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If you ask me, there is nothing in seeing a red-whiskered bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus) flutters, living its medium-sized, rosy-cheeked life. But then I grew up in India, where a bird for most of the inhabitants of the bay is the same as a tit or a turkey vulture. Ask an ornithologist in San Francisco, and a red-whiskered bulbul is a reason to drop everything and run – Run! – take a quick look. That’s why if you were in Fort Mason around 8 a.m. on April 9, you’d find a group of Bay Area bird watchers fluttering around – with binoculars up, no phones, asking each other where the bulbul was.

When someone finally found it—a rite of passage shared with many others during those first spring days of the year—they aimed other binoculars at the right spot, “move a little to the left, now do you see that branch protruding? It’s right here. Only seven inches long, the bulbs have brown fur and a white chest, and, as their name suggests, bright red patches right under their eyes.

A perfect illustration of how the ordinary becomes extraordinary is that many of the mill cluster ended up here because they subscribed to Ebird Alert for Rare Birds in San Francisco County. For most, the bird was “for life” – first seen. Consider songbird range map and you will see what I mean: dark streaks across much of India, Nepal, Bangladesh, South China, Myanmar, Malaysia and Vietnam. However, in the United States, it is found in very small areas marked with pale pixelated patches – parts of Florida, Hawaii and California that mimic their South Asian homes on the edge of cities and forests.

Bulbul probably chose Fort Mason because the species doesn’t stray far from places like gardens and exotic tree plantation areas that are already “disturbed” habitats. Their survival depends on an annual supply of fruit and nectar. In this sense, the public garden is ideal as an intermediate place that is not completely tended and not completely covered by forest, sea or land, urban or wild. Birdwatchers often spend leisurely hours strolling through it, and Ebird listings suggest that up to 180 species can be seen here on a good day.

About half an hour ago, when we entered the garden during the Birdathon all-day stop, hundreds of cedar waxwings soared above us, oohs and aahs. Before being added to the checklist, red-masked parrots were given a glimpse and mockingbirds were promptly silenced. But the black topknot and red undertail coverts of the bulbul caused such a deep silence in the observers that I realized that I was experiencing something wonderful.

ornithologists watching birds
Birdwatchers stop to watch a red-whiskered bulbul at the Fort Mason Community Garden in San Francisco. (Photo by Mukta Patil)

The first red-whiskered bulbs settled in Southern California circa 1968 at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Huntington Gardens. They were probably fugitives – the birds are in high demand with Asian bird cage traders. Back in the 60s, they were considered non-native pests, a threat to agricultural products such as berries, as well as other passerine birds and native arthropods. But designers and researchers have since wondered how dangerous they really are in California. According to the International Center for Agriculture and Biosciences Collection of invasive speciesin some parts of the introduced range, “the evidence for impact is only anecdotal”.

BUT 1985 Los Angeles Times story reports that State Department of Food and Agriculture officials were prohibited from shooting birds in Huntington Gardens while the agency was assessing how dangerous they really were, with many arguing that “the bulbs have not lived up to their menacing reputation and should be allowed.” live happily in the limited habitat they chose in 1968.”

I’ve been wondering for some time what labels we put on plants and animals that seem out of place in an increasingly out of place world. Only about 10 percent introduced species in new ecosystems will survive, and only about 10 percent of them will be problematic enough to become “invasive”. Birds that are lost outside of their normal range are called vagrants or strays, but now scientists sometimes wonder if they are? pioneers this may give us clues about the future distribution of birds as the climate changes. Our labels tend to change with our understanding of the natural world, and the red-whiskered bulbul is the last one on this list that I learn about.

Back in the garden, we are talking about lists. One of the birdwatchers I came with mentions the common concept of a checklist. Disposable birds such as bulbuls that do not have a breeding population in the region cannot be included in the control lists. So, says my ornithologist friend, the fact that we’ve been looking at something that can’t be on our list for so long means we’ve found something really special. Then, when I reviewed it later, I found that in 2019, just a year after I moved to the East Bay, the California Bird Census Board included the rufous bulbul on its California list as introduced (naturalized, non-native) species – and therefore still gave him a place on the list. He needed a new family name, “Pycnonotidae – Bulbbuls”, placing him between the dippers and the kinglets. I think, “Look! Here he belongs – between the bears and the wren! Now it belongs.”

Ebird checklist we created also takes note of this and says that the bulbul is “a regular bird in Fort Mason. Numerous sightings in the East Bay indicate that this species moved from Southern California and did not escape, as previously thought. I don’t quite understand why this makes me happy, and I don’t want to turn it into an allegory. Is not. But happiness remains.

As the climate changes, the waves it creates have unexpected and far-reaching consequences. These include altered ecosystems, changes in range and abundance of species, and loss and extinction of biodiversity. Plants and animals keep moving towards the pole, climate tracking, in response to rising global temperatures. Whether it is a climate tracker like the dark unicorn snail, an established non-native species that finds conditions favorable for further spread like a bulb, or an irremediable invasive species like the zebra mussel, they are all part of an ecosystem that is constantly in motion.

Invader. Tramp. Migrant. Resident. Who knows where it will land and how long it will take?

So far I only have questions – but this curve in front of a sure point is a good place for home improvement. His insecurity is a comfort in itself. “Be patient with everything that is not decided in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign language,” as Rilke once said. “Live questions now. Maybe then you will gradually, without noticing it yourself, live to some distant day in the answer.

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