What is Wild?
Back in 2003 when I first started birding, I encountered quite an odd duck in Central Park. This bird, pure white with a red, featherless mask around its eyes, was a Muscovy Duck. Originally native to South America, the Muscovy Duck is prized among farmers as a valuable meat duck. Wild Muscovies are mostly black, while domesticated ones can be mottled, brown, or pure white. This Muscovy was undoubtedly domesticated. Now, it is generally accepted in the birding community that one does not add domesticated, pet, or confined (e.g., zoo) birds to one’s list. This is certainly reasonable, as a trip to the local factory farm should not be considered a rewarding bird watching experience. However, at the time, I chafed at what appeared to be an arbitrary and unsophisticated view of wildness:
This mandate…doesn’t seem to take into account those birds that escape confinement and adapt to new environments. So many of our local species (can you say House Sparrow?) were intentionally introduced into the ecosystem. At what point does a bird wash off the stink of human collusion and become accepted as a wild creature again?
I am of the opinion that birds who have paid their debt to society should be accepted into nature unconditionally. A few months ago, we spotted a peacock (Indian Peafowl) running wild in Potter County, PA. This bird obviously had escaped confinement and gone native; rumor is that the peacock weathers the harsh Pennsylvania winters surprisingly well. Why couldn’t we add the Indian Peafowl to our life list? It is, for all intents and purposes, part of the ecosystem now.
Although our decision may be challenged, we are comfortable adding the Muscovy Duck as lucky number 200 to the life list, at least for the time being. At what point a domesticated bird becomes wild is anybody’s guess, but in this case, we’ll go with organizers of the Central Park BioBlitz. They respect the muscovy duck’s place in the ever-changing ecosystem of Central Park, so why shouldn’t we?
Why shouldn’t we? Because, for one thing, the American Birding Association says so. More importantly, because now that Sara and I have a few years of birding under our belt, we enjoy a more nuanced appreciation of introduced and invasive species in an ecosystem. The currency of bird watching, its purpose and provenance, is wild birds, emphasis on the wild. For birding purposes, wild means that the bird’s occurrence at the time and place of observation is not because it, or its recent ancestors, has ever been transported or otherwise assisted by man. When a rare or unexpected bird pops up hundreds or even thousands of miles outside its accepted range, one must consider the events that brought it to that place. The foreign visitor blown astray by ocean storms or led amiss during migration can be, nay should be counted with great alacrity and enjoyment. The cage bird or farm stock that slips the noose of confinement, alas, can not.
This latter category of bird, essentially chattel, can make good as an accepted member of its adopted ecosystem if and only if it descends from an established feral population. This means that the fugitive itself will never be countable, no matter how many years it thrives outside captivity. That Muscovy frequented Central Park for years; you might see it there today. However, while it certainly was as free as the mallards and black ducks with which it kept company, it simply wasn’t as wild.
The same applies to the first Monk Parakeets that infiltrated North American ecosystems, the ones rumored to have escaped from a shipment of pet birds bound for New York. Birders who encountered these lovely parrots in the 70’s or 80’s couldn’t count them, even as they spread to urban centers across the U.S., wreaking havoc on power lines up and down the East Coast. Today, however, certain populations have achieved the level of stability required to be deemed wild. This means they count from a birding perspective, a fact that undoubtedly fills these parrots with pride.
Thus, neither the Muscovy from Manhattan nor the peacock from Pennsylvania have a place on my birding life list, except in the section set aside for exotics. I removed that dapper duck, formerly the 200th bird on my list, with regret, but it doesn’t bother me anymore. The sight of a escaped avian free to do its own thing, to just be a bird, is pleasure enough.
Born to be Wild