Autumn is the season of vagrants, when random birds appear in the most unusual of places, typically far from their expected ranges and migration routes. But why do birds take such outstanding detours?
What Is a Vagrant Bird?
The term “vagrant” describes a bird that is well out of its range in an unexpected area. Because birds’ ranges are continually shifting due to weather patterns, food availability, population numbers, suitable habitat, and other factors, a bird only slightly out of range is not usually considered vagrant.
Instead, birds that are hundreds or even thousands of miles away from their expected ranges are noted as vagrants, particularly if they are seen in an area where the species has never been previously recorded. Many times, vagrant birds may be from other continents. Yet simply being out of range is only one qualification for a bird to be listed as a vagrant. The bird must also be a wild guest, not an escaped cage bird or a resident of a zoo, aviary, of other captive facility, and it cannot be a loose falconry bird, homing pigeon, lost pet, or other individual bird that closely associates with humans.
Why Birds Go Vagrant
There are many reasons why a bird might wander away from its typical range. Just as some people are imbued with a natural restlessness, it is believed that some individual birds may also have such a wandering spirit and might just travel for the sake of travel, though these instances are exceedingly rare. In general, factors that can force a bird away from its traditional locations include:
- Poor Weather – Storms, especially larger storm fronts, can easily force birds far away from their ranges. This is especially the case if migrating birds get caught in seasonal storms such as hurricanes or monsoons.
- Broken Navigation – Birds use different internal mechanisms to navigate, including magnetic sensing. If a bird’s internal mechanisms are misaligned, that bird can easily wind up far from its expected range or route.
- Inexperience – When young birds migrate, their lack of experience can make the trip more challenging and they may take a few wrong turns and end up well away from their planned destination.
- Hitchhiking – Birds will occasionally “hitchhike” on ships traveling from one continent to another. While this human-assisted travel is unusual, seeing a rare transoceanic visitor can be a thrill for birders.
While any vagrant bird may become locally famous in the birding community, some dramatically unusual birds can make far more headlines and generate interest even from non-birders. Some of the most famous vagrant birds include:
- The painted bunting that became a regular visitor to Prospect Park in Brooklyn in late 2015, energizing the local nature community with its brilliant rainbow plumage.
- The mandarin duck that spent the winter of 2018 in Central Park in New York City, showing off its stunning coloration and confounding birders about its uncertain origins.
- The swallow-tailed gull that showed up in Seattle in 2017 instead of in the Galapagos or along the west coast of South America where it would have been expected.
- The long-billed dowitcher that felt at ease in India in 2017 and for several winter seasons thereafter, a world away from its native North American range.
- The northern mockingbird that appeared in Exmouth in England in 2021, the first time this common North American bird had been seen in the UK in 30 years.
These are just a few of the more notable and outstanding vagrant birds that have astonished birders in the past few years, but every year there are unique and unexpected feathered guests found all over the world.
By nature, birders tend to be compassionate and want to help protect wildlife. This desire is especially strong with vagrant birds, knowing that these birds are lost and likely confused by unfamiliar habitat, unexpected predators, and unknown food sources. While it can be tempting to try and capture a vagrant bird to return it to more familiar surroundings, few wildlife rehabilitation facilities have the capability or funding to transport lost birds back to their native ranges, and the stress of capturing and restraining a bird – even with the best intentions – can be fatally traumatic to an already distressed bird.
The best way to assist a vagrant bird is the simplest action of all – no action. Let the bird rest comfortably, without approaching it so closely as to cause additional stress. Zoom camera lenses, high-powered binoculars, and spotting scopes are a must, and each tool will help birders and other nature lovers enjoy the unusual visitor without causing any further distress. While some spectacular vagrants will naturally generate fame, it may be best to avoid broadcasting the bird’s whereabouts so as not to draw crowds that can be unruly, noisy, and disruptive.
Taking simple steps nearby, such as providing a feeder filled with the healthiest food or keeping cats and dogs safely indoors and away from all wildlife, can also help protect a vagrant bird. The more bird-friendly the location is overall with suitable food, water, and shelter, including native plants and fewer chemical treatments, the safer and more comfortable all birds will be, including visiting vagrants.
The Fate of Vagrants
Unfortunately, because of the nature of their dislocation, many vagrant birds do not survive their travels. When they are spotted by eager birders, these birds are often already stressed, hungry, and disoriented. They may find some food for awhile, but the plants, foods, and predators in the area are largely unfamiliar. In time, the birds seem to disappear as sightings dwindle, and their ultimate fate is never quite known. Still, while we see them, these birds not only delight birders, but help draw attention to the tremendous variety of wildlife in the world. If more people begin to notice and appreciate the diversity of birds and other wildlife, conservation efforts can grow, and even one small, lost bird can have a tremendous impact.