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Unexpected Birds

Types of Rare Bird Sightings


Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo

The sulphur-crested cockatoo is a familiar pet, and escapees can be unexpected backyard birds.

Richard Taylor

Birders are always hoping to see a new bird, but unexpected birds can be more surprising than just a new species to add to a life list. While unexpected sightings are rare, birders who can recognize when they've come across an usual bird can be better prepared to identify it correctly and enjoy its visit.

Types of Unexpected Birds

There are several types of unexpected birds that might surprise birders.

  • Rare Birds: A rare bird is one that is hard to see in its traditional range. These birds might include endangered species, birds with very restricted ranges or birds that are otherwise difficult to find because of camouflaged plumage or secretive behavior. Birders can increase their chances of seeing a rare bird by visiting the right habitat, knowing how to bird by ear to listen for the bird's calls and watching for rarity sightings on bird notification lists. Patience is also essential for finding rare birds, and it may take several visits to the same area before the bird is seen.

  • Vagrant Birds: A vagrant bird may not be rare, but it is found exceptionally far from its traditional range which makes it an unexpected sighting. This can be an exciting discovery for local birders because it gives them the opportunity to see a new bird without extensive travel. Vagrant birds can appear anywhere and any time, though there are more recorded vagrants during migration periods and winter months when birds may stray further from their traditional ranges in search of food and shelter.

  • Feral Birds: Feral birds are bird populations that were not initially native to an area but have been introduced and are easily breeding with native birds. Feral populations can grow and may become invasive, potentially damaging native birds. Many hybrid ducks and pigeon populations are considered feral birds, and some areas also have feral game birds or small colonies of feral parrots, such as the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. Seeing a feral bird is not generally considered acceptable for an official life list count, but birders can still enjoy the unexpected sighting of these birds.

  • Domestic Birds: Domestic bird sightings in the wild may be the rarest of all. These birds are typically escaped pets or zoo residents that are enjoying a few hours or days of freedom. In some cases the bird is not reclaimed or recaptured and birders may see it for years if it learns to adapt and survive in a new habitat. These birds may seem unafraid of humans and may frequently visit bird feeders, and some pet birds may even be trained to talk or perform tricks, which they will use to woo birders in hopes of a handout. Like feral birds, however, seeing a domestic bird is not generally acceptable to add it to a life list.

Identifying Unexpected Birds

To identify an unexpected bird, use the same steps as to identify any bird. Observe the bird carefully, note its distinctive field marks, watch its behavior and then make a judgment based on comparing the bird to similar species. Photos of the bird can be especially useful for identification because they can be compared to different reference books that may feature a wider range of species than a simple field guide. If you find an unexpected bird and are still having trouble with the identification, submit your bird photos for identification and I'll do my best to assist!

If You See an Unexpected Bird

Identifying an unexpected bird can be exciting, but it is also important to keep the bird's best interest and welfare in mind whenever you see an unusual species. For each type of unexpected bird, there are special considerations to make with regards to reporting the bird and helping it survive.

  • Rare Bird Sightings: Rare bird sightings can generally be reported to local birding groups easily without fear of causing undue stress to the bird. If the species is endangered, however, it may be best to consult local wildlife officials first in case they prefer to band the bird or otherwise track it for study. Whenever you do find a rare bird, consider the implications of rare bird ethics before deciding whether or not to report the sighting.

  • Vagrant Bird Sightings: A vagrant bird sighting should generally be treated similar to a rare bird sighting, but with even more care and delicacy. Vagrant birds may be overly stressed so far from their familiar territory, and a sudden influx of curious and eager birders can add to the bird's discomfort.

  • Feral Bird Sightings: Feral birds are common in many areas and most birding groups would not be as interested in these unexpected sightings unless the bird is very unusual, even for the local feral populations. Feral birds are generally easy to approach and do not usually require special consideration to avoid stress.

  • Domestic Bird Sightings: Because domestic birds are usually pets or otherwise escaped captive birds, birders who see one should check for bands, wing tabs or other signs that the bird belongs to someone. Information on a band can help reunite the bird with its owner, but if the bird is not banded or otherwise marked the birder can report the sighting to a birding list and contact other local agencies to see if the bird belongs to them. For example, if a flamingo is seen in local marsh far from its expected tropical range, contacting local zoos or aviaries may help the bird return home.

Unexpected bird sightings come in many forms and are always a pleasant surprise for birders. Knowing the different types of unexpected birds, how to identify them and what to do when an unusual bird is sighted can help birders responsibly appreciate every unique bird they see.

Photo – Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo © Richard Taylor

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