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Not all birds that wander are lost

A couple of months ago, I considered the birds in need of a better compass. These are the visitors that get lost and show up in our backyard when they “should” be somewhere else.

Most wanderers do not fare well. Waifs typically pay the ultimate price through starvation, freezing or encountering an unfamiliar predator in strange lands. At the very least, a lone, severely misplaced male will fail to find love in field or forest. Although they sing loudly and persistently, no female can hear. In the end, it leaves no offspring. A lark bunting that appeared at the Medford airport years back was one of these lonely males. A home in the prairie of Nebraska could have produced a happier result.

I enjoy birding on the ocean. While riding the waves, I have encountered a few of these misplaced birds as albatrosses and shearwaters passed by. It’s sad. In all probability, these lost birds eventually ended up dropping into the ocean exhausted. I have seen red-breasted nuthatches with no prospect of finding a forest on its heading. A Lapland longspur landed temporarily on the boat for a brief rest before continuing its futile mission. One of the biggest surprises for me was a short-eared owl 23 miles from land.

The owl reminded me that not all wayward individuals are doomed. There are a lucky few that encounter new and habitable lands. There are short-eared owls living in Hawaii. They were revered by the Indigenous people who called them “pueo.” They certainly weren’t colonists delivered by more recent visitors arriving by plane or boat like so many of the birds found in Hawaii today.

Scientists who are knowledgeable of the history of Hawaii tell us that the first habitable forests in the islands arose 4 million years ago. Originally there were no birds except for seabirds that found the islands a convenient predator-free place to nest. The Hawaiian Islands are considered the most remote set of islands on the planet. They are situated 2,200 miles from the West Coast of North America and even farther from Asia.

One of the first colonists to arrive in the islands was a flock of finches related to the house finches at the feeder in your backyard. This was a truly remarkable journey for these small birds. By chance they found an abundance of resources ranging from flower nectar to insects to seeds — and little competition. This flock that managed to cross thousands of miles of ocean flourished, becoming the Hawaiian honeycreepers. This diverse and colorful group of some 27 species evolved into nectar-feeders with long curved bills, insect-eaters with short, pointed bills, and seedeaters with robust beaks suitable for crushing seeds.

Others followed, including a thrush similar to our Townsend’s solitaire, black-crowned night herons, black-necked stilts, coots, gallinules, mallards, crows, and ... short-eared owls. Some have become unique species. Others like the short-eared owl, night-heron and gallinule are still considered to be the same species as their North American counterparts.

So, I wonder. Did the short-eared owl I encountered far off the Oregon Coast make it to Hawaii to greet its long, lost relatives?

Stewart Janes is a retired biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.