New York City’s Mandarin duck versus the sound and fury of birder drama

Some controversial birds have appeared in the media recently. It started with a Mandarin duck that showed up in New York City’s Central Park.

This shiny waterfowl is common in zoos and private collections in North America because they’re a snazzy-looking duck. Sometimes you encounter them on lakes and ponds and people assume they’ve escaped; there isn’t a clear record of one showing up “naturally” in the United States.

The Mandarin in Central Park also had a leg band, further confirming that it was an escapee from someone’s zoo or private collection. The fancy duck, however, drew the Big Apple’s media attention, and people lined up for it like it was actually rare. Mostly appealing to non-birders, the duck quickly gained a following.

At first I was irritated because of the hype over a domestic duck, but I read a nonbirder’s account of going to look for the duck, and the feelings she described are the exact same feelings I have when I stake out a rare bird like an ivory gull in Minnesota. Could we channel that novice’s energy into actual birding and not just seeking out an escapee semi-domestic waterfowl? Central Park is, after all, a great place for birds.

Then a legit rare bird appeared in Michigan, and birders got crusty and began arguing and I wondered, would that be a turnoff to someone turned on by the Mandarin duck?

It started when someone posted to an international shorebird site that they had a common redshank in Michigan. There was a link to their Flickr page of the bird. Only the date and state were given. Someone from the American Birding Association noticed and posted it to the American Birding Association’s Rare Bird Alert Facebook page. Michigan birders went into immediate detective mode. The photo already was a day old, and time was short since birds fly and migration is still on.

People tried contacting the photographer of the redshank, but didn’t get the location. So the birders started looking at eBird lists and figured out regularly birded locations of the original finder of the of course shorebird. The first location they checked had the redshank and the word soon spread like wildfire.

The big question: Why had the original finders not alerted the birding community? They sent no messages to the rare bird alerts and simply posted photos with a vague location on Flickr and Surf Birds, sites that Michigan birders wouldn’t check on a regular basis. Now, it’s not unusual for a bird on private property to be closed for public viewing; that is up to the landowner and completely understandable. But this bird was in an easily accessible area open to the public and a known birding hotspot.

As people saw the bird and realized that it was observed at least a day before it was ever made public, people became angry that the original finders were purposely trying to suppress the rarity. This led to debates as to whether or not a person owes it to the birding community to announce the appearance of a rare bird.

One of the original finders got wind of the backlash and was surprised people figured out the location so easily, then went on to speculate that their smartphone or Subaru had been hacked in order to get the location of this rarity.

Many of us find ourselves wondering how birding got so weird so fast.

Did the original finders of the bird owe it to the rest of the birding community to share this exceptionally rare find? No. If, however, you want to get along in the birding community and hope others will share their finds with you, it’s considered common courtesy, especially if the bird is in a known hotspot.

Was this person’s phone hacked by an anonymous group of furtive birders hell-bent to get rarities for their North American list? No, it’s easy enough to figure out where birds are seen if someone keeps regular eBird lists, especially ones for known birding hotspots.

So I can see how a charismatic, low-controversy duck in Central Park might be more appealing than a gray shorebird with bright red legs that carries birder drama baggage.

Categories: Sharon Stiteler

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