30th January 2020: Reflections: Tick or Freak?



The Canada goose - introduced in to parks in Britain so definitely 'plastic'?
Reviewing tweets for nature sightings in Dorset each day to add to my Nature of Dorset database I detect that some birds are treated with a degree of disdain by experienced birders who consider them to be, amongst other printable adjectives, “plastic”. In other words, they are not real birds, they are not real ticks for a list.

I want to say at the outset that I have no problem with birders keeping lists; it is what birders do and is part of the excitement of bird watching and, whilst I have never been a lister myself, I can understand the motivation behind it. My reflections here are whether these “plastics” should be included in records, in particular, should I include them in the Nature of Dorset database.

I would suggest that there are three categories of “plastics”; releases, reintroductions and escapes. What qualifies a bird to be included in one of these categories is a moot point.

Releases are the easiest to identify as I would define them as those species intentionally released for ‘sport’, by that I mean slaughter not bird watching! There are two obvious candidates for this category, pheasant and red-legged partridge. Without release programmes to provide shooting stocks these two species would probably quickly die out in the English countryside. If I was recording mammals I would not include cows and sheep so should pheasants be included?

The second category I mentioned are reintroductions; this is much more difficult. The great bustards reintroduced on Salisbury plain are now spreading out but seem to attract little interest from birders and, indeed, I have seen them referred to as turkeys! However, when a white stork from the Sussex reintroduction project arrived in the Frome valley a little while ago quite a number of birders flocked to see it. We also see cranes in the county from time to time from the reintroduction programme on the Somerset levels. Are birds from these projects “plastics” or worthy records/ticks? 

Before writing off the bustards and cranes as “plastics” one should bear in mind that there are programmes to reintroduce osprey breeding into Poole Harbour and white-tailed eagles on to the Isle of Wight; defining the bustard as “plastic” must also mean the ospreys and eagles are plastic; yes?

Escapes are the most difficult in this group and so I have left them until last! Keeping wildfowl in collections and other birds in aviaries is now, fortunately, far less common than was once the case. Wherever there is/was a collection there will be/have been escapes. Two obvious examples are the Canada goose and ring-necked parakeets, both of which have increased substantially in numbers over the years and are considered something of a pest. 

I can understand why someone might get in their car and travel some distance to see a rare wader on an estuary in Cornwall to get a ‘“lifer” it is hard to imagine anyone trekking down to Lodmoor to see the black swan even if they had not seen one before! Once could one go to the wildfowl trust centres and see ducks and geese from all over the world but one would hardly add nee-nee (Hawaiian goose) to ones life list having seen it wandering around Slimbridge so why include the ring-necked duck that has escaped from a collection and is visiting various sites in Dorset at the moment?

The point of this rambling is, I hope, to show that this is not, in my view, at least a straight forward issue. When it comes to what to record or what to tick what should you include and what should you ignore? My conclusion, after much reflection, is that you should include all birds seen in the wild, “plastic” or not.

I have two reasons for saying this; firstly it is important to understand how reintroduced and escaped species are faring, what their numbers are and where they are. The ruddy duck is an escape that has done well but in Spain is interbreeding with the white-headed duck threatening the white-headed duck’s future and monitoring the numbers and distribution of the ruddy duck is an important part of trying to conserve the endangered white-headed duck.
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The second reason is simple; deciding which to record and which to not record is not clear cut and so it is better to record everything rather than be selective. I would prefer all birders to keep 100% lists and submit them as records rather than just keep lists for their own satisfaction - indeed keep both but records can only reveal anything scientifically significant if 100% records are kept and submitted.

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