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Detailed rules govern the counting of birds

This drake duck appeared this spring in a flooded field near Harwood. While showing obvious signs of cinnamon teal genes, this bird also displayed a subdued white crescent bordering its bill making it a blue-winged teal x cinnamon teal hybrid, a non-countable bird according to the ABA rules. Dean Riemer

Collections mean things to people. I'm no psychologist but I suppose they represent order for folks; some way of making sense of disparate items by lumping them together in a tidy package. My neighbor has some Hummel's for instance. Walk into my mother's home and a person will find boxes of Precious Moments. People will collect just about anything and everything from matchbooks to classic cars.

In a way, birdwatchers collect too. But it's normally in the form of lists (which I've addressed before in this space). Every birder I know keeps lists of various sorts to categorize the birds they've encountered. One would think the concept of counting birds would be fairly straightforward. But the tacit governing body of birders - the American Birding Association - sets forth five rules by which lists must be gathered. And like most rules, the devil is in the details.

The first one states "The bird must have been within the prescribed area and time-period when encountered." That's simple enough. But it does restrict a person a little bit. If a birder is walking along the Red River, for instance, and sees a rare bird on the Minnesota side, guess what? It doesn't count for your North Dakota list. It's got to cross that river. This has made a few recent outstanding Moorhead birds a tad annoying.

Rule number two says the bird must be "a species currently accepted by the ABA checklist committee for lists within its area..." This particular principle is replete with multiple sub-rules for obvious reasons. A person is not supposed to count things like Chukar partridge in North Dakota. Why? The bird is an introduced (non-native) one which has not become established on its own enough to meet checklist criteria. However, non-native birds like ring-necked pheasant, gray partridge, house sparrow, European starling, and rock pigeon are "countable" due to their being firmly established.

This spring was a special one for a few of us. Twice we encountered obvious hybrid birds. One was a male blue-winged teal x cinnamon teal hybrid near Harwood. The other was in Armour Park, a golden-winged warbler x blue-winged warbler hybrid known as a "Brewster's" warbler. The latter represented only the second one ever encountered in North Dakota. But guess what? We can't officially "count" either bird under the definition of rule number two. Hybrids are not an official species.

What about the California condor? Nope, not yet. The bird has not recovered enough to make the official checklist but it should happen in the coming years. Eurasian collared-doves - now residents of West Fargo, Horace, and Harwood - are countable. Their recent invasion of the state has put them on our official checklist.

The third rule uses three words: alive, wild and unrestrained. Simply put, you can't count a road kill, you can't count a bird in the aviary at the Red River Zoo, and you can't count a trapped or netted bird.

Rule four talks about identification - either visually or aurally - by the person with the list. Enough clues to the bird's identification must be gathered in order for a person to definitively count the bird.

Here's one scenario where rule four flexes its muscle. Let's say two birders are walking when one sees a peregrine falcon flying away and announces it to the other. But by the time the second person finds the falcon all she sees is a distant something-or-other. Interpretation: that's a non-counter for the second person.

The fifth and final rule addresses ethics, most dealing with respectful treatment of the birds themselves and property. Briefly, a guy can't trample around and harass a bird in hopes of a better look then count it after he's i.d.ed it. Nor can a bird be listed after trespassing on someone's land.

It gets deeper than described above but that's the short interpretation of the rules as I know them. To some, it may seem a little silly to even have these restrictions. I would guess the intent is to make the vast mosaic of data translatable across the years and across political boundaries while maintaining a level of environmental awareness. Fair enough. But I'd sure like to make room for those two hybrids on my Cass County list. That darned rule two.