There are few more vexing questions in birding than the question of whether or not a bird counts. Counts for what, exactly? That’s a good question. Presumably for some form of list. Or perhaps not.  Even the most free-wheeling of birders don’t usually consider going to a zoo or a chicken farm a form of birding, but just because they choose to distinguish doesn’t mean they keep a list.

But still, birders generally do want their birds to count. When I worked for a bird observatory in California I learnt quite a lot about this, for example that the ABA had to change the rules about whether birds counted if you heard them. Apparently people would drag chains through swamps to flush them so they could count them. I was also told birds don’t count if you caught them in a mist net, and was told that for it to count you had too look away as it was released and then look back. As for introduced or reintroduced species it would only count if it was third generation reintroduced. How one obtained the genealogy of a bird that you saw out in the wild was not explained to me.  One utterly baffling discovery was the statement in a birding magazine that many American birders were reluctant to go to Mexico because the birds there “wouldn’t count” (the article, I should point out, did not subscribe to that view).

How much the above stories actually ring true depends a great deal on how closely you yourself  decide. For your own list you get to decide whether you count birds that you hear or not. Insofar as they are any actual rules it is more a case of how closely your personal rules match the requirements of what rarity recording authorities. If you wish to bird competitively, like a big year, you’ll probably use such rules, but for the rest of us it’s a more personal and perhaps arbitrary thing.

Does that mean, then, that it really doesn’t really matter? Not quite. The rules you have don’t really affect anyone else unless you’ve wagered a pint on your year list (good thing I didn’t this year cause I am way down on almost everyone else). But if you have rules and they cause you to… act less than angelically then it can be a bad thing. The birders trying to flush up Yellow Rail is a good example of this. Most birders who wouldn’t count a bird they heard  wouldn’t behave stupidly like this, but if a few that could can be convinced to cheat by hearing rather than causing mayhem that can only be a good thing.

This brings me, in a roundabout way (as is my want) to New Zealand birding and listing. One preoccupation I have already alluded to in listing is whether introduced species count. This is something that would be quite a big deal in New Zealand. Quite aside from how many introduced exotic species we have here (hint, it’s a lot), any number of the native species you might see could qualify as “introduced” by some measure or another. The very fragile state of many of the species here means that active conservation has to be done to keep them going. And one of the oldest tools conservationists had, and still use, is translocation. It makes sense, really, if you have a rare species in a remote location, you want to spread the risk around by establishing more populations. And once you have a number of smaller populations you want to keep moving birds around to stop any one population becoming too isolated and inbred. Birds in New Zealand, the rare ones, are actively and aggressively managed. It’s a fact of life, and their ongoing existence.

Which brings me back to the listers. I once found a query on a birding forum, asking about access to one of New Zealand’s more valuable offshore islands. The gist of the request was that the birder wished to tick a “natural” population of one of the rarer New Zealand species. This species, the Stitchbird, once declined to the point of surviving on a single island. In the eyes of this birder, this population was the only “natural” one, and all subsequent translocations were introduced populations, and were somehow less worthy than the one true population.

It barely seems possible to credit such a position. Stitchbirds moved around the country are not introduced; they are reintroduced birds occupying their former range. They represent something that isn’t a negative, they are actually heralds of something positive, a sea change in the views of a country that considers such natives worthy of saving and bringing back where they belong. More worryingly, and perhaps a hard point for visitors to appreciate, the island in question is a closed reserve, as are many of the more important islands. It is not an attraction, it is maintained these days purely to protect valuable species.

I’m not suggesting that the birder in question would try and get around such regulations. Merely that some might. And that a desire for completeness could threaten some important places. I would live to go to the Snares, to the Antipodes, to Managere in the Chathams, to Little Barrier Island, Hen Island or Codfish, but these closed islands are closed for a reason. And the translocated species from these islands you can see in other places don’t represent a missed opportunity to see a bird where it belongs, but a triumph of conservation done right.

Written by Duncan
Duncan Wright is a Wellington-based ornithologist working on the evolution of New Zealand's birds. He's previously poked albatrosses with sticks in Hawaii, provided target practice for gulls in California, chased monkeys up and down hills Uganda, wrestled sharks in the Bahamas and played God with grasshopper genetics in Namibia. He came into studying birds rather later in life, and could quit any time he wants to.