I became a birder the summer of my freshman year in high school, a bird-watcher a few years later, and an ornithologist a few years after that.
I’d have to find my life list to tell you just when I made my last entry, but I think it was sometime toward the end of my freshman year in college. The summer after that, in 1952, Kenny Stewart and I hitch-hiked to Mexico and saw a good many new birds, quite a few that we could identify and quite a few we couldn’t.
There was no Mexican field guide at the time, and so we depended on George M. Sutton’s new book, Mexican Birds: First Impressions and Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds, and on taking lots of field notes to work with when we got back. Sutton’s book had an appendix that tried to list most of the birds of Mexico; it was helpful, just not helpful enough for Neotropical beginners like Kenny and me.
The first Mexican field guide to appear was Birds of Mexico: A Guide for Field Identification published in 1953– several months after we got back home–by Emmet Reid Blake. Blake was associate curator of birds at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Except for a frontispiece of the Collared Aracari, the book lacked colored illustrations, though about 350 species (or at least their heads) were illustrated with black-and-white drawings. Nevertheless, it was a very useful book and allowed us to identify most of our unknowns. The first Mexican field guide with color illustrations of most species was the Peterson guide by Peterson and Edward L. Chalif. It did not appear until 1973–though it had been promised years before.
In my early days, I enjoyed seeing rare birds, and I still do. I still enjoy birding, and I think this is probably true of most ornithologists. Avian biologists, maybe not so much.
But there are many sorts of rare birds and some are more interesting than others. An ordinary extralimital observation, say some European shorebird or gull that through a series of errors spends a few days on a Michigan beach or a mall parking lot is only mildly interesting; it does not have a lot of biology going for it. Maybe there could be some interest in knowing what physiological aberration caused it to go astray and what the fate of the bird was. A good many of these out-of-place birds are waifs whose life expectancy may be pretty short.
On the other hand, among the shorebirds and gulls, it sometimes happens that a single individual of an out-of-range species turns up at the same place in two or more successive falls, as Philip Chu describes in some of his species accounts in The Birds of Michigan (edited by G. A. McPeek and R. J. Adams, Jr.). The suspicion in such a case is that the same individual bird is making the same mistakes in successive years. That would be interesting. Interesting too is the case (also mentioned by Chu) of one adult Sandwich Tern being seen in June 1986 along Lake Superior in Minnesota, in 1987 at Lake Michigan near Berrien Springs, in Ontario April, May, and June 1988, and in April 1989 at Lake Michigan near Chicago. It’s impossible to know if all the reports were of the same bird, but it’s an intriguing possibility.
Particularly interesting these days would be the first representatives of some southern species to try to nest in Michigan. Someday, as the climate warms, several southern species may become common, but the first recorded nesting pair will be a rarity worth watching for.
Another interesting rarity is the Merlin that nested in Kalamazoo this past summer. Here is a species that seems to be nesting a little farther south than used to be the case, seemingly going against the global warming trend. What’s that about?
The Yellow-headed Blackbird and other Great Plains species that I talked about in an earlier post are also interesting. An occasional individual wanders over to Michigan most summers, but in severe drought years, more come, and some nest.
I got a phone call about a rare bird a few days ago. The caller had seen a remarkable bird in Oshtemo Township, which lies west of the city of Kalamazoo. It was a large bird, mottled reddish with a yellow head and a long tail. The bird was at the edge of a wooded area. I couldn’t think of any local native species or, in fact, any North American species that met those specifications. But I’ve been baffled before when trying to identify a bird based on someone’s description. Because we each have our own frame of reference, a description of what seems like a fabulous species can turn out to be something relatively routine.
Fortunately, the caller had taken photos. Unfortunately, the image of the bird was too small to make out much detail. But it was clearly a reddish bird with a yellow head and a long tail, standing on the ground.
It looked like a pheasant but was not any of the varieties of Ring-necked Pheasant that occur in North America. Of course, Ring-necked Pheasants are not native to North America. In Michigan, they were imported and released many times from the 1880s on by farmers, hunters, sportsmen’s clubs and the Michigan Conservation Department. The species was well established in the state by about 1920. Here in southwest Michigan, it was particularly abundant in the early 1970s but declined sharply after three hard winters late in that decade and has never, or at least not yet, recovered.
This bird was no Ring-necked Pheasant, but it did not take long to identify which pheasant it most likely was–a male Golden Pheasant, Chrysolophus pictus.
Golden Pheasants are native to China, occurring in broad-leaved evergreen forest and bamboo thickets of mountainous regions. The giant panda, in its much reduced current distribution, often occurs in the same habitats as the Golden Pheasant.
The life history of the Golden Pheasant in the wild seems poorly studied. Because it has been widely imported to Europe and the U.S. by game-bird fanciers and aviculturists since the mid 18th century, its reproduction and life in captivity are well known. Releases in some parts of the United Kingdom evidently led to some temporarily self-sustaining populations, but few have persisted.
I haven’t read of any feral populations of Golden Pheasants in the U.S., and I expect that the bird seen in Oshtemo escaped from some local pheasant fancier. Aviculturists have propagated various mutants and hybrids, and the bird in Oshtemo could well have been one of those rather than pure wild-type Chrysolophus pictus.
If I happened to see the Oshtemo Golden Pheasant, I don’t think I’d post it on the Michigan birding list or add it to my life list, if I still kept one. But it would be fun to catch a glimpse of a large red bird with a yellow head the next time I’m driving in the vicinity of Prairie Ridge Elementary School.