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Archive for the ‘Birding’ Category

I spent last weekend in the wonderful little town of Bolinas, CA. This special spot on the California Coast a relatively short drive north of San Francisco is a quite and quirky and very laid back. It is also right on the shore of the Pacific Ocean and Bolinas Lagoon and as such it provides access to a bunch of coastal and aquatic habitats, and I took advantage of this positioning to do a lot of birding!

Wildlife photographer captures osprey carrying shark, carrying fish in  'one-in-a-trillion photograph' | Fox News
Osprey carrying a fish. Photo Credit: Fox News

One morning, I went out to the beach to see what coastal and ocean birds I might spot and to do a bit of beach combing while I was at it. The sky was gray over the ocean, but not foggy. The tide was low and it was fun to spend a little time looking at washed up kelp, finding Sand Crabs as the waves broke on the shore, and looking out to sea at the rolling ocean. I was also enjoying watching the Western Grebes and Clark’s Grebes fishing off shore, the Double-crested Cormorants flying back and forth, and the Brown Pelicans cruising above the waves when I heard a bit of a commotion overhead. I looked up to see three birds chasing each other around in a mid-air tangle. One bird was an Osprey with a fish in its talons. The second bird was an adult Western Gull trying to steal that fish. The third bird was an adult Bald Eagle also trying to rob the Osprey! All three birds were engaged in some fancy flying over the waves as they attempted to secure their breakfast as the sun rose above the tree topped hills.

Sound Library - Bald Eagle - Yellowstone National Park (U.S. National Park  Service)
Adult Bald Eagle. Photo Credit: National Park Service

The tangle of birds did not last long. The Osprey was ultimately successful at defending its catch from the two would-be thieves and flew off to enjoy its meal. The gull quickly disappeared to forage elsewhere, but the eagle stuck around for a little while. It circled out over the Pacific for a couple of minutes, and watching for so long was a real treat for me. It then turned toward shore, dropped altitude, and flew along the beach. As it spread its huge wings about 50 feet over the sand, it flew slowly over beach goers and surfers. None of whom noticed at all! The humans were all absorbed in their own activities and did not realize that an enormous, not to mention iconic, bird was cursing right over their heads. I suppose that I should not have been surprised by this lack notice, and to a certain extent I wasn’t, but it was definitely amusing.

The Bald Eagle continued flying smoothly down the beach until it followed the bending line of the sand around a bluff and out of sight, and I continued my morning of beach exploration. It was a lovely morning that I enjoyed very much, and I hope you get out for some time on the coast as well.

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I have been thinking and writing about changing the names of birds for a little while now. Particularly, I am talking about the birds that have been named after people. In fact, an article I wrote on this subject set off a series of interactions between me and a publisher that led me to withdraw my support and contributions to several magazines that I had been writing for for years. If you want to read about that story, it starts here.

I think that the names of birds that have been named after people should be changed for a few reasons. One is that these names ignore the names used by indigenous peoples for these birds. Another is that the people for whom birds are named represent very little diversity. And an additional reason is that the people who have had birds named after them include some distinctly shady characters (racists, frauds, etc.). Allow to elaborate.

Bachman's Sparrow Songs and Calls - Larkwire
Adult Bachman’s Sparrow

One reason why the current bird names are a problem is that the idea of a (generally) European individual coming across a bird, figuring it is a new species to the scientific world, and naming it according to that European’s preference ignores the indigenous recognition of that species. Indigenous peoples have recognized, and named, the birds around them for thousands of years, but these names have been largely ignored when establishing modern bird names. In the scientific community, there are general rules for naming species and one of those rules is that the name first applied to a species is the one that gets used. What this means is that if one person in England and one person in Germany (as representative examples) both separately identify and name the same species, the name that is officially adopted is the one used by whoever named it first. So using this standard, names applied earlier by indigenous peoples around the world should have priority over names applied later by European explorers. The fact that they have not been is a product of the very Eurocentric nature of the science and age of exploration in the 1700s and 1800s, and it should be changed. All peoples from around the world should be represented and included in the choosing of species names. No one group should have control of this process.

Another reason why current bird names are a problem is that most of the people who birds have been named after, and that are recognized today, have been straight white men. This is largely a product of the fact that most of the people doing the naming of birds that are recognized today have also been straight white men. If you look in a bird book today, you will see few-to-no birds named after women, few-to-no birds named after people of color, and few-to-no birds named after members of the LGBTQIA+ community. This is racist and sexist and should be changed. If people are going to be recognized with the honor of having a bird bear their name, there is no reason why those people should all come from a small and narrow subset of humanity. There have been many women, many people of color, and many members of the LGBTQIA+ community who have contributed to to our understanding of birds and who could be honored by naming a bird after them.

Featured Birds: Baltimore and Bullock's Orioles
A male Bullock’s Oriole.

A third reason why current bird names are a problem is that some of the people whom birds have been named after don’t really deserve the honor. Some people were slave owners such as John Bachman (Bachman’s Sparrow) who also wrote of the inherent inferiority of black people. Some people were dramatically unpatriotic such as John Porter McCowan (McCowan’s Longspur) who was a confederate general who fought to destroy the United States of America. Some people desecrated the sacred sites of indigenous peoples such as John Kirk Townsend (Townsend’s Warbler and Townsend’s Solitaire) who dug up the graves of Native American men, women, and children and sent their heads to various collectors and pseudoscientists. And some people were con artists such as William Bullock (Bullock’s Oriole) who owned and curated a natural history museum that included specimens intentionally faked to attract publicity. These are people whom I do not think are worthy of being honored by having a bird named after them, but because they had money, friends, and connections we now frequently speak their names (I watched a lovely Bullock’s Oriole just a couple of days ago).

Some things are starting to change. For example, the name of the McCowan’s Longspur has been changed to the Thick-billed Longspur in light if the racist and unpatriotic actions of the confederate general. But far more needs to change in order to make the culture and community of birding as open and inclusive as it should be. A current movement is forming with the idea of changing the name of all birds that are named after people to names that are more descriptive of their natural history. This idea points out that the name Bendire’s Thrasher does not provide any useful information about the bird itself; however, Blue Grosbeak does provide some useful information (namely, that it is blue). Changing the names of all birds that are currently named after people also side-steps the problem of deciding who is and who is not worthy of having a bird named after them. Society’s morals are constantly changing, and so attempting to reinterpret past figures according to modern standards is, and will continue to be, difficult. Instead, we can make the names far more lasting and useful if we simply change the currently used names, and end the practice of naming species after people.

Thanks for visiting my blog. If you are interested in other ways to connect with me, here are a couple of options:

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I recently learned about a scholarship intended to increase diversity in the birding community. It is called the Black and Latinx Birders Scholarship, and it is run by an organization called Amplify the Future. This scholarship was founded in 2020 and seeks to amplify the successes of Black Birders and Latinx Birders by raising funds for annual scholarships and creating networks of support. This year, the American Bird Conservancy is partnering with Amplify the Future to match all donations to this scholarship up to $10,000!

Amplify The Future | LinkedIn

The website provides this information about the scholarship: “Through the Black and Latinx Birders Scholarship, we the committee seek to increase the number of Black Birders and Latinx Birders studying in STEM. Scholarship awards range from a minimum of $2,500 to a maximum of $5,000, depending on funding for the current year. The application period for the 2021-2022 school year will open February 2021. The deadline for application submissions is June 18, 2021.”

The website also has more information on eligibility, how to apply, etc.

So, go check out this great opportunity, pass it along to others who might be interested, and help support diversity in the birding community!

Thanks for visiting my blog. If you are interested in other ways to connect with me, here are a couple of options:

Become a follower of this blog!

View and subscribe to my YouTube channel – A Birding Naturalist

Follow me on Instagram – abirdingnaturalist

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Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) are a species that is growing more and more numerous, and this is a problem.

Mute Swans are the “classic” swan from stories and art. They are large and showy and beautiful and these traits are exactly why they have been introduced to North America. Birds were brought from Europe in the 1800s and released in parks, gardens, etc. as ornamental additions (New York was the original release area). These birds have since reproduced and spread across the continent as far north as New Hampshire, as far south as Florida, and as far as west as California.

Adult male Mute Swan (Cygnus olor). Source: USFWS digital library.

They are becoming problematic for several reasons. One is that they are quite aggressive, and will chase and bite humans if that human trespasses on the swan’s territory. Another is that they consume quite a bit of food. They are big birds reaching up to 25 to 30 pounds, and that means they eat about eight pounds of aquatic vegetation every day. That is food which is then not available to native birds, and it disrupts habitat for native birds, mammals, fish, and other species. And a third reason is that the swans are directly aggressive to other species of bird driving them off nests, breaking eggs, and killing the chicks of other species, and so displacing those other species from areas where they would otherwise live. With habitats becoming ever smaller and more fragmented, this can mean the native species can be left with no where to go.

These problems have all contributed to Mute Swans being added to California’s restricted species list in 2008. This listing means the birds cannot be imported, transported, or possessed in the state without a permit. This has not completely prevented the swans from beginning to become established in California. Small populations can be found in Petaluma and the Suisun Marsh. I suggest that removing this species while the population is still small is the best course of action. There is every reason to suspect that the population will grow, and as it does so, the problems listed above will become more and more apparent. However, control will become more and more difficult.

One interesting thing about Mute Swans in North America is that they do not migrate very much. There are certainly some, relatively short, seasonal movements that occur in some parts of the continent, but not much. Certainly nothing compared to the long migrations that Mute Swans in Europe engage in. The evolution of this behavior in a novel environment illustrates how different geographic regions can cause a species to adapt and change. This behavioral evolution could then lead to the evolution of a new species, if it persists and becomes dramatic enough.

So, what can you do to help native birds and habitats, and prevent Mute Swans from taking over? If you spot a Mute Swan in California, contact the California Department of Fish and Wildlife – Invasive Species Program by sending an email to: invasives@wildlife.ca.gov or calling 886-440-9530. Together, we can act as citizen scientists to gather data that tracks where these birds are and how they move around. This data will help us all make the best and most informed decisions we can about this species.

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I read something a couple of days ago that troubled and saddened me in so many ways. It was a personal account by a young woman of how she was sexually assaulted. Various search engines and social media platforms brought this article to my attention because it involved birders. In her blog post, Aisha White told of how she began exploring the world of birding in 2020. Among the many people she met included a prominent figure in the birding community where she lived. This person is a science communicator, he leads birding tours, has a large online platform, and he hosts a successful documentary series on birding with a large following.

He raped Aisha.

You can read the full story in Aisha White’s own words, here.

Now, the person who did this terrible thing to Aisha White is black and I am white. And, I realize that as a white person, I may be accused of racism when I denounce a black person. I hope that does not happen. But I am also a man, and as such have a responsibility to hold other men accountable for their actions.

So, let me be very clear. Sexual violence is intolerable and has no place in the birding community.

Additionally, I am a science communicator, and play a small role in the birding community as well (though no where near what the man in question has held). As a birder and science communicator, I want to bring more people into the birding community. I want to share knowledge of the fascinating world we live in with them. I want to inspire people to want to learn more! The actions of this man taint such efforts by the all the rest of us.

The various organizations that had worked with this man have canceled those associations. He was fired from the American Bird Conservancy, where he worked, and the documentary series has been canceled. Legal investigations will move forward to determine the facts of the case, and what paths forward could be taken. But, I think dissolving the associations with the man in question were appropriate actions for those organizations to take.

I think that stepping forward and sharing an experience like this with the public takes a lot of guts. Aisha White, if you ever read this, I see you, I hear you, and I am sorry that this ever happened to you. I hope that you find a way to continue exploring the world of birds and that your love for them continues to grow. Know that there are many people in the world who will stand by you and will be happy to help, if you like. I am one of them.

A GoFundMe page to support Aisha White’s legal costs can be found here.

This is a developing story and may be edited and adjusted as more information becomes available.

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Have you ever seen a v-shaped flock of geese fly overhead and wondered, why do they do that? In this video I share some information explaining this interesting behavior. I also talk about the other species that also fly in v-shaped flocks, and dispel an oft repeated myth.

If you enjoy the videos I am creating, two ways to stay informed would be to subscribe to the A Birding Naturalist channel and/or become a follower of this blog.

Eurasian Cranes (Grus grus) flying a v-formation (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

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This video is from a recent visit my family and I made to Staten Island in the central Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Staten Island is a 9,200 acre reserve owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy specifically to provide foraging and roosting habitat for Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) and also waterfowl, shorebirds, and many other species.

If you enjoy the videos I am creating, two ways to stay informed would be to subscribe to the channel and/or follow this blog.

Sandhill Cranes (Photo courtesy of the USFWS – John Magera)

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What follows is a series of interactions between myself and a publishing company called Best Version Media (BVM) that I found to be unsettling and distasteful. It has resulted in me withdrawing my contributions to BVM publications. This story gets a little long, so I will be posting it in several parts. Here is part 2.

As stated in part 1, I wrote and submitted an article to be published in a set of monthly community magazines that I wrote for every month. This one touched on racism in the birding community.

Here is the article which I submitted on 8/10/2020.

Bird Names and Social Justice

By Aaron N.K. Haiman

In May of 2020, a birder asked a dog owner to leash their dog in Central Park, New York. The area of Central Park where this took place is an area where off leash dogs are not allowed, so this exchange might not seem particularly noteworthy. But it became noteworthy because the birder was a black man named Christian Cooper and the dog owner was a white woman who first threatened to call the police on Cooper, and then followed through on that threat stating to the police that she and her dog were being put in danger of their lives by a black man. This weaponizing of race was all recorded with cell phones and has now been seem by millions. It triggered the launch of Black Birders Week, an event that highlighted the challenges faced by birders of color. Black Birders Week brought awareness of some of those challenges, and some ideas for potential solutions, into focus for many. I, for one, very much hope that this event is repeated next year, and for many years to come.

One product of Black Birders Week, and the events and protests for racial justice occurring around the world, is some reexamination of the world around us. Why are some statues so problematic? Because they honor people who did some less than honorable things. Owning people, for example. Are there parallels in the birding world? Yes. One way that birders honor people is by naming birds after them, and this can be problematic in the same way as those statues.

Who are birds named after? Are those people really the ones birders want to honor? The answer is complicated. Some people are unworthy of the birds named after them. Some people are worthy of the honor given. Some people occupy a grey and uncomfortable space. All need to be talked about.

Personally, I have long taken issue with the name Bullock’s Oriole. William Bullock was a conman who presented the people of London with a natural history museum filled with specimens he presented as authentic, but that were, if fact, created for entertainment. As one example, he had a display in his museum that included a huge taxidermy snake that was actually two snake skins sewed together to make it appear bigger. He was also very wealthy, and he used his wealth to buy favor with scientific societies, explorers, and collectors and (among other things) this led to a bird being named after him. 

On the other hand, Alexander Wilson was a person that I think definitely deserves the honor conferred by the five species of bird that have been named after him. He was a pioneer of American ornithology who satirized the weaver profession (to which he was apprenticed when young) and who went on to teach ornithology for much of his life. His bird focused art and writing inspired innumerable naturalists and birders including John James Audubon.

Speaking of Audubon, he is a more questionable figure as a bird namesake. He is certainly rightly famous for bringing the beauty of birds to millions of people through his art. However, several of his writings contain distinctly racist views. He led the way in drawing and painting with incredible attention to accuracy. However, he owned slaves. It seems to me that better namesakes are available.

Of course, the names of birds share the lack of representation that is so pervasive in our society. Very few women have birds named after them. Very few people of color. Very few members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

It is my hope that bird names and birding culture change to more accurately represent and include all who have an interest in joining the birding community.

Stay safe, and wash your hands!

The response to this article will appear in part 3 of this series.

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A few mornings ago, I was sitting at our kitchen table eating breakfast with my family. As we eat and talked, I looked out through the sliding glass door toward the bird feeders we have hanging out there. This time of year, our feeders get some pretty good activity. As I watched, the usual House Finches, White-crowned Sparrows, Golden-crowned Sparrows (a lot of them this winter), and Mourning Doves were poking around eating sunflower seeds.

But then something amazing happened! A bird hooped up to the top of the wall that defines one side of our yard. This bird was new. This bird was slightly smaller than the White-crowned Sparrows (which are themselves slightly smaller than the Golden-crowned Sparrows). This bird had a clear, white triangular patch at its throat. This bird was a White-throated Sparrow!

Photos - White-throated Sparrow - Zonotrichia albicollis - Birds of the  World
A tan morph White-throated Sparrow like the one I that visited my yard (Photo credit: Birds of the World).

White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia ablicollis) are a mostly eastern species. A spattering spend their winters on the west coast, but not many and finding one is always a real treat. This is the first White-throated Sparrow I have ever seen in our yard making the 75th bird species to be added to the yard list!

This species has a bunch traits that make it a bit odd and very interesting. One is the there are two different color morphs, one with white stripes on the head, and other has tan stripes. A related oddity is how these color morphs (which are genetically determined) are maintained in the population. Males of both morph prefer females that have white stripes, but females of both morphs prefer males with tan stripes. A final oddity is that White-throated Sparrows sometimes breed with Dark-eyed Juncos! The two species are not particularly closely related, nor do they look or sound alike. I have never seen one of these hybrids, but I really want to.

Like I said, a really odd and interesting bird, my favorite member of the genus, and a very exciting visitor!

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What follows is a series of interactions between myself and a publishing company called Best Version Media (BVM) that I found to be unsettling and distasteful. It has resulted in me withdrawing my contributions to BVM publications. This story gets a little long, so I will be posting it in several parts. Here is part 1.

In the spring of 2017 I began writing articles about birds for a small community magazine in Berkeley, CA, where I grew up. This magazine is published monthly, was successful, and grew. The team organizing it decided to launch two additional monthly magazines serving other communities in the east bay, and my articles have appeared in all three. Then in 2019, a different team of individuals launched a similar monthly community magazine in West Sacramento, CA, where I now live, and I started writing bird focused material for this magazine as well.

All four of these magazines are distributed by a larger company called Best Version Media (BVM).

According to their website Best Version Media: “distributes millions of community publications every year to local neighborhoods across the U.S. and Canada. We’re bringing people together, one community at a time, by tailoring our publications to the areas we serve.

Our community publications feature local families and highlight neighborhood news, events, sports and much more. By combining key elements of social media with the print media industry, BVM has experienced unparalleled growth since our company’s founding in 2007.

We proudly connect thousands of small businesses to local residents by providing business owners with a highly effective and powerful advertising platform. We’re one of the fastest-growing companies in the print media industry because we successfully target hyperlocal areas like no one else can.

Overall, I like the idea of these magazines. I like a non-screen based mechanism for bringing people together. I like the idea of a platform that tells people about their neighbors and what is going on in their area.

The articles I created for these monthly magazines were about all things birds. I wrote about bird identification, behavior, ecology, conservation, and other related topics. Birding is one of my big passions, and sharing knowledge and enjoyment of birds is another.

In response to the protests for racial equality that began earlier this year, I wrote and submitted an article on racism, racism in the birding community, and in the lack of representation and diversity in the naming of birds. The article will appear as part 2, so stay tuned.

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