What’s black and white all over, puts on a mesmerizing mating performance and definitely doesn’t belong in Florida?
A parasitic African songbird that could threaten the state’s native birds.
In the last month, three different South Florida birders have spotted pin-tailed whydahs, the first such sightings in decades. The showy bird, with a streaming black tail, flaming orange beak and a mating dance exotic even by Miami standards, lives in Sub-Saharan Africa but can be easily purchased online for less than $100.
While no one is suggesting the sightings mark the arrival of the state’s next invasive species, their appearance in the wild has set off a few alarms.
“If anything can go hog wild, it goes hog wild in Florida,” said Rick Cech, a naturalist who specializes in butterflies and became interested in whydahs after spotting them during a 2010 trip to Africa.
All three sightings occurred after Hurricane Irma struck South Florida, making it likely the storm played a part in their appearance. University of Illinois wildlife biologist Mark Hauber, who earlier this year published a study examining the bird’s spread, said it’s possible Irma blew the whydahs to Florida from Puerto Rico, where they have colonized the U.S. territory.
“It’s not uncommon for tropical birds to show up after a hurricane in temperate zones,” he said.
It’s also just as likely the birds are escaped pets, or used in South Florida’s illicit songbird competitions, where protected and exotic birds are often traded.
What’s concerning about whydahs is their nesting patterns. Whydahs belong to about 1 percent of the world’s birds that are considered brood parasites, which lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, then take off, leaving their young to be raised by their new hosts. In the U.S., cowbirds are the most common brood parasite. Because the parasitic chicks are bigger and beg more loudly than the hosts chicks, they can crowd out their adopted siblings and over time, weaken the population.
Over time, local birds have sometimes figured out how to fend off a parasite. How they would deal with a new species it less certain, Cech said.
“If they find a cowbird, they’ll roll it out of their nest. They know how to protect themselves,” he said. “If they get a new parasite that they’ve never seen before, it’s not at all clear what will happen. They’re just dumb birds.”
About a week after Irma lashed his Redland yard, already a tangle of Everglades flora and fauna, wildflower expert and author Roger Hammer spotted what he thought was a fork-tailed flycatcher. But after his wife, Michelle, snapped a picture, it became clear the bird’s bright orange beak belonged to something more exotic. So Hammer checked with a birder friend who suggested looking up whydahs, which matched what Hammer observed.
The last time the birds had been spotted anywhere in South Florida was in Monroe County in 1996. There was also a Volusia County sighting in 1994, Hauber said, but the last report in Miami-Dade was in the 1980s. So Hammer was surprised when a quick scan of Tropical Audubon’s bird board confirmed two other recent sightings in Dania and South Miami.
“The plot has thickened,” he said in an email earlier this month.
Tropical Audubon President Joe Barros, who spied one in his mother-in-law’s driveway in late September, said if an exotic bird was going to turn up anywhere, it was there.
“My mother-in-law has this yard in South Miami that is just a bird magnet. I’ve found a Cuban bullfinch in that yard before and some other migrants,” he said.
Still, when he spooked a flock of birds one morning, the male whydah’s black tail caught him by surprise.
“I was like woah, what is that,” he said.
The bird’s tail is part of its elaborate mating ritual that has made it a mini YouTube sensation. To get a female’s attention, males hover above the females like a helicopter, flapping themselves into a frenzy as they sing nonstop. At the end of the mating season, they shed the tail.
Not knowing how the birds got here also raises questions. If they did indeed escape an aviary toppled by the storm, that means females could also be on the loose, Hammer said. But females, which look like bigger sparrows, could easily go unnoticed, he said.
The availability of a host will also determine whether Florida becomes the U.S.’s third whydah population.
In Africa, whydahs have a known list of hosts, mostly finches including African silverbills and Madagascan mannikins, which are not found in Florida. So far, none of the known hosts is established in Florida, but Hauber said it’s possible for whydahs to find new hosts, which they did in California. Given the state’s high traffic in exotic species, it’s also possible a new one could arrive any day.
“Oh my god, your list is huge,” Hauber said as he scanned a list for potential invasive hosts in the state. “Anything can survive in Florida.”