another former member of the ABA CLC for his opinion and his comment was that it felt like this change would cheapen the experience. His thoughts mirror my own. I can’t help but feel ABAs reputation will be diminished in many people’s eyes because of this rule adoption.

Matt Fraker – YES
No additional thoughts.

Greg Miller – YES
No new comments.

Jennifer Rycenga – YES
My vote continues to be in favor of counting reintroduced native species. As Nick emphasized in his second round comments, this is not because these native reintroductions are firmly established, or out of conservation danger. On the contrary, the countability of reintroduced natives highlights the conservation plight surrounding these particular birds.

Human investment in others – whether those others are people, animals, or landscapes – comes from attention. Most ABA members have some connection to listing birds; indeed, it is arguably the raison d’etre of the organization. Listing constitutes a form of attention, that ABA members (by definition) acknowledge as legitimate (even if they are not listers themselves). The ABA has very little conservation power in its immediate grasp; the rules of listing are one of the few fungible forms of change we control.

Summarizing my previous arguments, then, reintroduced native birds have been driven to the brink of extinction because of human impacts on the environment. They are being reintroduced through the best science we know as of now, with constant adaptations (that can be influenced by evidence from birders, btw). Supporting those efforts, by maintaining an avid interest in these species within the birding community, helps birds and birders. Since climate change predictions suggest rescuing species will happen more rather than less often in the near future, it is important to establish a policy in line with the twenty-first century’s urgencies and realities.

The current listing rules place the birds most negatively affected (such as California Condor and Whooping Crane) at an unfair disadvantage vis-a-vis other human-assisted species (such as Peregrine Falcon), because it was possible to take all surviving members of these species into captivity. This renders those birds whose recovery is most logistically and scientifically complicated (and therefore requiring more public support and cooperation, as has been seen with the recent passage of an anti-lead ammunition ordinance in California), of lower interest to birders, and does so in the spirit of a scientific purity which doesn’t fit the situation (since a decision to make the birds countable does not mean that we consider them to be established).

The non-countability of reintroduced native species places them at a lower priority for birders than introduced birds (I write this having made the climb for the Himalayan Snowcock twice this month…).

Is there a correlation between the countability of a bird and conservation contributions? I cannot address that at the level of formal statistical studies, but I can say that at the personal level, I have often become more engaged with a species that I have seen in the wild, and donated to the conservation of that species and/or habitat as a result. I do not think that there is a simple correlation between countability and conservation dollars, but I would return to the word I used above – attention. Countability creates attention, and attention creates interest, engagement, and even emotion and attachment. I’d rather take the chance on that correlation, than on a stance of moral purity that says that birders “should” intrinsically be interested in conservation, bracketing their personal interest in listing. That may, indeed, be noble, but I think it establishes a situation where the perfect moral stance becomes the enemy of the greater good.

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