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Are Different Animals Showing Up? Or Are We Just Getting Better at Spotting Them?

When you hear a report of a unexpected animal or bird showing up someplace, is it because they really moving into new places? Or did we just become better spotters? Or maybe it was the biological authorities who became less dismissive of citizen scientists? That was the gist of what ornithologist Shibail Mitra mulled over at a lecture at the Linnean Society of New York last night.

Mitra, who a biology professor at the College of Staten Island, came down for the citizen scientists, showing through several bird species examples how official guides willfully overlooked several species–counting them as an unremarkable subspecies, invasive escaped pets or just rare lost souls. Then when a committee somewhere declared it was a legitimate species, people started reporting more of them.

Barnacle Goose Branta leucopsis

Courtesy of Ucumari

This bird breeds in Greenland, so its appearances early in the 20th Century were written off as escaped pets. Serious birders would put parentheses around them on their lists because they didn’t really count. Now they’re showing up more than once a year and records counters are accepting them.

Cackling Goose Branta hutchinsii

The Cackling Goose was dismissed as a a subspecies of the Canada Goose. So nobody counted it and it was “grossly overlooked,” Mitra says. Then in 2004 the American Ornithology Union decided that this much smaller bird that breeds in the arctic and winters in the west from Oregon to Mexico really is a separate species. That manmade distinction always makes the birds more interesting to people,  Mitra says.

Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea

Courtesy of Reders

Arctic terns were seldom recorded before the seventies by the birding authorities. They were at best a celebrity vagrant–a bird that quickly becomes the object of desire and gossip among birders. (The Central Park coywolf is certainly New York City’s celebrity vagrant of the moment.) Then sub-adult Arctic terns started showing up where and when nobody expected them: on Long Island beaches in mid-summer. Not old enough to breed, these adolescents don’t have to keep up with the rigorous arctic to Antarctica schedule of adults, so they visit the Moriches Inlet.

“When people did not have the predisposition to think they would find arctic terns,” Mitra says, “they did not find arctic terns.”

There was much grumbling in the crowd toward the arrogance and whimsy of the ornithological authorities that seem to have birders under their thumb. Assuming that we know more than we really do about the species in an area can lead to lousy identification and conservation. If you assume you know exactly what birds, plants and animals need protecting, you may only protect their specialized habitat and overlook more prosaic landscapes that will save an animal you haven’t thought of 100 years from now. Of course, this kind of thinking is what leads to boring wildlife preserves, but better mundane preserves than none at all.

Where to See Wild Animals Around New York City

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