Let’s Get Exotic

Here’s another quiz sound from Boise.  Can you identify it?

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Isn’t that the world’s most fantastic sound?  And talk about distinctive.  The panelists asked me if it was even a bird.  :)  Yes, it’s a bird, and I recorded it in Orange County, California, in March 2009.  Here are a couple more wonderful noises from the same species:

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The bird is Red-crowned Parrot (Amazona viridigenalis), and as I quickly discovered when I arrived at Santiago Oaks Regional Park for a morning of recording, its bizarre and stentorian voice has become one of the characteristic sounds of suburban Orange County.  On the freeway that morning I had seen large flocks of parrots coming off of night roosts, but I wasn’t able to identify them.  In fact, I didn’t know which species of parrot I was dealing with at Santiago Oaks until well after I got home.  My first tentative identification in the field was Lilac-crowned Parrot (Amazona finschi).  Red-crowneds and Lilac-crowneds look surprisingly alike, and I didn’t have a way to compare their calls.

Why not? Because like other exotic species, parrots are woefully underrepresented in commercial bird sound publications.  Bird Songs of California by Geoff Keller doesn’t include any parrots.  The Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs (Western Region) has the Red-crowned, by dint of its establishment in South Texas, but it doesn’t have the Lilac-crowned.   Nor any of the other thirteen parrot species that have “established naturalized populations” in California per the California Parrot Project.

Partly, of course, exotic birds are underrepresented in sound collections because they have traditionally been underrepresented in field guides and checklists.  Before making a species “official,” state records committees and the AOU and ABA checklist committees want to be certain the birds have established enough of a population to ensure their long-term survival in their adopted land.  And that’s valuable information.

In the meantime, however, whether their immigration status is legal or not, the exotic birds are unquestionably here, and they are unquestionably making noise.  And that presents us with a great opportunity — first, to learn the voices of the newest members of our local avian soundscape — and second, to get recordings, sometimes right in our own backyard, of species that might be rare, little-known, and hard to encounter in their native range.

But wait.  Are the recordings of exotic birds “legitimate”?  “Authentic”?  Are they going to sound the same as they do where they came from?

Well, that depends.  If the species is one with an innate song, then the answer is almost certainly yes.  The millions of Eurasian Collared-Doves in this country sound very much like the millions in Europe and Asia, because collared-doves don’t learn their songs; they inherit them genetically.  Some birds do learn their songs, however, and those songs may well change, especially over time, if the soundscape changes around them.  Most birds with learned songs are apparently genetically predisposed to pick out the sounds of their own species from the chorus and imitate those, but if they’re first- or second-generation immigrants in an avian Babel, they might not have many, or any, of their own species to learn from.  Might the scarcity of conspecific tutors restrict the repertoire size of immigrants?  Might it force them to innovate or imitate other species?

We don’t really know.  And that’s one of the main reasons why exotics are worth recording.  We could learn a lot about the cultural transmission of song by recording, say, Red-whiskered Bulbuls in Florida or California.  We could learn a lot about the biological components of song by recording hybrid birds, which may be more frequent among exotics.  We could learn a lot about what these birds sound like in their native ranges without having to travel there ourselves.  Even the “lowly” House Sparrow might have a lot to teach us, if we set out to discover whether regional dialects have begun to appear in North America since the species first landed here in 1852.

So it’s time for another call to action from me.  Record exotic birds.  Record starlings, collared-doves, House Sparrows, House Finches, Ring-necked Pheasants, Common Mynas,  partridges, parrots, and pigeons, because they’re slipping under the radar and they have a lot to teach us.  In common parlance, “exotic” is the opposite of “boring,” and I think that’s the way it should be with birds as well.

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