Hacks Vs Wildlife: the Eternal Vilification of Gulls

Every summer, here in the UK, it’s the same. “CRAZED KILLER SEAGULL ATTACKED MY BABY”, “PSYCHO SEAGULL’S REIGN OF TERROR”, “EXPERT SAYS PUPPIES AND KIDS COULD BE NEXT”. It’s almost as if hack journalists, writing for shitty tabloids like The Mail, The Sun and The Star, have nothing smart to write about so fall back on scaremongering and the vilification of wildlife. Hack journalists are pretty good at this, stirring up waves of anti-gull feelings among a public that already dislikes any animal trying its damnedest to survive and persist in a land dominated by humans and their intolerance of wild places and other species (see #HacksVsWildlife on Twitter for a constant stream of this sort of thing).

It’s summertime in the UK, and this can only mean one thing….

It’s summertime in the UK, and this can only mean one thing….

Right now, the story of Gizmo the chihuahua – apparently snatched by a gull in Paignton, Devon – is doing the rounds. Gizmo is, or was, a very small dog, so the idea that he/she might have been grabbed by a big gull is not out of hand. I’m inclined to think that the event did happen, in which case Gizmo’s owners have my sympathy. Lesson for the future: don’t leave tiny dogs unguarded, outside, in an area where there are big gulls. As others have pointed out, big white-headed gulls like the Great black-backed Larus marinus can swallow prey the size of juvenile rabbits, and a big gull can likely fly while carrying an object about similar in size to a very small chihuahua (cf Young 1987).

Alas, poor Gizmo. Screengrabs of headlines from some of the UK’s most noble gutter rags.

Alas, poor Gizmo. Screengrabs of headlines from some of the UK’s most noble gutter rags.

As cynical as it sounds though, this strikes me as an example of bad pet management more than a case of ‘out of control’ wildlife. I have a pet lizard and guinea-pig who are often taken outside in an area where there are gulls and corvids of several species, and I simply wouldn’t leave them alone and unguarded. What about those parts of the world where there are such things as coyotes, bobcats, eagles and other opportunistic predators? Who is to ‘blame’ when, say, a pet cat is taken by a coyote? Is it really because the coyote is in the ‘wrong’ place?

White-headed gulls (those gull species remaining in the genus  Larus ) are good-looking birds, in cases with wingspans that exceed 1.3 m. This is a Herring gull (photographed in Cornwall, England) with an unusually shaped head. Image: Darren Naish.

White-headed gulls (those gull species remaining in the genus Larus) are good-looking birds, in cases with wingspans that exceed 1.3 m. This is a Herring gull (photographed in Cornwall, England) with an unusually shaped head. Image: Darren Naish.

Are gulls big, formidable and potentially dangerous to small animals and even people? Yes, of course they are. They’re predatory and opportunistic, and often territorial and liable to be aggressive when guarding their nests and chicks. But the idea – promoted continually by hack journalists – that there’s some kind of GULL PLAGUE that we should rid ourselves of is just wrong, and bad.

Herring gulls consume leftovers at a restaurant in Tintagel, Cornwall. Image: Darren Naish.

Herring gulls consume leftovers at a restaurant in Tintagel, Cornwall. Image: Darren Naish.

Gulls Are In Decline. First of all, let’s look at the idea that these birds are super-abundant, as hack journalists and gull-haters would like you to think. As has now been pointed out many times (here at TetZoo and elsewhere), the species concerned are not just in decline, they’ve declined so much within recent decades that they’re now a cause for conservation concern. In the UK, the Herring gull L. argentatus – the species that hacks and haters mostly focus on – is a Red List species, its population now being at its lowest since recording began in 1969/70, and having declined by about 50% since the early 1990s (Madden et al. 2010, Joint Nature Conservation Committee 2014). The next most familiar species – the Lesser black-backed gull L. fuscus – has undergone a worrying population crash during this century. Similar trends are present in white-headed gulls elsewhere; the North American Herring/Smithsonian gull L. smithsonianus has declined by almost 80% since the 1960s.

A fine Lesser black-backed gull at a train station. Note the yellow legs, the small extent of the white spotting on the black tips to the primaries, and fairly dark mantle. Image: Darren Naish.

A fine Lesser black-backed gull at a train station. Note the yellow legs, the small extent of the white spotting on the black tips to the primaries, and fairly dark mantle. Image: Darren Naish.

In view of this, it seems wrong to call for these birds to be sterilised (as some politicians have, apparently seriously, suggested), or for them to be lethally controlled or extirpated entirely. I may well be speaking from a position of privilege (I undoubtedly am, in fact, given that I live in a land where there are no big dangerous animals at all), but I want to live in a world where we’re alongside other species, not hell-bent on crushing them under heel into extinction. Urban gulls are an occasional menace for sure, but these aren’t animals that we should vilify or try to expunge. They need help; we should promote tolerance, not destruction.

A Bristolian Herring gull eating a feral pigeon, again at a train station. Did the gull kill the pigeon, or was the pigeon a victim of a train collision? I don’t know, but either is possible. Image: Darren Naish.

A Bristolian Herring gull eating a feral pigeon, again at a train station. Did the gull kill the pigeon, or was the pigeon a victim of a train collision? I don’t know, but either is possible. Image: Darren Naish.

I should also add that urban gulls are important ecosystem service providers, eating waste, carrion and undesirable material (I won’t start listing it, but – oh, ok – it includes vomit and dog scat) left in the built environment by human action. They’re also important seed dispersers, playing this role in areas where other fruit-eating birds (yes, gulls eat fruit) are rare or absent (Iason et al. 1986, Magnusson & Magnusson 2000, Sekercioglu 2006).

A large group of white-headed gulls compete for food scraps in Lisbon, Portugal. Image: Darren Naish.

A large group of white-headed gulls compete for food scraps in Lisbon, Portugal. Image: Darren Naish.

Why are people fixated on the idea that we have a ‘gull plague’, or that there are somehow ‘too many’ gulls? I think that a few factors may be at play. One is that gulls are both big and comparatively long-lived, meaning both that they’re way more obvious than small birds, most of which are ignored by the majority of people, and also seen repeatedly in the same areas. A single gull, hanging out on the same area of railway platform or beach promenade for perhaps more than 30 years (a Herring gull ringed in 1965 was still alive in 1997, and older individuals are now on record too), creates the impression of abundance.

There’s A Human Problem, Not A ‘Gull Problem’. Why are gulls so ubiquitous and – to hark back to the hack journalist take – problematic and pestilent? Is it because they’ve devised a clever plan to usurp humans and kill us all by pecking at the face? No, it’s because we’ve created ideal places for them to live, forage and breed thanks to our epic production of useable and edible waste, and our production of (mostly) predator-free, friendly places ideal for resting, feeding and breeding. We’ve also made life harder for them at coasts and seas thanks to development, pollution and industrial fishing. In short, the urban gull ‘problem’ is a direct product of the human problem.

There’s some degree of uncertainty as goes how reliable urban Herring gull counts are, but the overall trend over recent decades is certainly one of overall population decline. This graph is from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee Herring gull page. The dotted lines show 95% confidence limits. Image: JNCC (original   here  ).

There’s some degree of uncertainty as goes how reliable urban Herring gull counts are, but the overall trend over recent decades is certainly one of overall population decline. This graph is from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee Herring gull page. The dotted lines show 95% confidence limits. Image: JNCC (original here).

At the risk of repeating myself… yes, big gulls can be less than ideal neighbours. Yes, they’ll steal your chips or sandwiches if you’re dumb enough to hold those things aloft and be unaware of big animals watching you from nearby. Yes, they’ll potentially swoop at you or whack or bite you if you go close to their nests or chicks. Yes, they may even – very, very rarely – do such things as see small dogs and other pets as prey items. Yes, they shit. And, yes, they can be noisy and do their raucous calling at inconvenient times of the day or night.

White-headed gulls are slow to mature and have different plumage phases depending on age. It’s therefore typical to see birds of several different year stages at any one place where gulls hang out. This 1st winter Herring gull was photographed at Orton, Devon. Image: Darren Naish.

White-headed gulls are slow to mature and have different plumage phases depending on age. It’s therefore typical to see birds of several different year stages at any one place where gulls hang out. This 1st winter Herring gull was photographed at Orton, Devon. Image: Darren Naish.

But I seriously question the idea that these often magnificent, slow-growing, long-lived and behaviourally fascinating birds are anything like the ‘problem’ that hack journalists would have us believe. I want to live in a world where there are other animals besides more humans and our domesticates, and the whole idea that gulls are a ‘problem’ is, frankly, tired bullshit that we should be done with.

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Gulls and other charadriiform birds have been covered a few times on TetZoo before… though here’s your usual reminder that some of these articles are now paywalled, or have had their images removed.

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Iason, G.R., Duck, C. D. & Clutton-Brock, T. H. 1986. Grazing and reproductive success of red deer – the effect of local enrichment by gull colonies. Journal of Animal Ecology 55, 507-515.

Madden, B. & Newton, S. F. 2010. Herring gull (Larus argentatus). In Lloyd, C., Tasker, M. L. & Partridge, K. (eds) The Status of Seabirds in Britain and Ireland. T & AD Poyser, London, pp. 242-261.

Magnusson, B. & Magnusson, S. H. 2000. Vegetation on Surtsey, Iceland, during 1990–1998 under the influence of breeding gulls. Surtsey Research 11, 9-20.

Sekercioglu, C. H. 2006. Increasing awareness of avian ecological function. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 21, 464-471.

Young, H. G. 1987. Herring gull preying on rabbits. British Birds 80, 630.

Tell Me Something Interesting About Dunnocks

Never forget that animals familiar to you – the sort you see and hear every day, or every other day – may be exotic and exciting creatures to various of your fellow humans. And it’s for this reason that I’ve sometimes chosen to write about familiar, commonplace species I see every day, since I know that other people won’t be familiar with the animals concerned, nor even (in cases) be aware of their existence. Today I want to discuss a passerine bird I’ve long planned to write about: a cryptic, mostly brown species known generally and most commonly as the Dunnock Prunella modularis but increasingly as the Hedge accentor.

I’ve never found Dunnocks especially easy to photograph… but, then, I could say that about most of the birds I’ve tried to photograph. This one is living up to one of its vernacular names and standing on top of a (recently trimmed) hedge. Image: Darren Naish.

I’ve never found Dunnocks especially easy to photograph… but, then, I could say that about most of the birds I’ve tried to photograph. This one is living up to one of its vernacular names and standing on top of a (recently trimmed) hedge. Image: Darren Naish.

Actually, the ‘old’ name for this species here in the UK is ‘Hedge sparrow’. This name has mostly had its day. It’s naïve and quaint as well as wrong – we’ve mostly given up on the idea that ‘sparrow’ means ‘generic small brown bird’ – and it’s dying out because you look far smarter and more knowledgeable about birds if you know what an accentor is. Accentors are unique to northern Africa and Eurasia (excepting their introduction to New Zealand); all extant 13 species are included within the genus Prunella, though an argument has sometimes been made that Laiscopus should be recognised too (for the large, mountain-dwelling Alpine accentor P. collaris and Altai accentor P. himalayana). They’re mostly birds of mountainous places and temperate woodland, the Dunnock also occurring in suburban gardens and parks. Where do accentors belong within the passerine radiation? They’re part of Passeroidea and – ironically – very close to sparrows proper, but are outside the big passeroid clade that includes finches and New World nine-primaried oscines, termed Emberizoidea (Selvatti et al. 2015). Yes, they have a fossil record, but it only extends back to the Pliocene…. so far.

Substantially simplified cladogram of passeroid passerines, showing some of the main lineages. Accentors are close to true sparrows, wagtails and pipits and kin but are part of a paraphyletic assemblage of mostly thin-billed lineages (based on the phylogeny of Selvatti  et al . (2015)). This cladogram uses images produced for my STILL in-prep textbook on the vertebrate fossil record,   on which go here  . Image: Darren Naish.

Substantially simplified cladogram of passeroid passerines, showing some of the main lineages. Accentors are close to true sparrows, wagtails and pipits and kin but are part of a paraphyletic assemblage of mostly thin-billed lineages (based on the phylogeny of Selvatti et al. (2015)). This cladogram uses images produced for my STILL in-prep textbook on the vertebrate fossil record, on which go here. Image: Darren Naish.

Dunnocks are mostly insectivorous but also eat worms and seeds, and mostly forage at ground level among leaf litter. Like so many birds that occur in western Europe, the Dunnock also occurs in part of northern Africa and in such parts of western Asia as the Caucasus and Iran. Some populations – those of the UK and elsewhere in western Europe, among others – are essentially sedentary while those of Scandinavia and western Russia migrate to the Mediterranean fringes and Asia Minor during the winter. Several subspecies have been named. These differ mostly in how dark they are, the form of Ireland, western Scotland and the adjacent islands (P. m. hebridium) being darkest, that of England and eastern Scotland (P. m. occidentalis) being palest.

Dunnocks are often seen in undergrowth, and thus in poor light. This photo (from 2006) shows one of the birds that used to live in my garden. Image: Darren Naish.

Dunnocks are often seen in undergrowth, and thus in poor light. This photo (from 2006) shows one of the birds that used to live in my garden. Image: Darren Naish.

Flexible sexual systems. These days one of the things that most people interested in birds know about the Dunnock is that it’s notoriously flexible in breeding strategy. Some populations are monogamous (one male defends a territory inhabited by a single female), others are polygynous (where one male territory overlaps that of a few females, all of which mate with him and are defended by him from other males), and yet others are polygynandrous (where two males work together to defend the same territory, that territory containing several females, all of whom mate with the two males).

Females are often polyandrous and mate with the several males who share the same territory (these males have a dominance hierarchy of their own, but since they all mate with the same female even the ‘top’ male doesn’t necessarily father the greatest number of offspring). Seemingly because males know (or suspect) that the female in question has been mating with other males, females engage in a striking precopulatory display where she droops her wings, raises and vibrates her tail, and exposes her cloaca… which the male pecks, causing her to eject the contents (Davies 1983). The male will then guard the female to (in theory) ensure that she doesn’t mate with another male again.

I’ve seen a Dunnock do something that looked like soliciting on one occasion and have a bunch of poor photos of it, here are two of them. Image: Darren Naish.

I’ve seen a Dunnock do something that looked like soliciting on one occasion and have a bunch of poor photos of it, here are two of them. Image: Darren Naish.

Despite the familiarity of the Dunnock as a European garden bird, this weird and memorable behaviour wasn’t documented until 1933 in the book Evolution of Habit in Birds (this reporting an observation actually made in 1902), and even then by someone considered an outsider to technical ornithological research, namely Edmund Selous (Birkhead et al. 2014). The realisation that the precopulatory display and cloacal pecking was linked to sperm competition (Davies 1983), that extra-pair copulations were commonplace in ‘monogamous’ species, and that scientists might be able to test parentage of the resulting chicks via DNA analysis (Burke et al. 1989) didn’t arrive until the 1980s, and the Dunnock studies concerned occurred at about the same time as similar studies were documenting post-copulatory sexual selection and extra-pair copulations in birds and other animals.

David Quinn’s excellent illustration, showing the female’s precopulatory display. Image: (c) David Quinn. This drawing has appeared in   Davies (1992)   and   Birkhead  et al . (2014)  .

David Quinn’s excellent illustration, showing the female’s precopulatory display. Image: (c) David Quinn. This drawing has appeared in Davies (1992) and Birkhead et al. (2014).

Some of you might remember seeing cloacal pecking in Dunnock featuring on TV for the first time in the 1998 BBC series The Life of Birds.

Female-female competition. In polygynous Dunnock populations, females compete for male attention and vie for territory with other females, at least some (and not the majority) of these competing females using complex songs to help attract ‘their’ male when he’s spending time with other females (Langmore & Davies 1997). They might sing as many as 60 times over the space of two days, and bouts of intense female-female competition can cause the male to move “to and fro in response to their trills, sometimes as often as every 10 or 20 seconds” (Langmore & Davies 1997, p. 887). In male passerines, elevated testosterone levels are linked to an increase in singing more. Could the same thing operate in females? Langmore et al. (2002) found that aggression among competing polygynous and polygynandrous females caused a rise in their testosterone levels, with this rise being linked to female calling and singing.

Use of complex, competitive singing by females is not unique to the Dunnock but was first documented in another accentor, the habitually polygynandrous Alpine accentor (Langmore et al. 1996). It’s increasingly well known that female-female competition is present and even important in animals (it’s key to the work I and colleagues have published on mutual sexual selection), but the case studies where it’s well documented aren’t all that familiar among biologists at large. Accentors, it turns out, are among the best of case studies.

The face a of a Dunnock. There are some similarities here with wagtails and pipits, and with sparrows and finches and their kin. Image: Darren Naish.

The face a of a Dunnock. There are some similarities here with wagtails and pipits, and with sparrows and finches and their kin. Image: Darren Naish.

Having mentioned variation in female vocalisations, it’s worth noting that male Dunnocks are variable too, their singing changing (‘switching’, to use ornithological parlance) to an increased rate when they’re searching for fertile females. Rapid song switching appears to be liked by females, who are more likely to solicit matings when they hear a male produce multiple song types (Langmore 1997).

Dunnocks encountered in the UK. The most striking plumage feature of this bird - the prominent streaking on its mantle and flanks - is not obvious in all views. Image: Darren Naish.

Dunnocks encountered in the UK. The most striking plumage feature of this bird - the prominent streaking on its mantle and flanks - is not obvious in all views. Image: Darren Naish.

So many copulations. Perhaps unsurprisingly in view of all this, Dunnocks are sexually active little animals with a high reproductive output, by which I mean that they can mate over 100 times in a day, each copulation taking less than a second. A thousand copulation events might have occurred over the span of time in which a single egg clutch was produced, the high number of solicitations by females seemingly being more to do with securing male interest in provisioning the clutch than in winning successful fertilisation (Davies et al. 1996). In polygynandrous populations, it therefore makes sense – as a male – to turn down at least some female solicitations,  and to help less at the nest than males do in monogamous and other populations.

The possibilities open to these birds are diverse, and all have different knock-on effects as goes which sex has the ‘upper hand’ and what these strategies could mean in evolutionary terms. I haven’t covered half of the complexity here anyway – you could literally write a whole book on this stuff, and in fact Nick Davies did exactly this, back in 1992 (Davies 1992).

Nick Davies’s 1992 book   is the classic work on these birds. Hey, there’s that illustration by David Quinn again.

Nick Davies’s 1992 book is the classic work on these birds. Hey, there’s that illustration by David Quinn again.

That’s where we’ll end for now. This is yet another of those TetZoo articles that’s been planned and in a partially written state for years. Big thanks to Matt Wedel for helping to collect the relevant literature – something he did back in 2006! Yes, a lot of slow-burn stuff here at TetZoo.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to see me do more, please consider supporting this blog (for as little as $1 per month) at patreon. The more support I receive, the more financially viable this project becomes and the more time and effort I can spend on it. Thank you :)

 For previous TetZoo articles on passerines, see…

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Birkhead, T., Wimpenny, J. & Montgomerie, B. 2014. Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Burke, T., Davies, N. B., Bruford, M. W. & Hatchwell, B. J. 1989. Parental care and mating behaviour of polyandrous dunnocks Prunella modularis related to paternity by DNA fingerprinting. Nature 338, 249-251.

Davies, N. B. 1983. Polyandry, cloaca-pecking and sperm competition in dunnocks. Nature 302, 334-336.

Davies, N. B. 1992. Dunnock Behaviour and Social Evolution. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Davies, N. B., Hatchwell, B. J. & Langmore, N. E. 1996. Female control of copulations to maximize male help: a comparison of polygynandrous alpine accentors, Prunella collaris, and dunnocks, P. modularis. Animal Behaviour 51, 27-47.

Langmore, N. E. 1997. Song switching in monandrous and polyandrous dunnocks, Prunella modularis. Animal Behaviour 53, 757-766.

Langmore, N. E., Cockrem, J. F. & Candy, E. J. 2002. Competition for male reproductive investment elevates testosterone levels in female dunnocks, Prunella modularis. Proceedings of the Royal Society, London Series B 269, 2473-2478.

Langmore, N. E. & Davies, N. B. 1997. Female dunnocks use vocalizations to compete for males. Animal Behaviour 53, 881-890.

Langmore, N. E., Davies, N. B., Hatchwell, B. J. & Hartley, I. R. 1996. Female song attracts males in the alpine accentor Prunella collaris. Proceedings of the Royal Society, London Series B, 263, 141-146.

Selvatti, A. P., Gonzaga, L. P. & Russo, C. A. de M. 2015. A Paleogene origin for crown passerines and the diversification of the Oscines in the New World. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 88, 1-15.

The World’s Best Books on Woodpeckers

I really like woodpeckers. This large, widespread group of around 240 living species includes the wrynecks, piculets and true or typical woodpeckers and includes species ranging from 7 to 60 cm in length. Woodpeckers are famous for their wood-excavating specialisations and ability to cling and climb on vertical substrates, but they’re diverse and not all species have these features. Here, I’ll resist the urge to talk about the birds that much and will instead provide brief comments on some of the best books written on these charismatic and fascinating animals.

This is one of the two woodpecker species I see on a regular basis: Green woodpecker  Picus viridis  (this photo from March 2016). All my photos are bad. Image: Darren Naish.

This is one of the two woodpecker species I see on a regular basis: Green woodpecker Picus viridis (this photo from March 2016). All my photos are bad. Image: Darren Naish.

Winkler et al.’s Woodpeckers: A Guide to the Woodpeckers, Piculets and Wrynecks of the World. Winkler et al. (1995) is the woodpecker instalment in the famous Pica Press book series: these books feature an introductory section on the anatomy and systematics of the group concerned, a colour plate section (in this case, with art by David Nurney), and a species-by-species text section. The book is definitive and I’ve used it a lot. The text summarises knowledge on range, identification, habits, foot, breeding and more, and references are provided.

woodpecker-books-June-2019-Winkler-cover-1000px-tiny-June-2019-Darren-Naish-Tetrapod-Zoology.jpg

Like most people seriously interested in birds, I’ve amassed a decent collection of the Helm/Pica Press books in the same series, but I’m some way from owning all of them. Insert typical complaint about recently published bird books being prohibitively expensive.

The Helm/Pica Press bird books (oops, plus a few others) in the Tet Zoo Towers library. Image: Darren Naish.

The Helm/Pica Press bird books (oops, plus a few others) in the Tet Zoo Towers library. Image: Darren Naish.

woodpecker-books-June-2019-Skutch-1000px-tiny-June-2019-Darren-Naish-Tetrapod-Zoology.jpg

Alexander Skutch’s Life of the Woodpecker. Skutch (1985) is a large (near ‘oversize’) hardback book, beautifully illustrated in colour throughout by the very good paintings of Dana Gardner. The book is separated into sections that cover the various aspects of woodpecker behaviour and ecology; there’s also a brief introduction to woodpeckers as a whole and a taxonomic list of recognised species at the back. Overall, the book is a good introduction to our knowledge of woodpeckers and everything about them, but it’s the artwork that makes it really worth getting.

Left: Fiery-billed aracari ( Pteroglossus frantzii ) vs Pale-billed woodpecker ( Campephilus guatemalensis ). Right: Imperial  Campephilus imperialis . Just two of the many excellent illustrations by Dana Gardner included in   Skutch (1985)  . Image: Dana Gardner/  Skutch (1985)  .

Left: Fiery-billed aracari (Pteroglossus frantzii) vs Pale-billed woodpecker (Campephilus guatemalensis). Right: Imperial Campephilus imperialis. Just two of the many excellent illustrations by Dana Gardner included in Skutch (1985). Image: Dana Gardner/Skutch (1985).

Gerard Gorman’s Woodpeckers of the World. I absolutely love field guides, often for the art more for the utility, and in part because I love the convention of showing closely related species arranged together on the same plate. But despite those things, we still often need to see photographs of the animals we’re interested in. Gorman (2014) is a photographic guide to the world’s living woodpecker species, each being illustrated by at least a few photos (though read on). The text is good too: each species has a short section covering identification, range, variation and so on. The photos are excellent. It’s a must-have if you’re seriously interested in these birds.

woodpecker-books-June-2019-Gorman-1000px-tiny-June-2019-Darren-Naish-Tetrapod-Zoology.jpg

Are all species illustrated by photos? What about the Ivory-billed woodpecker in the room… by which I mean: what about photos of the Ivory-billed Campephilus principalis and Imperial C. imperialis? No photos, only text.

Tim Gallagher’s Imperial Dreams. I reviewed this book at TetZoo back when it was new in 2013 (but good luck finding the article now; it’s been ruined by its hosters, like all stuff at ver 2 and ver 3). I’m not that great a fan of travelogue-type books on natural history, but I do really like Imperial Dreams. One of the world’s most spectacular woodpeckers is – or, was – the Imperial woodpecker of the Sierra Madre Occidental, a pine forest giant that seems to have dwindled to extinction somewhere between the late 1950s and … 1980s? 90s? No-one knows exactly when this bird went extinct, and its persistence was rumoured as recently as the 1990s.

woodpecker-books-June-2019-Gallagher-1000px-tiny-June-2019-Darren-Naish-Tetrapod-Zoology.jpg

Gallagher (2013) charts an effort to search for continuing traces for this species. A lot of information on the bird itself is included, but the human story relevant to the region is fascinating too. If you like woodpeckers, the book is well worth getting hold of. I should finish by adding that Gallagher also wrote The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, a volume I haven’t yet read.

Books on woodpeckers. There are others… Image: Darren Naish.

Books on woodpeckers. There are others… Image: Darren Naish.

Birdwatching in Suburban China

Early this year I spent time in China, specifically in Zigong, Sichuan Province. I was there for day-job reasons (acting as consultant for life-sized dinosaur models), but when not working I went and looked at giant pandas, and at the many amazing skeletons of Jurassic dinosaurs (and other fossil vertebrates) at Zigong Dinosaur Museum. I also did a fair bit of birdwatching, both in the various gardens and green spaces I could get to it but also in the urban and suburban places within easy distance of my accommodation. And I saw a bunch of stuff, which is what I want to talk about here.

Come on - everybody loves White-browed laughingthrushes  Pterorhinus sannio ! More on this species below. Image: Darren Naish.

Come on - everybody loves White-browed laughingthrushes Pterorhinus sannio! More on this species below. Image: Darren Naish.

First things first. To identify the birds of a given region, you need a goddam field guide. Thinking it would be easy and simple to get a ‘Field Guide to the Birds of China’ before setting off, I went to buy one (I recall looking in Foyles in London’s Charig Cross Road, since it has an excellent field guide section) buuut…. nope. Nothing. After looking around online a bit I discovered John MacKinnon* and Karen Phillipps’s 2000 A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Which is great apart from the fact that it costs over £40, and usually over £50, which is above what I consider affordable for books. Goddammit. On this occasion, however, my luck was in since a special sale at NHBS meant that I was able to get it at half price (albeit not until long after my trip had happened).

* Yes, of Saola fame and so, so much else.

MacKinnon & Phillipps (2000),  A Field Guide to the Birds of China .   It’s not the most attractive field guide out there, but it does seem to be the best one. Image: Darren Naish.

MacKinnon & Phillipps (2000), A Field Guide to the Birds of China. It’s not the most attractive field guide out there, but it does seem to be the best one. Image: Darren Naish.

Regular TetZoo readers might have heard me complain about book prices before. Books are horrendously over-priced, a thing I can’t help but feel angry about given that – as someone who’s spent most of their life in relative poverty – it bothers me a lot that knowledge is so frequently locked away unless you’re lucky enough to be able to afford access to it. Anyway, I digress.

Feral pigeons and Whooper swans in China. Discussed below. Images: Darren Naish.

Feral pigeons and Whooper swans in China. Discussed below. Images: Darren Naish.

I should say that this was my first ever trip to China, and that I’d been told (no offence intended to Chinese friends and colleagues) to expect to see nothing in the way of wild animal life in view of relevant environmental issues. While I certainly saw places where pollution was bad and natural spaces were being destroyed or degraded, the good news is that I still saw a fair amount of wildlife – though, birds only. I should also add that the avifauna was – to my western European eyes – an interesting mix of the familiar and commonplace with the obscure and exotic. Aaaaand I should also add that my photos are mostly terrible. The skies were leaden grey and the lighting terrible during my entire time in China, plus birds are fast and my camera is not that great. So, apologies.

Rallids and grebes of China. At top left: Common coot  Fulica atra . At top right: Common moorhen  Gallinula chloropus . Below: Little grebe  Tachybaptus ruficollis . Image: Darren Naish.

Rallids and grebes of China. At top left: Common coot Fulica atra. At top right: Common moorhen Gallinula chloropus. Below: Little grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis. Image: Darren Naish.

Anyway, to business. What did I see? We’ll start with the larger birds. While at the ornamental lake at Chengdu Panda Base (or, more formally: Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding), I saw Whooper swan Cygnus cygnus, Ruddy shelduck Tadorna ferruginea, Common coot Fulica atra, Common moorhen Gallinula chloropus and Little grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis. Coots, moorhens and Little grebes are birds I see regularly here in the UK, but more interesting were the several small raptors circling nearby. I’m not totally sure what they were and my photos are poor, but the small-headed look, extensive barring, dark primaries and lack of transverse bars on the tail make me think that this is either a Buteo or Butastur hawk or a baza. There are several accipiters in Sichuan but I don’t think that’s what we’re seeing here. Thoughts?

Small, broad-winged raptor… of some sort. Image: Darren Naish.

Small, broad-winged raptor… of some sort. Image: Darren Naish.

Feral pigeons Columba livia were a thing, which isn’t a surprise but is still something you might need confirming. Then there’s this pigeon…

What is this pigeon… or dove, if you want? Read on. Both photos show the same individual, photographed at Chengdu Panda Base. Image: Darren Naish.

What is this pigeon… or dove, if you want? Read on. Both photos show the same individual, photographed at Chengdu Panda Base. Image: Darren Naish.

It’s a mid-sized, long-tailed, mostly brown, grey-headed, red-legged pigeon that I saw walking on the ground a fair bit. Spots and barring look absent. But... I’m pretty sure that this a Spotted dove Streptopelia chinensis, though I had trouble realising this since the diagnostic spotted patch on the neck isn’t visible in my photos. Or am I wrong?

Shrikes. Now we come to passerines, of which I saw a bunch. I’ll go through them in a very rough sort of phylogenetic order, rather than in the order in which I encountered them. I saw shrikes in several places, often in towns and right next to tower blocks and in very urban settings (so long as there are trees and green spaces, there can be birds). All appeared to belong to the same species, one with a warm brown mantle, grey crown and nape, black wing feathers but for a small, white, rectangular panel on the primaries, and long tail that was dark on its upper surface. Of the 12 shrike species in the region, this description applies only to the Burmese shrike Lanius colluroides, the black (rather than streaked white) forehead further showing that I only ever saw males… which figures, because they were usually singing.

Burmese shrike  Lanius colluroides , two different individuals (the one at left is singing). This species occurs throughout south-east Asia as well as China and is mostly associated with lowland forests. Image: Darren Naish.

Burmese shrike Lanius colluroides, two different individuals (the one at left is singing). This species occurs throughout south-east Asia as well as China and is mostly associated with lowland forests. Image: Darren Naish.

My impression in the field was that I was looking at Red-backed shrike L. collurio – a species I know well from fieldwork in Romania – but the Red-backed (which does occur in China) is quite different, mostly in being shorter-tailed. Furthermore, the Red-backed shrikes in China are restricted to the far north of the country and belong to the pale subspecies L. c. pallidifrons, the mantle of which is washed out relative to the reddy-brown present on Burmese shrikes and Red-backed shrikes in Europe. Shrikes are corvoids, by the way, and thus outside the clade – Passerida – that contains all the other passerines I’ll be talking about.

Sylvioids 1: bulbuls and laughingthrushes. Bulbuls, babblers, laughingthrushes and allied pointy-billed sylvioid passerines are not that typical of western Europe, so it was fairly thrilling for me that my first passerine of the entire trip was the Light-vented bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis, which I saw a lot and often right in the middle of urban areas (again, so long as there were trees).

Light-vented bulbul  Pycnonotus sinensis . Different individuals seen, variously, in an ornamental garden and in a planted region in the middle of a heavily pedestrianised area. Images: Darren Naish.

Light-vented bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis. Different individuals seen, variously, in an ornamental garden and in a planted region in the middle of a heavily pedestrianised area. Images: Darren Naish.

I also saw White-browed laughingthrushes Pterorhinus sannio at many places, including parks and gardens. I was often able to get really close to them. They forage on the ground a lot, often in pairs or small groups, and also hang around in low vegetation. I was also happy to see Red-billed leiothrix Leiothrix lutea in the wild, a small laughingthrush well known outside of Asia as a cage bird. Leiothrixes are among those many passerines where the vernacular name is the same as the scientific one. Other examples include tesias, liocichlas, eremomelas, prinias, cisticolas, hyliotas, batises, tschagras and so on and on.

At left: White-browed laughingthrush  Pterorhinus sannio  singing. At right: Red-billed leiothrix  Leiothrix lutea . Images: Darren Naish.

At left: White-browed laughingthrush Pterorhinus sannio singing. At right: Red-billed leiothrix Leiothrix lutea. Images: Darren Naish.

Sylvioids 2: leaf warblers and bush warblers. Below, we see a leaf warbler (or phylloscopid). There are about a million leaf warbler species in China and they’re notoriously difficult to identify with confidence, certainly so when you’re looking at poor photos and not with the birds in front of you. I initially reckoned that this might be a Yellow-browed warbler Phylloscopus inornatus on account of the two whitish wing bars. However, the bird I saw has a distinct central crown stripe, which is supposed to count that species out. A better match might be Pallas’s leaf warbler P. proregulus (a phylloscopid I always remember from field guides because it’s sometimes positioned close to kinglets, and both this and its specific name imply that it’s a ‘proto-kinglet’, which it totally isn’t). This is in keeping with the small bill and whiteish underside, plus P. proregulus is common across much of China and nearby (MacKinnon & Phillipps 2000).

Definitely a phylloscopid… and perhaps a Pallas’s leaf warbler  Phylloscopus proregulus . Both images show the same individual. Images: Darren Naish.

Definitely a phylloscopid… and perhaps a Pallas’s leaf warbler Phylloscopus proregulus. Both images show the same individual. Images: Darren Naish.

Phylloscopus leaf warblers are familiar birds to me (there are a few TetZoo ver 2 and 3 articles about them, or there used to be…), but I’d never before seen any member of the cettiid warbler genus Abroscopus. This (below) is the Rufous-faced warbler A. albogularis, a fairly common bush warbler of woods and thickets with a set of distinctive facial markings. My impression on seeing this bird in the field was that it was a fulvetta but I became confused when the markings totally didn’t match any known fulvetta species. Please excuse the terrible photo.

Blurry Rufous-faced warbler  A. albogularis , photographed in the gardens of the Zigong Dinosaur Museum. Image: Darren Naish.

Blurry Rufous-faced warbler A. albogularis, photographed in the gardens of the Zigong Dinosaur Museum. Image: Darren Naish.

Bushtits and actual tits. The same applies to my photos of Black-throated tit Aegithalos concinnus, an aegithalid (bushtit or long-tailed tit) I saw several times while individuals, often in mixed flocks with warblers, foraged in vertical and hanging poses. A few very similar aegithalids also occur in China – like the Rufous-fronted tit A. iouschistos and Black-browed tit A. bonvaloti – but the Black-throated has unmistakeable markings. Aegithalids are not really tits at all, by the way, but are instead close kin of phylloscopid and sylviid warblers (Jønsson & Fjeldså 2006, Selvatti et al. 2015) and thus deep within Sylvioidea. True tits (Paridae) appear to be an early-diverging lineage within Sylvioidea.

Black-throated tit  Aegithalos concinnus , showing the head, throat, chest and belly markings diagnostic for this species. Images: Darren Naish.

Black-throated tit Aegithalos concinnus, showing the head, throat, chest and belly markings diagnostic for this species. Images: Darren Naish.

This photo wasn’t taken in China, but in England, and shows an aegithalid species very familiar to European people like myself: the Long-tailed tit  A. caudatus , which also occurs in China. Its long tail is not typical of all members of this group. Image: Darren Naish.

This photo wasn’t taken in China, but in England, and shows an aegithalid species very familiar to European people like myself: the Long-tailed tit A. caudatus, which also occurs in China. Its long tail is not typical of all members of this group. Image: Darren Naish.

Of proper tits, I had good views of what I assumed were Great tit Parus major, a species which does occur across much of southern China. However, the Great tits in China have a white border to the black belly stripe and a single white wing bar, whereas the tit I saw (and photographed, really badly) had a yellow border to its belly stripe and two white wing bars. This means it must have been the Green-backed tit P. monticolus, and perhaps the subspecies P. m. yunnanensis (the more eastern form P. m. legendrei has a much wider black belly stripe, and the other subspecies occur further west or in Taiwan). Harrap & Quinn (1996) made the point that the relationship between Green-backed and Great tits is not well understood, since both have overlapping ecological preferences in some parts of their ranges and can even occur in the same feeding flocks. The Green-backed tit also occurs in places where there are distinct lowland and highland Great tit subspecies on either side, which is confusing. In general, the Green-backed tit seem to be a highland relative of the Great tit, more closely associated with wetter forests.

Really bad photos of a tit which turned out to be a Green-backed tit  Parus monticolus.  Lighting conditions were often against me when I was getting these photos. Image: Darren Naish.

Really bad photos of a tit which turned out to be a Green-backed tit Parus monticolus. Lighting conditions were often against me when I was getting these photos. Image: Darren Naish.

Pipits and wagtails, and sparrows. This (below) is an Olive-backed pipit Anthus hodgsoni, one of several of these birds that I watched foraging in rough ground in a heavily built-up area. Pipits are a really interesting group of passerines that have many adaptations for life in open areas like grasslands, meadows and tundra but there are also species of woodlands, rocky coasts and watercourses. They’re often leggy (for passerines) and with notably long hallux claws.

Olive-backed pipit  Anthus hodgsoni , in characteristic theropod skulking pose. The Olive-backed pipit is a widespread Asian species, occurring from the edge of the Urals to the coasts of the Pacific and Indian oceans. Image: Darren Naish.

Olive-backed pipit Anthus hodgsoni, in characteristic theropod skulking pose. The Olive-backed pipit is a widespread Asian species, occurring from the edge of the Urals to the coasts of the Pacific and Indian oceans. Image: Darren Naish.

Pipits are closely allied to wagtails (both belong together within Motacillidae), and I saw one representative of that group too: the White wagtail Motacilla alba, a species well known for occurring in pedestrianised areas and other places with big, flat expanses of nothing. The White wagtail is well known for being highly variable across its vast range and numerous subspecies have been named (cue debate about which of these warrant specific status…). The one I saw is M. a. alboides, sometimes called Hodgson’s wagtail and associated with Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and the Himalayas as well as the southern half of China (Alström & Mild 2003). Motacillids, incidentally, are part of the passerine clade Passeroidea, which is weird because it means that they’re surrounded in the phylogeny by sparrow-like birds (e.g., Selvatti et al. 2015).

Having mentioned sparrows, I saw Eurasian tree sparrow Passer montanus on several occasions, which is not surprising since this is the sparrow of China. House P. domesticus and Spanish P. hispanicus sparrows occur in China too, but only at comparatively few spots in the far west. China is also home to the Rock sparrow Petronia petronia and several snowfinches (Montifringilla).

At left: two different Hodgson’s wagtail  Motacilla alba alboides , a subspecies of White wagtail. At right: Eurasian tree sparrow  Passer montanus . Images: Darren Naish.

At left: two different Hodgson’s wagtail Motacilla alba alboides, a subspecies of White wagtail. At right: Eurasian tree sparrow Passer montanus. Images: Darren Naish.

Thrushes and Old World flycatchers. Let’s talk briefly about thrushes. The blackbirds in China – here I’m talking about the black thrushes typically called ‘blackbirds’, not the American ‘blackbirds’ included in the group Icteridae – have conventionally been regarded as subspecies of T. merula, the thrush that occurs across Europe, Asia and northern Africa where it’s mostly known as the Common or Eurasian blackbird. However, some authors now regard at least some Chinese blackbirds as belonging to a distinct species: the Chinese blackbird T. mandarinus. Sichuan is apparently home to the subspecies T. m. sowerbyi, so this might be the bird I saw. In the field, the males struck me as being slightly greyer on the wings and browner on the body than the blackbirds at home in England, but the differences were minor.

A blackbird, foraging at the edge of a pond where stones have been stuck into cement. I would have thought that this is a Common or Eurasian blackbird  Turdus merula , but it might be a Chinese blackbird  T. mandarinus . Image: Darren Naish.

A blackbird, foraging at the edge of a pond where stones have been stuck into cement. I would have thought that this is a Common or Eurasian blackbird Turdus merula, but it might be a Chinese blackbird T. mandarinus. Image: Darren Naish.

Thrushes are closely allied to Old World flycatchers, properly called Muscicapidae. China is home to loads of them, among them wheatears, stonechats, forktails and other chats, various redstarts, robins, nightingales, shortwings, bush robins and rock thrushes, many Ficedula and Muscicapa flycatchers, various niltavines, and others. I wasn’t in the right sort of places to see any of these, but I did see an iconic Asian member of the group: the Oriental magpie-robin Copsychus saularis, a familiar species of gardens and forests. Magpie-robins – also called shamas – are unusual enough that (together with the Cercotrichas scrub robins) they belong to their own muscicapid lineage, Copsychini (Sangster et al. 2010). Magpie-robins are sexually dimorphic. Males are strikingly black and white while females are mostly grey on the head and body, and I saw both.

Oriental magpie-robin  Copsychus saularis  male and female (male at top, female below). The male in the images here lived right next to a factory. Image: Darren Naish.

Oriental magpie-robin Copsychus saularis male and female (male at top, female below). The male in the images here lived right next to a factory. Image: Darren Naish.

Another member of the muscicapid clade Copsychini, a male White-rumped shama  Copsychus malabaricus . This one was photographed in captivity in the UK, not in Asia. Image: Darren Naish.

Another member of the muscicapid clade Copsychini, a male White-rumped shama Copsychus malabaricus. This one was photographed in captivity in the UK, not in Asia. Image: Darren Naish.

Starlings. China is inhabited by about 20 starling species, meaning that someone only familiar with the dark, iridescent Common starling Sturnus vulgaris – like me – is potentially in for a real treat. Alas, my only sightings were of the gregarious Red-billed starling S. sericeus. Like many of the Asian Sturnus species, its plumage combines black wing feathers with white patches, a varicoloured look to the body and a distinctly demarcated head. The birds I photographed look darker than those in many images of this species online but that’s mostly because I had to up the contrast to make them usable.

Red-billed starling  Sturnus sericeus  in downtown Zigong. There were about 15 birds in this group; the bird shown at left is the same individual seen at far right in the photo on the right. Image: Darren Naish.

Red-billed starling Sturnus sericeus in downtown Zigong. There were about 15 birds in this group; the bird shown at left is the same individual seen at far right in the photo on the right. Image: Darren Naish.

And that’s it! I emphasise that the birds I’ve discussed here weren’t the sort that people travel half-way round the world to see, or go to remote places to tick off their lists. On the contrary, these were all birds that were easy to see in urban and suburban settings and my seeing of them was mostly opportunistic and done with minimal effort. My point in discussing the birds I saw was to explain what a normal person, interested enough in wildlife to go and look for it but not to spend huge sums of money on dedicated adventures, might bump into. The answer is… quite a lot, even in these times of environmental degradation and destruction. Some of my identifications could well be off, in which case please feel happy to correct me. More birds here sometime real soon, thanks for reading.

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 For previous TetZoo articles relevant to the birds discussed here, see…

Refs - -

Alström, P., Mild, K. & Zetterström, B. 2003. Pipits and Wagtails of Europe, Asia and North America. Christopher Helm, London.

Harrap, S. & Quinn, D. 1996. Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers. A & C Black, London.

Jønsson, K. A. & Fjeldså, J. 2006. A phylogenetic supertree of oscine passerine birds (Aves: Passeri). Zoologica Scripta 35, 149-186.

MacKinnon, J., & Phillipps, K. 2000. A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Sangster, G., Alström, P., Forsmark, E. & Olsson, U. 2010. Multi-locus phylogenetic analysis of Old World chats and flycatchers reveals extensive paraphyly at family, subfamily and genus level (Aves: Muscicapidae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 57, 380-392.

Selvatti, A. P., Gonzaga, L. P. & Russo, C. A. de M. 2015. A Paleogene origin for crown passerines and the diversification of the Oscines in the New World. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 88, 1-15.