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Category: Exotic birds

American Parakeets: Changing Tunes?

American Parakeets: Changing Tunes?

White-winged Parakeet, 5/25/2012, Miami Shores, Florida. Photo by Andrew Spencer

A couple of years ago I wrote about the importance of recording exotic birds in the places where they’ve been introduced, not just in their native ranges. Recording exotics is important for several reasons, but I put particular emphasis on this one:

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.

Now, preliminary evidence is pointing toward an answer, and that answer appears to be “yes.” In at least one species, some individuals sound different in their adopted country than do their ancestors back in the homeland.

Yellow-chevroned and White-winged Parakeets in Florida

These two small South American parakeets are closely related — in fact, they were until recently considered a single species, “Canary-winged Parakeet.” They look and sound quite similar, and where both species occur in south Florida, they sometimes hybridize.  As a result, their status and distribution in Florida have been somewhat difficult to tease apart.  I’ve heard from a couple of sources that White-winged used to be the more common of the two species in south Florida, but has declined in recent years, while Yellow-chevroned has increased.

The vocal differences between these two species have not been well described. Like all parrots, White-winged and Yellow-chevroned Parakeets give complex and varied vocalizations.  One common sound from both species is a mellow, musical, multi-syllabic chirp, which averages slightly higher-pitched in Yellow-chevroned:

The more distinctive sound of these species is a noisy chatter.  In its native range in South America, the chatter of White-winged is significantly slower, with each individual note clearly audible. The chatter of Yellow-chevroned is much faster, with the notes run together into a continuous churr:

Here’s the rub. In south Florida, at least some of the Yellow-chevroned Parakeets sound quite a bit like White-wingeds:

The differences are subtle, and there are a lot of birds in this recording (it was a roost of over 200 individuals), but the sounds here seem consistently closer to “classic” White-winged than to “classic” Yellow-chevroned, in both the pitch of the chirps and the speed of the chatters. The majority of sounds are intermediate. There might have been a couple of White-wingeds hidden in the flock, but the observers, Andrew Spencer and Carlos Sanchez, didn’t see any White-wingeds or hybrids — only apparently pure Yellow-chevroneds.

It might be that the Yellow-chevroned Parakeets of south Florida have come into contact with White-winged Parakeets and learned some of their vocalizations. I wouldn’t be surprised if parakeets in a flock gradually changed calls to be more like those of their flockmates; similar behavior has been documented in a number of species of cardueline finches. There may also be some mixed ancestry involved, even if none was evident in plumage patterns. It’s hard to say.

What’s clear is that there’s no guarantee that feral exotic birds will sound exactly like their wild ancestors. That’s why it’s important to record them where you find them. Exotics are everywhere: lovebirds in Phoenix, magpie-jays in San Diego, Rose-ringed Parakeets in Bakersfield, Nutmeg Mannikins in Pensacola. It’s time we started paying more attention to what they’re saying.


Florida, Part 1: Recording the Exotic

Florida, Part 1: Recording the Exotic

Purple Swamphen, Pembroke Pines, copyright Andrew Spencer

Exotics tend to have a bad rap among North American birders.  They’re either disparaged, or more often, ignored entirely.  This is a bit of a shame – they’re not “bad” birds, so to speak.  It isn’t their fault they’re introduced to places far from their home range.  But something about them makes them slightly distasteful to the majority of us.  And I’ll admit there have been times when I’ve fallen into the same boat.  I’ve even flatly refused to go up into the Ruby Mountains of Nevada to twitch Himalayan Snowcock.  But when I was offered the chance to go to Florida to get recordings of a number of target species, including exotics, I jumped at the chance.

Part of that was a chance to go to Florida, which offered the largest block of birds I haven’t recorded before.  But I’ll admit I was a bit curious to record exotics as well.  Almost nobody has spent effort on documenting their vocalizations in their introduced ranges, and it would be a challenge.

So what follows below will be the very first earbirding trip report, of my trip to Florida.

A goodly portion of my time was spent in the, ahem, noisy environs of Miami getting recordings introduced species.  Some of these will be very familiar to the ABA birder: Red-whiskered Bulbul, Budgerigar, or Common Myna, for example.  Others have received some press recently, but tend to fly more under the radar: Purple Swamphen, Mitred Parakeet, etc.  And some very few people ever even think about: Egyptian Goose, Indian Peafowl, even Red Junglefowl.

Common Mynas (Acridotheres tristis) have become quite common in southern Florida.  They can be surprisingly hard to hear, though – during the day they tend not to make too much noise, and they usually occur in very urban areas.  But a pre-dawn spent in a deserted parking lot in Kendall got me some good cuts of their cool songs:

Hill Mynas (Gracula religiosa) are the cooler, bigger cousins of Common Mynas.  Not only do they have looks going for them, they are probably the coolest sounding exotic in Florida.  Here are a couple of recs of a pair duetting at Matheson Hammock:

Hill Myna, Matheson Hammock, copyright Andrew Spencer

Recently getting some press for their remarkable expansion into the wetlands of South Florida are the big ugly cousins of Purple Gallinule, Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio).  In their native range they’re known as raucous, noisy birds, but in Florida they are surprisingly quiet.  I had to work on this species for a while before I found a pair that would vocalize, but when I did I was able to get a good representation of their repertoire:

Parrots feature prominently in the introduced avifauna of Florida.  Parrots are the perfect birds to record in noisy urban environments – they tend to be gregarious, fairly easy to find, and LOUD.  That is a huge advantage when having to deal with lots of background noise.  I was able to get recordings of a number of species, established and not so established.  Some of the species below are ABA countable (like White-winged Parakeet (Brotogeris versicolurus) and Budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus)), but are actually fairly local and hard to find to nearly gone, while others that are not yet countable (like Mitred (Aratinga mitrata) and Nanday (Nandayus nenday) Parakeets) are much more well established:

Budgerigar, Hernando Beach, copyright Andrew Spencer

Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca) is a surprisingly common introduced bird that most ABA birders haven’t even heard of.  Luckily they’re quite noisy:

Egyptian Goose, Key Biscayne, copyright Andrew Spencer

Red-whiskered Bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus) has gotten a lot of attention due to the fact that it’s ABA countable.  But despite this, it is actually quite a bit harder to find than many non-countable exotics.  It is also rather difficult to get recordings of, and the best ones I managed were of a juvenile bird.  I did also manage to get one recording of call from an adult, but no song.

Red-whiskered Bulbul juvenile, Kendall, copyright Andrew Spencer

Stay tuned for part 2 of the trip report, which will follow in a few days…

Rufous-collared Origins

Rufous-collared Origins

On May 8th, 2011, Andrew Davis of Winnipeg, Manitoba and his uncle, Tim Davis of Parker, Colorado, were stopped in the picturesque mountain hamlet of Georgetown, about an hour west of Denver, when they heard an odd whistled song that reminded Andrew of a Golden-crowned Sparrow.  He later wrote:

As we were tracking it down I remarked to Tim that what it really sounded like was Rufous-collared Sparrow, which I am familiar with from trips to Costa Rica and a trip last fall to Ecuador. Imagine our surprise, though, when that’s what it turned out to be!

Indeed, the two had found a Rufous-collared Sparrow, a common and winsome bird of mountain habitats from Chile to southern Mexico, the only tropical member of the familiar genus Zonotrichia.  Several thousand miles north of the species’ known breeding range, the Georgetown bird became something of a celebrity, and birders flocked to see it.

Rufous-collared Sparrow, Fortuna, Alajuela, Costa Rica, 2/9/2010. Photo by Steve Ryan (CC 2.0; click for link).

Naturally, many people wondered about the origin of the bird.  Some argued that because Rufous-collared Sparrows are popular as cage birds, the individual in Georgetown was likely an escapee from captivity; others held that the bird might well have arrived in Colorado under its own power.  Some in the latter crowd, I suspect, wanted to see Rufous-collared Sparrow added to the official Colorado state bird list; therefore they had a personal emotional investment in the notion that the bird might have flown to Colorado by itself.  Different people had different reasons for engaging in or avoiding this debate over origins; see Ted Floyd’s post on the ABA blog for a convincing argument that the bird is “worthy” regardless of its immigration status.

As a birder who appreciates the beauty and behavior of birds no matter when or where I find them, I agree with Ted.  However, I am also keenly interested in discovering the sparrow’s origins, not just to provide fodder for the natural-vs.-exotic debate, but because the answer is bound to be interesting from a biological perspective.  Is this an opportunity to learn about what happens when a bird’s migration mechanism fails catastrophically?  Or is it an opportunity to learn how a (formerly) caged bird can adapt to alien climates and communities?  Either way, it’s an opportunity.

Geographic origin

The first thing most people wanted to know was what part of the species’ vast range this individual sparrow had come from.  One line of thinking held that if it had arrived under its own power, it most likely came from the geographically nearest population in extreme southern Mexico — and, conversely, if the bird had originated in Mexico, it was more likely of natural origin.

Others argued that it should be the migratory tendencies of populations, rather than their geographic proximity to Colorado, that would provide the best evidence for a natural vagrant.  The populations in Mexico and Central America are non-migratory; in fact, they apparently hardly wander even a few kilometers from their breeding territories, making them very unlikely indeed to have sent a scout to the United States.  Populations in Chile and Argentina, however, are austral migrants — they breed in austral temperate zones during the southern hemisphere’s summer (our winter) and then migrate north, sometimes thousands of kilometers, when southern winter arrives.  Odd as it may seem, even though they are normally found many thousands of miles farther away, austral migrants are much more likely to fly to the United States than sedentary tropical birds.  For example, the majority of the 100+ Fork-tailed Flycatchers that have arrived in this country are of the subspecies that breeds in Patagonia, not the subspecies that breeds thousands of miles closer in central Mexico (though that one shows up in Texas sometimes).

In between the sedentary Central American populations and the austral migratory populations are a whole bunch of stay-at-home tropical mountain Rufous-collared Sparrows.  Most people interested in the Georgetown sparrow tended to agree that if it was found to come from a distant tropical area — say, Costa Rica or Ecuador — it was most likely an escaped cage bird.

Song sleuthing

When I heard reports that the Georgetown sparrow was singing loudly and often, I immediately wondered whether it might be possible to use its song dialects to pinpoint its birthplace.

Like its relative the White-crowned Sparrow, the Rufous-collared Sparrow in much of its range sings only a single songtype, and these songtypes vary regionally.  As it happens, Rufous-collared Sparrows have one of the best-studied songs of any bird species, and a great deal of that research has been done by Paul Handford of the University of Western Ontario.  In a 2005 article in Birding magazine, Paul laid out the evidence that different trill speeds at the ends of Rufous-collared Sparrow songs correpond to different habitats.  I thought that maybe, given the many spectrograms that he had published, in addition to the vast number of recordings of Rufous-collared Sparrows on Xeno-Canto, we might just be able to find a songtype that matched the Colorado bird.

I made a couple of trips to record the bird, and was able to get its voice on tape on two different days in June.  The first time I heard it, it was singing a three-note song without a trill:

Rufous-collared Sparrow song, Georgetown, CO, 6/15/2011.

Paul said this was typical of early-season breeding songs:

It was giving what we call ‘incomplete’ songs – ones lacking the terminal trill – which is usual for birds very early in the season, before the gonads have reached breeding size.

And indeed, a week later, I found the bird giving the same songtype with a somewhat extended terminal “trill.”  It’s pretty darn slow to be called a “trill,” but some populations of Rufous-crowned Sparrows give very slow trills like this, according to Paul’s research.

Rufous-collared Sparrow song, Georgetown, CO, 6/21/2011.

Paul found slow trills like this in some migratory populations in Argentina.  However, since even the “long” form of this song is quite short, it may simply be another version of the incomplete song.

Besides trill type, Paul indicated that repertoire size was the other key factor in trying to determine the bird’s origin:

If the bird is now producing two distinct song types then this suggests to me that the bird is of tropical origins since individual repertoires are only known to be well-represented in Ecuador; in south temperate and subtropical populations, individual repertoire size is one, as usual in Zonotrichia. In Ecuador on the other hand, individuals have been recorded with up to seven very distinctive song types!

Well, guess what?  A little later on my second visit, the Georgetown bird started belting out this song:

Rufous-collared Sparrow song, Georgetown, CO, 6/21/2011.

And then, a little later, this one:

Rufous-collared Sparrow song, Georgetown, CO, 6/21/2011.

Interestingly, the last songtype I recorded is the same as the one the bird is singing in the video that Connie Kogler took on May 19:

Conclusion?  The bird appears to be from an equatorial population with multiple songtypes, NOT a migratory austral population, nor a Central American population, as far as I can tell.  What does that mean for the likelihood that the bird got to Colorado by itself?  I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions, but one thing is clear: careful listening (and recording!) is of tremendous help in solving mysteries like these.

— Update —

Got an email from Paul Handford in response to my post, with lots of great additional information.  Here’s what he wrote.  (Note that chingolo is the name of the Rufous-collared Sparrow in South America.)

Your second recording (the one following the ‘incomplete’) sounds like a bona fide complete ‘theme + trill’ to me. There’s several places that I have encountered songs with such ‘slow’ trills with only 3-4 trill elements, like this one. Nothing about it strikes me as weird or unusual.

On the other hand your third songs are out of my experience — they sound like nothing I have heard before. If I were to hear them in the field, my antennae would definitely waggle about thinking “sounds like maybe a chingolo there”, but they have a quality unknown to me. But then, there’s an entire continent of chingolo songs that I haven’t heard!

The fourth songs again have the quality of incompletes, but also are a bit weird.

All together, there’s only one song that sounds truly ‘kosher’ to me as a complete well-formed song (your second ones). What the 3rd and 4th songs mean is an open question to me: but they don’t impress me as necessarily fully-crystallized songs.

One thing you don’t mention in your discussion is that we can definitively rule out the longest-distance migrant populations, for these have very distinctive head plumage – they completely or effectively have lost the black head stripes (see attached for an in-hand comparison of birds netted in early spring at Lat ~26°S; the stripey one is a local bird and the grey-head is still on its way to the far south).

So my guess coincides with yours: it is a tropical latitude bird; further than that I don’t see us going — without DNA sequencing, at least.

A final thought: there’s a good chance that this is a first year bird; there’s evidence that even nominally single-song birds can continue to learn songs (i.e. there’s not a classic closed learning period) at least into their second year (and, as noted before, Ecuadorean birds can evidently learn over an extended period). All this raises the possibility that, rather than having as it were brought these three song ‘types’ with him, this little guy MIGHT be emulating something local in Georgetown. It seems clear (at least to me) that this bird is counter-singing with local white-crowns; maybe it is also interacting with other taxa? And maybe it learned other notes while it was perhaps living in a cage??

Fascinating possibilities.

Here’s the photo Paul sent with the email:

Rufous-collared Sparrows of the migratory (top, with gray head) and non-migratory populations (bottom, with striped head), near Tolombon, Salta, Argentina, 8/22/2004. Photo courtesy of Paul Handford
Let’s Get Exotic

Let’s Get Exotic

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

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:

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.