Strategies in World Birding #1: Not All Species are Equal

Birder with bins

Snowy Plover, a familiar American bird, was recently split from its Old World counterpart, Kentish Plover, by the American Ornithologists’ Union. If you’ve already seen both forms (previously just subspecies, now suddenly full species), you will get an “armchair tick.” From the comfort of your sitting room, you can add another species to your life-list, hooray! It’s the height of “lazy birding,” LOL!

Unless you’re Jonathan Rossouw (a South African birder who just broke the near-mythical 8,000 world life-list barrier) or a similar top lister, you might consider changing your focus and looking more deeply than just counting species, though. Planet Earth is a massive place, and one begins to realize this fact more and more as one travels. Once they reach  3,000 of the planet’s approximately 10,000 species, many birders start finding that world birding is not easy. It takes more than just one or two foreign birding trips a year, at great expense, to start pushing towards 5,000 species. Many a world birder has noticed that it is too pricey and time-consuming to see even 70% of the planet’s birds. So, help! What should you do if you are one of these birders? The answer is to approach world birding strategically, and this blog post should help you do that.

In that case, if you haven’t already seen a Kentish Plover, then my first recommendation is that you don’t try too hard to see one. It’s not a problem if you find the species while looking for a “better” bird such as the unique Wallcreeper, but it would be daft to spend a lot of time, effort and money to find a recent split unless you’re going for the full 10,000 species. Snowy Plover and Kentish Plover are extremely close relatives, and they are genetically very similar indeed. More so than “classic” species that no one ever doubted were separate species, such as the Snowy Plover versus Piping Plover. If you only had the resources to find 2 out of 3 plovers, it would be better to focus on seeing Piping Plover and either Snowy OR Kentish Plover. By being selective in this way, you maximize the overall genetic diversity of the birds that you’re seeing. This assumes, of course, that you value genetic diversity of your species list rather than the length of the list itself.

Wallcreeper  by Mike Nelson

Wallcreeper by Mike Nelson

Continuing this genetic diversity thread, if you were hypothetically only able to see 2 plovers, then even better than a Snowy  and a Piping Plover would be seeing 2 plovers in different genera, say a Snowy and a Black-bellied Plover. These are even more different from one another, the big difference recognized by scientists: they are placed in 2 different genera, not simply recognized as different species. And, it’s even better to tick 2 species if they are from different families.

By recognizing the real significance of scientific classification, it’s easy to see that not all species are equal. A birder who counts 2 after seeing a Snowy Plover and a Black-bellied Plover should perhaps only count a life-list of 1.5 after seeing a Snowy Plover and a Kentish Plover! That sounds awful, and in reality no one will ever ask you to do that in this sport of listing or twitching. But, nevertheless, this illustrates the point that if you’re not going to see all the world’s birds, why not do it strategically to maximize the bird diversity you end up with when you decide to retire from your birding career?

Quite a number of world birders recognize this concept, and concentrate on seeing all the world’s bird families instead of all the world’s species. If you do this, then you can save bags of money by, for example, doing just a 14-day trip to Madagascar instead of a near-comprehensive month-long trip to this island. Then you’ll at least see a couple of ground-rollers and a couple of vangas (2 of Madagascar’s 5 endemic bird families). And, you’ll have money left over after Madagascar to then spend say 10 days in Papua New Guinea so you can at least see what birds-of-paradise look like, even if you don’t see all of them (after an 18-day PNG trip, many people would be bankrupt, as it’s a pricey destination). If you run out of money and time before you’ve seen the world’s bird families because you spent your resources focusing on the unrealistic task of finding all 10,000 bird species, then don’t blame your favorite bird guide! (ha ha!) A Shoebill in Uganda, which is in its own family (or possibly even in its own order, according to some authorities) is of course worth more than most species.

Shoebill on a Birding Ecotours Uganda trip. © Niall Perrins

Shoebill on a Birding Ecotours Uganda trip. © Niall Perrins

This concept also has important implications for bird conservation.

For example, the Liben (Sidamo) Lark, an Ethiopian endemic, is considered to be the next African bird that will go extinct. It only has 2 close relatives in the same genus, one of which — Archer’s Lark, another Ethiopian endemic — is probably already extinct. The other one is a critically endangered South African endemic, Rudd’s Lark, which inhabits mainly unprotected farmland around Wakkerstroom. This entire genus might easily go extinct in our lifetimes, unless the powers that be “conserve strategically.” In this unbelievably sad world in which we’re regularly losing bird species because of the burgeoning human population and unprecedented development, we might be forced to focus our attention on, at very least, not losing entire bird genera and families, instead of just focusing on saving species, some of which (especially recent splits) are very closely related to each other — meaning that losing them will at least leave others in their genus to represent most of their genes.

I plead that wealthy countries such as the USA look at helping prevent extinctions of entire genera and families of birds in places like Madagascar and the African mainland, where there is a genuine threat of this happening. Rightfully, most Africans are more worried about feeding their families than preventing bird extinctions. This is a crisis: we need a strategic plan to save the developing world’s birds, and we cannot do this without an increase in help from the developed world. This plan has to prioritize, I’m afraid, as we can’t save every single species: let’s at very least not lose whole families. It’s a state of emergency for the planet’s birds.

Chris Lotz at southernmost point of Africa

Chris Lotz

Chris is the founder of Birding Ecotours and since childhood has been an incredibly enthusiastic birder. He particularly loves tracking down owls, but other favorite birds of his are falcons, harriers, pittas and, well, all Read More

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