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America’s most abundant, most wanted bird

By Stuart L. Pimm

What’s America’s most abundant, most wanted bird?

OK, I’ll put you out of your misery. It’s the chicken and we eat billions of them.

So, now list some of the wild birds that are abundant. Cardinal, red-winged blackbird, mockingbird–they are all native.

There’s introduced starling and house sparrow too. We’ve all seen them. They number a hundred million or more.

But go on. I want all those with populations of at least ten million or more. That’s a lot of birds, you should be able to name these species easily. Finding them is as simple as stepping outside, right?

There’s one on the list that you will likely not guess–and it’s certainly not outside. My naming it will make you green–but not with envy.

Johnny Wilson–my long-time extreme birding friend–and I are greedily eating large English muffins stuffed with ham, egg, and cheese, and taking sips of hot coffee. It’s still cool in this pre-dawn of a North Carolina summer’s day, the breeze coming off the ocean.

Some others in the small store are already starting to look off-color. And we haven’t got onto Brian Patterson’s boat yet. That’s the clue.

My choice for the most abundant but also most wanted bird in the Americas is the Wilson’s petrel.

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Photo by Stuart L. Pimm

It’s not for everyone. Definitely not for those who can’t handle a very long day at sea. But for those who just have to see every bird, this is a trip you cannot miss.

Alexander Wilson was the famous Scottish American naturalist who illustrated American birds well before the more famous Audubon. (Johnny is not a descendant.)

Heinrich Kuhl, the German zoologist named the bird scientifically in 1820.

This was the golden age of ornithological exploration. In the peace that followed Great Britain’s defeat of Bonaparte in 1815, naturalists scoured the planet finding new species of birds. In the next 45 years, they were to find and describe half of all the presently known species of birds.

It came at price for some. Kuhl died in Java at age 44–field work in the tropics was very risky before antibiotics.

This aside has a point. Although abundant, it took a long time for naturalists to discover Wilson’s petrel. They found most familiar species earlier.

I sit at the front of the boat enjoying the warming sun, still low on the horizon. As we move out of the harbor and away from land, we leave behind the more familiar birds of the shore.

The terns and gulls soon drop away.

Ocean motion

We head out to the continental shelf. Quickly, the “ocean motion” begins. Already some of our companions are green. One poor chap is flat on his back inside. He will remain there, unable to watch any birds at all, for the entire duration of the trip.

The boat has a bucket of “chum”–very smelly fish parts and menhaden fish oil–and it’s being ladled out behind the boat. A greasy slick stretches out behind us. And quickly they appear.

It’s obvious why we call the petrels after St. Peter. They really do look as though they are walking on water. They hold their wings out, drop their feet into the water, and pick up pieces of the chum we’ve put out.

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Photo by Stuart L. Pimm

Once we are well offshore, these are the commonest birds. A typical day trip sees hundreds of them, though they are not easy to count as they fly backward and forward across our wake.

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Photo by Stuart L. Pimm

They are not the only birds, of course. Much larger are the shearwaters–of which the Cory’s is the most common one on this trip.

And there’s a black-capped petrel–smaller than the Cory’s shearwater.

black capped petrel photo.jpg

Photo by Stuart L. Pimm

The day goes on and we build our list. Johnny and I are hoping for one of the rare species–perhaps a cahow, a relative of the black-capped petrel. It’s one of the most endangered seabirds on the planet. If we see one, we could easily have one of the most abundant birds and one of the rarest in view at the same time.

So why are some species so much luckier than others? Why is the Wilson’s petrel so lucky?

 
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A close up of my first photograph provides an interesting clue. Look at the bird’s left wing. The outer flight feathers are dull and brownish. The inner feathers are all black. They are the new ones. This bird is moulting its flight feathers. I’ve caught it in the act of replacing its old feathers with new ones.

That’s an energetically expensive process and birds can’t do that while they are breeding. For Wilson’s petrel, this is winter time.

Quite remarkably, Wilson’s petrels breed in Antarctica and its offshore islands. These are the last places on Earth, cold even in summer, truly remote, and so well protected. Of course, you get there with National Geographic. And I have a photo to prove it.

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Photos courtesy of Stuart L. Pimm

Getting there means passing Cape Horn and crossing the Drake Passage–the most famously bad seas on the planet.

That’s what we mean by “extreme birding.”

In contrast, the cahow breeds on Bermuda. Lots of people have lived there for centuries and brought rats, cats, and other ills. Just as in real estate, what matters for birds is location, location, location. A lot of the world’s seabirds nest in the wrong places.

We head back without seeing a cahow. Another day, I hope. I’ll write about it, I promise.

The late afternoon sun is now gentle again, as it was in the morning. Our poor friend groans, still too weak to sit up. Doesn’t seem fair to tell him what an amazing adventure we’ve had.

To go out birding with Brian Patterson, visit http://www.patteson.com/

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Professor Stuart L. Pimm is a conservation biologist at Duke University, North Carolina. A former member of the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration, Pimm is the author of dozens of books and research papers, including the book “The World According to Pimm: A Scientist Audits the Earth.”

 

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