Last chance to C – by Paul Chapman

The category C species is a constant topic of conversation in the car as we travel. Since we wanted to know more about it we asked our friend Paul Chapman, British birder, who we met on our second trip to Kuwait to make matters more clear. Paul is now “guest blogger” here and wrote the following informative and entertaining piece for you all.

LAST CHANCE TO C 

Nothing is more likely to produce a gasp from a competitive lister than to realise that he has missed a species which he’ll now never get. In a Western Palearctic context, this would seem reserved for Slender-billed Curlew and the like, but in fact, a new series of blockers has started to appear. There’s always that dream that you’ll get a chance at Aleutian Tern or Ascension Island Frigatebird – mythical birds like these can always recur – but with tighter regulations on bird imports and a heightened approach in many countries to preventing invasive species taking hold, will there ever be another self-sustaining population of Lady Amherst’s Pheasant? For those that have visited that same farm near Rilvas, Portugal to be greeted by the revelation that there aren’t any Black-headed Munias any more or walked those same streets near the shops in Pardes Hanna-Karkur, Israel only to see Ring-necked after Ring-necked Parakeet rather than their Nanday cousins, they will be aware of that feeling.

Howls of derision are directed towards self-sustaining feral species – Category C species. They are often referred to in slang as ‘plastic’. Indeed, I’ve lost count of the number of blog posts that I have seen over the years ironically entitled ‘Plastic Fantastic’. In fairness, few words rhyme with plastic.

But for a WP lister intent on a 800+ life list or a 700+ year list, they are difficult to ignore. In a WP context, not far short of 5% of the species likely to be seen in a year will be Category C species. I counted 33 species which I believe are only on the Western Palearctic list as a result of feral populations. These can be broadly broken down into wildfowl (6), gamebirds (6), parrots (5) and cagebirds (16).

For the wildfowl, the species are generally located in northern Europe – a day out in the Netherlands and Germany should get you a clean sweep of Black Swan, Bar-headed Goose, Swan Goose, Mandarin Duck and Ruddy Duck. Probably the admission that has caused most howls is that of Muscovy Duck. Recently added in Northern Italy, this species was also considered to be self-sustaining in Britain before an intervention on that population.

Muscovy Duck
Muscovy Duck

The gamebirds are more problematic. It is far more difficult to tell if a species routinely released and artificially fed is really self-sustaining. California Quail requires a trip to Corsica. Northern Bobwhite can be targeted in Northern Italy as well as still in France and also available in France (and perhaps the Czech Republic) is Reeve’s Pheasant. Whereas Golden Pheasant clings on in Britain but for how much longer, two species now appear to have become ultimate blockers being Lady Amherst’s Pheasant in Britain – a victim of golf courses, increased disturbance and loss of understorey – and Erckel’s Francolin which never really took to Italy. I’m not sure how many listers got to the forbidden ‘orgy island’ Zannone (as CNN described it) before the demise of the species. Maybe if they saw that headline then they would have tried but lets face it, birders aren’t normally known for that type of thing.

The parrots again are in the main an easy enough bunch. Ring-necked Parakeet is found in a number of countries and Monk Parakeet is heading the same way though despite fulfilling self-sustaining status according to the bird committee, it was prevented from admission to the British list and control measures are in place. Alexandrine Parakeet has recently been admitted in the Netherlands and Yellow-headed Amazon in Germany. Nanday Parakeet is a problematic one. The true extent of the Israeli population – now lost – has always been unclear and its Canaries and Barcelona populations are part of a whole bunch of parrot species which occasionally escape and breed – Blue-crowned, Red-masked and Mitred perhaps most notably. Indeed, Blue-crowned has bred in the Britain. One species admitted and then removed is Fischer’s Lovebird. Many took the trip to the stunning backdrop of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat but eventually the cages and the feeding proved just too much for the list compilers….. The species is now totally erased – a mistake in time eradicated from all lists. At least you could always have a seawatch from the nearby headland.

So then you get the ‘true’ cagebirds. In the main, these split between the Iberian Peninsula and the Middle East. The former with planning should produce Red-billed Leiothrix (also in France and Italy), Crested Myna (Portugal), Black-headed Weaver, Yellow-crowned Bishop, Common Waxbill (also on the Atlantic Islands) and Red Avadavat. Black-headed Munia (Portugal) has reached blocker status with the birds apparently being recaptured for the bird trade – an ironic twist and a reminder to move fast.

Red-billed Leiothrix
Red-billed Leiothrix

The Iberian Munia puzzles are probably not over yet though as various species have a tendency to get themselves established at least temporarily and perhaps Scaly-breasted Munia will slip seamlessly into the list in the next decade. Otherwise the Middle East adds Common Myna (increasing throughout), Bank Myna, White-cheeked and Red-vented Bulbuls and Ruppell’s Weaver (Kuwait) and Vinous-breasted Starling (Israel).

Vinous-breasted Starling
Vinous-breasted Starling

At least four of those appear to have pretty restricted populations. This leaves Vinous-throated Parrotbill – one species to chase despite some earlier listing confusion – mainly in Italy and as a recent vagrant from there to Switzerland but also with a population in the Netherlands, Red-billed Leiothrix in France, Spain and Italy and Indian Silverbill in at least France, Israel and Kuwait.

So there you have it, 33 species and 4 of them already likely to be extinct in the countries in which they were admitted.

Is that the end of the matter? Well not really. Four species are pretty much exclusively ticked as Category C species though they continue to occur (or at least occurred) on a Category A basis. Egyptian Goose and Ring-necked Pheasant are most often seen in their feral European populations and I doubt that many would twitch a Sacred Ibis in the Middle East having seen the European ones. Also, Helmeted Guineafowl is now extinct as a Category A species and listers resort to the Cape Verde introduced populations. Further, where does House Crow sit on this list? A slightly different proposition being human assisted in its arrival rather than escaped or released but nevertheless as a result, this is seen by many as a variant on the Category C conundrum. So that takes us to 38!!

It then gets really murky. Ironically the Eurasian Collared Dove expansion, that has made certainty of identification of African Collared Dove in its former haunts including Egypt and elsewhere difficult, has also confused the identification of the feral populations in at least the Canaries and the identification of vagrant Snow Goose and Greater Canada Geese from their self-sustaining feral relatives is more a matter of art than science.

So why have these species got such a poor reputation amongst ‘serious birdwatchers’? Often by their nature they are tame, some are brightly coloured and some just look out of context. Another reason is that there is no clear definition of what self-sustaining means and by their very nature, it is difficult to separate recent escapes or supported populations from truly self-sustaining ones. In Britain, the Lady Amherst’s Pheasants in North Wales were considered untickable whereas the ones in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire were counted. In France, arguments continue over which are tickable populations of Reeve’s Pheasant. In Kuwait and indeed in Israel, a species seems more likely to be officially accepted onto the list than elsewhere. Does one well at Jahra Farms really support a self-sustaining population? At least the Bank Mynas have moved wells in the last few years! I once had a conversation with a member of the Israeli committee who was genuinely surprised that Nanday Parakeet was on their list. So at times, it does really seem a lottery.

What next? Do any of those Indian Peafowls breeding in Britain tick the boxes? What about the Greater Rheas in Germany? Those Scaly-breasted Munias and maybe Pin-tailed Wydahs in the Iberian Peninsula or the Red-whiskered Bulbuls on Fuerteventura may be next let alone the next parrot off the conveyor belt?

Although not to everyone’s tastes and certainly beset with problems of interpretation and confusion, Category C species are an intrinsic part of any geographically limited list. I know British listers who count Capercallie for their British list but will only admit it to their World List when they have seen a Scandinavian bird. That said, this is a species with at least some European assistance and reintroduction programmes so at times you cannot really tell the origin of the bird in front of you. In reality, whether it is a Houbara at Merzouga, a Double-spurred Francolin at Sidi Yahya des Zaer or a Red Kite in Oxford, if you scratch the surface, in an overcrowded world with the impact of man at every corner, the position is a lot less straightforward than some with absolute views would like to think. I am far less fussy. I’m not sure when I first saw my Category A Red-legged Partridge or Little Owl away from Britain and I wouldn’t know where to start in working out a Category A British Mute Swan. My personal view is just enjoy the birds for what they are unless they are causing an environmental impact. In an average year, a WP year lister may well end up with 37 Category C targets, a furrowed brow over some extinct friends and a bit of insurance to acquire over a few that may soon be joining the party.

 

 

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