Which Hawaiian Birds Count? A Lesson About Rules

While visiting Hawai’i in November, my lifelist* got a big bump. I’d been to the Big Island in 2007, but I wasn’t keeping track of the birds I saw at that time. In fact, the only bird I remember from that trip was the one I didn’t see: the endangered Hawaiian Goose, known as the Nēnē . So I knew I would be seeing new birds for my lifelist. What I didn’t realize was how many of them would be introduced species.

Hawaiian Goose or Nēnē feeding. Photo by Kit Dunsmore
Hawaiian Goose or Nēnē. Photo by Kit Dunsmore

During my two week visit, I saw 26 species I’d never seen before, but only eight of them were endemic to Hawai’i. Three were winter visitors that migrate north in the spring to breed. But all the rest, fifteen in total, were originally brought to the islands by humans.

Kalij Pheasant
Kalij Pheasant, one of the many introduced bird species in Hawai’i. Photo by Kit Dunsmore

My dilemma was this: do I count the introduced species towards my life list or not?

I faced this same problem last winter when a Harris’s hawk was hanging out here in Fort Collins. The hawk was far out of its natural range and had possibly been brought to Colorado by someone, instead of getting here on its own. Many birders do not count this kind of sighting towards their life list.

The American Birding Association (ABA) puts it like this: to count a bird, it must have been “alive, wild, and unrestrained when encountered.” By wild, they mean that the bird, or its recent ancestors, cannot have been transported by humans to its current location (except for rehabilitation purposes, because we all want to be able to count condors).

My difficulty is with “recent.” Some of the birds I saw were brought to Hawai’i in the 1800s, but some came as late as 1973 (Yellow-billed Cardinal). Do I count them or don’t I?

Saffron Finches at a feeder
Saffron Finches (also “alien” to Hawai’i). Photo by Kit Dunsmore

Then I heard an interesting exchange on a podcast I was listening to (Happier with Gretchen Rubin). They were talking about the rules for their 2018 reading challenge. When Elizabeth asked if an unfinished book counted or not, I wondered why she was asking. Her reading challenge was self-imposed which meant any rules about it should be self-defined.

That’s when I realized I already had my answer.

ruddyTurnstone_web
Ruddy Turnstones, one of the winter visitors to Hawai’i. Photo by Kit Dunsmore

My lifelist is not for anyone else. Just me. So the only rules that matter are mine. This is a simple but important revelation. Being a rule-oriented person, it’s easy for me to get caught up in doing things the right way and trying to follow the rules to the letter. But not all rules deserve the same amount of deference and I need to watch out or I may find myself doing something according to someone else’s rules when I don’t have to.

Whether the ABA would count them or not doesn’t matter. I am putting Common Myna, Zebra Dove, Java Sparrow, and all the other introduced species I saw on my lifelist. They were real birds, living in the wild for decades, and in some cases, centuries, and I am unlikely to visit the far flung places where they originated. By my standards, they count.

Sorry, ABA.

How about you? Have you been caught following someone else’s rule when you didn’t have to?

*Lifelist: a record of each bird species a person has seen in their lifetime, including location and date of the sighting. My new total is 267. 

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